Sunday, February 29, 2004

It's about jobs, stupid

Hey guys, thanks for inviting me to rant. Hope you don't live to regret it. This is long, but I'm frustrated, so here goes.

This weekend the thermometer here in Chicago rose above 55 degrees today for the first time since early November, so Elizabeth and I decided to go hiking. Now, Bucktown and Logan Square are not exactly known for their parking, open spaces, and hiking trails, but recreational opportunities abound for residents who are not about a little criminal trespassing. We decided to break into the abandoned railroad spur that runs above Bloomingdale avenue from the Chicago River deep into the West Side. This was no easy task - muchof the railroad land is defended by honest-to-god concertina wire. But a way up now exists thanks to Mayor Daley II's beautification program, which is gradually replacing barbed wire and chain link with attractive, ineffective wrought iron. Thanks, Richie!
Anway, the right-of-way would make a great bike trail, crossing every major North-South street in Bucktown and Humboldt Park. We went west into HP, figuring yuppies would be more likely to call the cops if they saw us from their condo balconies. The first few blocks west of Western Avenue look pretty good these days, with new condos and new and rehabbed single and two-family homes sprouting among the sagging Victorians like saplings between the railroad ties. There is also a nice collection of uncharacteristically attractive mid-80s low income housing, a couple well-maintained elementary schools, and a friendly jogger who wanted to know the way up to the tracks. Kids are playing in the schoolyards. Somebody's blasting some kind of Spanish hip-hop.

Somewhere between Humbolt Boulevard and Kedzie, things start to look bleaker, even on the first day of spring weather. The Victorians are shabbier and not maintained, and from above we can see at least half of the roofs need to be replaced. Empty lots are appearing, trash strewn around. We find a little nest, a shallow pit in the embankment with a mattress and lots of used clothing, where someone obviously has been living for a while. It occurrs to me now that the little company of homeless guys that hangs around the hole in the fence probably all sleep up here. Anyway, the western half of HP looks bad in the sunlight - even the Puerto Rican flags are faded. The exceptions are some new condo developments - mostly converted warehouses or factories, or new construction on industrial land built to look like factories because they're so trendy. One conversion of an old store into rowhouses off the alley has been vandalized - looks like somebody else got up here first and threw rocks through all of the new windows. Further on, we come to a wide plateau that obviously used to be a loading area for freight trains. It ends abrubtly where the factory wall used to be. Half of the factory has been demolished. The other half stands about half a block away, a column of elevator doors opening on to nothing. Someone has painted the windows that face the street with a cheerful mural of pipes and gears, industrial kitch. there is more abandoned industrial land on the other side of the tracks. More new condos have gone up a little further west, a gated compound that looks like a West Bank settlement. This is the end of our hike, because the track ahead is still in use - about ten coal bins and a couple bright red tankers are parked here.

Later on, we went to a big-box grocery store built on more abandoned industrial land. (personally I prefer the corner Mexican grocery, but E doesn't like their produce). There is also a Home Depot, a Pep Boys, a Micro-Center, a Great Ace, a PetSmart. Maybe 350 jobs on land that used to have 5000. The Fannie May chchocolate factory just went bankrupt this month - 650 factory jobs gone. A friend of mine at the Greater North Pulaski Communty Development Corp. says they city doesn't even try to attract new industrial jobs to these locations, finding it easier to put in retail, housing or both.

I'm not here to whine about "gentrification." Neighborhoods change - all of them. And I need somewhere to live, too. I'm certainly not moving to the burbs - visited friends there last night, still boring. (The neighborhood, not the friends). It's like a rat's eye view of a cemetary. Big mauseleums, lots of grass, creepily quiet. The problem is not that some neighborhoods have seen a lot of development - that's a positive. The housing is too expensive, yes, but mostly because most of the country is ugly, boring, and inconvenient. I'll complain about that some other day. The problem is that almost half the city is not developing, in fact is sinking back into the swamp. Disappearing jobs, falling income, decaying communities, this is not just the "Bush recession," people, this is 35 years of American History. The standard of living for the bottom 60% of Americans has been stagnant since about 1973. Jobs are a winning issue for Democrats, but not if all they do is bash the Clueless-in-Chief. They need a strategy for recovery that people can understand. I'm still waiting to hear one.
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