A More Just Chicago

Connie Mixon is a self-described “city kid” who grew up in Chicago, listening to her family talk local politics. Today, her passion for all things urban animates her work as director of Elmhurst’s Urban Studies program. She is also the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Chicago, a recently published collection of essays and readings that examines the challenges facing the city. She told FYI why she is optimistic about Chicago’s future.

As a native Chicagoan, did your personal experiences with the city shape your professional interest in politics and urban studies?
I think my experiences growing up did spark my interest in politics and especially urban politics. My grandfather and uncle were both Chicago precinct captains, under Mayor Richard J. Daley. To keep their city jobs, both had to turn out the vote for the Daley machine. My mother, however, was fiercely independent and often worked to elect candidates who opposed the machine. So Chicago politics were frequently and passionately debated at family gatherings. As a political scientist, I have found myself drawn to the politics not only of Chicago, but of cities in general. What I learned at the family dinner table has become more and more indisputable to me: All politics is local.

Is Chicago still a machine city?
Machine politics has continued, but it’s a different kind of machine. The first Mayor Daley was dependent upon an army of precinct workers with city jobs to get the vote out. Things have changed. We’ve had legal reforms like the Shakman Decrees, which made political hiring and firing illegal. Now we’re seeing a different kind of machine that is more dependent on the global economy and downtown business for campaign contributions. Rahm Emanuel spent $12 million to win the mayor’s office, and about half of that total came from out of state.

One of the things your new book makes clear is that the field of urban studies is concerned not only with cities, but with suburbs as well.
When we talk about urban, we often think of big cities like New York and Chicago. But the field of urban studies really looks at entire metropolitan regions. For example, Chicago is dependent on Schaumburg, just as Schaumburg is dependent on Elmhurst. They’re part of a larger economic whole.

How are suburbs changing?
Our old perceptions of suburbs no longer apply. Poverty is increasing more rapidly in the nation’s suburbs than in core cities. Here in the Chicago area, poverty is increasing by 11 percent in Cook County, but by 56 percent in DuPage County. That’s a shock to most people, because poverty in the suburbs is largely invisible. We know what city poverty looks like, but poverty in the suburbs is more dispersed. Our safety net was developed for cities. Services like soup kitchens either don’t exist in the suburbs or if they do, you can’t get to them without a car.

Are you optimistic about Chicago’s future?
Yes, I am optimistic about our future and our citizens. During the past several decades Chicago has been transformed into a global city. Foreign Policy magazine recently ranked Chicago the sixth most important global city in the world. People come from all over the world for entertainment, education, shopping and vacations. The downside of globalization is a shrinking middle class and a widening wealth gap. The forces of globalization have produced fewer jobs that pay middleclass wages and more that pay higher- and lower-class wages. This is often referred to as an hourglass economy. We need a sustained commitment from our citizens and our leaders to create a more just Chicago, one that is both livable and humane.

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