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When two cities bleed into one

If your life isn’t being interrupted by long-term systemic problems of race and economic inequity, you can order a rare steak, sip a martini and be content. Segregation rewards.

“I keep hearing Chicago won’t be a global city if its downtown crumbles,” writes Natalie Moore. “But segregation is the real greatest threat.”
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

My father, sister and I enjoyed a sunny weekday meal at Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse this summer. We lunched on oysters and filet mignon outside at a table in the street, not on the sidewalk.

This corner of North Rush Street now allows patrons at several restaurants to dine where cars normally would pull up to a valet. All sorts of creative experiments are being attempted to blunt financial wreckage on the restaurant industry in our new COVID-19 way of life.

As we ate at one of our favorite steakhouses, a cherished family tradition, we noticed a heavy police presence in the area. Twice in recent days, looters had hit luxury stores on and off the Magnificent Mile, and many retailers had responded by putting up plywood. It’s been a hot summer; the coronavirus and racial unrest have converged and exploded all over the city and the nation.

A couple of Chicago police officers whizzed by on their bikes and some customers at Gibsons, as well as those at surrounding eateries, applauded. The officers hadn’t done anything in that moment that was heroic or extraordinary. They rode bikes.

My family did not clap. We did not jeer. We sat there and ate. The people who clapped were white. The Moores were the only Black folks in sight. A picture of segregation as clear as it was cliché.

Invisible borders abound in Chicago, molding our perceptions of neighborhoods and the people who live there. The applause was a show of gratitude, delineating a line between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

Gibsons is within Chicago’s 60611 ZIP code, an area that is largely white and wealthy. It has experienced the lowest death rates of COVID-19. Unemployment is low. Educational attainment is high. Segregation allows the denizens of 60611 to live in a bubble of opulence, and within walking distance of Gucci and Hermes, two stores looted in August after a police officer shot a man in Englewood.

Policing is very different in these two communities. The Gibsons diners felt the patrolling police meant protection for them and the frilly stores. On the South Side, the relationship between community and police is more fraught, at best.

The year 2020 is exposing all sorts of fault lines around racism, inequity and capitalism. People who are more livid about property damage than Black lives probably didn’t really care about racial justice in the first place.

Chicago is often described as a tale of two cities. Living in a ZIP code like 60611 means the violence, a symptom of disinvestment on the South and West Sides, is not an intimate problem. It’s what you see on television and hear about casually. The tale of two cities is physically and mentally spacious, as wide as if boarding an airplane to visit another city.

If your life isn’t being interrupted by long-term systemic problems of race and economic inequity, you can easily order a rare steak at Gibsons, sip a martini and be content. Segregation allows and rewards.

But the bubble had to burst. It had to ooze all over the gilded streets. These are all of Chicago’s problems, no matter how long they have been contained in parts of the city that are Black and Brown and seen as expendable.

Some Chicagoans and business elites chatter about how the Loop is in trouble. Will affluent residents flee? What will happen to all that office space made empty by COVID-19? Will tourists return to take selfies in front of the Bean? Will the looting of those two summer weekends keep them away?

Chicago downtown is, of course, important culturally and financially. But communal care shouldn’t be restricted to Chicago’s front yard. Our tag line is that we’re a “city of neighborhoods.”

I keep hearing that Chicago won’t be a global city if its downtown crumbles. But I’ve been saying for years that segregation is the real greatest threat to Chicago’s global city status.

If we have learned anything in 2020, it is that Chicago’s downtown does not exist in a bubble, much as some folks might wish it did. We can no longer pretend. The reality of life across our whole city, the good and the bad, will find its way there.

Chicago’s two cities will always bleed, sometimes quite literally, into one.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org

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