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TODAY

Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

Will Chicago lose its collective memory?

It is well on its way to losing its collective mind, in any case.

Last week the Chicago Reporter's Kimbriell Kelly reported on Chicago's "gray drain," a mass exodus of elderly residents who simply cannot beat back the developers any longer. According to the Reporter piece, between 1990 and 2006, the City lost 15 percent of its elderly residents, a shocking decrease. That the drop correlates to the areas of the city favored by everybody's favorite boogeymen, The Developers, makes our collective loss more tragic.

Hey, it's The Market. If the developers have the cash and are gobbling up the property, it isn't their fault that the other gray hairs are feeling the pressure to creak out to the suburbs, right?

Well, like with pretty much every argument that tries to use The Market as a rationale, it falls flat. It isn't just economic pressure, but good old fashioned coercion. To wit:

Jamieson is not the only senior being pressured. In some cases, realtors and developers have used the might of government offices to apply pressure on seniors to sell their property. When rebuffed by seniors to sell their homes, some said realtors have filed numerous property maintenance code violations against senior homeowners and then returned, with cash in hand, offering to buy their homes.

In 2003, the office of 26th Ward Alderman Billy Ocasio fielded several calls from panicked seniors who had rebuffed realtors pressuring them to sell their homes in the 1700 block of North Spaulding Avenue, where Jamieson lives. Soon after they had city inspectors responding to 311 calls at their houses logging a lengthy list of repairs costing thousands to fix, in most cases between $22,000 and $30,000, Ocasio said.

I have consumed probably hundreds of thousands of pages worth of minutiae about this city, but this has to be some of the most disgusting stuff I've come across. After Dan Mihalopolous' great piece about the land-use regime at City Hall, Chicagoans finally had confirmed in ink what we knew on the street: development in Chicago is about as "organic" and "market driven" as pig-iron production in Soviet Union. The players have got the fix in, and when that isn't enough, they go after the elderly. Time and again, the principle of "voluntary exchange" is undermined not by Leftist reformers but by the business interests that supposedly value it. Why take a gamble on voluntary exchange when you can just intimidate?

What makes it even more tantalizing for the developers, surely, is that the elderly, particularly in big cities, are much more likely to be poor. Mmm, nothing like marginalized poor people to bully into submission. The competition to gobble up properties in "emerging" (as if they are currently submerged) neighborhoods is very intense, especially now that the housing bubble has definitively burst and home foreclosures are on the rise.

You can bet speculators are gobbling up these foreclosed properties. It is only a matter of time before the capital becomes available to plan entire neighborhoods out of existence.

The assault on Chicago's senior population, though, seems especially pernicious because of what it means for a city to lose its old, whether through rampant over-development or through the atomization of communities that leaves them susceptible to murderous heat waves.

The elderly are particularly susceptible members of society not only because of relative physical reasons, but because they are probably the most discriminated-against demographic in terms of employment. Their social networks are degraded because of death and movement. They are therefore much more likely to be poor and isolated.

Yet their value to a community is incalculable. Let's not paint with broad brushes — experience of the world brings prejudice along with wisdom — but a neighborhood's elders are its collective memory. They know the history of the neighborhood, they've worked through the hard times and seen changes that they never imagined. They are therefore more civically engaged, and have the spare time to commit to things like community policing, open-house meetings, and lobbying for stop signs and street lights.

A community without an active and visible senior citizen community has no awareness of itself, its traditions and history. It therefore has no sense of its own value, or cohesion. A neighborhood becomes just a realtor's term rather than a meaningful geographic and cultural indicator.

Our obsession is with youth; perhaps we feel like if we can shed the old, we shed the responsibility we have to the past. Our obsession is with the vaunted "creative class"; they legitimize our city as somehow more "cosmopolitan." Academic Richard Florida helped popularize the great "creative class" debate with his book The Rise of the Creative Class, a controversial book worth the time to read it. There is no doubt that the creative class is important to our city — whining about hipsters and yuppies aside — but they are but one part of a greater whole, necessary but not sufficient. If we don't defend the rights of every part of our neighborhoods, our great city becomes susceptible to devastation, like a body that hasn't built up antibodies.

The flight of senior citizens from Chicago is a shame not only because it represents our utter domination by moneyed interests and the victimization of a particularly susceptible group of Chicagoans, but for this loss of a vital pillar of so many of our communities. If we let our neighborhoods be constantly repackaged and commodified, we end up with constantly resetting communities, constantly throwing off collective wisdom and the bonds that reinforce mutual benefit and cooperation, and thus a city unable to avoid the same mistakes, endlessly repeated.

In reading the Reporter article, I was reminded of the heartbreaking story of conductor Clive Wearing, who was struck with a virus that gave him anterograde amnesia, which made him unable to create new memories. He remains trapped in a constant loop of reawakening, where he keeps a journal with haunting, repeating entries: "8.07am: I AM awake. 8.31am: Now I am really, completely awake. 9.06am: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake. 9.34am: Now I am superlatively, actually awake."

Change is a part of every city's reality, but this sort of artificial change that actively tears communities apart in the name of private profit is pushing us towards a collective Wearing syndrome: every few years we wake again and survey the landscape, surprised at where we are and only vaguely aware of what was before. This is Chicago. Now this is completely Chicago. Now this is perfectly, overwhelmingly Chicago. Now this is superlatively, actually Chicago.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at rc@gapersblock.com.

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