William Voegeli is senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about Chicago and urban decline.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal history with Chicago, and the changes (or lack thereof) that you’ve witnessed?
I grew up in Chicago’s western suburbs, then lived in Rogers Park, a lakefront neighborhood in the city’s northeastern corner, from 1978 to 1987, during and following my years in graduate school at Loyola University. My connection to the city predates my time there—my mother grew up in another North Side neighborhood, Lincoln Square, in the 1930s and 1940s. My Chicago ties have also continued since I moved out of the Midwest: between family, friends, and business, I’ve returned there on a regular basis. The biggest change I’ve discerned since 1987 is the growing apprehension among Chicagoans that resiliency, the city’s defining and proudest feature, may finally prove insufficient to meet the challenges gathering strength in the twenty-first century. The informed Chicagoans I talk to and read sense a downward spiral like the ones that saw other midwestern cities (Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, above all) grow much smaller, poorer, and more dangerous than they were in their heyday.
San Francisco seems to be in the midst of perhaps a partial reconsideration of criminal-justice policy. Do you see any prospects for Chicago voters similarly seeing the light as the public safety situation continues to deteriorate?
One might hope that San Francisco’s recall of district attorney Chesa Boudin marks the beginning of a trend that will see other cities return to vigorous policing and prosecution. And it may—but it hasn’t yet. A similar effort to recall Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascon recently failed to make the November 2022 ballot due to an insufficiency of valid signatures on petitions. Boudin-like prosecutors have won election and reelection in Chicago and Philadelphia; New Yorkers are all too familiar with Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s reckless ideas about law enforcement.
Basketball coach Bobby Knight used to disdain talk about the “will to win.” What mattered, he said, was the will to do what winning demands. Voters in America’s cities face the same question: everybody wants safer streets. But do people want the government to do what is necessary to restore the level of public safety that prevailed ten or 20 years ago? This is far from clear. As I said in my recent Claremont Review of Books article, the question about urban public safety is overwhelmingly one that will be debated and settled within the Democratic Party. Democratic voters dominate urban politics, and city voters dominate the Democratic Party. Each city will be as safe as its voters demand, and its prosecutors and police as vigorous as its voters permit. This is especially true, I argued, because people who want more public safety than their neighbors do will often wind up moving to more law-abiding and law-enforcing jurisdictions. This pattern of geographic sorting means that the voters left behind in big cities are self-selected for tolerating crime and disdaining police.
Economically, do you think it’s possible for Chicago to draw lessons, for example, from Columbus, Ohio and the midwestern manufacturing renaissance?
The general lessons of successful cities—strive to make your city an attractive place to live and do business, one where the benefits of living exceed the costs of living—are not esoteric. Cities’ failures to adhere to these basics are like dieters’ failures to lose weight: it’s easy to know the right course of action but hard to commit to the discipline it requires. As for more specific policies, even if a philosopher-king could choose and implement public policies free from political pressures, it would be hard for Chicago to emulate the successes enjoyed by other cities, all of which have different economic situations. But when policymaking is constrained by voters, as it always is, the challenge of restoring or sustaining economic vitality is much greater. This November, for example, Illinois voters may well pass an initiative that makes union membership a fundamental right under the state constitution. It would, in effect, make it impossible for Illinois to pass a right-to-work law, a constraint on unionization that the adjacent and economically healthier states of Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin have enacted.
What’s your favorite book about Chicago, whether fiction or nonfiction?
I’ll bend the rules and give you two recommendations: The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), by Nicholas Lemann, formerly the dean of Columbia University’s school of journalism; and The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America (1995), by Alan Ehrenhalt, who was executive editor of Governing magazine for 19 years. They share the virtues of blending the particular and the general, telling great stories about specific Chicago neighborhoods while making provocative arguments about fundamental political challenges that confront the entire nation. And both are beautifully written books that pull the reader from the first page through to the last.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images