When Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary wrote an article, published Aug. 13, wistfully longing for a metaphorical Hurricane Katrina to befall Chicago, she thought she was being clever. It never occurred to her that longing for a human tragedy which took the lives of thousands and decimated a city, is, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, a sign of deep-seated insensitivity and narrow-mindedness. Only people who have never experienced such heart-wrenching disaster first-hand can be so clueless.
McQueary’s premise is problematic, because it glorifies the disaster. It essentially makes the claim that the end justifies the means; that the thousands upon thousands of displaced residents, the tragic deaths of those who could not escape, the many human rights violations that took place in the storm’s aftermath, were all merely an inconvenience — a small price to pay on the path of creating the utopia she makes New Orleans out to be.
Truth is, this utopia she describes does not exist. New Orleans and many other gulf area cities still struggle to rebuild. Thousands of residents never came back; in many cases, because their areas were never rebuilt and still sit as mere ghosts of the bustling neighborhoods they once were. The city has dealt with corruption as venture vultures of disaster capitalism have encircled the rubble, waiting to profit on the devastation by any means (such as the ill-gotten contracts that landed a former mayor of the city in prison).
New Orleans’ education system, now wholly privatized, is still an experiment; but given what we know about how charter schools stack up to their neighborhood counterparts in terms of academic performance and transparency, it would be foolhardy to heap praise on the experiment’s unforeseen results.
Ultimately, McQueary’s weak attempt to sound clever defies factual realities, and in a tasteless fashion, no less. Moreover, it reveals just how disconnected from, and unaware of, the deplorable conditions in which far too many of us live right here in Chicago.
We didn’t experience a massive hurricane, but too many of this city’s residents live in communities where our children’s routes to school forces them to cross perilous gang boundaries; where the walk to work entails passing blocks and blocks of boarded storefronts, glass littered streets and vacant homes; where massive school closures have disrupted our children’s learning process; and where shootings abound.
In light of this reality, McQueary’s cruel and absurd longing for a hypothetical disaster completely ignores the fact that a very real disaster is happening right now, right here in Chicago, right under her nose — if only she made the effort and had the moral imagination to see it.
McQueary does, however, see that Chicago is in dire financial straits. And she rightly describes the lack of political will, on the part of this city’s stewards, to really look at substantive solutions for these financial woes. The administration’s lack of problem-solving imagination, and its continued reliance on borrowing and nickel-and-diming residents, does not bode well for our future.
However, unlike McQueary, I believe that a change in leadership, coupled with sustained grassroots advocacy for better fiscal solutions, can right our ship. Through educating the public about the state of our city and about the viable solutions that are out there (but are not getting the attention they deserve), we can sway both regular citizens and our elected officials to corrective action.
Moving away from party politics — in which toeing the party line trumps pragmatic, solutions-oriented decision-making — will go a long way toward securing the type of leadership our city deserves. It doesn’t take a massive disaster to reach this goal. It just takes our residents and our leaders doing the hard work of understanding the issues, opening themselves to enlightened solutions and rejecting the notion that the disastrous conditions of the West and South Sides are somehow inevitable or natural or simply the order of things.
Yes, Chicago’s finances have been severely mismanaged, but McQueary’s wish for a Hurricane Katrina overlooks the reality that, all too often, the majority of the victims of Katrina-like catastrophes are people who already are barely getting by — namely, people of color who are struggling in areas of this country’s cities that were neglected long before catastrophe came.
Storms didn’t make financial recklessness. Storms didn’t make bad schools. Storms didn’t make vulture capitalism. And storms won’t unmake these realities. A word of advice for McQueary: Next time, save the shallow cleverness and ignorant metaphors and talk straight up about the issues. That’s a much more useful tactic than chasing imaginary hurricanes.