‘Chicagoland’: Why Is the Media So Obsessed With Midwestern Cities in Crisis?

I don’t know exactly when, but at some point after the crash of the financial market in 2008 and about a year ago, I got sick of hearing about Detroit. A city I’ve visited many times, and a place that I’d like to see rebound from decades of sliding downhill, the media would not let up on telling us about this city and what it represented for America: if Detroit failed, we all failed.

In some respects, they were totally in the right to focus on how the slow death of the city that has always been the American hub of the auto industry represented so many of our country’s woes, because there were plenty of parallels to draw from Detroit’s sorry condition. And the media did it again and again and again. Sometimes great stuff came out of it, like Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be; most other times, we saw the city’s name paired with terms like “ruin porn,” which would be exploitative if it wasn’t so overdone.

Even though Detroit is nowhere close to being out of the woods just yet, the spotlight has shifted a bit from the Motor City, focusing more on its Midwestern neighbor to the south, Chicago. The reason — in my estimation as a native of the city — is that Chicago is the true all-American city; its greatness, as well as its many problems, are representative of everything both great and terrible about America. The coverage has ranged from Vice’s HBO show taking us deep into “Chiraq” to This American Life spending five months at Harper High School to get a better understanding of what it is like to be a teenager living under the threat of constant gun violence. Even this most recent issue of Harper’s has an article on “Predicting Murder on Chicago’s South Side.”

Chicagoland, the new CNN series that counts Robert Redford among its producers, shows both sides of the story; namely, the South Side and the North Side. It is the tale of two Chicagos: the more affluent white part to the north, and the poorer, predominantly black and Latino half to the south. And as the show boasts at the beginning, it is a city where the mayor was known as Boss, and his political operation was called The Machine.

Rahm Emanuel
Rahm Emanuel

The italics are all mine, used to highlight the absurdity of saying these things in the past tense, because everybody knows that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was basically the handpicked successor of the Daley family, whose father and later son, both named Richard, occupied the mayor’s office at City Hall for over five decades. Emanuel, who first rose to prominence working for President Bill Clinton then later as President Obama’s White House Chief-of-Staff, will probably coast into a second term as the city’s mayor — something his challengers point out in Chicagoland — less because he’s done a good job, and more because he can raise far more money than his opponents.

Although the long-term effects remain to be seen, Emanuel’s hand in overseeing the largest school closure in the city’s history has not only made him plenty of enemies, but is also in step with other historically bad decisions the city has made in trying to supposedly help its poor and minority citizens. One journalist on Chicagoland calls Emanuel, “Daley with a circumcision,” and most people would probably find it difficult to disagree. In a city where white students are a very small percentage of the public school population, the closing of the schools is another reason why Chicagoans of certain ethnicities and backgrounds say the system doesn’t work for them. If anything, it seems, with the rampant gun violence the city has yet to curb, the massive gang problem with over 600 factions and a reported 70,000 members, and a lack of jobs and housing, Chicago’s problems only make those impacted the most want to keep fighting.

But Emanuel isn’t really the main character of Chicagoland. He is the person at the top of the food chain, and everybody else featured on the show seem as if they’re left to fend for themselves to survive, especially the residents of the South Side communities the show gives a voice to. It’s their stories, of the violence they deal with on a daily basis and the fear of what will happen next, that make the show so gut-wrenching. The people who have been let down by the city and system time and time again — mostly poor African-American and Hispanic communities — are the ones that make Chicago the type of city that represents present-day America so well. In just one hour, Chicagoland puts one of the country’s biggest cities under a microscope, and what we get is a snapshot of just how broken things — as well as the people who are trying to fix those things — still are there. That’s what makes it required viewing for people across the nation, and why all of the media attention being paid to the Windy City makes perfect sense. By telling one big city’s story, Chicagoland tells the American story.