Laquan McDonald: Victim of a graphic police shooting that rocked the city and roiled the South and West Sides.
Ronald McDonald: Symbol of an iconic fast food chain that’s moving its corporate headquarters to the Downtown area.
Same name, same city, but two totally different worlds.
How did we get here? Some personal reflections:
As a reporter in the ‘70s I covered tragedies in public housing projects like Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens—notorious high-rises that packed low-income African Americans into segregated ghettoes over vast swaths of the North, South and West Sides.
I remember queasy reporting treks up stairwells littered with charred, urine-soaked clothes and bedding, piles of garbage and other discarded remnants of troubled lives in adjacent apartments.
After interviewing people on an upper floor, I’d look out a smudged or broken window at the Downtown skyline or Lake Michigan or the Gold Coast—the same magnificent vistas affluent Chicagoans pay big bucks to enjoy.
I recall thinking most of our friends in their comfortable Old Town or Lincoln Park neighborhoods would have a hard time visualizing fellow Chicagoans living in such squalid, Third World conditions—conditions that would only get worse as more businesses and jobs fled to the suburbs, leaving those enclaves even more desolate, and their residents even more desperate.
At the same time other parts of ‘70s Chicago were booming: An awakening, soon-to-be-vibrant Downtown area, and development of lakefront neighborhoods north and south of the Loop.
A revival fueled by thousands of college-educated Baby Boomers—I was one of them—trading bedroom suburbs or bucolic Midwest communities for the excitement of the Big City.
Young adults whose skills, esprit and purchasing power emboldened Chicago’s business, civic and political leaders to envision a World Class city.
Gentrification and decay at the same time.
Oak Brook has been home to McDonald’s headquarters since teh 1970s. | Sun-Times file photo
That paradoxical era came to mind recently when McDonald’s announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to the West Loop from suburban Oak Brook, following similar relocations, or planned moves, by Motorola Solutions, Kraft Heinz, Hillshire Brands, Beam Suntory and ConAgra.
According to World Business Chicago, 37 companies have relocated their headquarters here since 2011, most of any big city in the country.
My visceral reaction after each announcement: Why would those successful companies bet on a struggling city with a government and school system in perilous shape financially, inner-city neighborhoods terrorized by an epidemic of homicides and shootings, a police department reeling from excessive force scandals, and a steady out-migration of people who’ve had enough?
The answer, Northwestern University management professor and one-time mayoral candidate Don Haider told Bloomberg: “The business community is following the work force. They want to be where the action is.”
McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook agrees: “This world-class environment will continue to drive business momentum by getting us even closer to customers, encouraging innovation and ensuring great talent is excited about where they work.”
That apparently outweighs the city’s well-documented problems, according to Professor Haider: “The business community believes the city will survive it.”
But can our mostly-minority inner-city neighborhoods survive it— traumatic incidents and daunting challenges that confront them almost daily?
The same vexing question we’ve been asking since the 70’s.
It’s time for answers, and action plans, from everyone who cares about our future.
“A Tale of Two Cities” is a great Charles Dickens novel and, unfortunately, it epitomizes today’s Chicago.
Shedding that moniker is arguably more important than attracting another corporate headquarters to Downtown.