• Posted: Nov 20, 2011 11:10:59
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Chicago has always been a fascinating mix of ethnicity and economic class. On this particular North-side street corner one can not only see recent immigrants from a host of countries, but third and fourth generation Chicagoans, also of varied ethnic heritage. Immersed in such variety on a daily basis, one might tend to overlook how unusual it is. Certainly, miles outside the city, communities tend toward homogeneity in both class and ethnicity and, once again, on a daily basis residents may not notice how bland things are. We each tend to live within our own bubbles of normality and seldom have opportunity to sense what we may be missing. Such would seem to be a fact Occupy Wall Street is hoping to bring to light.
Every new immigrant to this country hopes to find opportunity, security, and eventual riches for themselves and those they love. Most are not afraid of hard work. Most know they might not totally succeed in all they hope for. But most do have the expectation that whatever happens, things will be better for their children here in this country. And that simple consolation is what keeps every one of them hard at work, willing to adjust to whatever is thrown at them. It's an inspiring ethic. What is sad to see is two, three, four generations down the line, that same inspiring ethic somehow transformed into territorial and class protectionism wherein no one wants to give up or share what has been accumulated. One can see that in the sale of property within some neighborhoods, where nothing is sold on the open market but only to friends and relatives in an effort to maintain property values and "character" of the neighborhood. It's a game of King of the Mountain, with everyone striving to sit atop the hill, and once there push everyone else back down. Chicago would not be Chicago without all its varied citizens in some sense playing that game.
True, Chicago is hugely Democratic, born of meat packing, steel, and factory labor getting organized back in the early 20th century. Back then, all those new immigrants banded together and decided they weren't here to be exploited like slaves, earning less than it took to live on. On such wages their children would never be better off. With the success of labor unions, Chicago's middle class began to materialize. Schools never were top-notch, but people began to have better housing and money for food, furniture, and eventually cars, boats, and time to vacation in Wisconsin and Michigan. Together, people climbed that hill and found a pretty nice life for themselves. But these days, fewer people are members of unions. And though everybody is still trying to climb the hill, they aren't working together like they used to. The game has gotten scrappier, more every man or woman for themselves. And the result is that more and more are not getting up that hill. Instead, they are being stepped on, pushed back, and even beaten back.
Take a look at the two ladies pictured above. One has clearly made progress up that hill. The other is clearly losing in her struggle. We are not all created equal. We do not all have equal opportunity. The game we are all playing favors some to the disadvantage of others. It may not exactly be a zero-sum game, but the winnings from our collective efforts are not being distributed equally or even fairly. In the long run, such unequal distribution of society's collective bounty can only increase the steepness of the hill we all hope to climb and narrow its plateau, while those at the top grow ever more vicious in defence of their territory. Bloody revolutions are born of such developments. And slim few of us are aching to see that happen.
Perhaps Occupy Wall Street will help get us all working together again in the spirit of mid-20th century Chicagoans, less selfishly for our collective benefit. It would certainly be nice to see the slope of that hill we're all itching to scale gradually become less steep while the plateau atop of it widens accommodatingly. We'd all be proud Americans then.
Tuesday, October 20th, 2009