My family added three days in Chicago to a Midwest trip in August. We took the CTA light rail from the Midway Airport.
Arriving at the Madison/Wabash station in The Loop, we felt like marks while we maneuvered our luggage, everyone watching us as we crossed the sullied wooden platform. The ancient station—scheduled to be replaced—was ragged and dark. The expressions of the people waiting unnerved me. Defeated. Hostile. Exhausted. Traumatized. Vacant.
My husband leaned toward me to whisper, “It looks just like something out of a horror movie in here.” And it did.
As we descended to street level below the station, we found ourselves in Jewelers Row, surrounded by the skyscrapers of the central financial district. Desperation in the CTA station was just above us, yet evidence abounded of the über rich.
During the next three days we took in the truly magnificent sites of Chicago, all on foot from our hotel except for the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. The grand skyscrapers along the Chicago River inspired awe.
Our tour guide kept pointing toward units in the condominiums that had sold for over a million dollars. Then, walking along the streets again, panhandlers begged for money, and street hustlers tried to interest us in a gambling game. A young woman sat hunched over, her face hidden in her hands; next to a cup for coins was her sign, “pregnant–please help.”
My daughter nudged me and pointed; clearly she wished I would put money into the cup. But she didn’t push it, knowing I stopped donating to pan-handlers years ago. I have explained to her we donate to organizations serving them instead, I occasionally volunteer with her at a local shelter, and we support change on a larger scale by helping elect compassionate political leaders.
Around 11 PM, my husband and I walked to Andy’s Jazz Club. Though we were in a relatively safe part of Chicago, we were mindful that it was no time to linger—Chicago having an even higher murder rate than L.A. or New York.
A voice from a cranny in a rough concrete structure next to us demanded three dollars. As we maintained our pace, I turned to see a woman with glazed, bloodshot eyes, and a little girl who clambered around in the recess with no place to sleep at that late hour. Over a month later, this scene—and my guilt at not attempting to help—continues to haunt me. Our rushing along, and the emotional barricade I had secured against all the people pleading for our money drove me to pass by even this child.
Income inequality is worsening in the US. The middle class is being left behind as well as the poor. Many of the people working in the Chicago tourist industry appeared stressed.
Chicago leads most of the country in the extent of people protesting economic injustice. The cover of the July 22/29, 2013 issue of The Nation featured an article by Rick Perlstein, “Chicago Rising! A Resurgent Protest Culture Takes on Rahm Emanuel’s Austerity Agenda.” The link to it is: http://www.thenation.com/article/175085/chicago-rising# and an excerpt follows.
“The conditions are ripe for…civil disobedience: the bonds of trust within a variegated activist community; a growing culture of militancy extending all the way down to formerly quiescent middle-class parents; strategic smarts, passion, momentum. Brazil, Bulgaria, Taksim Square…Chicago. The next battle in the global war against austerity, privatization and corruption just might spark off right here.”
I hope the people of Chicago can help the marginalized people who live on the streets. Including the pregnant young woman who hides her face in her hands. And the little girl who spends nights in a cranny of rough concrete.
(All photos from our family’s August, 2013 trip to Chicago.)