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WASHINGTON: Welcoming strangers to Chicago neighborhoods

(JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

“Philoxenia,” means “to welcome a stranger.”

Chris Lehane was speaking Greek at a downtown coffee spot, waxing on the philosophy of Pericles. Lehane, once a slash-and-burn White House operative, now heads global policy and public affairs for Airbnb. He hit Chicago last week to tout how welcoming strangers rebuilds trust.

OPINION

Airbnb, a global network on the cutting edge of our sharing economy, connects people eager to make money by sharing their homes with strangers.

“It goes back to Pericles,” Lehane told me, “one of the founders of one of the first, city-based democracies, Athens.”

The Greeks believed in “three legs to a successful democracy”: A strong economy, “a government that people trusted,” and, the hyperactive, self-professed student of history added, “a sense of citizenship.”

“At the core of it all was the idea that people would open their doors to a stranger.”

In Bill Clinton’s White House, Lehane was a pugnacious political operative during the scandal years. He was also spokesman for former Vice President Al Gore’s ill-fated 2000 presidential campaign.

“Philoxenia,” he says, is “the opposite of xenophobia.”

The Airbnb “network” could be an antidote, where people stay with strangers in unfamiliar places, “ultimately breaking up that distrust that may exist in society and in Chicago.”

Chicago, the nation’s No. 3 market in overall Airbnb users, just launched a new, “Trips” platform.

It offers 28 “experiences” led by local hosts, where customers explore Chicago’s magnificent neighborhood mosaic. In one of America’s most segregated and violent cities, Airbnb is bringing people to places where few tourists have gone before.

“Discover the sensual artfulness of body painting” with Roe at a “secret” location in Bronzeville, Airbnb offers. On the black comedy tour, join Aaron for juicy rib tips and stop in at Frances’ Cocktail Lounge and Grill in Greater Grand Crossing. Karly in Pilsen will take you to the Mexican Art Museum and get you an Agua Fresca.

You won’t find that staying in a chain hotel or riding on the Big Bus Tour downtown.

Scorched-earth partisanship, the menace of money in politics and inequitable economic policies have driven trust away, Lehane says.

There are “low levels of trust that exist in our society right now. And it cuts across virtually every sector … and trust, at the end of the day, is what makes a democracy work.”

That’s what elected Donald J. Trump?

“If you’re a working-class family out there and you have people promising you for 30-plus years, ‘hey we’re going to address your issues,’ and time and time again they see no results, there’s enormous levels of frustration,” he replied. “You just don’t believe in the system.”

Last week in Washington, D.C., a dysfunctional Congress miserably failed its inhumane attempt to destroy the Affordable Health Care Act. White House operatives govern via expletives and threats. A president’s hateful tweets are banishing sacrificing transgender soldiers.

Chicago has suffered its share of ugly headlines. Yet, people are coming via Airbnb, Lehane argues, “on the recommendations of their friends and family.”

And blasting stereotypes. In 2016, 28,000 Airbnb guests stayed on the West Side, bringing their hosts $17.1 million in income, the company said. A typical host earns $3,100 annually.

Airbnb claims a $331 million “economic impact” on Chicago, including $67 million that went directly to the hosts. Survey data show that Airbnb guests spend 50 percent of their money in the neighborhoods where they stay. Strangers no more.

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