Like other major American cities, Chicago has benefited from a renewed interest in urban living over the past 2 decades, as former suburbanites flock to luxury high-rise condos downtown. Where the Loop used to shut down after dark and on weekends, it's now buzzing all week long, with a busy theater district and lively restaurants. Massive new condo buildings have sprung up along the lakefront south of the Loop, while the West Loop -- once a no-man's-land of industrial buildings -- has become another hot residential neighborhood.
In many ways, this building boom has erased the physical legacy of Chicago's past. The stockyards that built the city's fortune have disappeared; the industrial factories that pumped smoke into the sky south of the city now sit vacant. While no one misses the stench of the stockyards or the pollution that came with being an industrial center, the city's character has become muted along the way. Living here no longer requires the toughness that was once a hallmark of the native Chicagoan.
And yet a certain brashness remains. While some people may still have a "Second City" chip on their shoulders, we've gotten more confident about our ability to compete with New York or Los Angeles. We know our museums, restaurants, and entertainment options are as good as any other city's in the country; we just wish everyone else knew it, too.
Relatively affordable compared to New York, Chicago is a popular post-college destination for ambitious young people from throughout the Midwest. The city also draws immigrants from other countries (as it has for more than 100 years). Hispanics (mostly of Mexican origin) now make up about one-third of the city's population. Immigration from Eastern Europe is also common, especially from countries such as Poland, Russia, and Romania. This constant influx of new blood keeps the city vibrant.
This is not to say the city doesn't have problems. With roughly 2.8 million people total, Chicago has nearly equal numbers of black and white residents -- a rarity among today's urban areas -- but the residential districts continue to be some of the most segregated in the country. The South Side is overwhelmingly black; the North Side remains mostly white. As in other major cities, the public school system seems to constantly teeter on the edge of disaster. While fine schools are scattered throughout the city, many families are forced to send their children to substandard local schools with high dropout rates.
However, the waves of gentrification sweeping the city have transformed many neighborhoods for the better. For years, the city's public housing was a particular disgrace, epitomized by decrepit 1960s high-rises that had degenerated into isolated bastions of violence and hopelessness. The largest and worst complexes have been torn down during the last decade, replaced with low-rise, mixed-income housing. Some streets I used to avoid after dark are now lined with brand-new supermarkets, parks, and -- inevitably -- a Starbucks or two.
The city's crime problem has been more intractable. Despite a murder rate that's one of the highest in the country, Chicago doesn't strike visitors as a dangerous place, because most of the violence is contained within neighborhoods where gangs congregate and tourists rarely go. But gang-instigated shootings are still shockingly common on the South Side, and children are often innocent victims caught in the crossfire. It's something we've gotten far too blasé about, and it continues to be a blot on Chicago's reputation.
Another continuing embarrassment is our local politics. Time and again, our aldermen and other city officials reward our cynicism with yet another scandal involving insider payoffs and corrupt city contracts. For more than 20 years under Mayor Richard M. Daley (himself the son of another longtime mayor, Richard J. Daley), Chicagoans accepted a certain level of shady behavior -- after all, there was no denying that the city blossomed under the Daleys' leadership.
When the younger Daley stepped aside in the spring of 2011, his potential successors were quick to serve up the usual campaign promises about wiping out corruption. Now we're left wondering: Is it possible? Our newest mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is no stranger to political fights: He worked in the Clinton White House, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and survived 2 years as President Obama's chief of staff. It will be interesting to see how his take-no-prisoners style goes down with the complacent, business-as-usual Chicago City Council. Another test of his leadership will come as he attempts to reform the city's struggling public-school system. Emanuel, a dance- and theater-lover, has also pledged his strong support to the city's sometimes cash-strapped cultural institutions, which is good news for residents and visitors alike. In spite of the local politicians, we Chicagoans passionately defend and boast about our city. Ever since the stockyards were our main source of wealth, we've become masters of overlooking the unsavory. As long as Chicago thrives, we don't seem to really care how it happens.
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