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A year like no other

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  • Eva Maria Lewis
  • Jeff Marini


Since March, the federal, state, and local versions of an eviction moratorium have kept thousands in their homes. While typically there are some 20,000 eviction cases filed every year, as of December 14, only about 6,600 eviction cases have been filed against Chicago residential and commercial tenants—and 65 percent of those cases were initiated before the governor issued his first moratorium.

Landlords are still allowed to file cases if there’s an emergency, but they have to prove that a tenant is a danger to neighbors or is destroying the property. However, the vast majority of eviction proceedings here, as everywhere in the country, start because tenants are behind on their rent, not because they’re in violation of their lease.

Since the spring, tenants’ rights groups have been agitating on behalf of the few defendants that are still being hauled into eviction court, as well as those who’ve faced illegal lockouts. But the moratorium seems to be working to keep many people stable in their homes through the pandemic as they contend with extreme uncertainty, loss of income, and remote learning. Just as COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on low-income African Americans, so does eviction; most of the tenants in Chicago’s eviction courtrooms on any given day are Black women.

Meanwhile, landlords have been lobbying the city and county against taking further steps to protect tenants, such as the “just cause” eviction ordinance or lifting the ban on rent control in Springfield. Their argument throughout the pandemic has been that this is not the time to be introducing drastic changes to the laws governing landlord-tenant relations.

I’ve been dropping into seminars and discussions hosted by local landlord groups. The tone is always one of resigned frustration about the moratorium, but when the conversation turns to bottom lines, the landlords seem to be doing alright. The Neighborhood Building Owner’s Alliance recently reported that 92 percent of landlords collected half or more of all the rent due in September. Forty-six percent of them said they had collected upward of 95 percent of rents. At public hearings landlords’ spokespeople certainly conjure an idea of struggling “housing providers,” but a shrinking profit margin isn’t the same as being in the red.

The current Illinois eviction moratorium is set to expire on January 11. What will happen once the court system is open to these cases again? Experts predict an “avalanche” of evictions post-COVID and local landlords worry about the backlog in case processing. Tenants’ groups worry about a mass descent into poverty for people who had no evictions in their background, but will now face the rental market with a scarlet letter.

There are no requirements for landlords to report how much they make, but new scholarship indicates the profit margins in the poorest neighborhoods, where property ownership is increasingly consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, are particularly wide. If most Chicago landlords make it out of the pandemic without bankruptcy while the health crisis delivers a new generation of evictees, maybe this year will get us closer to understanding the mysterious economic forces at play in our housing market. —Maya Dukmasova


People of color—especially Black folks—feel free to sit out this first-paragraph pop quiz and skip ahead. Everyone else: When was the last time you thought about George Floyd? If the recently released body cam footage of CPD’s 2019 atrocity against a Black body wasn’t in the news, would you be thinking about police brutality? Would you spend any time sitting with your anxiety about the lack of safety and dignity for Black Chicagoans?

Don’t know? No?

That’s why people protest. Because when we don’t, the city forgets.

People forget how the inequities everyone talks about so earnestly these days endanger actual people every day, not just the caricatures you follow on Twitter.

I didn’t attend a single protest this summer; the protests came to me. I lived in a high-rise downtown, and before you make that Well aren’t you bougie face? that even my own father has made at me, you should know that being a Black lady living in the Loop is in the best of times complicated, and in the worst of times a dystopian nightmare. Because I lived downtown, the city and its taxpayer-funded terror squads wanted to protect me at all costs, weaponizing infrastructure to keep “outsiders” out. Because I am Black, they wanted to protect my neighbors from me. It was a long summer.

Nearly 20 years ago during an interview about the AIDS crisis, an LGBTQ+ advocate told me that the fight for our rights was waged on multiple fronts: we needed activists both outside chaining themselves to city hall and inside sitting at the table with the mayor. It’s an idea that’s stayed with me as I’ve learned more about all of the civil rights movements I carry with me as a Black queer woman, and it’s no less true today.

The racism and brutality that killed George Floyd didn’t stop when the protests stopped. Too many of us live with these traumas every day. We can’t forget them, and protests help ensure no one else does either. —Karen Hawkins


Few things brought anti-trans rhetoric, legislation, and violence to the fore this year more than the words of a children’s author. J.K. Rowling published numerous writings targeting trans people—trans women and children in particular. The same woman who created a world where wizards and witches can transform into beetles, dogs, and cats, rejects the idea that, for some, gender and sex are not aligned.

Her poorly crafted statements, which continue unabated, have been repeatedly criticized by activists as well as doctors, biologists, scientists, and anyone with an ounce of empathy. Long revered as a literary icon, Rowling now places herself with other proud transphobes, including our very own He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

But the trouble is, bigoted and vile words like hers are not always empty. Words like these influence politics, policy, and actions, and have emboldened many to speak out against transgender-inclusive polices that they say are a threat to women’s rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported that by March, state legislators across the country had introduced troves of bills aimed at rolling back rights for transgender people. Many proposed bills took aim at transgender rights broadly; in Iowa, for example, legislators introduced a bill that would remove gender identity as a protected class under the state’s civil rights act. Here in Illinois in February, state representative Darren Bailey, a Republican from the 109th district, introduced a bill that would require the state’s Department of Corrections to house incarcerated people based on their biological sex, regardless of their gender identity.

Others even targeted transgender youth. Legislators in a number of states, including Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Missouri, introduced bills aimed at blocking transition-related health care for youth and bills aimed at restricting transgender youth from competing on teams that align with their gender identity, but not their biological sex.

Despite this year’s historic uprisings for social justice and against racism and police brutality, and seemingly renewed support for marginalized communities, 2020 has seen staggering violence against the transgender community, particularly Black and Brown transgender women. At least 40 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been murdered, a sobering statistic the Human Rights Campaign reports is the highest number it has tracked since 2013—but still a low estimate considering the myriad of barriers to knowing the actual number.

So while activists, social media personalities, and everyday people, incredibly, speak out in greater numbers for trans rights, it’s crucial to remember that the fight isn’t just about one author’s harmful tweets or retrograde legislation; for many people at the epicenter of the violence, it’s a matter of living to see another day. —Adam M. Rhodes


I celebrated my one-year anniversary of therapy three months into the pandemic. The timing of investing in my mental health was kismet, just ahead of spending nine months in isolation.

A study by the CDC done in late June reported “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions” due in part to separation from friends and family, fear of catching and/or spreading COVID, and the looming specter of death. And that was in the summer, far before some of us started feeling the full weight of pandemic fatigue, when we could still enjoy the outdoors and the sun didn’t set until 8 PM.

It’s overwhelming to think about how our collective mental health has suffered this year, but it’s also forced some meaningful changes. More than ever before, I see friends, family, and social media acquaintances sharing personal experiences with depression and anxiety and more. Never underestimate the power of feeling like you’re not alone and being able to share coping mechanisms.

Therapists and other wellness professionals adapted to virtual practices, many removing the barrier of access by offering discounted or free services when possible. I particularly enjoyed a change of scenery for my weekly video sessions. There’s something cathartic about having an emotional breakdown in front of my therapist in my car and then driving away, leaving some of my demons behind in the Dollar Tree parking lot. Even being trapped at home wasn’t so bad. New habits like cooking for myself and going on walks have become just as stabilizing as my therapy sessions, practices that I had convinced myself I never had time for in the before times.

My original impetus for starting therapy was an attempt to get my shit together before I turned 30. This milestone, I learned through therapy, should not be any kind of marker of my success or capabilities as a grown-up. The vaccine won’t put an end to my mental health journey. I am not immune to the anxiety, depression, body image issues, substance use, impulsive spending, and more that now feel synonymous with 2020. But the past year taught me the importance of preventative care, and I hope at least one silver lining on this dark cloud of a year is that others have realized the same. —Brianna Wellen


Sometime in the early morning hours of June 1, while protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and systemic racism had started unraveling into riot status, the south side campaign office of Congressman Bobby Rush was transformed into a lounge area of sorts for some Chicago Police Department personnel. Video footage from security cameras, released by the mayor’s office in the following week, showed an officer taking a nap on a couch, another gazing at their cell phone, and several officers resting their heads on desks. In all, five hours of video captured a group of officers doing not a lot, and at one point 13 officers (including three supervisors) can be seen inside.

It wasn’t lost on anyone who viewed this footage that the optics were poor; a virtual sleepover happened at a congressman’s storefront while the stores in a strip mall right next door at 54th and Wentworth were being relieved of their goods. Even Chicago Police superintendent David Brown, then new to his job, expressed vehement disapproval at the subsequent press conference. “If you sleep during a riot what do you do during a regular shift when there’s no riot?” he said. Later that month, Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara told ABC7’s Chuck Goudie in a follow-up story that the officers might have been assigned to protect Rush’s office from looters. A spokesperson for Rush told Goudie that no one from his staff had contacted the CPD for such protection.

For my money, the pièce de résistance of response to this situation came from Congressman Rush himself during the press conference. With clear frustration in his voice, he said, “They had the unmitigated gall to make coffee for themselves and go and pop popcorn. My popcorn. In my microwave.” Kudos to the congressman for using the ever-evocative “unmitigated gall,” the ultimate phrase of utter disgust at foolishness. While its origins are obscure, “unmitigated gall” has been used by everyone from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Worf to country songwriting legend Mel Tillis to decry the audacious nerve of those who may dare to usurp us. What better way to describe so many of the events of 2020. The utter and absolute unmitigated gall. —Salem Collo-Julin

Status quo

Lollapalooza organizers historically schedule most of the local performers at the very beginning of each day, and those noontime sets do few favors for the artists considering even the early birds are still going through security around that time; compound that with the fact that Chicagoans already make up such a tiny fraction of the lineup for a four-day gathering that features nearly 200 acts, and local music is minimally represented at best. Concert promoters C3 Presents, which is based out of Austin, Texas—and which multinational entertainment company Live Nation purchased a controlling stake of in 2014—runs the show. Lolla strikes me as an event that celebrates capital over culture; its best bookings are a curious side effect, not the product. It’s just part of what signals to me that the festival engages with local music only enough to reach a bare-minimum obligation for rendering downtown into a commercialized cesspool.

Lolla went virtual this year, presenting a mix of rebroadcasted sets and new, prerecorded performances on its YouTube channel. It partnered with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which caught heat at the end of July after pulling a “Millennium Park at Home” concert by Chicago pop wizard Sen Morimoto; he refused to remove his introductory speech lightly criticizing mayor Lori Lightfoot for her failure to engage with protesters demanding police accountability. As Morimoto’s scrapped performance made national news, DCASE and Lightfoot issued their own statement, claiming the music series intends to lift up local artists, but not “provide a platform for public discourse and debate.” It followed their suggestion that both parties “honor artistic freedom and uphold free speech.”

Less than a week later, Lolla announced its virtual festival. The official poster framed the lineup’s encyclopedia of performers with a photo collage of the most famous names involved in the festivities and at least one fake progressive. Lori Lightfoot‘s face appeared on the left-hand side of the poster, right beneath an image of Chance the Rapper. The four-day digital bonanza began with a Zoom chat between Lightfoot and Lollapalooza mascot Perry Farrell.

What could the Jane’s Addiction front man and the embattled mayor of Chicago possibly talk about when politics weren’t on the table? Well, the pandemic, which . . . is hardly apolitical. At the close of their discussion, Lightfoot asked Farrell to become a youth ambassador for the city’s COVID-19 safety initiatives. I’m no teen, but I have a hard time believing any young person would be swayed to change their behaviors because a 61-year-old rocker asked them to at the behest of a mayor who routinely refuses to listen to their demands.

Not that Lightfoot’s Lolla Zoom chat was about young people. It was a branding exercise intended to prop up the status quo during a summer when grassroots organizations encouraged Chicagoans to challenge the power structure. Lightfoot’s interactions with music suggest she’s only interested in it as far as it can serve as a vehicle for her message. Something tells me if she actually listened to what the artists on the Lolla lineup and in her backyard express in their work, she wouldn’t like what she’d hear. —Leor Galil


“This has truly restored faith in our democracy.” I heard that over and over again, ringing out of newscasters’ mouths and plastering social media once the veil started to lift on that sunny Saturday, days after voting ended, when it finally became clear that Joe Biden would be president. It sounded like sarcasm. How was any part of this election—this antiquated, confusing, and racist process for choosing which elderly white man controls our fate—genuinely productive and fair?

Did people suddenly forget the chaos, the insufferable debates? The way one side cheated without retribution, all the while making unsubstantiated claims about the other side? The endless pleas for people to register to vote (because for some reason that’s not a given right), only to have those votes blatantly denied by the sitting president?

I don’t want to diminish the triumphs of Kamala Harris, of Black organizers in the south, or of anyone else who put their entire weight behind removing Trump from office. But as so many took to the streets in celebration, I wasn’t quite at the get-drunk-and-dance-in-my-Biden-Harris-merch level of excitement. And I’m still not. Like many others, mostly I just feel tired—and I know Black organizers who have been doing the work for decades feel utterly exhausted.

The same journalists touting “faith in democracy” had to then report on Trump’s refusal to peacefully transition, and the shocking lack of systems in place to oust him. After years of a Trump administration, and months of campaigning, the public had to suffer through weeks of confusion, misinformation, recounts, and lawsuits; a Biden win should not erase all of that.

In reality, this election did little but expose oppressive structures that have existed in this country since its inception. “Restored faith in democracy” feels like an insult to those who marched for weeks on end this summer, an insult to those who do the work every day of trying desperately to tell the world that democracy isn’t the best way to move forward. It feels like a lulling return to complacency. —Taryn Allen


On a Wednesday night in July, long after our sense of normalcy had been annihilated, I went down the street to witness the last rites of an 84-year-old family member dying of coronavirus. I stood in the living room of her ranch house, between a couch and a bay window, with 15 others who were masked and a safe distance away. It was dim, I remember, as if lit by candles. She sat in a hospital bed in the center of the room.

The youngest watched through a cell phone camera. The oldest, her sprightly 88-year-old brother-in-law, said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” We all waited for a miracle. For some, that meant the arrival of the priest. For others, including myself, it was for her immune system to kill what plagued her insides and for her to be better.

She had contracted the virus months before. We knew so little back then. How do we flatten the curve? Should we wear masks? It felt like her death happened fast, but looking back it was slow: a stroke, a positive test, a thrombectomy, a discharge, then a decline in health.

The priest was young. He stood next to her and spoke just above a whisper and with a pleasant accent. Though he had arrived in the dark, he had noticed the names of the streets on the corner on which she lived and said that in heaven she would enjoy wine in a beautiful field. It was thoughtful. She died a few days later.

Scenes much worse than this have taken place in so many hospitals and homes and screens. I have nothing profound to say about the virus, but I can tell you what an emergency room doctor, who on the day I write this is being vaccinated, told me. He said that as the pandemic stretches into another year and the death toll becomes even more abstract, it’s easy to lose sight of how miraculous it is that we are here. The odds of designing a vaccine this effective and this fast, he said, “is like drunkenly stumbling out of your apartment in a snowstorm and finding a lottery ticket worth $70 million.” —Sujay Kumar   v

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