August 11, 2013
Membership in the Chicago Defense League is now open.
If you are a Chicago citizen, or simply a supporter of the churning, messy, incessantly evolving organism that is the third-largest city in the United States, you are eligible for this new organization.
Ask yourself. In recent months, have you had experiences similar to any of the following:
You've gritted your teeth while listening to friends or relatives say, "OMG, I heard on the news that Chicago had more murders than any city in the country last year. How can you live there?"
You've gritted your teeth while listening to friends or relatives say, "OMG, I keep hearing on the news about the Chicago Way. All that corruption! How can you live there?"
You've gritted your teeth while listening to friends or relatives say, "OMG, I heard on the news about the school situation in Chicago. It sounds apocalyptic. And on top of those winters? How can you live there?"
If any of the above feels familiar to you, welcome to the club.
I was inspired to form the Chicago Defense League after a recent trip to the West Coast in which I was barraged with remarks like the ones above. Annoyance loves company.
But let's be clear. The Chicago Defense League is not a booster club. Defending Chicago is not the same as excusing its errors or ignoring its problems or pretending that the beauty of The Bean makes up for every last pothole.
Defending Chicago simply means pushing back with a more nuanced version of the city when friends, relatives or Facebook acquaintances delight in some fact or half-fact about Chicago's miseries that they claim to have heard on NPR or read on the Drudge Report.
Yes, there are too many neighborhoods where people live in poverty and a rational fear of violence. That is Chicago's shame and greatest challenge.
Yes, the schools struggle. Taxes are high. The pension system is crippled. And, yes, January is not our finest month.
But if that's what you shrink Chicago to, it's like reading the book jacket and thinking you've read the book.
In the Chicago Defense League, we like to point out that Chicago, even without the suburbs, is bigger than some countries. With a population of 2.7 million, it's more than four times the size of Portland or Seattle, more than three times the size of San Francisco. It's a city that contains the world, international cities within the city.
Yes, it's complicated.
It also happens to be the city the current American president still calls home, and it happens to be run by a mayor who once worked for him. The Chicago doomsday reports are in some measure fueled by those facts, which give a sharper political edge to tales of Chicago's woes and expand the audience for them.
But, again, members of the Chicago Defense League aren't blind boosters.
We recognize that Chicago, with all its grand beauty and energy, is at a pivot point, though hardly its first.
Thomas Dyja, the author of "The Third Coast," an excellent new Chicago history, summed it up well last week in an essay on the BBC "Newshour," aired locally on WBEZ.
Dyja's piece was the first in a series of "Newshour" essays on the world's cities, and in different hands, it might have done little beyond seeding more cliches about Chicago's violence, corruption and dashed baseball hopes.
He talked about those problems, but didn't stop there. He noted that, according to the Global Economic Power Index, Chicago remains the sixth most-powerful city in the world. Its economic diversity, he maintained, will help protect it from the fate of bankrupt Detroit.
But — and this was his most significant, original point — he noted a problem with that diversity.
While diversity has helped Chicago survive into the post-industrial era, he said, "it's also left the very real question as to what exactly Chicago does now."
Washington does politics. LA does entertainment. Seattle does high-tech.
But Chicago? What do we do here now? Who are we?
I think that void in Chicago's identity is another reason the stories of our worst aspects have lately come to define the city in the minds of so many people.
We need a new dominant identity that helps put the very real problems into proportion.
That's all the Chicago Defense League wants: perspective and proportion.
Membership comes with a complimentary flak jacket.
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