Inequalities in Chicago

A man stumbled to his right as my friend dragged me towards hers. Chicago’s bright city lights dissipated to yellow patches that broke up the darkness as we found ourselves on a street that ran below Michigan Avenue. Chicago has multilevel streets that run underneath the main drag that city-dwellers walk; we had found ourselves in one of these below-deck roads[1]. Here in the underground, the smell of plaster mixed with a faint scent of piss. It felt familiar. “Up here,” Sue gripped my forearm, tugging me towards a staircase in the far-right corner. Peaking upwards revealed the lights of Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile; looking sideways, I saw two men hovering near the exit, shoulders hunched, and clothes tattered. “They’re young,” she noted as we ascended the steps. I nodded, trailing a few seconds behind. On the main street of Michigan Avenue, the luminosity returned, whiteness flooding my vision. “I would have never known that place was here,” Sue spoke as she turned to me, “Look at how nice everything is above ground. Down there, that was like hell. And now it is as though none of what is happening below exists.”

Chicago south side

That night in the underground reminded me that how we see the world is a direct result of what we have taken the time to interact with—this is in part why we are deeply influenced by our upbringings and our specific histories. But what about the multiple experiences that we walk right over? These have an equal chance of altering our perspectives, but if we do not engage, how can we change? That night, the tunnel intrigued me more than repelled me because I have worked to challenge my instinctive reactions to the world, a skill I first exercised through my studies in philosophy. Philosophy gave me a space to question what I knew, only to realize that what I knew is more akin to what I believed[2]. These beliefs are not universally applicable, yet our impulses to make them so have dire consequences on the world[3].

Chicago boat tour view

The failure to recognize our preconceived notions prevents the examination of our beliefs, and as Socrates once said, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living” [4]. I agree with Socrates, and not simply because we are both long-haired, vagabond hippies who love asking people ‘why’[5]. Socrates believed it was the civic duty of a person to think for themselves and to engage honestly with the world. I, too, believe that it is my duty to constantly challenge the way I see the world and I follow his example by engaging in conversations with strangers and friends about our perspectives, beliefs, and life philosophies. My ultimate goal is to ‘see through’ the lens of others to more fully grasp their perspectives and struggles. I want to help improve the impoverished social conditions I see around me, but social aid’s dismal past and questionable success leave me hesitant[6]. I sometimes question if there is space for constructive social aid and upon further investigation, I find that, despite the many botched efforts, it is through engaging with people that the best solutions are birthed[7]. This is why I like to imagine that those whom I walk past on the streets occupy a distinct world, a way of life governed by rules, norms, and realities[8] different from my own. I choose this framing because it allows me to remain open, to suspend judgment, and to suppress the savior narrative[9] that drives most aid work today. Still, this framing remains an imperfect exercise and is not a solution in and of itself.

Chicago promontory point

While any person and their current way of life are worthy of respect, circumstances like homeless are often tragic, personal, and complex, stemming from both local and systemic failures[10]. This is why it is important to listen to these stories because what we first assume to be the cause is almost never the case. Yet when hearing and learning about the multilayered reasons that drive someone to the streets, or into poverty, I do feel judgment rising up within myself. The injustices and societal failures at the root of poverty partly drive this reaction, but judgment equally arises through my subconscious assessments of the individual’s life choices, or the choices of their families, friends, and partners. But the realities that drove someone into homelessness are not open for my criticism. These people are not asking for my pity, or my opinion, or even my help. Likewise, the systemic failures that perpetuate suffering require far more complex problem-solving than most care to admit or attempt to understand. How, then, does one show disgust to the injustices and respect to the individual without demonstrating disgust towards the individual or acting the savior in the process? I believe that this requires a vigilant exercise in humility, a quality that I do not possess, but do actively attempt to demonstrate.

statue of a repurposed tree

I see the hurdles to the practice of humility to be like the staircase that separated the underground of Michigan Avenue from its glitzy surface.  The staircase, first, acts as a barricade to potential interactions between people of varying material wealth; it is a physical boundary that separates the wealthier citizens from the realities of the impoverished through material segregation. Second, it represents the systemic and compounding social issues that perpetuate the existence of poverty, therefore symbolically representing an invisible border, as well. Such borders invade our own head spaces[11], preventing us from switching between worlds or connecting with others on a physical, spiritual, and emotional level. These boundaries become conventions and convictions; they can act as sources of self-protection, but they also result in a common sense that is less sense than it is common. The question is: how can we know what is wise and what is not? I claim that while we can never be certain, we can certainly be wiser.

a Buddha head in Chicago

Wisdom is birthed through experience, but it dies with arrogance. What a proper humanities degree can give you is the experience and exposure to novel ideas, challenging texts, and diverse people to help you to recognize your blind spots, confront your preconceived notions, and reorganize your worldview—all, ideally, taming the flame of arrogance and allowing wisdom to take root. Arrogance is often entwined with compelling arguments that a wiser eye can unravel to locate the faulty assumptions that drive the conclusions. Karl Marx, for example, published a compelling critique on capitalism and used it to build a constructive economic system based more in ideology than reality. This system of communism inspired a revolution that led to over 100+ million deaths[12] in the 20th century, contributed to severe censorship policies[13] [14] and human rights violations[15], and facilitated the rise of several fascists leaders whose legacies continue to haunt their respective countries today[16]. Ideas are not always what they seem and the dangers of romanticizing any ideology, period in time, or modern invention can lead you to perpetuate human suffering in the name of alleviating it.

a temple in Chicago

Relating this back to our story: it seems absurd that someone would choose to live on the streets rather than in a homeless shelter, it seems natural to assume that a person living on the streets is dangerous, and it seems obvious what that person should do to ‘rectify’ their life. But these ‘common sense’ narratives are false. The homeless people I have spoken to are, by and large, not dangerous, though many are bordering on psychosis. Many are fleeing abusive homes and partners. And almost all have said that they prefer the streets to the shelter because of the inhumane treatment, harassment, and poor conditions they experience in these supposed places of refuge[17]. One recurring reason for remaining on the streets is that the person has nowhere else to go and no one else to rely on. While material poverty is most evident on the surface, it is often relational poverty; the lack of a supportive network, family, or government; that drives the materially disadvantaged into deeper poverty. Finally, while living on the streets may be isolating for some, there is strong evidence that social networks of the streets, called street families, provide the communal support and connection that are often lacking at shelters and within the past relationships of these individuals[18]. This is all to highlight that what one sees at first glance is often the facade and never the complete truth—including this essay.

University of Chicago campus

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multilevel_streets_in_Chicago

[2]Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800). The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

[3]https://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen/transcript?language=en

[4] Stuhr, John J. “The Unexamined Life and Surface Pleasures.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 163–174. https://doi.org/10.5325/jspecphil.30.2.0163. Accessed 6 May 2021.

[5]“Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick….he embraced poverty and although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher (Plato, Apology 33a–b) and refused all his life to take money for what he did.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/#SocStr

[6]https://dambisamoyo.com/book/dead-aid/

[7] https://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen/transcript?language=en, https://economics.mit.edu/faculty/eduflo/pooreconomics

[8] For example, the social norms that govern the way of life in rural India will be different from the norms governing communities in Ecuador. Despite pervasive poverty in both regions, the social structure that undergirds these cultures produces different realities and beliefs that then govern behavior. When it comes to improving the conditions of either peoples, one must understand the nuances that lie beneath the seemingly similar veneer of poverty.

[9]Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic, Mar. 2012. The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrialcomplex/254843/.

[10] A local failure is the result of one’s immediate social circle’s inability or failure to help someone they know personally, like a friend, family member, and local community member. A systemic failure is the continued failure of the government or larger intuitions to provide support to people who continuously fall into the same trap—for example, the high rate of incarceration of young black men is the result of a systemic failure, while each individual young black man that suffers this fate is experiencing both a systemic and a local failure.

[11]Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800). The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

[12] https://www.wsj.com/articles/100-years-of-communismand-100-million-dead-1510011810

[13] “Modern day China, more than almost any other country in the world, severely restricts it citizens freedom of speech and expression.” https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/communism-computing-china/censorship.html

[14] “One dissident told us, “When you grow up, you’re told ‘Shh, be quiet! The neighbors can hear you,’ so you grow up thinking that speaking against the government is bad.” He and many other locals said that there were likely numerous undercover police officers on the streets, and this widely held belief results in apprehension to speak openly against the government for fear of detention or arrest. The dissident said he is not sure whether there actually are undercover police, but he assured us that it didn’t matter; the fear the government instilled in the people was powerful enough.” https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=international_immersion_program_papers

[15] “Hyperinflation in Venezuela has increased the number of people living in severe poverty and barely surviving from day to day. A national survey in 2017 found that 87% of families live below the poverty line…  Since 2017, nearly two-thirds of Venezuelans reported losing an average of 25 pounds in the previous year; they refer to this as the “Maduro-diet” due to food and water shortages… Some children are so malnourished that they lack the necessary energy to attend school.” https://borgenproject.org/tag/poverty-in-venezuela/

[16] “The post-communist experience has much to tell us about how the state becomes, that is, how it comes into being and into action in the modern era. This process is: 1) rapid, taking place over decades rather than centuries, and as yet has not reached a stable outcome, 2) dominated as much by informal structures and practices as by formal institutions, which are used to varying degrees by both actors seeking to establish their authority and those seeking to resist this authority.” https://wcfia.harvard.edu/files/wcfia/files/514_02_02_final.pdf

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045444/

[18] “Qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests that social relationships among the homeless, ranging from casual acquaintances to street families, register beneficial effects (Dordick 1997Ennett et al. 1999Molina 2000Smith 2008). This optimistic conclusion is consistent with the norms of sharing, reciprocity, and fairness found to govern such relations. Tempering that conclusion are the high levels of turnover, desperation, and distrust in the homeless population, all of which make emergent social solidarity fragile.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045444/

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