Around Rogers Park: The New Normal


Life in Rogers Park is very different today than it was just a short time ago. In many ways, what Rogers Park is currently experiencing is similar to what the rest of Chicago and, for that matter, the world are all experiencing – a radical shift away from whatever previously constituted our “normal lives” as the economy falls to ruins all around us while we shelter in place to slow the virus’ spread.

At the same time, Rogers Park is experiencing the COVID-19 emergency in ways that are unique to the neighborhood. Rogers Park has always been a distinctive place with its own personality. The distinctive nature of Rogers Park has meant that life after COVID-19 is a little different here than in some other parts of the city and region. In a nutshell, Rogers Parkers are younger, live more densely, and are much more likely to rent their homes than people in the rest of the city or region. These factors can both help and hinder the community’s ability to respond to, and cope with, the COVID-19 emergency. Let’s look at some of the individual neighborhood conditions, and how they make life after COVID-19 easier or harder for neighborhood residents.


Housing

Perhaps the most significant difference between Rogers Park and many other parts of the city and region – and certainly a difference that is having a major impact on the Members of RPBG – is the high percentage of households in the neighborhood who rent versus own their units.

Rogers Park is experiencing the COVID-19 emergency in ways that are unique to the neighborhood.

Renters have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Many renters in Rogers Park and elsewhere are younger, less affluent and less likely to have significant savings and assets that they can use when financial emergencies occur.

And if there is one thing we now know about this pandemic, it is that it has brought in its wake a financial emergency like none we have experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The rapid contraction of the economy and skyrocketing unemployment have fallen disproportionately on renter households. Renters are more likely to have lower-paying, service sector jobs in industries such as restaurants and bars, travel and entertainment. Many of these jobs have either been eliminated or drastically reduced.

The immediate impact of these job losses was the inability – seemingly from one day to the next – for many renters to keep current on their rent payments, not to mention all their other monthly expenses. Rogers Park’s large, young adult population has been especially hard hit by this trend. Needless to say, this has impacted Rogers Park’s property owners as well. No rent from tenants means no money to pay mortgages, operating expenses (real estate taxes, utilities, maintenance staff, etc.), let alone important building repairs like new windows, roofs and boilers.

The immediate impact of these job losses was the inability – seemingly from one day to the next – for many renters to keep current on their rent payments.

The cash flow crunch rippling through Rogers Park is likely to get worse as shelter-in-place orders remain in effect, and any opening up of the economy will almost certainly be gradual and fitful. The experts are predicting a slow economic recovery that could take years to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. While many property owners reported better than expected rental revenues in April, the fear is that these conditions will get worse in May and thereafter.


Politics

The response of many Rogers Park residents and political leaders to the sudden desperate straits of the community’s large, renter population had been determined, in no small part, by the progressive politics that has long held sway in the neighborhood. This response has further complicated the lives of property owners who are, once again, being scapegoated by many politicians and community activists. These activists are loudly demanding rent relief for tenants, but seem not to understand – or simply ignore – the consequences these proposals will have on property owners and the economy more generally.

Many property owners have shown extraordinary concern for the plight of their tenants.

These activists seem to be motivated by the theory that you should never let a crisis go to waste (see related article in this newsletter). The same people currently calling for rent strikes and rent forgiveness were yesterday’s advocates of rent control, just-cause eviction protections and a long list of other progressive wish-list items. These groups were quick to seize on the economic fall-out from COVID-19 as justification for their pro-tenant / anti-property owner agenda.

Thus far, most of these demands for rent relief and other progressive measures have been met with little success. Both Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker have cited the state ban on rent control as justification for refusing to accede to demands for a mandatory rent freeze or the imposition of rent control around the state, as many progressives demanded in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. Instead, both politicians – who are themselves self-described progressives – have backed the temporary suspension of evictions and pointed to other relief programs available to impacted tenants.

Chicago is one of the cities where the death rate among African-Americans is much higher than for the general population.

In Rogers Park, the call for a rent freeze and the implementation of rent control are far more popular, and not just among renters. As one of City Council’s six Democratic Socialists, Alderwoman Hadden has advocated for both of these measures. No doubt, her advocacy has been popular with many of the nearly 70% of Rogers Park households who rent rather than own their homes.

If there is a silver lining for local property owners to the extreme leftward tilt of the neighborhood’s politics, it is that there have been fewer conflicts between tenants and property owners than might have been expected. Many property owners have shown extraordinary concern for the plight of their tenants, and many tenants have reciprocated, expressing an understanding of the predicament that the owners of their buildings are in and a willingness to do what they can to work collaboratively with property owners. It is impossible to predict how this will evolve as the crisis advances, but so far, there seems to be a willingness on both sides to work together to get through an extremely difficult and fraught period.


Demographics

The neighborhood’s demographics present a mixed bag of vulnerability and resilience to the COVID-19 emergency. The neighborhood’s concentration of prime, working-aged adults is certainly a strength. The COVID-19 virus is known to be much more lethal with older people, particularly those aged 65 or above. Rogers Park has fewer children (0-19 years old) and elderly (65 years old and older) than the city or the region. The bulge in the middle (20-64 years old) could give the average Rogers Parker an advantage in any encounter with COVID-19.

However, in Chicago as across the country, we have seen a much higher impact of the COVID-19 virus on communities or color, and among African-Americans in particular. Rogers Park is a diverse community. Just over a quarter of the population in Rogers Park is African-American and more than 20% is Hispanic.

The African-American and Hispanic communities in Rogers Park, as in the rest of Chicago and the nation, are typically less affluent than the population overall. Many of these individuals have lost jobs in the economic contraction now happening. Many others have “essential service” jobs – bus drivers, construction workers, delivery workers, health care support staff, etc. These jobs do not allow the luxury of sheltering in place or working from home. Simply put, essential workers are more likely to be exposed to the virus.

Some industrious Rogers Parkers are finding new and creative ways to stay connected with their friends and neighbors.

Finally, a larger percentage of people of color have pre-existing medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 if they do get infected. These conditions include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and asthma, just to name a few. For people with these conditions, being younger may not be enough to keep them alive if they are exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Chicago is one of the cities where the death rate among African-Americans is much higher than for the general population. At one point in the crisis, 70% of COVID-19 deaths were among African-Americans who make up just a third of the city’s population, and approximately 15% of the state’s.


Geography

Rogers Park is a Lakefront community. The parks and beaches that line its eastern edge are one of the great joys of the neighborhood and an amenity that is enjoyed by all. However, in the COVID-19 age, social gatherings have been discouraged. One of the casualties of “shelter in place” has been the closure of all Lakefront parks and beaches. This ban on Lakefront park usage came on April 2 when Mayor Lightfoot reacted to too many people congregating along the Lakefront after a brief warm spell.

Partly as a result of this order, the Loyola Park Advisory Council (APAC) recently announced that they were cancelling the annual Artists of the Wall celebration, the first time it the event’s 27-year history that this has been necessary. The cancelation of other popular social events normally held during the summer months is likely to follow.

These are challenging times, but Rogers Park is nothing if not resilient.

While the closure of the Lakefront parks and beaches is just one more disruption in the rhythm of life in the neighborhood, some industrious Rogers Parkers are finding new and creative ways to stay connected with their friends and neighbors. To cite just two examples, BlockClub Chicago reports that Le Piano – a popular restaurant and music venue on Glenwood Avenue – is making facemasks out of unused deli paper which are being sold in local grocery stores.

BlockClub also reports that Rogers Park residents Jenni Spinner and Rebecca Kell were the first to organize a citywide sing-along, inspired by similar events in Milan, Italy. Spinner and Kell organized Chicagoans from across the city to open their windows wide at 7 pm, Saturday, March 21 to sing Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Apparently, even Bon Jovi got in on the action, posting about this event on his Instagram account.

The first indications are that the neighborhood and the city are rising to the occasion.

It is clear that Rogers Park along with the rest of the world has entered into new and uncharted waters. It is equally clear that the current crisis will not be resolved in the near future. We can hope for a miracle cure, or a sudden spontaneous disappearance of the virus. But the reality is that neither of these possibilities is likely, and that we will be dealing with COVID-19 and its impacts for many months, if not years, to come.

These are challenging times, but Rogers Park is nothing if not resilient. And if the first weeks of the crisis tell us anything, it is that our common bonds are still strong enough to bring us together in many important ways to fight this disease and work toward a common good. There will be many challenges ahead, and political fights aplenty. But the first indications are that the neighborhood and the city are rising to the occasion. We can only hope that this spirit of cooperation and resolve continues. We will need a lot of both to get through this.