As it closes its 20th year, StreetWise takes a look back over its archived material, and presents its own chronicle of the city’s past two decades.In 1992, its first year of publication, StreetWise received an open letter from presidential-nominee Bill Clinton. “As readers of StreetWise are well aware,” he wrote, “in Chicago there are more than 49,000 homeless, and the numbers continue to grow each day.” Many, many days and three presidents later, the number of Chicagoans homeless has reached 116,042. Responding to Bill Clinton’s words today, our opinions are formed by hindsight; from the same facts and figures, however, we each develop different understandings of the past. History itself is a collection of individuals and their opinions; its stories are Bill Clinton, the 116,042 homeless, all the other Chicagoans, and everyone else. Looking through StreetWise’s archives for my sources, I found an incredibly insightful and comprehensive voice to share history through. It is from the reporters, vendors, and interviewees – all contributing from different backgrounds – that I collected this recent history of Chicago, a history that they both wrote and made.
StreetWise has witnessed history from the streets, and it is grounded in the everyday realities of Chicago. Although the street has its own perspective, its behavior often mimics larger, citywide trends and changes. The decline of manufacturing in the city, for example, has powerfully impacted the way the street looks and behaves. “The City That No Longer Works” was one StreetWise article title lamenting the loss of manufacturing in Chicago. The 1996 piece focused on the link between manufacturing and employment, saying “manufacturing jobs within Chicago have decreased […] a loss of more than 200,000 jobs since 1979.” The unemployment caused a sharp rise in homelessness — contributing to the enormous levels that Bill Clinton later called “unacceptable.” In addition, the closing of manufacturing plants hollowed out parts of the city, which countered the revitalization of low-income neighborhoods and the stability of lower-middle-income areas. More sentimentally, however, is the affect of industrial decline on Chicago’s identity; says one article, “Chicago’s nostalgic self-image as the blue-collar working man’s haven is currently confronted with the changing reality of the city.” But the decline of manufacturing has been a fifty-year process, and is only one dimension to Chicago’s fidgety “self-image.”
Chicago’s real image is a mirror of its neighborhoods, and as their identities have evolved, so has the city’s. Gentrification has been a strong determinate for these neighborhoods, their residents, and the city as a whole. Over the past twenty years, StreetWise has chronicled the ebb and flow of gentrification. The history is full of familiar patterns: first the proposals, then the protests, and finally the pack-up. The first indication was usually the declaration of a “TIF” district, a tax-increment-financing zone which StreetWise explained “allows an increase in property tax, a tax increment to be re-directed into the development of that property […] the purpose of the TIF is to encourage builders to develop the area, thus increasing its assessed tax value.” In its late 90’s “Development and Displacement” series, StreetWise covered neighborhoods that had been assigned TIFs, and the gentrification process that often followed. West Town was among the first, and it featured Freddy Calixto, a man whose family had been squeezed out of Lincoln Park in the 1970s and was now being pushed out of West Town. “It’s just this huge westward flow,” he says, referring to the exodus of lower-income West Town residents. Pilsen, the South Loop, and Wicker Park were among the other neighborhoods highlighted; for each feature, StreetWise told the story through the residents affected. StreetWise never took a narrow point of view, however, and always showed the issue in a larger context. At one point, StreetWise graphically represented Chicago’s gentrification by coloring in the neighborhoods where home values had more than doubled from 1980-1997: 44 out of 77, or 57% of the city, was filled in.Over the past twenty years, the fluctuations of neighborhoods have been accompanied by major changes in public housing. Cabrini-Green was a common StreetWise focus, as was the scope and intensity of debate around the project. The features on Cabrini began with profiles on the residents; one article, called “Killing Time at Cabrini” had the reporter take a tour at two-thirty in the afternoon — the “most dangerous time to be out here” according to residents. As Chicago’s new plans for the housing project emerged, StreetWise gave incensed residents a voice. “The plan to rehab Cabrini-Green shows the government abandoning public housing to the private sector […] residents lose, developers win,” said one protestor. That said, StreetWise still acknowledged the unacceptable conditions that characterized parts of Cabrini. One 1993 cover story featured a group of Senior Physics students from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, who won the Chicago Tribune’s contest to redesign Cabrini-Green. “Cabrini-Green would become an extension of the Clybourn Corridor, with a commercial area including retail shopping, a movie theater, a community center, and renovated as well as new low-rise buildings,” the students proposed. The idea of a “contest to redesign Cabrini” simply shows how StreetWise was writing in a time of uncertainty — there were many opinions, few solutions, and nothing decided. Since then, events have unfolded, but in ways only a few high school Senior Physics students could have predicted.
At the same time, other events were changing Chicago’s “self-image” and identity. The city’s plans for Maxwell Street were finalized around the time of StreetWise’s first publication, and much of its early reporting focused on the market. Again, StreetWise told the story from the “street.” Marshall Zimmerman, a shoe vendor, was interviewed three months before Maxwell Street moved: “They say I have to be out by December 31st. It’s impossible […] I’ve been here for 35 years. I got my whole life’s worth tied up in this business…I think I’ll end up with nothing.” Hindsight has added a sad perspective to StreetWise’s reporting of the market. In one article, a reporter pleads “hopefully it won’t become part of Chicago’s past. We can’t stand back and watch and allow this to happen, we have to have a voice! We must stand up and be heard.” But as the future of Maxwell Street unfolded, those who said “Maxwell Street is one of the last places in Chicago where people can try to achieve that elusive American Dream” mourned the understanding that the “street may become only a memory.” A memory that, twenty years later, continues its colorful existence within the pages of StreetWise.The themes of the 90s, according to some definitions, are not history yet; they continue today. Often the most powerful quotes in past StreetWises were the ones with the strongest modern-day relevance. In one 1999 article, StreetWise published the results of a survey conducted at Uhlich Childrens Home in Irving Park. The kids gave adults a B- for providing a quality education for young people, a C+ for keeping schools from violence and crime, a C for reducing gun violence, a D+ for stopping young people from using drugs, and another D+ for running the government. Now, almost fifteen years later, these kids are the adults; has their generation improved on the poor standards of their elders? Or are we caught in a cycle of disappointing ourselves and our children? With each generation we begin anew, but, as we’re taught over and over, history repeats itself. In one article, former Cabrini-Green Youth Program’s director Tyjuan Bailey challenged “How many of you going to work to change the cycle? No hands?” As we’ve seen, the most deadly consequence of the “cycle” is the persistence of gun violence. In 1996 StreetWise interviewed Jarvis Gross, a twelve year-old going to junior high in Englewood. “He says just about everyone he knows has been shot,” the article writes. Mr. Gross would be 29 now, but a new generation of 12 year-olds is living the kind of childhood he had. 2013 has seen a lot of focus on gun legislation, but the tragedies that prompt these discussions are all too familiar; in 1992 StreetWise featured a woman whose “son got the death-sentence” and was murdered at 21. In 1993 it published an article on metal detectors at Chicago Public Schools, in 1994 it condemned the culture of violence in America, and every year since then StreetWise has continued to spotlight the issue. The cycle of reporting follows the cycle of violence. Still, who’s going to change the cycle? Any hands?
History’s lessons are not all found in trends and cycles, nor are they always pessimistic. StreetWise’s 1992 review of the “Starbucks experience,” for example, reveals more about Chicago’s evolution than some of the magazine’s more serious pieces. In the food review, the prophetic critic says “I predict that [Starbucks is] that yet unnamed social phenomenon […] soon you will most likely be drinking their Double-Skim Latte’s with extra you-name-it.” Other StreetWise articles have been less humorous, though equally ironic: in 1999, one editorial called into question Governor George Ryan’s “honesty.” Some pieces were indicative of the times; for example, in the early 90s, there was a lot of special interest on Social Security, while in the mid-90s the focus shifted to welfare reform. One of the biggest StreetWise stories, however, centered on the 1995 killing of Joseph Gould, a StreetWise vendor, by an off-duty Chicago police officer. The case stands out now due to its troubling similarities to the murder of Trayvon Martin: Gould was offering to wash officer Becker’s car when he was shot, and the trial that followed sparked a heated debate on racial prejudice. The Gould articles were a reminder of how easily the public is swept up in events, only to gradually lose interest. Too often, issues that matter are forgotten for twenty years, only to resurface when the tragedy is repeated. That’s what makes reflection –which is possible even without diving into twenty years of archived material– so crucial.
At the beginning of the article, I defined this piece as a “recent history of Chicago.” But what is included in “recent” history? Twenty-one years ago? Yesterday? Even this StreetWise is labeled history, already nestled in the archives with the very same articles it writes about. Even so, StreetWise doesn’t belong in an archive; it doesn’t write to be read as the past. It writes to be the future.
By Frani O’Toole