Take a hard left off at the Garfield
exit on the Dan Ryan and head east into the heart of Chicago’s
20th Ward for a look at how bleak the local employment scene in some corners of Chicago has become. “That whole
stretch is nothing, nothing, nothing, a church, nothing, nothing, nothing, a
liquor store …” says Che Smith, a rapper, producer and aldermanic
hopeful best known for his stage name Rhymefest.
At the beginning of the decade, the South Side ward had few jobs to speak of.
Fewer than 0.2 percent — or 4,329 — of all of the city’s jobs fell within the
area anchored by Englewood, Woodlawn, Washington Park and Back of the Yards.
Things went from bad to worse as the decade wore on. The 20th ward lost 27
percent of local jobs by the time 2008 rolled around, a Chicago Reporter review
of federal employment data found.
It’s not that investors haven’t seen promise in the community. When Chicago was in the
running for the Olympics, parts of the ward looked like hot commodities. “Everybody
placed their bets on the Olympics,” Smith said. But the employment figures
show that the enthusiasm spawned few — if any — jobs. “When that didn’t
happen,” he adds, “everyone threw their hands up.”
Through the vacant lots, foreclosed buildings and boarded up storefronts, the
33-year-old Grammy winner sees opportunity. “You have business in the ward. You
have businesses that are successful. But to thrive, they have to expand,” he said from the trendy Robust Cafe, a coffee shop that sits in the storefront of
a warehouse turned loft condos at 63rd and Woodlawn.
Earlier this month we released our latest investigation, Loopholes. In the piece, we revealed that there are three jobs in every white community for every one in a black or
Latino one in Chicago.
Meanwhile, investment in economic development has been scant in neighborhoods
that need it most. Critics say that neighborhoods are caving under the weight of
joblessness. Yet, city officials continue to focus their energy and local tax dollars on
arguably already vibrant parts of the city.
Many of the mayoral candidates
weighed in for our piece and, for the most part, reaffirmed that, if elected,
they would stick with the current strategy — albeit with a few tweaks. But
they aren’t the only candidates seeking election this year.
Aldermanic seats are up for grabs across the city in 2011 (For a complete
rundown of the candidates check out Progress Illinois‘ candidate tracker). Smith isn’t
the only candidate talking about creating jobs on the campaign trail. That’s not
surprising considering that many of the majority African-American and Latino districts,
on the South and Southwest sides in particular, are home to some of the highest
unemployment rates not only here in Chicago but across the nation. Whether it’s
newbies or incumbents that are elected, the new City Council will chart future
economic development policy at a critical time for neighborhoods on the verge of decay.
We mapped out the number of jobs on a ward-by-ward basis and sorted them starting with communities that have the fewest jobs. Click through for the
results in 2008 and 2002 (the most current federal employment data available):
Squinting over glossy city marketing brochures that
highlight job growth around Woodlawn, Smith says, “We have to stop lying about
the numbers.” The truth about 63rd
Street is that it hasn’t been bustling for decades, he said.
“It can happen,” he adds. “It can thrive. It’s been done.”
— Photo by Philip Jacobson.