When Mayberry Becomes Too Expensive

Three times a year Lincoln Square throws big street festivals. It’s how most people discover the neighborhood. (Credit: Pete/Flickr)

I adore my neighborhood. I’m such a Lincoln Square booster, that my friend, WGN Radio host Justin Kaufmann, recently interviewed me on air to talk about how great it is to live in “Mayberry in the City.”

You don’t need to know why the neighborhood is so great, but let’s just assume you agree with me that it’s walkability, great parks, library, public schools and access to rapid transit make it idyllic, and that plenty of people want to live here. But actually, I don’t have to convince you, since Lincoln Square now has single-family home sales well north of $600,000, a number unimaginable even during the 2008 real estate boom.

Despite the high home prices, it’s hard to characterize Lincoln Square as a wealthy neighborhood – yet. Most of my neighbors bought-in fifteen to twenty years ago, before home sales overheated across the country. But, when new homes are renovated and put up for an open house, my wife and I tend to take a walk through. With Viking ranges and high-end washer-dryers, these new homes don’t seem made for us. Then, when new owners plunk down $1 million to move in, we know the homes weren’t made for us.

What happens to Mayberry in the City when it becomes a place just for the well-to-do?

Boo-hoo, me. Because really, I’m the first wave of gentrification, complaining about the second.

Take a look at the graph below, and you’ll see that much of Chicago’s middle class has been pushed out since 1990, including Lincoln Square. For my neighborhood, I’m part of the first wave of gentrifiers that came in fifteen to twenty years ago (sound familiar?), fixed up the schools, encouraged more local retail and made it a generally fun place to live. Now the people with lots more money want in, and I’m seeing the change.

Chicago median incomes 2000 and 2010.
In Chicago, there’s much less space for the middle class, and more devoted to the wealthy and the truly poor. (Images from Chicago Central Area Committee)

And this isn’t the first time I’ve been a part of the first wave. Back in 1978 my mom and step-dad bought a brick three-flat in Lincoln Park, which was then a working class, Puerto Rican neighborhood. My parents renovated the house – one of the first on the block – and turned it into a single-family with a garden level apartment for rent. As a younger kid I played streetball with the other kids on the block (“Car!”) but by the time I graduated high school the kids didn’t play out front any more and the streets were lined with cars too expensive to get caught slamming into when you catch a football.

Over the years, Lincoln Park got even more expensive, and more exclusive. My parents’ block was landmarked, and then after my mom passed, my step-father declared the neighborhood’s property taxes too high (he was paying more than I paid in rent for a one bedroom apartment in Chicago) and he sold the house in 2005 for nine times more than he paid in 1978.

A first wave gentrifier, it’s hard to see how my step-father did well for himself. But there was no way I could ever afford to own a home in the neighborhood I grew up in – and for many Chicagoans, there was no way they could ever rent an apartment there either.

And so I look at where I live now: Lincoln Square. Who will be able to afford to live in Mayberry in the City?

For now, not many. It has been a struggle to add density the neighborhood. Most of the two-flats that characterized the area have been converted to single-family homes (we hope to do the same one day) and there’s few areas where there’s enough space for five or six-story apartment buildings, the height needed to make such a project profitable for developers.

Our new City Council member, Matt Martin, ran on platform that included adding affordable housing to Lincoln Square, but that means getting developers that want to do it. Oh, and they’ll need to purchase land that is relatively low-cost.

Western Avenue, one of the main north-south thoroughfares through Lincoln Square, was once covered with used car lots, car repair and other light industrial businesses. Those have mostly shuttered in the last ten years, to be replaced with drive-through Starbucks, high-end shopping or land banked, until a developer buys the land to turn into condos. Those new two-bedroom (never three or four) condos in three-story buildings tend to have prices starting around $400,000. With those kinds of prices, how could Lincoln Square ever be home to affordable housing?

The answer is density. Lincoln Square needs more six- and seven-story buildings, so more units can be built more cheaply on the same piece of land, and developers can be forced to offer more affordable housing units.

Imagine seven stories! Two years ago a new six-story building was slated for the end of my block on Western Avenue. The community opposition was significant – it was cut down to five, and still the neighbors grumbled.

I’d really like my Mayberry in the City to be more inclusive, because I just don’t want it to end up like Lincoln Square. But to get there, me and my neighbors are going to have to give up some of the “Mayberriness” and build some tall apartment buildings.

American Equality Versus Equity

Part of the American ethos is to promote the survival of the fittest. As a capitalist nation, we extend Darwinian values into our social fabric by celebrating the biggest and brightest, while marginalizing everyone else. We imagine our country as a level playing field where anyone can make it, and if you don’t make it on your first try, you’ll get another chance later.

A less heralded, but just as important component of the American ethos is that of neighbors pulling together in times of need. It comes in the form of volunteer organizations like the Cajun Navy, which responds with volunteer water-borne rescue teams in flooded areas. But it also comes in the form of the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, which uses the money from his posthumous legal settlement with the city of Minneapolis to pay the school lunch debts of local children.

Inspiring as these individual efforts are, they are piecemeal solutions to larger problems like a housing scarcity that forces the poorest Americans to live on floodplains and a benefits “donut hole” for families not poor enough to qualify for school lunch, but still unable to afford three square meals a day on their own incomes.

During my family’s spring break travel to the Northeast, we were struck by the economic growth of Boston and New York City versus the struggle for improvement in Buffalo and New Haven. Boston has a long list of gentrifying and growing neighborhoods that were once hardscrabble, including Roxbury, South Boston and the Seaport District. Similarly, New York City is experiencing a boom in almost every corner. Even The Bronx seemed vibrant in a way it wasn’t when I last visited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, Buffalo and New Haven still struggle with large undeveloped blocks in their city core, hollowed out shopping centers, and other large parts of downtown that have almost no pedestrian activity after work hours – a sign that people would rather spend their time and money somewhere else.

When we compare Boston and New York to every other Northeastern city, the differences are obvious: Boston is the national’s capital of higher education and New York is the capital of the nation’s financial and media industries. There’s no doubt that resources and the best and brightest will flow to these places. Every town should aspire to be like Boston and New York City, we think, so they can get the best of everything.

The reality of America is that survival of the fittest always ends up leaving someone behind, and once you begin to fall behind a little bit – for instance you can only afford to live on a floodplain or can’t pay for three meals a day – you become part of a vicious cycle of disadvantage that never gets better.

The traditional American ethos, survival of the fittest, is founded on a concept of equality: Anyone can make it in America. But instead, we’re finding our nation’s biggest challenges are about access to the things we need to have good lives, such as economic opportunity, good education, regular health care, and increasingly access to a healthy environment in the form of not only clean air and clean water, but also stopping climate change before it immeasurably alters the world we live in.

This crack in our system, providing access, is about equity, which differs from equality in that a measure of fairness is employed in the distribution of resources. Equality gives everyone the same resources, while equity distributes resources based on need.

While there are certainly parts of Boston and New York that need more assistance than others, the resources available to their citizens are considerably more than in Buffalo and New Haven. For instance, both Boston and New York offer free school lunch (and breakfast) to any child who wants it. New York even offers free meals to kids throughout the summer.

The result should be no surprise: Boston and New York City’s graduation rates in 2018 were 75.1% and 75.9% respectively, while Buffalo’s was 64.5% (but up from 2012’s abysmal 48%). If you start life with a lack of resources, getting a leg up matters.

It turns out that concepts of equality and equity are split along conservative and liberal lines, writes Dan Meegan in The Atlantic. Conservatives favor equality, when asked to contribute more than they should expect to receive in return, while liberals favor equity, which benefits those whose needs are most urgent.

Meegan wants liberals (a.k.a. “Democrats”) to craft policies that will address conservative concerns, to win elections:

“One way or another, liberals must recognize that many Americans define “fairness” in terms other than aid to the neediest—and should craft their messages for 2020 accordingly. Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Will Democrats be smart enough to point out that he’s threatening benefits that Americans have paid for and that they deserve?”

But I believe this is a route to oblivion. America’s failing communities have so many problems, that some need extra help just to catch up. For instance, some rural hospitals need supplemental funding because they will never get enough patients to afford expensive specialist doctors like surgeons. Without nearby specialists, rural patients are forced to travel hundreds of miles for care that’s easily accessible in cities. What’s fair? Equal funding to hospitals, which effectively gets rural patients nothing, or equity, which provides surgeons?

This equality versus equity problem is playing itself out in a thousand different ways across America in school lunches, daycare provision, police profiling, higher education funding and public transit availability. Until we shed social Darwinism from our political decision-making, America’s economic growth will be limited and our moral leadership will be eclipsed by Canada, Europe and every other Westernized nation.

American problem solvers should stop worrying about how to ensure equality, but should instead figure out how to explain why equity benefits us all.

Who Will Be Our Sea Peoples?

The Sea Peoples attacking Egypt, from a temple wall carving celebrating Pharaoh’s victory.

It wasn’t clear where they came from, but the Peleset, Denyen, Tjeker and other tribes descended from the north and west, destroying everything they encountered. They raided harbors, emptied treasuries and laid waste to cities, sometimes pulling the stones down, leveling the walls so survivors couldn’t rebuild.

Emissaries brought Pharaoh Ramesses III reports of the raids on his trading partners and vassals. Sometimes the raiders came by land, more often by sea. Appearing on the western horizon, giving defenders only hours to prepare. The “Sea Peoples” destroyed Ugarit, Miletus and even sacked the legendary Troy. Ammurapi, king of Urgarit, a 4,000-year old city, wrote to Pharaoh, pleading for help, “the enemy ships are already here, they have set fire to my towns and they done very great damage to the countryside.” Alas, the message, written in the hash marks of cuneiform, was never delivered, but instead found in a ruined kiln by archeologists twenty-six hundred years later.

Coming from the north and west, surviving records refer to them as the Sea Peoples because they tended to come by ship to raid Eastern Mediterranean coastal cities. Some of them wore helmets with feathers, others were distinguished by helmets with horns. Most carried round shields and prefered the sword and axe to missile weapons.

But then they left their boats and moved inland, sacking and pillaging as they went. All fell beneath the sword, including the king of Qatna, who presided over an 80-room palace, the largest of the land. And then Kadesh, a vassal of both Pharaoh and the Hittite Empire, alternately playing the two ancient superpowers against each other.

Gaining strength as they moved, the Sea Peoples then moved through Anatolia against the Hittite Empire itself. Recognizing the danger, the Hittite Emperor attempted to engage and stop the Sea Peoples by invading a neighboring kingdom to create a defense before they reached his home. But the Hittite armies were defeated and the Sea Peoples advanced to Hattusa, the legendary Hittite capital, plundering and leveling the ancient city, bringing down the once-fearsome Hittite Empire in the process.

It’s an incredible story isn’t it? All true, it happened three thousand years ago, around 1,200 B.C.E., when written records were sparse. Most of what we know comes from scattered clay tablets and a massive Egyptian temple wall carving, commissioned by Pharaoh Ramesses III, after his victories against the Sea Peoples between 1187 and 1160 B.C.E. One of the battles, probably the largest ancient sea battle ever, was recorded in great detail. But a second battle on land fought between the Sea Peoples and the Egyptians, was mostly ignored by Ramesses’ scribes. Perhaps because it was too costly a victory to celebrate, and one that was too frightful to remember.

Some added perspective: All of this happened five hundred years before Rome was founded, five hundred years before Homer composed The Illiad or The Odyssey. And yet, the pyramids at Giza had already been standing for 1,300 years.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot recently about the ancient world as my family and I prepare for a trip to Egypt this fall. Preparing for the ancient temples and tombs, I’m trying to learn as much as I can, so I’ll appreciate everything I see on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. There’s a great deal to absorb, and so much that has happened, for millennia. We know so much about Egypt because the arid desert preserves so well and pharaohs liked to chisel their versions of history into massive stone walls. But so many other stories, of the Hittites, the Indus, the Babylonians, have been lost to time and erosion.

The stories that survived – from thousands of years ago – are sweeping, and sometimes very personal. We’re reminded by Ammurapi’s undelivered clay tablet plea that real people existed 3,200 years ago, who harbored hopes and dreams just as we do today. The distance of time and lack of written records separates us from ancient people, but it does not make us very different from them.

Historians refer to the time around 1,200 B.C.E. as the Bronze Age Collapse, where some minor climate shifts brought drought to the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The weakened empires were ripe targets for the Sea Peoples, unwitting catalysts for historic change.

Archeologists believe the various tribes of the Sea Peoples eventually settled across the Eastern Mediterranean. The Peleset became known as Philistines, perhaps reviled in the Bible because their warlike ancestors had destroyed so many cities.

As I consider the Bronze Age Collapse and the Sea Peoples, I can’t help but wonder how our own history will be viewed. The American Empire’s meager 200 years is but a mere blip versus the Hittite’s 4,000 and the Egyptians’ 5,000 years. Will a predicted climate change bring a collapse of our own period? What are our monuments? What accomplishments will future archeologists wonder over?

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Shelley

Eight American Cities in Eight Days: Some Observations

My son, Nicolas, loved climbing rocks in Central Park. My wife and I loved that it was an easily accessible respite from the city.

This year for Spring Break, my family and I drove 2,200 miles from Chicago to visit family in Boston and New York City. Along the way we stopped in Cleveland, Harrisburg, New Haven and New Bedford, Massachusetts and spent the night in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Visiting eight cities in eight days was an amazing opportunity to not only see how varied America really is, but also learn a bit about what cities are doing right and wrong.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my observations from our trip.

1. Boston and NYC’s rapid transit has a much tighter grid, and seems to be much busier than Chicago’s, but Chicago’s system is cleaner, quieter and a better riding experience.

2. Every city, no matter what the size, has some kind of cool thing other cities should all be jealous of. For Cleveland, it’s the West Side Market. Buffalo, it’s the stellar downtown architecture. New Haven, it’s an Italian community with a genuinely unique and excellent native pizza (and Yale too, I guess). Harrisburg, a terrific minor league ballpark right on the river. Pittsburgh, it’s a tight, bustling downtown with a vibrant restaurant scene that is unusual for many mid-sized cities.

3. The American landscape, is varied and beautiful. Just between Chicago, Boston and New York, we saw five very different landscapes that took our breaths away. The spaces between our cities are magnificent.

4. Rush hour traffic in Boston and NYC is horrific. I will never complain about Chicago traffic again.

5. Most everything in NYC, especially Manhattan, is obscenely expensive. I can’t understand how any kind of middle class can possibly exist in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn. This is not a good development for the city.

6. Seafood on the East Coast is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. I’d forgotten this fact, even though I lived on the East Coast for twelve years. I miss it.

Buffalo’s City Hall. Completed in 1931, it is an art deco masterpiece covered with friezes.

7. We only spent a night and a rainy morning in Buffalo. I’d like to spend more time there. The city is absurdly inexpensive, and we stayed in a great hotel and had a spectacular meal at a French restaurant downtown. Maybe we hit the best parts, but I sense there’s more to the city.

8. Boston’s new Seaport district is a development triumph, but a failure of city planning, in my opinion. We visited the Institute of Contemporary Art (not worth a return, I think) and explored the Seaport area a bit. It is full of glassy buildings, trendy young people and pricey-looking restaurants. I suppose this is appealing to corporations and twenty-somethings looking to burn inflated salaries, but it lacks soul. I wonder how popular it will be in twenty years.

Me enjoying Franco Pepe’s white pizza, which covered with clams and garlic and with a crispy crust, was probably the best pizza I’ve ever had. Better than in Chicago. No lie.

9. Now that I’ve had New Haven-style pizza, I think it’s better than Chicago-style and Brooklyn-style. I know this is sacrilegious for me to say, considering my Chicago roots, but facts are facts. Get to Franco Pepe’s Apizza as soon as you can.

10. Coney Island is wonderful. It’s a good thing Chicago doesn’t have an amusement park I can get to by L, because if I lived in NYC, I’d hit Coney Island’s roller coasters at least once a month. So great.

11. We visited downtowns of Buffalo, Boston, Harrisburg, New Haven, New York and Pittsburgh. It doesn’t take much observation to see how dense downtowns – and really entire cities – are able to offer many more amenities. Buffalo and New Haven’s downtowns have large amounts of empty space, but Boston and Pittsburgh have downtowns hemmed in by either water or neighborhoods, enforcing density (NYC is a whole other category). These dense areas create virtuous circles of culture and commerce in ways obvious to any observer. I can’t understand why so many Americans fear density. It makes more things possible.

12. I lived in Harrisburg for three months in 1996 and hated it. Visiting last week for the first time since then, I was happy to see that it has improved somewhat, especially the historic neighborhood just north of the Capitol between Front and Third Streets. The city still has a long way to go, but I would no longer call it a “dump”, as I did twenty years ago.

Downtown Pittsburgh is dense, busy and vibrant, even on Easter weekend, when we visited.

13. We did not have much time to explore Pittsburgh, but the downtown has visibly improved since I last visited fifteen years ago. Most of the empty lots have been in-filled, there’s a real restaurant scene, and on Easter Sunday, there were plenty of people wandering around a downtown that lacks residential buildings, which suggests to me that people find downtown worth driving to hang out.

14. Most on-the-road fast food is total garbage. I’ve come to adore Culver’s in the Midwest, and man, it’s a great go-to when you’re just looking for an O.K. lunch on the road. Also: Why the heck do so many toll road service plazas have Sbarro? It is so unbelievably bad.

15. American interstates are incredible. I drove from Paris to Madrid in 2002 and was stunned at how poor the roads in both France and Spain were – sometimes they were barely better than gravel with tiny signs you could miss in a blink. American interstates on the other hand are pristine, have excellent signage and easy to use on/off ramps. We Americans spend an incredible amount of money on our highways, an amazing subsidy for trucking and citizens with enough time and money to use the roads for long distance travel.

The Cleveland West Side Market. Jammed with real vendors in a beautiful building.

16. Cleveland’s West Side Market is amazing. Noticing it on the map while driving through the city on I-90, we decided to get off the interstate to check it out and we couldn’t have made a better decision. This is not a tourist market – stocked with working butchers, bakers, fish sellers and produce stands, it is the kind of place regular people could go shopping on a regular basis. Oh! And the building is gorgeous. Every American city needs places like these. Shopping becomes a social experience and you get to meet the people who care about bringing you great food.

17. Boston is crawling with university students. While the city residential population is about 685,000, the city reported 152,000 students from its 35 colleges, universities, and community colleges in 2010. From past experience, I’ve noticed that Boston during the summer break has a completely different vibe than during the school year – it’s like the city is quieter and more relaxed.

18. I haven’t mentioned New Bedford’s incredible working harbor, the super cool Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan’s Battery, Boston’s North End, Buffalo’s great Pierce-Arrow Transportation Museum, Central Park, the tire shop in The Bronx that fixed a flat for $12 and so much more.

Finally, if you have an opportunity to take an American driving trip like ours, I strongly recommend it. You’ll see so many great things.

The Emotion Of Election Night Parties

Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Chicago’s Treasurer-Elect comes to the stage cheered by her supporters on Election Night, April 2, 2019. She might have done a funky line dance with her sorority sisters later on, but I’m not telling. (Credit: Mike Fourcher)

American election night parties are a unique thing. If you’ve been a committed campaign volunteer or, worse yet, a member of the staff, the amount of tension and mental and physical exhaustion building up to the party can be overwhelming. Unlike any other effort, democratic elections are a totally zero-sum game, either you won it all, or lost it all. Maybe you can try again in a few years, but even with the benefit of past experience, you’re pretty much starting a brand new campaign all over again.

So, when you get to that election night party where you find out if all your efforts were worthwhile – the polls are closed and there’s nothing to do but wait for the results – things start to happen.

For one, just about everyone you met during the course of the campaign suddenly seems like your best buddy. Everyone is hugging. They could be smiling or crying depending on the expected outcome, but that’s irrelevant compared to the fact that everyone at this party IS NOW YOUR TRIBE. Tonight, you would fight a thousand samurai warriors with your bare hands for these people.

Even the old guy volunteer that brought donuts every day. Especially that old guy.

Except for the big parties in Washington, D.C., Most election night parties are decidedly low budget affairs. Union halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, a cheap bar at the edge of town, or maybe a meeting room at the Holiday Inn. Big U.S. Senate or governor campaign often rent a fancy hotel ballroom, but it’s a cash bar with a DJ and certainly no appetizers.

Probably the two most extravagant election night parties I’ve been to occured on the same night in 2004.

For the Illinois Democratic Primary, a high school friend was the daughter of one candidate, Blair Hull. A wealthy man, his good government campaign fell apart after local media forced open his divorce files, revealing that he and his ex-wife had physical altercations. But determined to see things through, Hull campaigned hard until the last day.

So, a friend and I decided to check out his election night party, even though he was guaranteed to lose.

It was in a beautiful, high-end hotel ballroom in Chicago. Free drinks, shrimp cocktail and tasteful decorations. But the room was largely empty as a few volunteers and staff drank themselves into oblivion, waiting for the inevitable bad results to come in later that night.

So we left. Down the street, at the Hyatt Regency, was the party for another guy running: Barack Obama.

We knew the party was somewhere in the hotel, but where? It was late and hotel staff were mostly gone. There were no visible signs. Someone we bumped into said, “Down the escalators.”

The Hyatt Regency, a convention hotel, has what seems like four or five basement levels. We went down all of them. Following escalators and a steady trail of people heading the same direction. Then, we reached a bottom floor, turned a corner and heard a raging crowd and thumping music down a dark hallway. We walked a bit, then pulled open some doors, and there we saw a thousand people crammed into a room for five hundred. No bar, no chairs. Just lots of people and a sound system blaring Motown. A stage was at the front, and we stood on tiptoe, craning our necks to see over the crowd.

Then, only minutes after we arrived – Barack appeared! But this wasn’t the international rock star we know today. This was a guy who had just won an unbelievable, come-from-behind win in his first statewide election. He wasn’t even elected yet! This was just the primary election!

He was skinnier, younger than today. Maybe more awkward. But he strode across the stage with a huge smile, pulling a woman that must have been his wife–Michelle did not campaign with him at first–and swung his arm up in a broad wave to us all. The room erupted. Total bedlam! These were people who had worked, really worked to get him elected. Illinois was still learning how to say “Barack”, but these people knew. They were the originals. The core believers.

He took the microphone and said that thing we’ve heard so many times, but it was the first time I’d ever heard it: “Who would believe, that a skinny boy, from the South Side, with a funny name, could ever get so far?”

If it was belam before, now people were crying. Screaming. Laughing. The panoply of human emotion was entirely on display. Even though I was an interloper, new to the whole Obama thing, I couldn’t help but laugh and gush with excitement myself. Maybe-This-Was-A-Big-Deal!

Mercifully, his speech was short. But when it was over, it seemed like everyone in the room – all one thousand of them – knew one another except for me and my friend. We stepped out, as the true believers began to really party for the night.

Five Reasons Chicago’s Coming Election Will Indicate America’s Future

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. Credit: Mike Fourcher and WBEZ

Unless you’re a local, American mayoral elections can seem provincial and quaint. “How could a contest for chief garbage collector and town booster be important to the rest of America?” we ask.

But Chicago, preparing for a groundbreaking city election on Tuesday, is a true bellwether city for urban America, and much more conservative than decades of Democratic Party control lets on. Tuesday’s runoff election for mayor and city treasurer, and final contest for many City Council seats, will reveal a great deal of insight on what urban residents, now 80% of America, will be prioritizing in the coming years. While city dwellers set the pace for American politics, Chicago’s Midwestern values hew more to the middle than coastal Los Angeles and New York City, providing a better prediction of what’s to come on the national stage.

Since the start of Chicago’s runoff campaign five weeks ago, polling has pointed to a mayoral victory by rookie politician Lori Lightfoot. Yet, the mayoral runoff has been mostly about style, rather than policy substance, since Lightfoot and her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have very similar liberal outlooks on policing, housing, taxation–and just about everything.

Meanwhile, polling for many for City Council runoffs has been favoring lefty, progressive candidates seeking to sweep out old guard pols, making it unlikely that the last few “machine” aldermen will be able to keep the reins of power away from a new, progressive mayor. On top of that, Chicago is about to elect for the first time a city treasurer who was not pulled into office by mayoral coattails, resulting in a new city-wide office held by someone with their own, independent electorate.

Once the ballots are counted, Chicago will see a whole lot of change Wednesday morning. There are five major reasons why all of America should pay attention.

1. Race and minority status have been election issues in brand new ways. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot are African-American women, a first for Chicago in the mayor’s office, no matter which is elected. And Lightfoot is married and openly gay with a daughter, another big first for Chicago, if she is elected. Yet, because both candidates are black women, minority status has not been a divisive campaign issue, but instead repeatedly affirmed as a gain for Chicago.

This is a remarkable development for a city that has lost 181,000 African-Americans in the last eight years, and one that has struggled with “a tale of two cities” with crime and economic underdevelopment raging in minority communities, while white Chicago has been booming in every way imaginable. A black, woman mayor with working-class roots (Preckwinkle’s father was a letter carrier in Minneapolis and Lightfoot’s was a steelworker in Ohio) will be a radical change from the white, professional class mayors Chicago has had since 1989.

Under Lightfoot or Preckwinkle, perhaps the project of racial reconciliation and equitable neighborhood development begun by Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and halted by his untimely death in office in 1987, can be restarted. All signs seem to suggest that Chicago voters are ready for it.

Unlike Chicago’s other recently famous black politician, Barack Obama, both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have a history of speaking plainly about race and the role it plays in policymaking. Also, both candidates have demonstrated an awareness of how white, Latino, black and Asian perspectives differ, and how personal racial transgressions can feel. With its new leadership, Chicago will be positioned to be a model for post-Donald Trump racial reconciliation.

2. Chicago’s coming crime and policing policies will worth watching. As I mentioned before, Chicago is much more conservative than its Democratic voting record suggests. One leading “moderate” candidate for mayor eliminated in the general election, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, was nicknamed “Electric Suzy” when she was a state legislator, because of her strong support for the death penalty. As a 2019 mayoral candidate, Mendoza attracted campaign staff from outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team, and made “get tough on crime” policies a major plank of her campaign.

In contrast, both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are strong proponents of police reform, and each of them played a role in pushing Chicago towards the consent decree it is now under that will make major changes in how the police department operates. This is a big departure from Mayor Emanuel (and his predecessor Richard M. Daley) and from many other leading mayor candidates eliminated in the first round of voting. Long before Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago police officer in 2014, views on policing had been a dividing line between white and minority communities, with Emanuel and Daley resisting major policy changes.

Despite President Donald Trump’s promotion of 1980’s-era police tactics, urban America is calling for change. Preckwinkle’ leadership on eliminating cash bail, and Lightfoot’s recognition as principal author of the 2016 Chicago Police Accountability Report stating that the Chicago police department struggles with racism, suggests that Chicago is preparing to address crime and race in ways America’s federal government has been avoiding.

3. Chicago policymaking is about to get much more progressive. There was an incredible moment in one of the many televised debates between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, where they argued over which one would be a more aggressive proponent of affordable housing and moving resources to underdeveloped communities. After eight years of Emanuel’s New Democrat, pro-business policies, where the Chicago Housing Authority sat on hundreds of millions of dollars while the city endured a low-income housing crisis, it was revolutionary to hear an argument about who would build houses faster. Both mayor candidates have promised liberal-friendly changes to city school governance, policing, neighborhood development and cannabis law, all areas where Emanuel has exhibited feet of clay.

While nationally, urban America is having a left-wing moment, Chicago’s incoming leadership will be liberal enough to make big changes but yet challenged to move a big city bureaucracy that naturally resists lefty impulses. Like much of America, Chicago will resist quick fixes and illustrate how hard it will be to implement a progressive agenda.

4. Downtown big business won’t be the first priority. Elected in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley put a top priority on building up Chicago’s downtown and pushing it to diversify into more finance and national corporate headquarters, as many other Rust Belt cities’ downtowns withered throughout the 1990’s. Emanuel, Daley’s successor in 2007, put the downtown-first policy on steroids, pouring resources on while doing everything he could to draw corporate headquarters to the Loop. Emanuel’s downtown focus has been hugely successful, as Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported that since 2010, the Loop added 130,000 new jobs.

But this boom has been mostly to the benefit of professionals, who are mostly white, as high wage industrial jobs working class blacks and Latinos relied on dried up. During the same time black neighborhoods have emptied out, and large parts of the South and West Sides have been locked into a cycle of disinvestment and high-unemployment since the 1960’s. Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have both made neighborhood investment top planks of their campaigns. While it’s possible for neighborhood investment to not be anti-business, many of Chicago’s business leaders are concerned about what they hear from the mayor candidates, expecting rent control, higher commercial property taxes, and less support for big downtown projects.

Like the rest of America, Chicago’s neighborhoods need infrastructure and private investment to spur growth. The 21st Century manufacturing and knowledge economies still need to take hold in Chicago and the city’s next mayor will have to write a playbook most of America has yet to discover.

5. The end of mayoral autocracy and a more activist City Council is coming. Chicago’s fifty alderman have long quailed under the gaze of their mayor, but come Wednesday, more independent-minded aldermen will hold office than ever before, with the vast majority of alderman elected to office without significant help from the mayoral candidates – a big change from past elections. Past mayors have held power by allying with aldermen who ignored city-wide issues in return for dominance over their home wards and help from the mayor around election time. But this year’s Council will bring a majority of aldermen with a history of asking unpleasant questions, and too few of “old machine” pols to keep the levers of power away from activist Council members.

We should expect a bumpy ride for the new Chicago mayor, as City Council pushes back in ways it hasn’t done since the early 1980’s. But unlike those days’ Council Wars between a progressive African-American mayor and reactionary white aldermen, Chicago’s next Council session is likely to be pulled between independent-minded aldermen that are more left than the mayor, and reactionary whites and minorities who are more conservative on policing and/or taxation than the mayor. As it stands today, it is unclear what kind of legislative coalition a new mayor will be able to assemble, and that suggests conflict is on the horizon.

America’s Democratic Party wrestling match between lefty populists and centrist establishment-types is about to be played out in Chicago. What happens here could be a good indicator of how hard it will be to establish a coalition if a Democratic president ascends to the White House in 2020.

For Chicago: Preckwinkle For Mayor, Conyears-Ervin For Treasurer

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There’s truism about politics: campaigning and governing are totally different skills, and just because you’re good at one, doesn’t mean you’re good at the other. Campaigning is packed with artificially black and white comparisons, inflated statements, and poorly declared ideas. Messaging and advertising is the messy and imprecise business of elections. But in a democratic system, we citizens have agreed that campaigning is what politicians need do to get elected, and when the votes are counted we hope the winners are just as good, or better at governing.

This is the root of my lament about Toni Preckwinkle, my preferred candidate for Chicago mayor. She’s run an abysmal campaign, wasting opportunities, allowing herself to be defined by opponents, and generally seeming leadfooted. While I have no real complaints about her runoff opponent, Lori Lightfoot, Toni’s thirty-year record of progressive accomplishment in government is tremendous, and something I’d like to see continued in the mayor’s office.

Her work as Cook County Board President, the job she currently occupies, has been a study in the hard work of governing. After decades of mismanagement before her tenure, Preckwinkle steered county government into solvency, moved the massive county hospitals and health system into the black, enrolled 320,000 people onto a new CountyCare managed health insurance program, rebuilt the state’s second-largest public housing agency and helped to push back the judicial travesty of cash bail.

These are boring, unsexy accomplishments that none-the-less affect hundreds of thousands of people in very real ways. And while Preckwinkle has earned a reputation of grinding through staff, and her demeanor is gruff and unforgiving, few statues have been erected in honor of a leader’s sense of humor. We demand concrete results from our leaders, and Preckwinkle has delivered it time and again.

Yet, Preckwinkle has run a terrible campaign. She was largely invisible during the first round of elections, nursing her resources for the second round and expecting that her base of support would give her a first place finish in the first round. But because she didn’t spend time and money defining herself to voters for the February election, other candidates did, setting the tone and defining what they had to offer.

Then, nine days before the February election, a hubris-filled Preckwinkle supporter crashed a Lightfoot press conference, attempting to belittle her. Instead, in an unprompted, televised argument that will go down in Chicago political history, Lightfoot directly engaged the man and earned her bonafides as the change candidate.

It was a terrible “own goal” by Team Preckwinkle, and Team Lightfoot has been matching “change” and “machine” with “Preckwinkle” at every opportunity since then. We’ve heard very little from Lightfoot about how her turn at the mayor’s office would be substantially different from Preckwinkle’s (in fact, it seems both candidates would make many of the same policy choices), but Chicagoans seem to be hungering for a break from the past. And since Preckwinkle has a 40 year history as a Chicago and Cook County elected official – no matter that almost that entire past was opposing the old machine and reforming the dreck they left behind – the zeitgeist has shifted to Lightfoot’s candidacy of new, rather than Preckwinkle’s history of reform.

I’ll be voting for Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but I don’t have anything bad to say about Lori Lightfoot. I spent a great deal of time talking to her about police reform when I was running and reporting for The Daily Line. She is a deep, thoughtful person, genuinely interested in service – and she has a sense of humor. She can be a bit imperious at times, but so has every other person I’ve met that has achieved her level of success. While it doesn’t serve her well, I suspect it’s a habit born of being in command – I’ve never sensed her to foster self-doubt.

Me and State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, candidate for Chicago Treasurer.

And while so much attention has gone to the mayoral campaign, I’ve been spending most of my energy on the city treasurer race, volunteering for Melissa Conyears-Ervin. I’ve worked and volunteered for dozens of candidates over the years, and Melissa is one of the few I’ve known to be the “whole package”. She’s got a Horatio Alger story, having risen from a West Side family, raised by a single mother working a union job to become the first in her family to go to college, and then get a job working for Allstate, a Fortune 500 company. While there, she earned an MBA in finance and managed a office of hundreds. Then, sensing there was more to life than the corporate ladder, she left her corporate job to work at a West Side non-profit focusing on housing. Only after all this life experience, did she run for State Representative. And, except for when she went to college, she lived the whole time on Chicago’s West Side, never leaving her roots.

Volunteering for and working with Melissa, I’ve found her interest in people to be genuine, her grasp of financial issues to be real (I have an M.B.A. myself) and that she reads and studies in depth to get up to speed on issues. She understands and is committed to protecting Chicago’s $8 billion of cash and short-term investments. She has some genuine ideas on how to help our pensions perform better, and she is energized by the idea of forcing Chicago banks, who benefit from holding our massive cash deposits, to create programs to serve significant Chicago’s unbanked population.

Melissa is deeply committed to the boring, uninteresting parts of government that create real long-term results. And for this guy with twenty-five years in and around government, her commitment to the boring, is the most exciting thing ever. If you live in Chicago, please give Melissa Conyears-Ervin your vote.

Four Non-Americans’ Views of America

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bascom Hall. You can study here and get smart, but you can’t stay. (Credit: Richard Hurd/Flickr)

Listening to non-American friends living overseas, the United States seems like a lumbering giant with little idea of how it impacts the world. Its democracy and merit culture remains a draw for people in developing nations who desire to do better, but President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are confusing everyone.

Two weeks ago I told you about my conversations with four American friends living overseas and how they view the United States as expatriots. This week I spoke with four more friends, all non-Americans that once lived in the United States at some point, live in other countries now, and occasionally travel here on business or on vacation.

Everyone I spoke to is highly educated: We all went to business school together at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sebastien Rexhausen is an energy sector business consultant living in Bonn, Germany. Faisal Siddiqui, whom I wrote about last week, has been a hospital CEO in numerous Indian cities. Leonel Preza is an El Salvadoran now working as a factory manager in Vancouver, British Columbia. Qasim Munir is a chemical engineer working for a fertilizer manufacturer in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Geography it seemed, was everything, as I spoke to my old friends. My German buddy, Sebastien, who flies into Houston for work on a regular basis, finds America to be pretty much the same as he’s always experienced it. He applied for and obtained a five-year work visa with no problem. But as a European, he’s acutely aware of America’s sharp divide between rich and poor.

“The big divide between the affluent and poor is a topic that’s big in the news back home – coupled with drugs,” particularly the United States opioid epidemic, says Sebastien.

My El Salvadoran friend living in Canada, Leonel, now views everything through a Canadian lens (more on that later). Looking over the U.S. border just a few minutes away from his home in Vancouver, he sees the U.S. as divisive and centered on capitalism, that forgets to provide residents with the basics.

“[Canada is] like the U.S. thirty years ago. They are not as competitive, aggressive as in the States. In general people are nice, everything is organized, orderly. Here in Canada, you get health care and schooling for free. The university is less expensive than in the States. For me, experiencing the States is the sheer volume of the economy,” Leonel says.

Leonel and his family drives to visit Seattle every few weeks, and he has family he visits in Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho. So he manages to check in regularly on the U.S.

“The States have changed. You see more immigrants, but you see more poverty. Divisions from the rich to the poor, you see those big gaps. But you don’t see that as much in Canada.”

But my friend in Islamabad, Qasim, sees less of the rich-poor divide and more of the opportunity.

“[America] is an ideal place to immigrate, because the systems and processes are fair, there’s very little corruption, and you can excel and go fairly. My time there I found it to be the same. It’s a dream place for lots of people.”

Qasim expressed a bit of concern about prejudice against immigrants, but not too much. “It’s a country which 95% of the time makes you feel welcome. Every now and then you run into a person who makes a remark and it ruins your next hour or so, but that happens very little.”

But when discussion turns to American foreign policy, everyone had big criticisms for the U.S.

“Who would think people in Wisconsin would vote for Donald Trump?” asked my friend from India, Faisal. “What we hear about America is that it is not what it used to be. As a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds. From our perspective the bubble has burst.”

Qasim, whose country, Pakistan, just finished a series of deadly border battles with India, says many Pakistanis blamed the United States for the fighting since India’s fighter jets, bombs and artillery mostly comes from American arms manufacturers.

“We all know who was backing it up. There was someone that supporting it – the U.S. That’s who was pushing it,” he said.

Pakistanis, wedged between Afghanistan where the U.S. is fighting a hot war, and India, which the U.S. is warming up to in an effort to hem in China, are predictably sensitive to American actions.

“People here are almost convinced that whatever India was doing was with the backing of the U.S. That does not leave a good feeling at all. The more literate people say it’s more about business, there’s no such thing as ethics. It is all about give and take so the United States can leverage China. The U.S. needs a check on them.”

Pakistan is still a largely illiterate country, Qasim laments, and because of that, few people are able to read newspapers and form their own opinions about the world. So if the government says the United States is to blame, they’ll go along with that idea.

“The bottom line for a commoner, is they lack the capacity of interest to go into the depth and details. They just want a one liner from the government. Whatever they hear becomes their belief,” Qasim says.

Leonel, the El Salvadoran in Canada, thinks the U.S. is often totally unaware of its impact, and just bigfoots its way through the world. For instance, he thinks the twelve-year long El Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992 was probably unintentionally lengthened by American largesse.

“The civil war in El Salvador lasted for 10 years, but the U.S. gave [the government] intelligence on where the guerilla commanders were. If they wanted, they could have ended the war in a year. But the U.S. kept sending money to maintain the war. That money [went to] the government, ‘Hey, we’re receiving free money for a war, why stop it?’ That’s why the war lasted 10 years,” Leonel claims.

I think Leonel’s analysis is oversimplified, but it does illustrate something very real, which is that America, the largest economy in the world, can quickly swamp a tiny country of 6.5 million people, and not even notice. What is certainly true, is that the United States was sending around $500 million in aid a year to El Salvador during the 1980’s, and American military officers were helping run the war for the government. We were in deep, with big consequences for El Salvadorans, and barely any for Americans back home.

This is felt by Sebastien, from Germany too. It’s big news in Germany that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, that Trump is pressuring Germany to stop building natural gas pipelines to Russia, and that the U.S. is demanding Germany not use Chinese telecommunications technology in favor of American tech. Most of those things aren’t really talked about in the United States.

“[Trump is] trying to go away from being the institution of the world to ensuring everything benefits the U.S. [He is trying] to take a different stance of the United States’ role in the world, which in the past was balancing. But now it’s U.S. first,” Sebastien said. “The U.S. was an institution for global policy making. I’m not sure if that is not lost to a certain degree. He is enabling other bloks or parties to win in that global race for positioning.”

Finally, because that seems to be the biggest concern between the United States and the rest of the world, Leonel’s immigration story is another great illustration of how the rest of the world works.

Born in San Salvador, Leonel came to earn an M.B.A. at the University of Wisconsin after he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Graduating in 2003, he headed back to El Salvador to manage a massive Maidenform factory with 10,000 workers. He gradually climbed up the ladder, and by 2008 he was managing nine factories for Hanes Brands across Central America.

By then gang violence was getting worse in San Salvador, and concerned for their two young children Leonel and his wife decided they needed to emigrate. But he told me, “To get the States, it’s very hard. You need a family sponsorship or a company visa,” neither of which this Fulbright Scholar who managed nine factories for a major global company could conjure up.

But Canada offered an opportunity, he said. “In Canada they have a point system based on education, level of English and your skills.” The system is straightforward – meet certain requirements, you get points. Get 67 points or more, and you can become a permanent resident. (Try an example test for yourself here.)

Leonel had enough points, and he and his family obtained residency in Canada in 2014. Then, just four years later, they applied for Canadian citizenship in October 2018 and became Canucks. Just like that. You only need to be a Canadian resident for one year.

“Now we have Canadian passports!” Leonel said.

These are the El Salvadorans we’re keeping out of the U.S.

Can America Be A Welcoming Country Again?

The Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. (Credit: EAS ART/Flickr)

A successful man in his early 40’s, working in an industry he loves, Faisal Siddiqui is the first to tell you that he’s a lucky man. He has a perennially sunny outlook on the world – it takes a serious effort to put him in a bad mood. Blessed with a wife he loves and two daughters who dote on him when he comes home from twelve-hour days, Faisal is none-the-less passionate about his work, moving from hospital to hospital as a CEO who specializes in difficult turnaround cases.

He’s a voracious reader, consuming as much material as he can make time for, often stacking up books focused on whatever esoteric business problem he’s currently puzzling out. A believer in fitness to focus the mind, Faisal is an avid racquet sports player and hits the soccer pitch too, striving to out-run his opponents – both sports with intense cardio demands.

Although he’s a practicing Muslim who’s noticed attitude changes since 9/11, Faisal still thinks America as the best of countries. “I think of it as the most welcoming and open country,” he told me last week. But the rise of President Donald Trump worries him. “The greatness of the United States has been denigrated because of the extreme thought processes out there. He has been fanning a lot of extremism that’s not just in the U.S.”

One of my closest friends, I haven’t seen Faisal in person in over ten years, but I called him up at his home in Hyderabad, India last week as part of a check in with a few non-American friends on how the U.S. has changed in their perspective. I’ll write about more of my conversations next week, but Faisal told a story that made me think hard about what America offers to the world today.

An Indian patriot, Faisal’s father was a decorated brigadier general in the Indian Army who fought in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. As a son of an Indian national hero, life has been privileged for Faisal, and he knows it, so he’s committed himself to lifting up his country, one of the reasons he’s so passionate about health care.

Faisal’s sense of morality and devotion to merit is emblematic of the best of liberal democracy, a core value of both the United States and India, and what Americans hope for when we take in new immigrants.

I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the United States as an Indian, and he sounded like a man torn between two countries, unsure if either one could be a good home for him and his family.

“I spent five years in the U.S. in the shadow of 9/11. And then continued to live there and work there, and not once did I have to realize the color of my skin or religion,” said Faisal with pain in his voice. “But in my own country I have come to realize that I can’t live in certain areas because I’m a Muslim.”

The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has brought a chill to India, Faisal says, as right-wing Hindus have suppressed and sometimes terrorized the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 15%, or 200 million people of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Before becoming the Indian PM in 2014, Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, where RSS actively suppressed the state’s Muslim minority.

Faisal started a new job in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat in 2013, to run a failing hospital. And already, you might know where this story is heading.

After a few weeks of living in a hotel, Faisal decided to look for an apartment, so his wife and kids could move to Hyderabad to live with him. He hired a broker and began to look at apartments.

“I’d go with a broker, find an apartment I like. [Then] they’d talk in Gujarati saying that they’d get back, and the call never came. This happened multiple times,” Faisal told me.

“Eventually someone on my team said, ‘You will not find an apartment in this area, the community lines run very deep. Because of your religion you are not supposed to live here, you live 10 kilometers from here.’ So I said, OK, I’ll take a look.”

“We go to the area. It’s a ghetto. It’s over a bridge, very nice on the Hindi side, but on this side, it’s a royal muck. I’m told by the broker there, who is a Muslim, ‘All the wealthy Muslims stay over here, because we are supposed to say here.’ So, show me an option, I tell him. He shows me something then asks if I’m a Sunni or Shia. Are you screwing around with me? I say. If you’re Sunni, you get this block, a Shia, that area.”

Faisal was shocked. Maybe he shouldn’t be, but raised by a veteran of India’s highly meritocratic Army, and educated in the United States, he expected more from his country.

“Eventually I found a man who said God dammit, I’m a Gujarati Hindu and I’ll do what I want. We got a ground level apartment in a good neighborhood. Very nice place.” So and his family moved in. “But then I’ll tell you what happened: Every day people put garbage in front of my door; one day a dead pigeon.”

Eventually, the harassment got bad enough that his wife told him a ghetto would be better than their “good neighborhood”. She begged him to move.

At one point, a man claiming to be a top member of the RSS, the far-right Hindu party run by Modi, visited Faisal at his hospital office. “He told me, ‘Hospitals are very difficult to run. I’ve seen CEOs like you get burnt up. I hope bad things don’t happen to you.’”

To his credit, Faisal ran the man out of his office, but he was upset. “Discriminated to the core, in my own country,” he said.

Soon after, the owner of a apartment building next to Faisal’s hospital visited him, wondering if any doctors might like to rent an apartment. “Can I see it? I said to him immediately. So we went to look at it, and it was wonderful. I offered him a lease on the spot. We moved into the apartment.” But now an experienced Gujarat resident, Faisal was smarter. “When I got the apartment, my company made the lease in the company name, which gave the owner cover.” Nobody could claim the Hindu apartment owner knew he was renting to a Muslim – even if he was a hospital CEO.

Fast forward seven years to today: Faisal’s older brother lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and after almost 20 years of living and working in the U.S., he’s decided to apply for permanent American residency, and is attempting to bring his parents along too. This has set off new thoughts for Faisal, of maybe moving to the U.S. himself.

When I met Faisal seventeen years ago, he was so gung-ho on India, that he tried to convince me to move there after graduate school. His persuasion skills are so strong, I almost did. But now, he’s thinks he might want to move to the U.S. Yet, he hesitates because he hears things have changed in the U.S. since he lived here.

“What we hear about America is that is not what it used to be, as a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds,” he said. “Nobody is going to make me a hospital CEO that’s for sure.”

“If I make this move it’ll not be for myself. I want to bring a better upbringing for my children. What’s going on now, it’s something my wife and I have not seen growing up,” Faisal said.

All around the developing world, there are talented men and women like Faisal who would like to be part of the American dream. Even though racism has come out of the darkness under President Trump, the Faisals of the world still want to come.

We need to change America back to a place where everyone who dreams of a better life can have a chance to build one.

Note: In my original version I mixed up some cities Faisal lived in, originally saying his old job was in Hyderabad. He now lives in Hyderabad, a very accepting city. His struggles with discrimination was in Ahmedabad. He also only has two daughters, not three. This version has been changed to reflect those fixes.

Four Reports From Abroad

The American consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. (From NBC News)

For Americans living overseas, the rest of the world’s reality is difficult to escape, since they’re swimming in it daily. I wondered about those differences and what it’s like to be an American expatriate, so last week I interviewed four friends and family members living overseas: An Episcopalian priest in England, an English teacher in Vietnam, a journalist in Turkey and a teacher in Nigeria. Each one has lived in their current country for a least a year, most have lived overseas for ten years or more.

Most of them spend a good deal of time explaining the allure of President Donald Trump to their foreign friends. My friend Mike Gibson, who works for an English-language news service based in Istanbul, Turkey says, “When people look at what’s going on [in America]. It’s really bad. We’ve basically lost any credibility we might have had, that was tenuous at best. The whole Trump election, it looks awful. It encourages the worst elements,” he says. “It encourages the worst elements in different societies to follow their worst instincts.”

“I get asked the most about Trump. It’s the thing Britons find so confusing,” says Devin McLachlin, an Episcopalian priest living in Cambridge, England. “There’s a large [American] cultural influence [in Britain], so they do find Trump disorienting. It’s creates a cognitive dissonance with what they understand of the optimistic view of American culture.”

They all had fewer reports on foreign views of Trump than they did about than they did about the difference between living in the United States versus in their new home. All of them remarked on how little crime they experience – no matter where they live.

In Lagos, Nigeria, a constantly growing city of 20 million people where my sister Susanna Pav is a teacher at an American School, there’s tremendous income inequality, sometimes within the same block, but that doesn’t translate into crime, like it does in the United States. “There isn’t the same sense of threat of crime. There’s guns and drugs, but it doesn’t feel as unsafe,” as in the United States. “My perception of crime is that it’s much lower because it doesn’t get the same media hype as it does in the U.S. and gun violence against expats is low relative to general population,” she says.

Even though there is is much poverty in Lagos, people are unfailingly polite in surprising ways, Susanna says. For instance, ever-present traffic ”go-slows” caused by people hawking everything from bananas to toilet seats result in people getting out of cars to argue. But Susanna recounted one man stepping out to shout at another driver, “Excuse me sir, did you not see the sign there that tells you to go left? I beg you, why did you not respect the sign?” The politeness can be shocking to how harsh Americans typically act, she says.

Father Devin, a Chicago native who lived in Hyde Park, is floored by the lack of crime in England. “I never see police officers here. Not only are they not armed, they just aren’t there. Even to me it feels underpoliced,” he says. “I went for a hike recently and grabbed a kitchen knife to bring on the trip, and my colleagues were very concerned, because they think about knives a lot here, because they don’t have guns.

“Our gun murder rate is unimaginable to people in Europe. They had a wave of youth violence which amounts to a bad weekend in Chicago. It amounts to how normalized violence has become to me in the city of Chicago. We’ve gotten used to a lot of violence [in the U.S.]”

Mike, who has lived in Istanbul for five years says that even in a country with political violence, he’s barely seen crime. “Turks are easy to get along with. I’ve never been robbed or physically assaulted. Like, we had a military coup!”

For these people living in a different country, It also becomes clear how culture permeates every decision and interaction.

Bill McGowan, an English teacher in Saigon after doing the same in China for eight years, grew up in sunny, suburban Los Angeles with a very non-political family. Now, he feels like he’s had a kind of awakening.

“I think with China and Vietnam and a lot of the Asian cultures, they are collectivist. They’re much more into it together, where the family is most important thing. Whereas looking at America, you can really see how individualistic we are. That has really affected me. American is a more selfish country. In terms of the health care thing: We’re such a rich and powerful country, but we could give a shit about our fellow Americans. ‘I’m going to get my own, screw the rest of you.’ Not to say that doesn’t happen in China or Vietnam. But there, there’s a sense of a group thinking moving forward,” Bill says.

Living in Nigeria, Susanna says she has become acutely aware of wealth. “One of the most striking things [about coming back to the U.S.]  is the size of the cars, the supermarket with twenty different brands of mustard. The consumerism. The space everyone takes up. The houses, the yards, everything is so well taken care of. It’s just dripping with wealth. Even in middle-income neighborhoods. The sense of privilege that you’ll always have these things. It will all be OK.,” she says.

Mike in Istanbul says the Turkish culture of politeness can be very difficult for Westerners to navigate.

“You will hear a lot of foreigners say, ‘The Turks are polite. But you can’t trust them. They don’t do what they say.’ I’ve been here five years, on a thousand occasions, people will say let’s make sure we have dinner that weekend. They are saying that, and it never happens. As a Westerner, my response is, that person is untrustworthy. But the reality is they are just being friendly. The distinction is in how Americans understand the relationship between truth and a lie.

“I think [Turks] think it’s important to be polite and tell people what they want to hear.

“For instance, asking for directions. ‘Do you know where this street is?’ And you can ask three or four Turkish people. They will all get it wrong, but will spend real time trying to explain how to get there, rather than say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They all want to help you try to help you find it, even through they don’t know where it is. They can’t say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They’re all trying to be courteous and helpful. That’s something every Westerner will have encountered here at some point.”

As alien as Lagos might seem to an American, once you get used to way life works, it can be managable, says Susanna, who has lived in Nigeria with her family for almost six years now. “Nigeria is different from other places in Africa, where there is more development. Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, [other countries are] corrupt, but Nigeria really takes the cake…Going out shopping, to the movies, locals are warm, helpful. We never experience hassles for the most part where there shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, we get stopped by a police officer with a machine gun, and they’ll ask us for money. They say like, ‘Hello! Hello! Do you have something for us today?’ And then you pay them and that’s it.”

There’s a flip side to the corruption too Susanna says, by applying a bit of “dash”, what Nigerians call bribes, you can smooth out bureaucratic paperwork, like when clearing customs or brushing aside getting fingerprinted for a new job. “The positive experiences far outweigh those negative ones.”

For all of my ex-pat friends, American identity never fades away, but the reality of where they live has maybe changed what it means to be a patriot.

“[America] is farther away,” says Father Devin in Cambridge. “Which is to say, more uniform than when I was living there. All that diversity does merge together…I’m aware of how particular and peculiar the U.S. is, that vast geography. That sense of being a nation of immigrants and that sort of diversity that you don’t have in the same way here in England, outside of London.”

“It’s home,” Bill, who is living in Saigon, says of America, “But maybe I’m seeing it without the American flag waving behind me, and a hand on my heart.”