Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Spontaneous interventions in a city of contridictions.

Okay, I'll start with a confession. I haven't always lived in Chicago. Yes, I was born and raised here. I spent a couple of post-college years living in southwest suburban Willow Springs. I refer to this as my Woodstock period. I don't know what the place looks like these days, but back then the town was set pretty much in the middle of a forest preserve.  My second period of exile was more recent and lasted longer. My son was four when we made the decision to move to Evanston, and I lived there over a decade.

Let me back up. I am a product of the Chicago Public Schools and a graduate of a state university. The idea of a quality public education is ingrained deeply in my psyche. It's part of how I view the world and the way it should work. So, when my son was approaching school age, we considered the options. Chicago has it's magnet school system, which was implemented as a response to federal desegregation orders. The high achievement schools are theoretically available to all, but the reality is that there are few spaces available. Thus, a concerned parent committed to public education takes their chances by living in Chicago. Now, of course, there is also the ever expanding charter school system, which uses public funds to pay for private school. Both systems leave ordinary neighborhood schools starved for resources. I wasn't going to take that chance with my son.

Evanston was the logical choice. As suburbs go, it is fairly large and it lies just outside the city limits. In fact, my current Rogers Park apartment is less than 2 miles from where I used to live. It's quite diverse, due both to its proximity to Chicago's north side and the large footprint of Northwestern University. It has its problems, but one thing it does offer to concerned parents is a quality public education with a diverse student body. It has a fairly amazing public library as well. Moving there was really a no-brainer.

That decade-plus life ended almost nine years ago when my wife and I divorced. I stayed in Evanston another two years until my son completed high school, then promptly crossed the border back to Chicago. I'm back home, and I'm pretty convinced that, despite enormous problems, I live in one of the world's great cities. Why? Well, click here, or here, or here.

Another confession: Despite seven years back in the city, I didn't get my library card until today.

Libraries, like schools, are often in the news, for all the wrong reasons. As I was waiting to have my card processed, the volunteer took a phone call and advised the person on the other end that he didn't know when a transferred book would get here. "Things take a lot longer," he said, "because staff has been reduced by 50%." Chicago libraries are becoming rather famously starved for books as well. Hours have been shortened. At the same time, aging but functional facilities have been torn down and replaced with beautiful, larger structures. Larger, but emptier.  It doesn't make sense, until you realize that public buildings are funded differently than public libraries. There are no politically connected librarians, but you can be sure there are a few construction companies.

The Chicago Cultural Center (ironically, the building used to be the main public library) is currently hosting an exhibit called "Spontaneous Interventions: design actions for the common good." It's an interesting look at about 100 projects from around the world, several of them right here in Chicago, in which citizen activists take up the challenges of urban life: poverty, blight, environmental degradation, food, transportation, livability. Many of them are very inspiring, as citizens committed to city life find low tech ways to address these myriad problems. At a glance, there are dozens that you could easily start up in your neighborhood. It's great stuff.

There is an implied critique of business as usual here. These citizens have given up on the prospect of municipal government actually having the capability and will to deal with these issues but have not given up on the idea of a better life. So, they've taken things into their own hands. Many of their actions are guerrilla in nature, knowing that bureaucratic rules can act as impediments to change, and some have even embarrassed officials into action.  Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?

I wonder if the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which programs the Cultural Center, is aware of this critique. Taken as a whole, the exhibit paints a hopeful picture for the future of cities, and I think that's why City Hall felt good about giving it a prominent platform. Nestled within the hope, though, is a nagging thought. City government is no longer up to the job.

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