Every day each of us confronts the question of what politics is for as we interact with our neighbors. I live in the neighborhood of Hyde Park, which occupies roughly one and a half square miles on the South Side of Chicago. It is home to a diverse population of middle-class families, students, professionals and the 44th President of the United States. The southwest quarter is dominated by the neo-Gothic campus of the University of Chicago, which employs much of the local workforce.
Like many South Side neighborhoods, Hyde Park saw considerable changes midway through the twentieth century, when restrictions that had previously kept blacks and whites segregated began to be lifted. Between 1950 and 1956, the African-American population of Hyde Park rose from six to thirty-six percent. As in other parts of urban America, this development was accompanied by fears of rising crime rates among many of the existing white residents. There is no evidence that crime actually rose in Hyde Park, but the widespread perception of a threat was enough to prompt the university, with the support of local community organizations, to form the South East Chicago Commission (SECC) to “fight crime … and begin a long-term project of neighborhood planning and improvement.”
That project was to become known as “urban renewal.” At the time, any three residents of Illinois could exercise the right of “eminent domain” to expand their property in an area where they already owned sixty percent and the remainder was deemed “dilapidated.” The SECC made aggressive use of these laws: by 1958, a plan had been approved to demolish 5,941 units, displacing large numbers of working-class African-American residents. The effects of urban renewal were not limited to neighborhood development: in 1955, the SECC hired two policemen to patrol the streets around campus. Today, the University of Chicago Police Department is one of the largest private forces in the world. Its distinctive blue emergency phones are one of the most recognizable features of Hyde Park.
Just over half a century earlier, in 1894, John Dewey was made the first chair of the Philosophy Department at the newly founded University of Chicago. By the time of urban renewal, Dewey was long gone, but his philosophical ideas remain relevant for understanding the long-term effects of the policy. Two themes in Dewey are of particular importance for us: the notion of “a public” and the ideal of democracy. What Dewey understands by a public is, roughly, a group of individuals all affected by the consequences of a given action. A public can be conscious or unconscious of itself as such: when the inhabitants of a small town come together to discuss job cuts at a local factory, they have become aware of themselves as a public in Dewey’s sense. In many cases, however, those affected by the consequences of a given action remain unaware of their membership in a much larger group of similarly affected individuals. (How many of us were aware, even twenty years ago, that we were all members of the public defined by the threat of global warming?) A public exists whether or not it is conscious of itself, but only by becoming conscious is it capable of acting in an organized way.
To become conscious of ourselves as the members of various different publics is, for Dewey, to begin to give an answer to the question of who we are. The ideal democracy is the state in which that answer is finally completed; it is the state in which every existing public has become conscious of itself as such. “Democracy” in this sense is not so much a system of government as the goal towards which any democratic society should continually be striving. In the ideal democracy, I am aware of all the ties that bind me to others, and I act accordingly: not as an isolated individual, but as a member of a vast plurality of different communities, different publics. Only in such a society can we truly be said to have arrived at a fully democratic form of life.
How do these ideas relate to the story of Hyde Park? One hundred years after Dewey, and fifty years after urban renewal, Danielle Allen, then a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, used the epilogue of her book Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, to present a direct critique of the history of her own institution. She argued that the actions of the university during the period of urban renewal had so weakened the relationships of trust between members of the university and the wider community that the prospects for a truly democratic polis had been dealt a significant blow.
One way to understand the damage done by urban renewal is in terms of the Deweyan notions outlined above. The academic community (i.e., students, staff and faculty) of the University of Chicago is a public in Dewey’s sense, and understands itself as such—any actions likely to have an effect upon it are widely publicized, debated and met through a variety of different institutional channels. A recent example presented itself after a graduate student, Amadou Cisse, was shot and killed on the southern edge of campus. Through such institutions as the UCPD, administrative offices, student associations, email lists, campus coffee shops, etc., the community was able to respond collectively to an action whose consequences reached out and touched the lives of its individual members. Because the academic community was a self-conscious public, in the wake of the tragedy, students and staff were able to understand the inevitable question, “Will I be safe to walk the streets at night?” in the form: “Will we be safe to walk the streets at night?”
But the academic community is not the only public in this part of Chicago. Residents of Woodlawn, the lower-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood immediately to the south, are also conscious of themselves as a public. They have long perceived the university as a common threat and acted together to respond to it. In 1964, community organizers in Woodlawn successfully negotiated a deal with the university according to which the latter would not seek to acquire property south of 61st street. The fear at the time was that the demand for space to accommodate a growing student population would lead inevitably to the displacement of residents as gentrification pushed up property prices. The success of the campaign bore witness to the power that can be harnessed by even the least well-off when they identify a common threat and organize themselves to meet it.
One might think, on the basis of these examples, that the history of Hyde Park represents a model of Deweyan democratic practice. As problems have emerged, self-conscious publics have risen up to meet them, and in so doing have made a lasting impact on the physical character of the neighborhood. Just as the blue telephones bear witness to the collective action of the academic community, so too the oddly lopsided profile of 61st street, with great glass cubes on the north side and low-rise apartments on the south, reminds us that once, on this spot, people came together as a public and got what they wanted.
And yet there is something hollow in these achievements. Since Amadou Cisse was killed, the university has poured significant resources into security and policing, yet it is difficult to find students who say that they feel any safer now than they did two years ago. As far as the public on the south side of 61st is concerned, the victory of 1964 was a pyrrhic one. In the years since, the population has plummeted, even the most basic goods and services are hard to come by and large plots of land lie empty and unused. Meanwhile, a new university dormitory is nearing completion on 61st and Ellis, and the concerns of those affected tell a familiar story: students are worried about their security at night, while local residents fear further expansion, gentrification and displacement. Something, somewhere, has quite clearly gone wrong.
ome might say that the root of these problems has been poor urban planning, lack of political will or sheer economic inequality. It is true that all of these factors have played an important role. Better planning and increased funding can help us to address specific problems as they arise. However, they do not speak to the deeper questions of identity that Dewey’s philosophy teaches us to ask. Last fall, the university appointed the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, Anne-Marie Lipinski, as the new Vice President for Civic Engagement. Much of what Ms. Lipinski has said since her appointment has been quite correct: that the wide range of community service programs in which students and staff participate is both impressive and valuable; that the university and the community need each other to flourish; that the crimes of urban renewal were committed a long time in the past. All of this is true, but the dual emphasis of university policy—on the one hand, encouraging students to participate in community service programs, while on the other taking measures to “ensure their security”—continues to perpetuate the myth that urban renewal carved into the streets of Hyde Park: on this side there is “us”; on the other, “them.”
The gulf that urban renewal created between “us” and “them” was what helped to form the publics that came together to build the blue telephone boxes and create the barrier on 61st street, but it was also what ensured that those projects would eventually meet with failure. No matter how many patrol cars you provide, it is not possible to make people feel safe if you have convinced them that the people living on the other side of the street represent an imminent threat. Equally, it is not possible to avoid the impact of a huge private university right on your doorstep simply by drawing a line in the sand. If what we want is a community that is safe for everyone, then we have to find a way of understanding who “we” are that does not exclude a whole section of the public in question.
Doing this is, of course, considerably more difficult than saying it. A public does not become conscious of itself simply by getting together and pronouncing, “we are a public.” Both the academic community and the organizers in 1960s Woodlawn committed significant resources to creating institutions that would enable their respective publics to act effectively. By contrast, the public that includes both the academic community and the residents of Woodlawn (the public that has a common interest in a community that is safe for everyone) has very few institutions to call its own, and has therefore remained, for the most part, unconscious and unable to act. If we eat in different restaurants, worship in different churches, read different newspapers and have access to different common spaces,
Doing this is, of course, considerably more difficult than saying it. A public does not become conscious of itself simply by getting together and pronouncing, “we are a public.” Both the academic community and the organizers in 1960s Woodlawn committed significant resources to creating institutions that would enable their respective publics to act effectively. By contrast, the public that includes both the academic community and the residents of Woodlawn (the public that has a common interest in a community that is safe for everyone) has very few institutions to call its own, and has therefore remained, for the most part, unconscious and unable to act. If we eat in different restaurants, worship in different churches, read different newspapers and have access to different common spaces, there is no way for us to even ask the question of how to confront the problems we face collectively.
As Danielle Allen has said, the past has shaped the present of Hyde Park, but it need not determine its future. Through labor organizing, resource sharing and such community events as the annual Art in Action festival, grassroots organizations have taken small but significant steps toward bridging the old divides and forging new and lasting institutions. Most recently, the prospect of the 2016 Olympics coming to the South Side has enabled student and community groups to discover common interests through collective action and protest. This kind of work takes time, and it is rarely spectacular, but if we want a more democratic politics there is no alternative to it.
There is an old joke about the University of Chicago academic who asks: “That’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?” The distinction is one that Dewey would never accept. The question of what politics is for is a complex one, but the only place to start is where I am. As a student, that means finding ways to get outside the library and engage with my local community; it means educating myself about the history of the neighborhood; it means overcoming the fear and mistrust that was sown by urban renewal and developing new relationships which help me understand the public I am a part of and the possibilities that constitute its future.