WASHINGTON -- When I was a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago, my family would drive downtown across 76th Street, get on Lake Shore Drive around the University of Chicago and sweep from there into the ever-famous Loop. It was a sight that never bored us.
In the kind months, when Lake Michigan was all shades of blue, Chicagoans could not get enough of the lake's wonders. We thought our city was beautiful -- but I have to say that in those years, even at its best, it was a tough, gritty, gray city of steel mills, Mafia hit men, and a river that we had somehow made run backward.
It had none of the extraordinary beauty that Chicago boasts of today, with brightly colored flowers and trees everywhere, with glass buildings that outshine the sun, and a "Magnificent Mile" on North Michigan Avenue that just may be the most enticing mile in American cities today.
It's a pretty picture, but something has gone terribly wrong.
When I was growing up there, we lived on West 83rd Street, which is important because it was deep into the city, most of whose white neighborhoods were middle-class/working-class like ours. We all lived in one of those little bungalows that dominated these neighborhoods. Most of us went to city high schools, and some to the Catholic schools. We had lovely parks and tennis courts. The small, but substantial, number of African-American middle-class families had the same.
And today? The Chicago papers say that 85 percent of the children in those same public schools and in our former bungalows live under the poverty level. Nearly 80 percent of black children are illegitimate -- and most, fatherless. But those figures only give us the base for the really frightening things happening in the city that is being called this summer the "Murder Capital of America."
In the first six months of 2012, more than 250 murders were recorded in my hometown, compared to 193 murders in New York City, which is three times as large as Chicago. On Memorial Day weekend, when Americans are supposed to be commemorating the sacrifices in war of American soldiers, more than 40 people were shot and 10 of them died.
Most of the deaths -- and most of the "flash mobs" of teenage boys that suddenly appear out of nowhere -- are in the poorer neighborhoods. But there are also attacks on State Street and Michigan Avenue, where a doctor based in one of the Near North Side hospitals was recently badly beaten on his way home. Often in these attacks, nothing is taken, illustrating a desire simply to hurt people.
In Englewood, the 20-by-20-block working-class neighborhood just to the north of the Foster Park neighborhood where we lived until 1965, homicides increased from 40 in 2010 to 60 last year, which The Associated Press reports is more than half the total number of 2011 homicides for cities such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Oakland and Kansas City.
The Chicago victims include everyone from little children of 6 and 7, to a paraplegic sitting on his stoop, to, of course, more and more policemen as well as members of formerly well-known gangs, which have now splintered into smaller gangs.
Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, a specialist on crime and violence, was quoted in The Daily Beast, in the present fest of analysis that is trying to figure out what is going on in the Windy City:
"Until this spring, Chicago looked quite typical of all the national crime trends, including its neighbor, New York. But that's been interrupted and it's been interrupted big time. The police say it's gangs. That's both helpful and extremely mysterious. Because there is no sense that Chicago has a gang profile which is vastly different from that of Los Angeles, and yet (the murder rate in) Los Angeles has continued (to be) low."
Responsible people in Chicago, from new Mayor Rahm Emanuel to police and crime specialists, all point to the fact that gangs in Chicago have changed over the years. They are no longer the small group of well-established bands, but rather have now broken down into hundreds of tinier groups with alliances so difficult to pinpoint that they are impossible to classify.
In contrast to my years growing up, behind that beautiful montage are neighborhoods that look like ours (in fact, they have the same bungalows) but are not. Those houses are, for the most part, not real family homes -- there are no fathers, and fewer and fewer married mothers.
Solve that, and find out where the plethora of guns is coming from, and train more women to say "No" to unmarried sex and more men to say "Yes" to fatherhood -- and you'll solve the murder problem.
There are gutsy groups, the main one in Chicago being CeaseFire, that are working on these problems right in those very neighborhoods. Yet one wonders whether what's happening in Chicago this summer is not a warning about what America is becoming -- a country without enough jobs, without enough policing, and without the internalized morality that fatherhood can give to young males. Let's hope for some answers.