It was such a riot – Chicago’s west side then and now

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The March 8, 1968 LIFE cover story was a feature special section on race and poverty. Two portraits of urban despair – one of Harlem by the brilliant writer and photographer Gordon Parks, who lived there in the 1940’s, and the other of Chicago’s 4000 block of West Van Buren by LIFE’s Midwest Regional Editor at the time – are as relevant today as they were then.

Chicago frequently makes national and international news. Unfortunately, it’s often for unpleasant things like violent crime or political corruption. We like to believe we live in such a global city – and by some measures we do – but international tourists, until last year, preferred visiting Boston to Chicago. In 2012, Chicago finally surpassed Boston by a mere one hundred thousand international tourist visits to claim ninth place in the top 10 destinations of international tourists to American cities (Chicago Tribune image). That year we attracted half the number of overseas visitors that fifth ranked San Francisco did and fifteen percent of what New York City did. The 2011 100 Cities Destination Ranking by Euromonitor International, a global market research company, has neither Chicago nor Boston in the top 100 international cities for international tourist arrivals. Mugla and Edirne, Turkey both bested Chicago and Boston.

So, why isn’t Chicago very popular among tourists? It’s a large and, in many ways, beautiful city and one historically influential in our nation’s governance? We’re home to the nation’s first black president and the inter-generational influence of the Daley family in national politics is legendary. Our current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was influential in the Clinton and Obama administrations and in Congress. Yet, we seem to flounder. For all we have going for us, our governance and socioeconomic disparity certainly hinder us. Surely our socioeconomically segregated and mostly poor public school system with a notably large high school drop-out rate hinders Chicago’s progress. A very small percentage of Chicago’s children attend academically high quality public primary and secondary neighborhood schools and many of them must travel long distances to school if their parents are lucky enough to win a lottery ticket to a magnet or charter school or their child tests into a selective enrollment school. Those who don’t win the lottery who don’t want to or can’t move to the suburbs often pay high residential real estate taxes and also pay a very high tuition bill for a private primary or secondary school if their child is accepted to one. It’s essentially a self-imposed double tax.

Chicago is first on one top ten list of very dubious distinction. According to The End of the Segregated Century, Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the country. That’s not an international claim to fame and we recently attracted national attention for closing a record number of public schools. CPS and CHA often make national news. In 1989 here’s what the Orlando Sentinel had to say about CPS and here’s a 2001 PBS News Hour report about the CHA. Remember, it was during the Clinton administration, while Rahm Emanuel was a senior advisor, that much of HOPE VI was crafted.

HOPE VI led to the CHA Plan for Transformation which impacts a large part of our community where once stood the CHA’s ABLA (Addams, Brooks, Loomis and Abbott) Homes, one of the nation’s largest federal public housing projects. It must be more than Midwest weather that makes our growth among the most anemic in the country. Despite an effort more than a decade and a half old that has cost billions of dollars to remake Chicago’s notorious public housing, Chicago’s central city is still largely surrounded by poverty and despair. The “New Breeds” – a gang operating in Brooks Homes – was recently featured along with University Village on HBO’s Vice. Chicago takes as many steps backward as forward and often seems frozen in place and time.

Urban riots in the 1960’s led President Lyndon Johnson to sign Executive Order 11365 on July 29, 1967. It created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission after its Chairman, then Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, or less commonly as the Riot Commission. The Commission terminated upon the delivery of its Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to the President, dated March 1, 1968. Seven days later the 4000 block of West Van Buren was featured in LIFE.

After trillions of dollars spent over several decades on federal, state and local anti-poverty measures, an incomplete national remake of public housing, a war on drugs, a war on poverty and various public education initiatives, not much has changed in large parts of Chicago and certainly not on the 4000 block of West Van Buren. Similarly, after HUD and CHA spent tens of millions of dollars to rehab three hundred twenty nine units of the Brooks Homes, not much has changed there either. President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” nearly fifty years ago. He also had Cyrus Vance incorporate the Urban Institute (see pages 26-27) which has spent big money researching the CHA Plan for Transformation. Connecting4Communities has a great deal of concern about the direction of the rest of Roosevelt Square. We are working on a framework with CHA, City of Chicago, CPS, Related Midwest and other institutional stakeholders to significantly alter its course for the better.