Exploring Chicago with the University of Utrecht

Exploring Uptown and posing in front of Argyle Street murals

For a second year, I spent a cold and rainy week with a group of Urban Geography graduate students from the University of Utrecht who are studying Chicago. Of the 27, some have never been to America and none to Chicago. Their class examines our fair city’s past and current issues from afar and this trip is their capstone where the students give each other walking tours of the city they spent a semester studying, supplemented by numerous site visits and guided neighborhood tours that I either helped arrange or provide myself. This year, I gave the students personalized walking tours of Uptown, Austin, and Pullman and also arranged visits to CMAP and LISC Chicago. Also, this year I developed brief zines on racism and segregation to help them begin to grasp just how deep-seated these issues are in the fabric of our city.

I led a walking tour of Chicago’s Austin, followed by a docent-led tour of Oak Park

The collaboration came about thanks to the magic of social media and I was gratified to be able to show off my flawed but beautiful Chicago to a second cohort. The twin tour of Austin and Oak Park was a new invention for this group and they were stunned to see first-hand the stark divides present on Chicago’s western border. In fact, a group of nearly 30 almost all-white people touring Austin was such a spectacle that a car tailed us for part of our time there with the passengers spouting angry epithets. But even once in tony Oak Park, heads followed us and the students reported feeling uneasy with having so many eyes on them. It was not a pleasant thing to happen, but was eye-opening in regards to illuminating some of the community policing, systemic exclusion, and decades of disinvestment forced upon Chicago’s west side.

A trip to Pullman to see CNI’s efforts and the Method soap factory

To end on a high note, we ended the week in Pullman where colleague and friend Ciere Boatright, of CNI, explained their agency’s numerous community-stabilizing efforts to bring retail, restore housing, provide amenities, and restore contaminated land using “green” manufacturing. The day ended with a tour of Method’s LEED Platinium soap factory and the students even got to take some soap with them! The trip to Pullman is not an easy trek to make, but the Metra ride from Millenium Park south is integral to confronting our city’s vast inequities, expressed right in the built environment.

The experience allows me to connect these folks to some of the city’s smartest minds and is a needed reminder that even intractable issues are more manageable if only people work together.