More than 30 years ago, I wrote a series for the Tribune, called "City on the Brink," on Chicago's descent into Rust Belt torpor. It chronicled a litany of loss — of industries, stores, people, jobs and taxes — that seemingly doomed Chicago to be the next Detroit. Most of the civic leaders I interviewed saw no turnaround in sight.
By the time I left the Tribune 22 years later, I was writing about Chicago's rebirth as a global city, with a glittering downtown, new service industries, chic stores and restaurants and a growing population of well-heeled, well-educated global citizens, many of them the grandchildren of the people who had fled to the suburbs years before. Chicago didn't become Detroit and, for many reasons, never will.
Two different cities, then and now, and two different economies. One, a dying industrial city in the post-industrial era. The other a rising global city in the global era.
But it's not that easy.
We still live in two cities — the glistening global Chicago anchored on its lakefront and Loop, and the rest, holding perhaps two-thirds of all Chicagoans, still living in a city on the brink, literally left behind by this economic transformation. This includes the high school grads scraping along on temp jobs, the college grads paying off school loans while running a cash register in a mall anchor store, the construction workers sidelined by the recession, the poverty-level families in the suburbs.
And it includes the inner-city refugees living in blighted neighborhoods, the high school dropouts, the teenage mothers, the villains and victims of violence — the subjects of the Tribune's search for a new Plan of Chicago. In fact, these refugees were there first. They were the first to feel what happens when one economy dies and another emerges that has no use for the skills that used to keep them alive. They were the first casualties of a deindustrializing wave that's still going on.
We can't understand what's happening in Chicago's most blighted neighborhoods now unless we understand the economic catastrophe that struck them 50 years ago. And if we're inclined to turn away now from the crisis of their lives, to brand them as "those people" who've always been that way, we must realize that what hit these Chicagoans then is hitting much of the rest of the metro right now.
When we draw up a New Plan for Chicago, we have to look beyond Englewood and Lawndale. Because this has to be a plan for all of us.
Most of the poor African-Americans on Chicago's South and West sides — the so-called underclass — are descendants of the Great Migration by southern blacks, especially during and after World War II, to work in the great industries here. Confined by racism to the ghettos, they were mostly poor but not destitute. All had jobs, lived in a world of paid work and intact families. As Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points out, they were "lower class" but not "underclass" — a crucial difference.
This dignified life of work died in the mass deindustrialization of Chicago from the '60s to the '80s. On the South Side, the biggest blows were the collapse of U.S. Steel's South Works and Wisconsin Steel plants. On the West Side, the industrial wreckage included the International Harvester factory on South California Avenue, Western Electric's famed Hawthorne plant at Cicero and Cermak, a Zenith and a Sunbeam factory.
About the same time, legal residential segregation ended. The skilled and educated left for better neighborhoods. The unskilled and uneducated stayed behind. Their descendants are still there, caught in a vicious cycle of generational unemployment, bad education, crime, poverty, poor health, broken homes.
"The economy was the cause," said Harvard's Wilson, formerly at the University of Chicago and the leading scholar of Chicago's urban poverty. "The current problems of lower-class blacks are substantially related to fundamental structural changes in the economy." Wilson wrote this 35 years ago, but the "fundamental structural changes" are still going on, and causing havoc far beyond the low-income neighborhoods.
Racial discrimination is a crucial factor here, of course, but many African-Americans escaped into much better lives. As Wilson pointed out, members of the underclass are in the inner city because they're black, but they stay there because they're poor.
But they're no longer alone. Across the nation and especially in the old industrial cities of the Midwest, those "fundamental structural changes" are undercutting whole civilizations, both black and white. The cause is the same: deindustrialization, the collapse of heavy manufacturing, the disappearance of jobs, skilled and unskilled. And the results are the same: generational unemployment, school dropouts, broken homes, drugs, poverty, bad health.
Especially bad health. Over the past 20 years, life expectancy for white women who dropped out of high school has actually gone down five years, according to a study led by professor S. Jay Olshansky at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For white male dropouts, it's three years. Not even the black underclass ever experienced a calamity like this.
When you read about the decline of American's working class and middle class, this is what's going on.
All this — the long-term agony of inner-city blacks, the growing impoverishment of millions of other workers — is not confined to Chicago. In fact, Chicago, with its globalizing core, is better off than most old industrial cities. All global cities, in America and Europe, suffer the same problems.
Nor are these new centers of economic implosion mostly black. Detroit and Gary may be majority black, but Dayton, Ohio, Muncie, Ind., Rockford, South Bend, Ind., and Akron, Ohio, are majority white.
The cause of the problems detailed in the Tribune's editorials lie in and beyond Chicago. The solution involves a reinvention both in the nation and the city, and requires far more than some local tinkering. There's nothing wrong with more cops on the beat or lower business taxes, but these are bandages on a broken leg.
The industrial age is gone, from Chicago and the nation. The manufacturing that remains will never provide the number of jobs that employed those post-war arrivals in Chicago. We need now to reinvent our economy, here and in the nation, to regain the relative economic decency that began slipping away 50 years ago and find a new middle-class economy.
Chicago, certainly, needs to enhance its status as a global city. More global engagement, more foreign investment, more trade, more tourism are good places to start. This is where the money is and forms the core of civic vitality.
But then it must figure out how to spread that vitality to all its citizens.
Human sympathy demands as many bandages as we can afford. But don't call them a solution.
Richard C. Longworth, a former Tribune reporter, is senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global AffairsCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun