This isn’t the Chicago that I knew

Published 10:40 am Friday, January 6, 2017

In October 1995, the city of Chicago was the wettest and coldest place I’d visited yet.

I was out for a long weekend to visit an old college friend who lived in the city’s Lakeview neigh-borhood. Her apartment was hard against Lake Michigan and mid-fall winds howled in across Lakeshore Drive. An unforgiving rain, soaking through my barn jacket and a borrowed heavy sweater, clung to my bones.

But we were blocks from Wrigley Field. We were a few El stops from the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, the Swedish restaurants in Andersonville and the Green Mill bar on Broadway.

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They were places I’d read about, the city brought to life by Mike Royko, but had never seen.

Chicago has a downtown, the Magnificent Mile. But it’s really a city of neighborhoods. And that’s where its true soul resides.

When I got home, I vowed to return as soon as I could. And by the winter of 1996, I had. My all-too-brief time in the Windy City and its environs is still one of the fondest memories of my young adulthood.

Because that’s Chicago.

If you spend any time there, and you let it, the city has a way of just working itself into your bones, of becoming part of you. It’s a big city with midwestern bluntness and open arms. It’s as different from the urban canyons and eastern gruffness of New York City as you can possibly get.

I’ve been back since.

But I don’t recognize the Chicago I’m reading about now – the city that’s logged its worst violence in 20 years, with a horrifying 762 people killed by gun violence in 2016.

All told, a staggering 4,000 people were shot in Chicago last year. And my heart breaks for that amazing city, now little more than a crude shorthand for out of control gun violence.

As The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass has noted, were it not for the miracles of modern medicine, the city’s death toll would have been well north of 1,000 souls.

City police have their theories on what’s given rise to the worst violence since the 1990s.

Speaking to The Tribune, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and First Deputy Superintendent Kevin Navarro blamed “a perceived willingness by criminals to settle disputes with guns, and what they say is a failure on the part of the justice system to hold them accountable.”

And it’s a problem that has defied solution. Things have gotten so bad, Kass wrote recently, that street stops by city cops have decreased by 82 percent over the year before.

So when President-elect Donald Trump advanced a very non-conservative solution to the prob-lem last week – a direct federal intervention – it didn’t seem entirely out of the blue.

“Chicago murder rate is record setting – 4,331 shooting victims with 762 murders in 2016. If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!” he tweeted.

For the purposes of clarity, 762 homicides isn’t record-setting, the numbers were higher in the 1990s, Kass reported, but it is undeniably awful. And Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Demo-crat, has seemed entirely powerless in the face of the violence.

Cops have found their jobs harder to do thanks, at least in part, the 2014 fatal shooting of teen-ager Laquan MacDonald by a city police officer. Coupled with other incidents, the shootings un-dermined trust between police and the community.

City police acknowledged that the department’s own strained relations with Chicago’s minority communities also didn’t help, and may have, in part, fueled the violence by emboldening crimi-nals.

So what’s the solution? What can be done to stem the tide of violence?

No one seems to have a single good answer. The state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, said last September that more jobs – not the National Guard – was the answer.

“The violence is terrible,” Rauner said in a video posted by the Tribune. “The long-term answer is more economic opportunity in Chicago. There are not enough jobs.

“And [there should be] more education quality in Chicago,” he continued. “The schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods in the South Side [and] West Side, have not been invested in properly, have not been supported, and that has not given the educational opportunity to the young people to see a career for themselves. And as a result, they get drawn into gang violence.”

That’s a nice sentiment, coming from a guy who’s presided over a demolition derby of a state budget. But first, the streets have to be safe enough for people to get to and from those jobs without threat of being shot.

And until that happens, Chicago will keep bleeding.

john l. MICEK is a syndicated columnist.