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This Could Be the Moment to Take Back Chicago

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A robust Black woman stands at a makeshift podium in a winter coat; two other women behind her hold signs saying "SOS:Save Our Schools," and "Fund our schools"

An unpopular mayor. Raging gentrification. A labor-community-Left coalition energized by recent wins. The 2023 elections could transform Chicago.

Asked about the first word that came to mind when hearing the phrase “Chicago politics,” Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Vice President Stacy Davis Gates didn’t miss a beat.  “Possibilities,” she said. Chicago’s mayor and all 50 aldermen will be up for re-election in 2023. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is unpopular. Her policies, like those of her predecessors, have accelerated inequality and the displacement of the city’s Black and Latino communities and the institutions that serve them. In response, an energized labor-community-Left coalition has developed a legitimate program that has won key political fights and built a pole of resistance to challenge the business class for power over the city. In a sign of strength, our forces elected more left-leaning independents and self-declared socialists in the last election cycle of 2019 than at any time in the last 100 years.  If we can assemble a campaign for 2023 that can take the mayor’s office and a majority of the 50 aldermanic seats, we will have an unprecedented opportunity to turn the city that “works” for the few to one that works for the many.

Gentrification and displacement

Gentrification is changing the city in ways that threaten to undermine a working-class coalition before it can truly build power. When walking through the neighborhoods of Pilsen, the West Loop, Cabrini Green, and parts of Kenwood Oakland, one sees Chicago transforming into a sleek, tech-savvy, hipster-saturated paradise. Whenever I return to my childhood home in Logan Square, I barely recognize it. Almost gone are the bodegas, working class apartment buildings, and the Latino families who used to live in them; replaced by gourmet eateries, tear-downs, and boutique storefronts.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor, Black and white, downtown and periphery, is growing at a record pace. Jobs, income, residential property values, and retail sales downtown have outpaced any other area in the metro region while many working-class neighborhoods are seeing steep population losses, environmental contamination, violence, under- and unemployment, foreclosures and neglect—all of which are being exacerbated by the disparate racial impacts of the pandemic.

The devastation of low-income Black and Latino communities in Chicago, and the continued exodus of Black families, has accelerated under Lightfoot’s administration. A recent Chicago Sun Times article showed that 14 community areas out of 77 have seen a loss of affordable housing over the last 10 years, almost exclusively concentrated on the Black Southside. While all other major racial groups showed population growth, the Black population declined by 85,000, a 10% drop.

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Gentrification is changing the city in ways that threaten to undermine a working-class coalition before it can truly build power.

 “Since the mid 1980s, neoliberal urban policy” pushed to redistribute municipal investments from less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions into more dynamic ‘entrepreneurial’ growth poles,” wrote geographer and urban theorist David Harvey. A Grassroots Collaborative report showed from 2002 to 2011, people living in the Black and Latino communities in Chicago suffered the greatest loss of jobs in the downtown area, supplanted by white suburbanites. Additionally, that population loss was only possible after the greatest destruction of public housing in the country’s history.

Destroying housing

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) originated as an agency dedicated to policing the racial fault lines of one of the most segregated cities in the United States. The concentration of impoverished people of color, primarily in the Black areas of the city, helped secure neighborhood boundaries in a heavily policed and polarized racial environment. In 1999, the CHA, using the rhetoric of a post-racial society, embarked on its “Plan for Transformation” ostensibly to improve the life chances of thousands of Chicagoans who required affordable housing. The reality was entirely different.

The plan called for tearing down most of the CHA’s 39,000 units and replacing them with a combination of 25,000 units of mixed income housing and public housing, only one third of which was dedicated to low-income households. Essentially, 39,000 units for poor Black and Latino families became only 8,333 units for those same families—and many of these units failed to materialize. In addition, the remaining units suffered from massive institutional neglect that forced families onto waiting lists and away from the dilapidated housing projects, as they were intentionally emptied out ahead of the demolitions. According to Cenabeth Cross, resident of the Ogden Courts on the West Side, “The apartments [in 2007 were] in deplorable conditions. Mice, lead poisoning and dirty water are only a few of the problems we face daily. And many of us suffer from depression, asthma and other ailments. There are shootings, fights and other conflicts constantly.”

Many residents preferred to stay in rehabilitated housing within their own communities but were often given Section 8 vouchers in a real estate market that was, for a decade, the hottest in the nation with one of the lowest vacancy rates anywhere. The enormous profits landlords could earn effectively priced out scores of Black families and precipitated a mass exodus out of the city. This destruction of housing has led to the loss of over 230,000 African Americans in the city, pushed out by a combination of high unemployment, record levels of violence, and housing insecurity. This record loss of public housing set the stage for the greatest number of school closings in American history and compounded the attack on Black residents.

Closing schools

My school, Englewood High, was closed in 2005 when then CEO, Arne Duncan, called it a “culture of failure. The closures were the culmination of a decade-long initiative called Renaissance 2010, an initiative driven by R. Eden Martin and the Civic Committee, a branch of the Commercial Club of Chicago. In 2003, the Executive Committee of the Commercial Club, which referred to itself as “75 senior executives from the Chicago region’s leading corporations, professional firms, and universities,” released a report called “Left Behind” that labeled the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) the greatest obstacle to school reform. The Club called for the creation of 100 new schools and the closing of poorly performing neighborhood schools. Almost 20 years later, 114 charters serve nearly 15% of the students in the Chicago Public Schools. As scholar Pauline Lipman has documented, gentrification and charter school proliferation often went hand-in-hand to, in the words of one Black parent, “fade out our schools and open charter schools and push the people out of our communities.”

Perhaps the greatest example of the effort to reshape the city into a playground for the wealthy are the plans for Englewood, a historic Black neighborhood plagued by violence and poverty. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel committed to providing a Whole Foods Market to the community by 2016. Additionally, a group of well-meaning entrepreneurs converted vacant land into urban farms rather than affordable housing and a railroad yard project cleared 84 acres and sold 105 city-owned lots of the community in the name of development, resulting in a record loss of housing stock for the historic Black neighborhood.

In  2013 Mayor Emanuel closed the greatest number of schools in our country’s history, 54, concentrated overwhelmingly in Black neighborhoods. While Lori Lightfoot has only closed three schools, It would be a mistake to see her as fundamentally different from her predecessors. If there is a difference it has to do with the rate of change, not the direction of the program. Lightfoot would’ve liked to close more schools but the intense resistance by the CTU and community groups created new conditions, like contractual and legislative moratoriums on closings (maintained by an 11-day strike in 2019), that make those not just politically impossible but legally unavailable.

Pushing back

The severity of attacks on low-income communities of color in Chicago has historically inspired labor and community groups to develop new political formations. Today’s movement can draw upon the example the Rainbow Coalition which helped elect Harold Washington mayor in 1983. Washington’s tenure delivered a significant, if temporary, blow to the white power structure of the Democratic political machine and delayed its economic plans for the city. His administration effectively exposed and undermined the segregationist basis of the machine’s patronage system and pushed for a massive redistribution of resources from downtown and wealthy neighborhoods, known as the “gold-coast,” into low-income Black and brown communities. Washington tripled the funding for homeless programs, allied with manufacturers to restore good paying jobs in the city’s periphery, and made wealthy developers set aside resources to develop low and moderate income housing. (That said, there is still a need to more adequately describe and assess both the gains and shortcomings of the Washington coalition and its lessons for the present.)

The severity of attacks on low-income communities of color in Chicago has historically inspired labor and community groups to develop new political formations.

In recent years working families, unions and neighborhood groups have led a resistance that reflects the best features of Chicago’s protest tradition. This resistance flared in the historic teachers’ strikes, the resurgence of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 as a class struggle union, and the inception of organizing efforts to raise wages for service workers at Amazon warehouses. It showed up in efforts to eliminate TIFs and renegotiate toxic swaps and battles to preserve foreclosed and affordable properties. It activated in opposition to mandatory minimums, in fights to preserve our mental health clinics, and in Black-led campaigns to reverse the blatant attacks on community institutions, like attempts to close local hospitals.

United Working Families (UWF) provides a collective electoral vehicle that brings unions like the CTU and the SEIU together with the Grassroots Collaborative, other community groups, independent political organizations, and the Democratic Socialists of America. During the most recent city budget process, the UWF worked with socialist and progressive aldermen to wring over $1.2 billion out of earmarks for banks and police and redirect it for housing, mental health, climate change mitigation, and more. In recent years, the coalition has fought for measures that will bring Chicago a fully elected school board by 2026 and an elected civilian police oversight board for the first time in history. Additionally, the CTU won passage of state legislation that restored bargaining rights taken in 1995; this happened shortly after the 2019 schools strike that won historic contractual advances for the CTU and SEIU Local 73.

Looking to the election

Mayor Lori Lightfoot could well be a one-term mayor. Chicago is seeing its highest homicide numbers in 20 years. That, plus Lightfoot’s refusal to embrace any demands from Black Lives Matter activists hoping to redistribute the 40% of the city budget committed to policing, her mediocre housing reforms, support for subsidizing luxury developments, and a hands-off approach to environmental degradation dim her political prospects. Though elected by a 75% vote as a largely unknown outsider two years ago, it became clear within months that an alienating and bruising communications style, and penchant for blasting any and all critics, would cost her support. For those reasons, among others, the business elite are shopping around for a more reliable candidate to replace her.

Chicago has never seen a left City Council and mayor governing together. To achieve that, we will need organization and resources of a magnitude we have marshalled since the Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s. In Boston, Michelle Wu’s Mayoral victory had to pivot from winning to governing and filling nearly 1000 City Hall vacancies just to maintain, let alone transform or enhance, existing departments and services.

Progressives in Chicago will be watching Boston carefully for lessons and must conduct our own thorough analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of wielding executive power. We want to own a massive expansion of affordable housing, not unpopular and damaging austerity budgets. Those who have critiqued policing and public safety from outside the halls of power will need to grapple with what it means to manage the police system. State action to lift bans on rent control and revenue collection will be necessary for us to reach many of our policy goals.

And that is all after we win. To make any of that possible, the Left must consolidate around a mayoral candidate much sooner than the New York Left did with Maya Wiley, and must run similarly robust small-donor fundraising.  On the ground, the UWF and others must activate and expand existing ward-level organizing and build committees in target communities that lack independent political organization. Lastly, Chicago’s broad and deep community organizations, small but mighty Left-labor table, DSA, and others will have to set aside their traditional turf battles, ideological schisms, and political differences to create a shared plan for both winning the 5th floor and managing a City ravaged by decades of racial inequities.

The labor-Left coalition’s hope lies in its ability to energize the electorate with a credible vision to address violence and inequality. David Harvey suggests that in order to retrieve our cities, we must force the state “to supply more in the way of public goods for public purposes.” This means enacting policies that expand the public domain through the creation of thousands of new affordable housing units, enact rent control, offer free transit, pollution free zones, more public restrooms downtown, an expansion of mental health clinics, and other efforts to build the commons. 

The labor-Left coalition’s hope lies in its ability to energize the electorate with a credible vision to address violence and inequality.

While many of our movement organizations in Chicago have praxis with one another, we need to develop a “right to the city” that expresses this collective vision and energy and produces a legitimate chance to win elected office in a way that will improve people’s lives. Our ability to do so may be all that stands in the way of Chicago becoming a fortress city of downtown skyscrapers ringed by neighborhoods that offer fine dining, entertainment and luxury housing, while the rest of our neighbors are pushed to the margins of the wealthy center.

Featured image: At Charles Sumner Math & Science Academy, members of the Chicago Teachers Union join families in protesting the potential consolidation of three West Side schools. Photo by Grace Del Vecchio.

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