April 11, 2008

The other Chicago

Reading history is like playing video games: The past is filled with colorful figures, graphic violence, and at the end of the day, you can put the book down without much of a stain on your conscience or a damper on your spirits. It’s only when you come to realize you’re living your own unique historical moment that the gravity of action pulls you away from your pricey game console or history book.

All I ever knew about the history of Chicago came from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and a University of Florida class about violence in American history. Professor Jeffrey Adler would spin cats cradles with his hands and bellow with prize-worthy theatricality, bringing to life the world of turn-of-the-century Chicago, an urban melting pot that somebody left on the burner. The class would marvel at the absurd spectacle of barroom brawling, wife beating, and über-manly fights to the death. Kipling had dubbed Chicago a “grotesque ferocity,” a place where a careless word or misplaced glance could draw swift and lethal reprisals. By consensus, Chicago was the “murder capital of the world,” and we couldn’t help but betray amused astonishment as we sat in the safety of our air-conditioned classroom.

It’s wonderful to know the world through books, or at least it’s a compelling route to a diploma. Here in the College of the University of Chicago, we share a Core curriculum beholden to the Great Books tradition and smitten with the written text in its transformative possibilities for the intellect. The stubborn influence of this text-centrism imprints upon our senses the four corners of the written page; we sometimes have trouble seeing around it. Myopia results when we spurn the acquisition of knowledge outside of the printed word. Often this leads to emotional distance from real events.

We live in Chicago, but we go to the University of Chicago. It’s easy to forget this sometimes, to read about it through a history book or a newspaper. But we need to experience it, to know what it means. Think back to the “Chicago Life” meetings you were forced to attend during O-week: You were handed a pamphlet on safe urban living, you studied it, and you discussed it. After that, urban living meant idyllic green lawns with ivy-covered buildings, charming carillon choruses, and, occasionally, an unwelcome burst of the outside—a crime that broke the business-as-usual mindset. Such a crisis came last November with the tragic slaying of Amadou Cisse. A wave of fear rippled through the student body. There was grief, mourning, and anger: As with every spurt of violence, the administration reiterated its time-tested formula of expanding police patrols and increasing shuttle service.

It’s a terrible thing when you realize you’re living the history of violence.

The truth is, Chicago’s working class slums of 1900 still persist a century later. Drive down to 80th or 20th street, and you begin to learn that the story remains the same. The Sunday issue of the Chicago Tribune ran an article about teens’ experiences of violence in the city beside an elegy to the late Charlton Heston. Teens spoke out about the ubiquity of violence and spoke to the difficulty of learning in an environment in which every day is fraught with the struggle to stay alive. “People will fight over a dollar…or if you even just look at somebody crazy, they’ll fight you over that,” one 16-year-old said. A Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher told me that after a few years of teaching, she no longer cries when she hears gunshots; it’s become a piece of routine. Twenty-two CPS students have fallen so far this year, and with every new victim, the education we value so much is foreclosed to our neighbors.

It’s high time that we as a university take a step out and look around our community to make sure that Cisse’s death marks a turning point, not a historical footnote, in the civic engagement of our University. This is a history we can’t put down at the end of the day, so we must work to change its trajectory.

Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature. His column appears every other Friday.