NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - Chicago was named the "Windy City" for its abundance of big-talking developers, but anyone who has waited outside for a tardy CTA bus at 8 in the morning in the middle of a January cold streak understands the nickname to have an entirely different meaning. With gusts of wind raking across Lake Michigan, the temperature regularly plummets far below freezing. And yet, Chicago is where I chose to spend the first few weeks of the New Year. From January 2-24, I was able to take my college interterm class off the Bethel College campus in North Newton and onto the streets of the frigid city. My experience was made possible by an arrangement between Bethel College and Urban Life Center (ULC), an organization based in Chicago’s trendy Hyde Park neighborhood (think University of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry). The aim of ULC is to give students a chance to learn about the life of the city by living and working among the people and the problems that they face daily.
Through numerous cultural activities squeezed between class sessions and a three-day a week internship, I was able to grow professionally while gaining a richer understanding of contemporary urban issues ranging from racial tensions to economic inequality. But I wasn’t alone in my learning. Three other Bethel College students and 20 students from five other midwestern colleges participated in the ULC experience.
Regentrification, an extremely hot topic in current Chicago politics, overshadowed the neighborhood where I worked. Regentrification, also called urban renewal, is the process by which developers buy into a poor community and fix it up, thus increasing property values. The problem lies in that the old residents can no longer afford to live in their homes.
My internship placement as curatorial assistant at the Glessner House Museum allowed me to view daily the product of regentrification. Glessner House, an imposing edifice, towers over the corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. Once one of Chicago’s most exclusive addresses, Prairie Avenue deteriorated quickly as the "Gold Coast" moved north.
The affluent neighborhood of George Pullman and Marshall Fields became unsafe to walk through. Only a few decades ago, Glessner House would have sold for $125,000, a sum that would purchase only a modest condo in Chicago’s current real estate market. But Chicago is nothing if not a city of rapid change. Because of controversial regentrification, new condos being built across the street from Glessner House are being sold for $2 million.
My internship days were filled with the lighter side of regentrification; I walked through a safe neighborhood to a beautifully restored Victorian mansion. However, our ULC excursions into desperate areas of south side neighborhoods revealed the other, unpleasant side of regentrification: extreme poverty piled into a field of decrepit high-rise apartments. These are the lucky victims of regentrification. The fate of most residents of neighborhoods undergoing regentrification is homelessness. They cannot afford their new, fixed-up neighborhoods, nor can they find another place to live. Affordable, low income housing is as difficult to find as an opponent for the ruling Daley mayoral dynasty.
Regentrification is not the only issue driving people from their homes. On our visit to the primarily Pakistani neighborhood of Devon, we were confronted with Immigration and Naturalization Service registration signs posted in shop windows. Because of our government’s recent plan to register peoples from many Middle Eastern countries, large numbers of Pakistani immigrants, fearing imprisonment or deportation, are dropping their comfortable lives and heading for the Canadian border or even Pakistan. Many of these immigrants have been living and working in the United States for many years, but their fear is so great that they feel no choice but to give up an established life for the unknown.
But for all the challenges the city faces, Chicago is ultimately a thriving city that offers many opportunities. In the three weeks I was in the city, I met Jesse Jackson, heard Harry Belafonte speak, ate a barbecue taco, and rode in the bend of the #6 "Big Bend" bus.
Chicago is the Midwest’s answer to New York and Los Angeles, and it answers well. It is indeed Carl Sandberg’s "City of Big Shoulders."
Chicago is a city of the blues and a city of bright lights. And despite the cold winds, it is a city that I have warmed up to and grown to understand.
Elizabeth Zerger is a Bethel College sophomore from McPherson. Other Bethel College students who studied during the month of January at Chicago’s Urban Life Center were juniors Emily Claassen from Beatrice, Neb., and Jarod Waltner from Freeman, S.D., and senior Stephanie Nance from Dallas, Texas.