Not long after college, in the late-1960s, I was visiting friends on the gentrifying near northwest side of Chicago. My host couple and I took a stroll, before a night on Old Town nearby. As we came upon the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church, we saw maybe a dozen young men lounging on the broad concrete steps that led to the imposing church doors.
“That’s Bobby Rush,” whispered friend Gordon, nodding to an obvious leader of a lively discussion ongoing at the foot of the Lord’s house.
Seeing us, the gang leaders (even a downstater like me could tell that’s who these dudes were) beckoned us up. They put quart beer bottles in our hands, and we bantered about nothing for a few minutes, then departed with a wave, beers in hand. The Black Panther and Young Lords leaders had more important things to talk about during their powwow.
My takeaway: Back then there were just a few big gangs in Chicago, So, bad as the gangs were, there was identifiable leadership. And power can talk to power, when absolutely necessary.
Today in Chicago, there are about 60 gangs, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, and many more semiautonomous offshoots, some on but single blocks, and 100,000 plus members. Gang members outnumber the Chicago police 9-to-1. How do you like them odds? No wonder so many cops long to depart the city for safer jobs in nearby suburbs.
Nor is there anyone for the cops and city leaders to talk to. Power is atomized, and Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods must often seem like free-fire zones among teens.
My boss, Gov. Jim Thompson, directed me to spend some time in East St. Louis, to see if there were any positive leaders in that benighted city across from its Missouri namesake whom the governor might support with social and law enforcement programming.
I met Sister Julia Huiskamp, a tough, saintly sort of the Mother Teresa variety. There are a rare few like her in many of our depleted neighborhoods; not enough to make much of a difference. There was a young man, a college graduate, who had started a printing company. Locals were pinning some hopes on him. A printer myself, I could tell from the outdated equipment in his shop that the business wouldn’t last a year. It didn’t.
I reported back to Big Jim: There is really no effective leadership you can deal with. The city is too far gone. Role models like businessmen, the middle class, school teachers and cops, who lived elsewhere, have all abandoned ESL and neighborhoods like it.
Fast, fast forward to a couple of years ago. I return to East St. Louis to be on a panel discussion, sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council, a fine, do-good group. We meet in a government building, the only kind still standing. On my purposeful, slow drive through the city of 25,000 (82,000 in 1950), I see little business activity other than liquor stores and storefront churches, a neon cross faintly blinking above one of them. Whole neighborhoods are vacant, trash strewn, houses falling down — apocalyptic.
The homicide rates in East St. Louis and downstate cities like Peoria are even higher than in Chicago, yet they don’t have the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue and tourism to protect. No, it’s Chicago that national newscasters imply is on the bubble, between vitality and fateful disarray.
What to do? Get 20,000 to 30,000 at-risk teens out of their neighborhoods. After all, that’s what everyone else who can has done. Maybe to programs like the Lincoln ChalleNGe residential school “boot camp,” located downstate, started by former Governor Jim Edgar (the camps are for the National Guard, which runs the program). And maybe to CCC-type camps in the wilderness, the types that lifted thousands of young whites out of their poverty plight during the Depression—and which mostly barred blacks.
We also have to repair, somehow, the crumpled subcultures of our depleted neighborhoods (including as well those for young white single mothers in my rural Illinois). Too many of these young mothers in urban and rural America have neither parenting skills nor positive support networks, and find drugs and alcohol a comfort in a world which overwhelms them.
Small ball won’t make a difference. President Biden thinks big, but he apparently wants simply to throw money at people, and not use it to hold them accountable for striving to better themselves.
Chicago’s out-of-control gangs pose an existential threat to Chicago’s future, which is otherwise bright and shining. Small ball won’t do it.
Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator. He writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.