by Jim Reynolds
Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors, Get IN Chicago
Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
Another weekend in Chicago: more homicides, muggings, burglaries and thefts. The profiles are eerily similar: an African-American male, most likely between the ages of 15 and 22, a high school dropout with a history of arrests, likely gang affiliation, reading several grades below grade level, no skills, no job, and in their mind — no hope. This life is the only one they see.
We know the violence is concentrated on the South and West sides of the city — neighborhoods like Englewood, North Lawndale, Washington Park, Austin, Auburn Gresham and East and West Garfield Park. African-Americans make up approximately a third of the city’s population, yet they have consistently accounted for more than 70 percent of homicide victims for decades. On Chicago’s Northwest Side, between 2000 and 2010, the homicide rate was 3.1 per 100,000 residents, according to Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos. But in Englewood, it was 58 per 100,000; in West Garfield Park, 64 per 100,000.
Our violent reputation frames Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocative cover story for the Atlantic, inspiring countless think pieces and special investigations, earning us unsavory superlatives, whether accurate or not. Most dangerous city. Most segregated city.
We have a serious problem, and philanthropy or government subsidies won’t, by themselves, reverse the tide. We need jobs. We need commerce. We need to bring economic vitality into the communities that are the breeding grounds of such hopelessness that the typical teenage male resident does not expect to live past the age of 25.
How did we get here? Decades of neglect, an ill-fated plan to tear down the high-rise projects and disperse residents into what were once stable African-American communities, a school system that hasn’t held the interest of these young men, abject poverty, communities that foster gangs — all of these play a role.
Are these demographic realities so deeply entrenched that they can’t be shifted? Absolutely not. I have faith that we aren’t destined to repeat this cycle for decades to come — we are smart enough to fix this now. These neighborhoods simply need resources, new opportunities and a means to rise out of their deeply concentrated poverty. The money needs to flow directly into the neighborhoods and into meaningful economic development. Chicago needs a targeted, large-scale economic development program, while we continue to tackle the problem from all sides, through job creation, quality education, drug treatment, youth programs, empowerment and civic engagement.
A WAY FORWARD
Essentially, I’m talking about a new Marshall Plan.
In 1947, in the wake of World War II, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a comprehensive plan to rebuild the economies and spirits of Western Europe and stave off the spread of communism. The U.S. gave $13 billion to 16 European nations, shipping food, staples, fuel and machinery, rebuilding war-devastated regions, removing trade barriers and investing in industrial capacity. As a result, European economies experienced unprecedented growth from 1948 to 1952, postwar poverty and starvation disappeared, and standards of living increased remarkably.
The concept of a similar domestic effort is not new. Former National Urban League President John Jacobs often spoke of a Domestic Marshall Plan, championing the idea that we could rebuild urban areas in America the same way we rebuilt entire nations abroad. Eugene Robinson explores the idea in his 2010 book “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.” I’d like to bring this idea back to the forefront of our conversation about race and opportunity, and center it on Chicago.
For now, I’d like to focus on Marshall’s conviction that the key to restoring political stability lies in the revitalization of national economies. For me, this type of economic revitalization in our predominantly black communities should be the crux of our plan — not to restore balance but to finally establish an equal playing field.
WHERE DO WE START?
We have to provide federal, state and local tax credits and other enhancements for businesses to locate in the most victimized communities — where the unemployment rate is often double or triple that of the rest of the city and more than half of households are below the poverty level. People from all sides may question the effectiveness of tax credits, but I believe Illinois has learned a great deal about how to best deal with potential pitfalls from past mistakes. Tax incentive policy must be solid, designed to recoup incentive payment if a business fails to live up to job-creation or investment promises. More stringent reviews of all such incentives can keep beneficiary corporations accountable.
We need the federal government to provide incentives that make relocating in these troubled communities an attractive business decision. Are some initiatives already in place? Of course. But not nearly enough. This has to be a large-scale effort, and it needs to happen now. For some companies, participating in this revitalization would be its own reward — playing a major part in creating history, restoring our city, helping us rise to a level of equality and prosperity that has never been achieved in Chicago. Steadily building a blueprint that can be transferred to other struggling cities across the country.
That’s what I would like to see. I hope we’re up for the challenge.
James Reynolds Jr. is chairman and CEO of Loop Capital Holdings LLC in Chicago.