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Monday, January 10, 2011

American Life 8

Obama’s Problem…

Chicago: It’s cold here, bracingly so. The high was minus five Celsius; late at night as I sit jet lagged on the computer, the mercury has dipped to minus 12 Celsius. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 20 Celsius. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and the place looks as pretty as a picture postcard. Tonight it’s going to be “four below,” that’s roughly minus 22 without the wind chill factor. **ck it’s cold!

I love the winter in Chicago. It’s a breeze to drive because all the roads are cleared almost instantaneously. On the Eisenhower expressway, the lanes are clear; I tell my friend, who’s driving us to this wonderful French restaurant, Chez Joel on Taylor Street, in the vicinity of the University of Illinois campus, that I’m convinced the city has placed heaters under the carriageway.

The atmosphere is crystal clear. We saw the lights of the city’s fabled skyline with no fog, smog or smoke refraction. It struck me that despite corruption and patronage, a city could be run and be beautiful as few other cities in the world. It is truly a winter wonderland. And the words of the famous Louis Armstrong song buzzed in my head: “What a wonderful world!”

Earlier that morning, I drove to an appointment on Cumberland Avenue, a major drag that connects the near western suburbs to the airport. This was my everyday drive when we moved to Chicago in the 1970s. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve driven that route that leads from near west suburbs northwest to O’Hare.

When we moved to the city in the 1970s, we decided to stay in the near west suburban area that comprises Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. These were the first communities out of the reach of the Chicago City Council and as such were autonomous while retaining the character of the city. They were actually an extension of the city and had no cookie cutter developments or McMansions. River Forest was the wealthy one; Oak Park, affluent and aware; Forest Park, the poor cousin.

My office was about 10 miles northwest, near the fabled O’Hare airport, crossroads of the US, the busiest in the world and also, despite the traffic, the most laid back. To get to 7220 West Higgins, I had to drive up northwest on Cumberland Avenue. It was my drive everyday for two years until I got a job in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

At noon on January 7, I found myself heading northwest from River Forest, up Thatcher Avenue to Cumberland. I fell into a reverie; it was as if nothing had changed in 30 years. For the record, since I moved to a downtown job some 30 years ago, I just never took the route, using River Road to get to the airport instead. As I drove up Thatcher to the light and turned right on Cumberland, past the Elmwood Park cemetery, the sign was still there: “Drive Carefully, We Can Wait.”

Chicago is a city that changes, always for the better each year; but not Cumberland Avenue. As I drove up the street, I may as well have been driving in the 1970s. Part of the reason is that Cumberland cuts a straight path through protected woods. Just past Fullerton Avenue, you begin to find homes on the east side of the street. They were the same, except for the “For Sale” signs stuck on their postage stamp lawns.

“Foreclosures,” I thought to myself. The neighborhoods that line the northern portions of Cumberland are all blue-collar communities with families whose breadwinners worked in machine shops that dotted the northwest parts of Chicago. The people who live in River Grove, Elmwood Park and Norridge, largely blue-collar neighborhoods that straddle Cumberland Avenue are mostly Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants.

While almost everything about Chicago has changed including the city itself and its close suburbs, these Cumberland Avenue communities have remained stagnant and are now declining. It’s almost as though the 21st century has bypassed them. I can say this with some certainty because I drove through them nearly 30 years ago and now driving through them, I found nothing changed.

In the event, I was jolted back to the present as my host and I drove east on Eisenhower Expressway to the city to dine in this fabulous restaurant. As I tucked into the streak, I thought about the challenges facing America and how to redeploy the work force.

Then I thought to myself: that’s Obama’s problem. He’s from Chicago, albeit from Hyde Park on the south side. He has to fix it. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is running for mayor to replace Richard Daley, who has bowed out and whose family has run the Democratic Party in Chicago for nearly 50 years. The mayor’s younger brother William just got appointed White House chief of staff.

For the first time in half a century, there will be no Daley in Chicago’s Democratic Party dominated politics. It’s almost as though the Nehru-Gandhi family had given up control over the Congress Party in India. I contemplate, with some anxiety, the future of Chicago’s politics and its development in the second decade of the 21st century.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011