Chicago is a city that is easily written about in shorthand. Any number of narratives will do: There is historical Chicago, the gritty home of Al Capone and the Haymarket Riot. There is reinvented Chicago, the former Hog Butcher To the World now trying to proffer technology instead. There is political Chicago, the one-party town where presidents are picked and machines still rule. And there is unequal Chicago, the divided metropolis that unevenly spreads murders and wealth and foreclosures.
One of these stories is much more interesting than the others.
Chicago this week is in the midst of a rare twin sighting in the national media: The latest New York Times Magazine has put the Second City on the cover, and the newest Time – available to subscribers online but not yet on newsstands – does the same, trading a long view of the glittering skyline for a black-and-white image of Rahm Emanuel looking like he's just ordered an L stop evacuated for a photo op. (Also, don't forget about this spring's screed in the New York Times Book Review.)
Time's story, as the cover suggests, is largely about the man running the city, the former Washington operative who is "a wonk desperate to get out of a hack's body" in a city where Democrats must fight with each other for lack of real ideological opponents. Author David von Drehl argues that Emanuel has "picked fights that his predecessors avoided" with groups like the teachers union, at a time when crime is high, and money is short, and schools are still failing.
And given his bona fides at the highest levels of the Democratic Party--former White House chief of staff for President Obama, go-to Congressman during the rise of Nancy Pelosi, senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton--his clash with the left may prove to be a proxy for a broader fight nationwide over the identity of the Democratic Party. Some of the same constituencies attacking Emanuel have beefs with Obama over such issues as drone strikes, Guantánamo and, yes, education reform. But they have been reluctant to take on a trailblazing President in his second and last term in office.
The mayor of Chicago is a different matter.
But anyone who's not actually in Washington could probably care less about whether Emanuel is angling to get back there, or how his local fights relate to national politics, or that his professed dream of becoming mayor turns out to involve "potholes and snowplows, garbage collection and sewer pipes."
Emanuel is of course a curiosity for people fascinated by politics. But the real story taking place in Chicago now is the one that Ben Austen finds for the New York Times Magazine and that has much less to do with Emanuel: It's the story of a city in need of 120,000 affordable housing units, with 100,000 homeless people, and 62,000 vacant properties as of the end of last year – "two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides."
If Chicago's story is of national relevance, it's not because of the political plotlines. It's because the widening national problem of inequality looks particularly stark there. From Austen:
"We’re not like Detroit, cordoning off sections of the city,” Benet Haller, Chicago’s principal adviser for planning and design, told me. “But we are like London or Jakarta, with a hyperdense core — a zone of affluence — and something else beyond.” What the housing crisis has revealed, in stark relief, is a Chicago that already looks increasingly like this vision of a ring city, with the moneyed elite residing within the glow of that jewel-like core and the largely ethnic poor and working-class relegated to the peripheries, the banlieues.
Chicago's downtown actually gained more population than any other city core in the country over the last decade, a statistic that makes it easy to paint the city as a success. "The conundrum that exists in Chicago, though," Austen writes, "is what happens to the 'something else beyond' now that the center is prospering." Most of Austen's story is set from this vantage point, not from Emanuel's office.
What happens to the "something else beyond" is an important question that's much more complicated – touching on poverty, education, housing, crime – than the simple idea that Rahm Emanuel wants to take on big problems that his predecessors did not (von Drehl: "he has taken on some very large issues, the kind Presidents give speeches about: education reform, job creation, unsafe streets").
We may be a little biased as a website particularly curious about deep urban problems like inequality – and skeptical of police chiefs touting "the best numbers Chicago has seen since 1959" – but if you've only got so much time this week, read Ben Austen's story.