At a time when Chicago’s population is falling and its image has been tarnished by shootings and other violence, we asked prominent Chicago residents why they have remained in Chicago when their work or bank accounts would allow them to live anywhere.
Like so many African-American Chicagoans of her age, gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples misses the old days in the neighborhoods.
In that long-ago world before social media, young children played hide-and-seek without fear, girls jumped double Dutch on sidewalks and asphalt playgrounds while boys played baseball and football in vacant lots. Adults could scold anyone’s unruly children, while young men and boys on street corners attracted crowds with their doo-wop singing.
It’s along those stretches of the city’s South and West sides that the now-77-year-old earned her appreciation for all types of music, growing up among a who’s who of American musical talent including childhood friends Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. It was also here that her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, got the inspiration for his young family to move beyond singing hymns in church to form what would become the iconic family band The Staple Singers.
"I miss the way it used to be," said Staples, who spent part of her childhood living near 33rd and Rhodes. "I tell young people the way it was when I was their age. They can’t believe it — how we could go out at night and the grocery stores would leave crates of live chickens out and eggs and they’d leave produce out in front of the store. And the store was locked up, it was closed, but nobody would bother it."
Those mental images, still seared into her mind after more than seven decades, are no longer the norm as city officials scramble to counter headlines about poverty and violence. But no matter the negative national chatter surrounding her hometown’s problems, its shrinking populace and its stunted economic agenda, Staples isn’t bothered one bit by the prospect of spending her remaining years in Chicago and on her native South Side.
I’ve not seen any place — any place in this world that I would move, rather live than where I’m living right now on the South Side. — Mavis Staples, gospel and soul legend
The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who performed for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama said she could never see herself living in any other city.
"I couldn’t leave Chicago. All of my memories are in Chicago," she recently said inside the music library at the South Shore Cultural Center. "I’ve not seen any place — any place in this world that I would move, rather live than where I’m living right now on the South Side."
Staples’ South Shore condo is something of a crash pad as she continues touring several times a year. But though she’s toured from Amsterdam to Zimbabwe, Staples counts the city’s skyline as one of the best. Staples said she loves the downtown development that has unfolded over the years, including Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park and the nearby Museum Campus.
"I’ve watched Chicago grow. It’s beautiful," she said.
Staples moved to South Shore in 1970, choosing a lakefront condo in a building that was still all-white. Years before Chicago’s death toll earned national and presidential attention, Staples said Chicago’s gangster past had long been a popular topic for her fans.
"It used to be a time back in the day when I’d say I was from Chicago and people (would go) ‘Aren’t you scared? Al Capone lives in Chicago.’ I’d say ‘Al Capone is my friend,’" she laughed, recalling conversations about the long-deceased gangster.
Staples is troubled by the most recent examples of gang violence that have plagued her neighborhood. Last year, South Shore had 23 reported homicides, according to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune. Just two days after she visited the cultural center to speak with the Tribune, the neighborhood saw seven homicides in a single day. Four of those killed were shot dead a short distance from her lakefront home, while another man was shot and killed just outside the walls of the cultural center.
She’s heartbroken by how the neighborhoods where people once aspired to live have fallen on hard times.
But within her wistfulness is a deep desire to see the neighborhoods rise again.
"It’s sad, it’s sad to see young people not growing to be adults," she said.
"And now they talk about the gangs and what can you say? Gangs — (they’re) everywhere. Crime is everywhere. It’s not just Chicago."
But Staples isn’t giving up on Chicago, saying that the city still has a community spirit and creative soul that she can’t let go of.
"I’m here to tell them Chicago is a fun town, my hometown and I’m proud of it."
Five decades after an influx of Mexican immigrants into Pilsen sparked a culture war that turned the working-class neighborhood into a hotbed of activism, celebrated muralist Marcos Raya has retained an inner flame, though many of the old battle lines have changed.
Raya, the godfather of the city’s Mexican-American political mural movement, has for many years called the South Side neighborhood home. He has found renewed artistic vigor with the election of President Donald Trump, whose immigration policies have been a source of consternation among foreign workers hoping to make a home here.
But instead of focusing on murals, as he did as a young man, Raya now spends most of his time in his South Side studio painting portraits and creating multimedia exhibits, using everything from mannequins, construction nails and used furniture to create striking conversation pieces, often with a biting political message.
In one exhibit space in his sprawling South Side studio, Raya, no stranger to controversy, has filled the entire area with images of clowns, including a painting of Trump to resemble a clown with the words "evil clown" on his shoulder and a tiny swastika on his left earlobe.
Raya retains the same passion that he developed as thousands of Mexican immigrants poured into the neighborhoods during the 1950s and ’60s and their sons and daughters waged battles over affordable housing and access to schools.
His creative intensity was born out of his early struggles in Chicago after arriving in 1964 with $3 in his pocket and moving in with his factory worker mother. Originally living in Little Italy as a teenager, he says he joined a local Mexican gang after he was attacked by an Italian neighborhood gang. Raya said he soon entered a dark period, witnessing street violence firsthand as young men rumbled with sticks, switchblades and chains in the area that would become the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
But Raya, who grew up in the Mexican town of Irapuato and met legendary Mexican muralist Jose Chavez Morado as a child, had his interest in art renewed by a teacher at Crane High School. After school, Raya immersed himself in Old Town’s art scene before studying painting at a school in Massachusetts.
After returning to Chicago with a new political outlook and matured by the birth of his son, Marcos Jr., Raya and other Mexican artists used the drab walls of 18th Street as a canvas, creating vibrant surreal images to tell the community’s tales of discrimination and struggle.
"It’s like you’re a part of something. And I wanted to be part of it because the neighborhood was in deep need of social services," Raya, now 70, recalled at his studio space in Bridgeport.
As he and other Mexican muralists transformed their dilapidated neighborhood, they took on the name "outlaw artists of 18th Street."
"I stayed in Pilsen because it would be the only neighborhood that I think I would be able to survive and grow as an artist," he said.
Despite his years creating art critical of those in power, Raya said he fell in love with the city, with Chicago blues and the old Maxwell Street Market. He loves Chicago’s winters and the feeling of community in Pilsen.
Raya has traveled the country and the world but said he hadn’t found another city whose natural colors could rival the shades and hues of Chicago’s streets and pavement, its red brick buildings, and the grays and blues of its skyscrapers.
"I was in London and the five days there, I wanted to come back as soon as possible," he said.
Not even the promise of year-round sunshine and better pay in Los Angeles could push Raya to the west coast.
"I went to LA a few years ago, and when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t stand the sun. I felt like a vampire."
If outsiders saw young Bill Daley as a privileged princeling of a Chicago political dynasty, he saw himself as a normal South Side kid who trudged well-worn paths in Bridgeport on his way to and from school, church and neighborhood shops through the stench of nearby slaughterhouses. That smell wasn’t as easy to ignore for visitors, as he learned one weekend decades ago when a young friend of his sister’s came to the Daley home for a sleepover.
"The minute they got out of the car, they wondered, ‘What was that god-awful smell?’ And we lived there so it was like, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s the stockyards.’"
Bridgeport was Daley’s entire world, and he, his brothers and their friends knew every inch, every shortcut and gangway through the old neighborhood. The only real danger they faced was traffic on 35th Street, where one of Daley’s friends was struck and killed as a boy.
Daley’s old neighborhood may have been the home base of his father’s powerful Irish-American 11th Ward organization, but it was also a working-class bungalow belt community that had every amenity that an old-school ethnic enclave demanded.
"There was a certain simplicity about it (Bridgeport) that was great," he recalled, sitting in his office in a Loop high-rise. "Everybody knew everybody. You walked to school, neighborhood church and school. You had your grocery store and your fish shop. You had a meat market. The city was different then, too, in positive ways, maybe, and in negative ways."
In spite of our challenges, this really is a great city…the people that make it up are very diverse economically, racially, religiously — it’s got an enormous history. — Bill Daley, lawyer and former White House chief of staff
Fast-forward to the present day and the youngest son and brother of the city’s two longest-serving mayors has amassed a gold-plated resume with highlights in the banking industry and communications, along with stints in two presidential administrations, most recently as President Obama’s chief of staff.
A Gold Coast resident, he believes the blue-collar sensibility that existed in his old neighborhood still permeates Chicago today as it modernizes and tries to raise its profile as a business hub and travel destination. Though his past posts and his current position as head of a Swiss hedge fund have taken him to cities across the United States and to more than 40 countries, Daley said he has had only one true home.
"I’ve spent time in New York, I’ve spent time in Washington, spent time in Texas, but I never lived there. I may have resided there," said Daley, 68. "I’ve never really seriously thought about actually living somewhere else. I’ve resided in other places but living and feeling part of a community? This is the only community I want to be a part of."
Even with the violence and the city’s troubled finances, don’t expect Daley to be among those lambasting the city.
"In spite of our challenges, this really is a great city. … The people that make it up are very diverse economically, racially, religiously — it’s got an enormous history," he said. "As I’ve traveled the world, I run into people who say, ‘I’m from Chicago.’ And I’ll say, ‘When did you move?’ ‘Oh, 30 or 40 years ago,’" he said. "But they say, ‘I’m from Chicago.’ That’s a nice thing to hear. Even people who have moved still have that attachment."
Daley has little patience for pundits and other critics (he never mentions the current occupant of the White House) whom he sees as deriding the city and its residents without any direct knowledge. "Most people today don’t know history about anything. So they think they know a city based upon a headline or a tweet, something they saw on the latest blog," he said.
"But unless you know the history, the positives and the negatives, one shouldn’t really make judgments about others and other people’s issues or problems unless you understand them."
Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith
Award-winning songwriter and Chicago hip-hop artist Che "Rhymefest" Smith knows all too well how New York City and LA, with their massive celebrity scene, can possess allure for rap stars here once their stars begin to rise.
Smith won both a Grammy and an Oscar for co-writing "Glory" on the "Selma" soundtrack, as well as a Grammy for Kanye West’s 2005 hit "Jesus Walks," and he recently signed on to his first film, "The Public," starring alongside Alec Baldwin, Jeffery Wright and Gabrielle Union,wife of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade.
Census data show that 181,000 African-Americans who called Chicago home packed up and left between 2000 and 2010 alone. Smith feels like his time to shine professionally is now, but he bought his 107-year-old bungalow in Chatham — the one his father grew up in — to show that not all successful black residents are fleeing the city.
The looming possibility of relocation is a sensitive topic for Smith, 39, who knows that one good movie role could lead to another and that he, too, could be pulled to the West Coast like longtime friends West, Common and most recently Chance the Rapper, to chase stardom. But the rapper, who lost an aldermanic runoff election in 2011, said his neighborhood needs him more.
It’s not an unusual dilemma for African-Americans from Chicago who find success.
"I could make more money (if I moved)," Smith said in his living room with his hulking black Labrador Marly and cocker spaniel Muffin at his feet. "I could be as popular as my peers and contemporaries when you look at the praise of a Kanye or the star of Common," he said.
"Why would I go to a place of wealth that already has it? Why would I build up a city that’s already built? My home is in need of people like me … people better than me."
On Smith’s block, homes and apartments are neat and maintained, though some neighboring blocks haven’t managed as well.
One of the problems we have is the successful Chicagoan of the last decade or so, the successful rapper or artist, is that we try to make it to escape it. — Che "Rhymefest" Smith, hip-hop artist
Unlike the days when Chicago was a nerve center for gospel, blues, jazz, soul and R&B, the city’s hip-hop scene has been fueled, in part, by artists yearning to leave the very neighborhoods where they found inspiration.
"One of the problems we have is the successful Chicagoan of the last decade or so, the successful rapper or artist, is that we try to make it to escape it," he said. "You find lawyers who are saying, ‘I’m just trying to make it out of the neighborhood.’"
Smith knows firsthand the violence erupting on Chicago’s streets, a point dramatically made last August when a robber put a gun to his head. Just last year, Smith’s neighborhood had 22 reported homicides and 82 shootings, according to Tribune data. Weeks into the new year and just five blocks from his home, six people, including a 12-year-old, were wounded in a shooting at a memorial for another shooting victim.
But, Smith says, "I see the good in my community. I see the good in the historic architecture of Chicago, and especially in Chicago’s South Side.
"I don’t think there was anybody who was born and raised in a town that didn’t think about leaving, didn’t get close to leaving, or didn’t leave. The important thing is: What have you given back to the place that has created you?
"There’s a chance that I may not live in Chicago forever. But at this point, it’s important for that 9-year-old boy that lives across the street from me to know an award-winning artist lives across the street from him."
If Mexico native Elvira Arellano found herself unwanted by the U.S. government over the last 20 years, she has found unexpected kinship in Chicago, particularly in Humboldt Park, traditionally the heart of the city’s Puerto Rican community.
The 42-year-old activist’s long journey began in her native Michoacan, Mexico, in the late 1990s. She, like countless numbers of her countrymen, left home after 1994’s peso crisis drove currency prices down and closed businesses.
While living in Pilsen and working as a cleaning lady at O’Hare International Airport in 2003, she suddenly was caught in a nationwide immigration sweep and threatened with jail for entering the country illegally. The quiet mother of two sons became a face of the immigration crisis when she took refuge in a Little Village church, staging hunger strikes and loudly protesting against those forces that would break apart families facing deportation.
Just three years since returning to Chicago from her most recent deportation in 2007, which separated her from her eldest son, the laborer-turned-activist said she’s overwhelmed by how the community has embraced her and her cause.
"I like the community," the mother of two said recently inside an apartment overlooking a bustling stretch of West Division Street in Humboldt Park. "When I walk around, people recognize me and greet me and, well, this is ‘El Barrio.’ I enjoy being here. I feel comfortable, I feel at home."
Arellano said she has equally embraced the Puerto Rican culture around her, attending the annual festival in Humboldt Park and learning to cook Puerto Rican dishes.
Though Puerto Ricans are American citizens, Arellano said many in the community have rallied around her. That support and loyalty are what keeps her rooted here, she says.
"So I feel, especially now with the anti-immigrant politics of the new administration under President Donald Trump, well, I feel protected here because they always, the Puerto Rican community here — Dr. Jose Lopez from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center — they’ve always helped us and have always given us their support."
Arellano remains committed to the new community she said has steadfastly supported her.
"There’s always been a lot of solidarity when our family was going through a rough patch," she said. "When we had just come back (and) I didn’t have a work permit … I had to wait about a year until I could work legally. So it was a difficult time but here, (but) the community always stood with us."
Veteran stage actor and improvisor David Pasquesi said there are at least two reasons he’s stayed in Chicago since he first moved here 35 years ago from his native Lake Bluff.
After moving to the Old Town neighborhood in the early 1980s as a struggling young actor, the alum of the Second City instantly fell for its then-seedy charm, accented by dive bars, that were a far cry from his upbringing on the North Shore.
"When I was first there, it was a sketchier spot than it is now, and I enjoyed that about it," the 56-year-old acclaimed improv actor recalled. "There was a little danger to it. You had to keep your eyes out, and I liked that."
Over time, the North Side neighborhood on the edge of the Gold Coast grew on Pasquesi even more because the close-knit community and its proximity to the lake offered an ideal spot to raise his two sons.
"It feels like a little small town within the city. When we moved in, our neighbors brought over a plate of cookies, in the middle of the third largest city in the United States," Pasquesi said recently in the green room of The Mission Theater building, also in Old Town. That’s where he and longtime improv partner TJ Jagodowski often host comedy improv.
Pasquesi, once recognized as Improviser of the Year at the Chicago Improv Festival, said Chicago’s absurd history of political corruption is rich fodder for local performers.
"Is (Chicago) a great place for comedy? Absolutely. Is the city itself funny? I think so," Pasquesi said. Referring to the state’s imprisoned governors and aldermen, he added, "It’s absurd, our history is a little goofy, and the hubris of our city is delightful."
And the winters that so many love to gripe about? He "loves" winter.
"I love a snowstorm. I love how it stops the city," Pasquesi said.
But it was the city’s dense and talented stage community where Pasquesi has shined. He started at Second City and moved on to dramatic roles, playing everyone from Abbie Hoffman to the wolfish Richard Roma in Steppenwolf’s "Glengarry Glen Ross." Of late, Pasquesi performs onstage on both sides of the Atlantic and appears in movies and on television, most recently as the vice president’s conniving ex-husband in HBO’s Emmy-winning "Veep."
Pasquesi remains convinced that Chicago’s stage is the finest opportunity and most fertile creative ground for actors and improv comedians to make names for themselves. He keeps in touch with many former Chicago actors who left for work but who are envious of Pasquesi for staying.
"For my job, this is still, I believe, the best place to be if you want to work onstage to get better at working onstage," he said. "This is the best place for that. If you want to get a job onstage, you can do that in Chicago."
New York City may be the pinnacle of stage success, but Pasquesi said his immigrant grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Italy, planted the seed in his mind that Chicago is a gateway to greatness.
"His point was, if you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere," Pasquesi recalled. "That’s one of the things about Chicago. I find if you put in effort, they will meet you halfway. And it’s especially true about performing theater and improvisation — that if you put out the effort to put up a show, the city of Chicago will come to see it."
Even if the local theater scene doesn’t offer big paychecks, it does offer talented actors a chance to emerge as stars, he said
"It’s like the old saying ‘In Chicago, you’re onstage with people who hope they get to do this for the rest of their lives. And in Los Angeles, you’re onstage with people who hope they never have to do this again,’" Pasquesi said, laughing.
He added: "There’s some truth to that."
Chicago Tribune’s Nereida Moreno contributed.