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It's not Rahm Emanuel's fault that Chicago is divided

By Jim Lasko
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jim Lasko differs with opinion piece blaming Mayor Rahm Emanuel for division in Chicago
  • He says Emanuel inherited a city already deeply divided between rich and poor
  • Lasko says the mayor has to do best he can to cope in a flawed political system
  • He says it's a mistake to oversimplify Chicago's problems and blame them on one person

Editor's note: Jim Lasko is the artistic director of Redmoon Theater in Chicago. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not creating two cities, despite Kevin Coval's view in a recent opinion piece about the series "Chicagoland" that's airing on CNN.

There have been two cities here for a very long time. In fact, Chicago differs very little from other major metropolises in the United States in demonstrating the disturbing and growing gulf between the wealthy and the poor.

Emanuel is no more the creator of that problem than Coval is the creator of a tradition of fighting it. This is the city of Jane Addams and Studs Terkel. This is the city of the Haymarket riots. This is a city with a long heritage of leaders and fighters, people who found new ways to bridge the divides in an effort to dismantle a corrupt and unfair system.

This is not about an individual. This is about a broken system and the best ways to try to repair it and its ill effects.

Jim Lasko
Jim Lasko

Many of those leaders hailed from the privileged class, using their disproportionate cultural and economic resources to fuel their fight. (I flatter Kevin and me by placing us within that group.)

On the night when Emanuel was found on a swing rather than at poetry readings by Englewood youth, he was participating in another well-established and problematic tradition: soliciting money from the wealthy to support social causes unsupportable through the political system.

Specifically, Emanuel was lending his cultural clout to my organization, Redmoon Theater, and its efforts to create free public programming in some of Chicago's most underserved areas. He was lending his support to The Great Chicago Fire Festival, a new signature event for Chicago that seeks to create a platform for underheard voices and overlooked stories.

Kid demands mayor 'talk to the people'

More pointedly still, rather than meet the Young Chicago Authors poets from the Englewood neighborhood, Emanuel was in another neighborhood, Pilsen, helping to raise money for a Redmoon event, which features Young Chicago Authors as a core partner. Take last summer, when Redmoon and Young Chicago Authors partnered to create public poetry and drumming events in a dozen overlooked and neglected public parks. This effort, too, demands private fundraising.

Put the mayor on a swing, sit him on a platform and serve him expensive treats, drag him from this group to that for a photograph. Like walking around patting young black kids on the head, as Coval says he does in Episode 4 of "Chicagoland." This is part of the job. As he wrote in the opinion piece, Emanuel is not an educator or a mentor. He is a career politician, and this is his work: stumping for causes.

Emanuel has been in office less than three years. He inherited immense budget problems featuring an unimaginable pension debt.

He walked into a long history of social and cultural neglect, to say nothing of our flailing national economy that is exaggerating already untenable economic disparity. He is also a lifetime politician in a system that is utterly broken, where the only way to get into a position of political power depends on a preternatural capacity to raise money.

Let's not oversimplify the problem or demonize some single person as its symbolic head, as though we could lop it off and send the problem to a hasty end. These are complex problems with complex solutions that demand collective and productive engagement.

The first step may well be forming unexpected coalitions, such as artists and the politicians whose job it is to represent them, their interests and those who want to hear from them.

I'm all in.

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