I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1960s. While the south side of the city was not affluent, it was bustling with economic activity. We had parks to play in, structurally sound houses and schools, grocery stores, clean streets, a range of retail activity, and lots of recreational facilities. There was a general sense of community well-being.
I left Chicago in the 1970s to attend college and begin my professional career, including live and work in Europe for more than a decade during my time away from the city. I returned to the States in the late 1990s, re-locating my family back to the Chicago area. My first encounter with Chicago of the 1990s was very positive – the lakefront and surrounding areas were stunning – new stores, restaurants, housing, amenities that attract tourists from all over the country and the world. Downtown was completely revitalized. Chicago is today a shining example of successful downtown revitalization.
One sunny summer morning, I thought I would drive through some south side communities I knew as a child to see how they had fared – fully expecting a similar resurgence – though not at the same magnitude. Instead, I found that the communities had deteriorated. The vitality I remembered was gone. Empty lots, boarded houses and other structures, too many liquor stores, and not enough food stores. Other retail establishments had bars on their windows, the streets were littered with trash, and the unemployed were hanging out on street corners. Children played on treeless, concrete “playgrounds.”