Heidi Stevens: Darren Bailey keeps calling Chicago a hellhole. I call it humanity.

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State Sen. Darren Bailey, Republican candidate for governor of Illinois, is holding firm to his assertion that Chicago is a hellhole, a designation he first bestowed upon us during a May primary debate, when he called the city, to be precise, “a crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole.”

Axios reporter Monica Eng pressed Bailey on the insult after he slung it two more times in an August speech at the state fair.

“Do you think most Chicagoans feel like they live in hell?” Eng asked.

“Pardon?” Bailey replied, according to Capitol Fax transcripts.

“Do you think most Chicagoans feel like they live in a hellhole?” she asked.

“Actually,” he said, “I believe they do.”

(But there’s so much fresh water!)

Maligning the hometown of one-quarter of your would-be constituents doesn’t strike me as an effective political strategy, but what do I know? It was definitely an effective rile-up-Chicago-loyalists strategy. We promptly filled our social feeds with love-struck photos of the lake, the river, the skyline, the parks, the art, the architecture, the Bean, the festivals, the bridges, the sun rising, the sun setting. So many heavenly photos.

The photos didn’t sit well with Chicago’s critics, who accused the Chicago loyalists (me, anyway) of, in so many words (I’m editing out the swears) papering over Chicago’s very real problems just because our lake glistens and our skyline glitters.

Chicago is plagued by segregation, disinvestment, gun violence, a massive life expectancy gap between neighborhoods, a dearth of affordable housing and not enough mental health resources — issues that make life hell for far too many of our residents.

Pretty sights don’t change that.

To label a place a hellhole is to render it too bleak, too broken, too hopeless to repair. Unworthy of love. Unworthy of effort. Unworthy of capital — emotional, political, financial or otherwise.

Hellhole writes off Chicago’s people as lost souls and our problems as lost causes. It sneers instead of solves.

To be clear, few Chicagoans are looking to Bailey to solve our problems. He sponsored a resolution in 2019 calling for the city to secede from Illinois and become the 51st state. We know where we stand with him.

But the larger point is this: Chicago is not an outlier; it’s a mirror. Everything that plagues us also plagues America. Not at the same rate — some towns and cities have it worse; some towns and cities have it better. We can do the side-by-side statistics thing, but it feels cynical and gruesome to stack death and despair in neat little rows, as if less of it somewhere else, or more of it somewhere else, makes it any less horrific every time and place it happens.

What I saw when I scrolled through the love-struck Chicago photos, and what prompted me to post my own, was an understanding that places, like humans, are complicated and messy and lovely and never perfect and never worthless. That loving them doesn’t mean you can’t see their flaws. That loving them means staying anyway, and refusing to stop looking for the beautiful parts.

No one loves Chicago naively. Chicago, when you love it, demands your loyalty and your patience and your sweat and your clear eyes and your faith. And once you love it, you fight to hold onto that love because to surrender it would be to decide it’s not worth the trouble.

And once you love it, you see (and maybe even join, if you can) the endless stream of people — educators, artists, activists, first responders, public servants, students, parents, writers, philanthropists, doctors, nurses, social workers, street vendors, community organizers, entrepreneurs — whose hearts and lives are invested in solving what plagues us. In nudging Chicago toward a better, healthier, safer, more equitable version of itself.

So you bristle a little — I bristle a little — when Chicago is maligned and mischaracterized. That’s not blinders. It’s love. It’s loyalty. It’s commitment. It’s belief that we’re worthy of those things, and it’s the work they require.

To quote the brilliant Ray Bradbury (practically a Chicagoan), “Action is hope. There is no hope without action.”

Chicago is both. Hope and action. Hope in action. That’s not hell. It’s humanity, in all its flawed and gorgeous glory.

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August 26, 2022 at 03:54AM

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