This year I will attend the University of Chicago, a school whose reputation for serious academic study is nigh unparalleled; it compares to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet is half a mile from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the North American continent, the South Side, and a mile or two from neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and Englewood. My area of study, one of general humanism, will have me pondering Foucault, the implications of Marx’s commentary on literature, the meaning behind Schopenhauer’s peculiar use of Latin. In a city that can boast of having over forty shootings in one weekend, I have to wonder what I can possibly learn of humanism while living in its own refutation. Many poor Chicagoans consider the city to be the very bustling embodiment of Hell: it is the nexus of Midwestern drug trafficking due to its convenient location and enduring sense of segregation, nearly a tenth of its citizens are out of work and live in what sociologists call deep poverty, and it out-competes every other US city in the arena of addiction to heroin. In 2015, the longest period of reprieve from gangland-style murder lasted only five days. Odd, that I have the privilege of moving to study at Chicago’s premier ivory tower when many of its citizens wish, above all else, to flee the Windy City and never look back.
That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.
Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would have lived ten minutes away from the University of Chicago when he smothered rich, white, and educated Mary Dalton in her bed. Bigger grew up poor and hated in the 1930s, but he did not grow up uniquely: today one in five children in Chicago live in the sort of poverty Bigger would have found familiar. Wright was a Marxist who found in urban misery a powerful signal that the proletariat not only can but ought to revolt against the nervous conditions which characterize the lunacy of poor life in big cities. Were he alive today he might find the inspiration to pen a sequel to Native Son, this one bleaker, more starkly realistic: Bigger would belong to one of the fifty-nine gangs in the metropolitan area, shoot other twenty-year-olds with a stolen Glock, and become addicted to black tar heroin before getting gunned down in retaliation.
The picture is one of apartheid—what should not be a first world complaint—which provides a perfect rendition of what is most wrong with America. Wealth inequality in Chicago is steep and is the source of its plague of violence; it is also an example, writ larger, of how those who live in other cities work and die without ever seeing the benefits of liberal progress. The city’s average income hovers around sixty thousand per annum, but its most violent districts earn a third of that market share at their luckiest. It is not for nothing that Chicago is the basis for Gotham, that grim, imaginary playground where Batman battles petty criminals and domestic terrorists. Gotham, too, is a wealthy city whose people are poor, but it just might have the better reputation. Chicago has no vigilante Batman, it only has vigilantes. In fact, its police force is currently being investigated by the federal government for racist retaliation against poor black people unaffiliated with gang activity and for structural racism ranging from street-level police murders up to its own city government. The city which harbored the country’s first serial killer, the Haymarket anarchist killings, and Upton Sinclair’s socialist fervor against corrupt business practices edges toward anarchy once again. Carl Sandburg would ill tolerate the city which gave him his richest poetry a century ago. Nelson Algren, who was more honest in his portrayal of Chicago, wrote in Chicago: City on the Make that “in the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.”
That night has lasted long for the city’s worst off and most abandoned, who, if they cannot recite Dante’s Inferno, can no doubt compare its concentric circles to the neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The specters of lust, greed, wrath, fraud, treachery, and violence inform the news which Chicago exports, and haunt the lives of Chicago’s indigent all-pervasively. Recently, on the South Side, a body was found bound and burned to death; a pregnant woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting; several teenagers were shot for reasons unknown. All this within walking distance of a university that caters to the children of the elite and teaches the economists of the world that neoliberalism is morally useful.
What salve will a national election year offer Chicago? It has already produced a president, who maintains a house in the South Side for when his tenure in the Oval Office is at an end. Since 2008 the city’s murder rate has steadily increased, while black employment has steadily decreased. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything of worth to the most distressed groups in the city; both seem entirely at odds with the well-being of the urban underclass to begin with, since Chicago supports Clinton by political default and provides hefty ownership royalties to Trump by virtue of his properties.
Chicago, then, is a chimeric political animal. The rapper Common once called himself “a veteran of the Cold War” after witnessing gang violence and epidemic poverty in the city of his birth, and knew such horrors were but natural extensions of national policy. As neoliberalism wrenches Europe with its support for austerity, it wrenches likewise even the most dynamic of American economies, and exerts a special stranglehold on Chicago, which produced its main tenets radiating outward from the University of Chicago, to the White House, and back to the multiple slums which cluster for miles around the South Side grove of academe.
The late economist Milton Friedman, powerhouse and public intellectual of neoliberalism, has more to do with the phenomenon of gangbanging than any of his triumphant followers of the last half-century care to admit, for neoliberal policy was in large part his brainchild, and remains the cause and effect of Chicago’s ganglands. That the university, which has its own sub-department of Marxism in the humanities and social sciences, gave birth to the Reaganite policy of eliminating public budgets for the benefit of the private sector, says volumes about how the class schism operates in a city of three million people. The vocal support for one direction of the political process is naturally underscored by a real support for its neoliberal opposite. Slash money to schools, slash money to public aid, slash money to cultural works, slash money to housing—all in the name of promoting a capitalism which considers the advantaged and disadvantaged equals in market theory—and behold a polity which casually declares itself a war zone.
The few like Friedman, who spoke for the many, condemned the many to a suffering that has lasted for generations. Never mind that a monetary regime which considered abundance of cash flow preferable to a deficit—that abundance only needed to reach the rich—categorically impoverished those who had long benefited from New Deal policies. Hell features drive-bys and stray bullets, and the murdering of toddlers whose only crime was being brought into the world by drug dealers. Neoliberal economics is another name for social Darwinism, and on this, if little else, the laissez-faire capitalists of the Reagan-era Chicago School and the street gangs of Englewood agree. Gang life is capitalism in miniature. Neoliberal policy spread beyond American borders and beyond the borders of liberal democracy to influence the world from pole to pole and wreaked a havoc so similar between them one wonders why Chicago hasn’t been declared a national emergency.
That this war zone generally only encompasses a third of the city—those parts which white people like me can afford to not live in, nor rarely traverse—speaks pitifully to the legacy of racism which neoliberalism has inherited and maintained. Jean-Paul Sartre, in typical sardonic style, wrote the following impression of American cities, with 1940s-era New York City as his model:
But these slight cities…reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom. Here everyone is free—not to criticize or to reform their customs—but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.
Long after the death of that urbanite philosopher, the prospect of fleeing an American city looks more and more, and merely, to be the stuff of dreams for most.
Jeremy Brunger is from Tennessee and now attends a humanities graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests tend toward the Marxian: finding devils in the superstructure, studying the effects of poverty on mental life, railing against the dumb, brutal figure of capitalism. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Good article Jeremy. Best of luck in Chicago.