Millennials’ view of Chicago varies widely by neighborhood and race, panel reports

Panelists Michelle Morris (left to right), Jahmal Cole, Natalie Moore and Cathy Cohen debate during today’s discussion. (Contributed photo)

Staff writer

A panel discussion focused on young adults and Chicago’s future highlighted how Millennials’ views of the city are impacted by where they live.

University of Chicago professor Cathy Cohen, Jahmal Cole of My Hood, My Block, My City and Michelle Morales of Mikva Challenge Chicago took part in Friday’s discussion on young adults and the city’s future. WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore moderated.

Cohen presented ethnographic research on the vastly different experiences of Asian-American, Black, White and Latino Millennial Chicagoans, culled from hours-long interviews with subjects in Englewood, Bridgeport–Chinatown, Pilsen, Albany Park and North Side neighborhoods. She found that the greater availability of jobs in the Loop and on the North Side moved African Americans to take jobs outside their neighborhoods; Cohen said they report the most discrimination during the time that they travel to their jobs.

When asked about elected officials’ responsiveness to their needs, Asian Americans felt they were negligent, Latinx said they were supporting developers and pushing out longtime residents, African Americans said theirs were invisible and White North Siders said they were responsive.

When queried about the issues most important to their neighborhoods, Pilsen residents said gentrification, Englewood said violence (and 20% of Black interview subjects said they would not call the police under any circumstances); Chinatown–Bridgeport said education and North Siders said crime and gun control.

Noting that the majority of selective-enrollment schools are on the North Side, Cohen said young people of color repeatedly told her about the anxiety and anger stemming from a lack of educational opportunities in their neighborhoods. “We talk about population loss,” Cohen said. “For these young people, it’s not intentional, them saying, ‘I just want to leave.’ They’re being pushed out because of a lack of investments and opportunities in their neighborhoods.”

Morales said Mikva Challenge was tasked to respond to Cohen’s report and focused much of her discussion on the need for civics education for young people. She said taking “the skills from a classroom environment in real life to push an issue and catalyze a movement” is “the dream of civics — and our Black, Brown and Asian students are not getting it.”

“We cannot as adults continue this pattern of disinvestment, not creating structures, not pushing political will to create infrastructure, support and services in communities and then blame the very young people — who are, to be quite blunt, survivors and victims of the crap we put in place — for not being engaged enough,” Morales said. “We need to start diminishing the bias we have against young people [and] the demonization of young people, particularly people of color.”

Morales also brought up media coverage of the police response to young Black people who came downtown over spring break, contrasting the situation to the behavior and response of young people and law enforcement during the Lollapalooza music festival.

Cole discussed taking youth back from educational field trips — occasions when a boy noted that yellow police tape was not nearly as bad as red tape, another who sprinted from the bus to his home, learned behavior from the number of shootings on his block, and another who littered.

“It got me thinking, how many times do you have to see yellow tape before thinking that summertime is on the way? How many shots do you have to hear before you convince yourself they’re firecrackers and fall back asleep? How many times do you walk by a vacant lot with trash in it before you become disengaged and don’t even realize the trash is there?” Cole asked.

Asked for advice for Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, Morales said that Mikva Challenge was facilitating her Youth Transition Committee and hopes its work would continue past the time Lightfoot takes office. “My hope is that before policy is pushed out, that it is reviewed by young people,” Morales said.

Cohen asked if the Chicago civic engagement infrastructure was “serious enough to put money and power in the hands of young people so that they can move their own agenda and hold elected officials and all of us accountable for a progressive agenda that embraces and empowers young people.”

The event was the first in a series to be co-hosted by the City Club of Chicago and the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement; tickets sold out in 45 minutes.