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Gary Younge

Barack Obama addresses supporters during his election night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Ever Obama's town, Chicago looks for a new future amid a panicked present

When I told people in New York I was moving to Chicago last year, they generally spent the first five minutes telling me how lucky I was. They emoted about "the lake" – Lake Michigan – which marks the city's eastern boundary; the eclectic skyline; the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture; the affable locals; the jazz scene; and the vibrant, self-sufficient neighbourhoods.

Then they'd spend the next 10 minutes explaining why they would not be coming to visit me for seven months of the year. They'd recall their wasted hours at Chicago O'Hare airport, where they missed their connection because of bad weather, and threaten you with winds so chill they'd freeze you from the inside out.

But the year I have been here has not been typical. It's been unseasonably warm throughout most of the past year, and I have seen shirtsleeves in October and sandals in April. But the clement weather has brought its own problems. Because when the sun is shining, people go out. And when people go out in Chicago, it transpires, they are more likely to get shot.

The murder rate for the first half of the year was up 38% on last year – which was not a great year – meaning that, by June, fewer US forces were killed in Kabul than murdered here. Over May's Memorial Day weekend alone there were 43 shootings and 10 murders.

"Chicago is a different beast when it comes down to the issue of violence," Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, a violence prevention group, told Frontline. "You have outbreaks of violence the same way you have outbreaks of diseases in countries throughout the world. Some people are going to sleep in Chicago thinking about who they're going to shoot the next day." At a meeting on traffic awareness at my son's day-care centre, one of the parents asked whether school outings would still pass the site of a recent shooting.

"We must talk to the children about how to handle situations like that," said the principal. "Because the big problem in those situations is that they panic."

Panic in the presence of gunfire in broad daylight, I thought, was a perfectly rational response. The problem wasn't the panic but the shooting. On the way home I saw posters on the window of the youth club at the top of our street saying: "Stop Killing People." It seems like the kind of suggestion you wouldn't need a poster for.

Every major US city has, at some time, gained a particular reputation for dysfunctionality, usually related to crime, violence, corruption or insolvency (and occasionally all four). But Chicago is not any city. It's Obamatown. Pictures of the president are everywhere – barbershops, diners, nail salons and bodegas. He smiles down from the foyer of the college that houses the day-care centre only to peer out again amid the stick-men pictures and spidery penmanship on the wall of centre itself. 

Whenever the first family come back for a break or a family event, traffic jams with pride. Not long ago, I saw a bumper sticker in my neighbourhood – Oromos for Obama – expressing support from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group: now that's micro-marketing.

Obama, needless to say, is not responsible for this mayhem. True, the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was his first chief of staff. (His second was William Daley, son of one former Chicago mayor and brother to another.) But Emanuel has been in for little more than a year and Obama only served three terms as a state senator in the city – when the murder rate was much lower – before doing four years as senator for Illinois. Nonetheless, of all the places where this shape-shifting president has lived – Hawaii, Indonesia, New York, Boston – this is the place he is most closely identified with (unless you are one of those stubborn Republicans who still believes he is really from Kenya). It's where his campaign headquarters are and where, on that unusually warm November night four years ago, he strolled out on to a stage in Grant Park to claim his place in history.

 A young Chicagoan campaigns against the wave of shootings that is blighting her city. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A young Chicagoan campaigns against the wave of shootings that is blighting her city. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As the first president for several decades to be associated with a big city, he is particularly vulnerable. For regardless of how many mass slayings may occur in suburbs and how much crystal meth may be distributed in rural areas, cities remain the principal repository for the nation's anxieties. All the national woes are evident here. The abandoned shoes outside the door across the hallway from my son's friend's apartment are testament to a housing market only now bouncing back. The queues at the local food banks keep growing. The mortality rate for black infants is on a par with the West Bank.

It is widely believed that it was to avoid scenes of rioting in his home town that Obama abruptly moved the G8 summit from Chicago to Camp David. It's also thought to be the reason that Emanuel now seems keen to compromise in the face of an impending teachers' strike that is due to start next week (that and the fact that the overwhelming majority of the city support the teachers).

And so it is with Chicago that Obama is tarred by opponents, who have come to refer to the city not as the third-largest in the country but as an epithet. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney described Obama's attacks on his record as a venture capitalist at the private equity firm Bain Capital as "Chicago politics at its worst". Former Bush consigilière Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about political smears, called the attacks the "gutter politics of the worst Chicago sort". Romney surrogate John Sununu, who recently insisted Obama should "learn how to be an American", previously said: "Can you imagine coming out of Chicago politics, where 'politician' and 'felon' are synonymous? You've got two governors in prison today."

This is not quite true. One of those imprisoned Illinois governors, Republican George Ryan, was not from Chicago. And while Obama lived in the city and practised politics there, he was hardly a product of its political culture – indeed, as a community organiser he was most often trying to confront it from the outside.

The attacks also seem to be aimed at Chicago's past rather than its present. The Republicans aren't slating the city for its gun crime (they are against gun control) or the teachers' dispute (they loathe teachers' unions) but the place the city occupies in the national imagination, where crime and politics are ostensibly deeply intertwined. 

"When their ideas of today's middle class are rooted in the JR Ewing family on the remake of Dallas," said Emanuel, "it's no surprise their idea of Chicago politics comes from watching Boss. They need a reality check on both fronts."

This is not quite true either. The city's history of machine politics, where patronage was far more important than policies or ideology, does stretch back a long way. In 1948, Abner Mikva, originally from Milwaukee, famously went to the local Democratic party to try to sign up to help campaign for Adlai Stevenson for governor and Paul Douglas for Senate. The local committeeman asked him: "Who sent you?"

"Nobody sent me," said Mikva. "I just want to help."

"We don't want nobody that nobody sent," said the committeeman and sent Mikva away.

But the legacy of those years still lingers. A report earlier this year by Dick Simpson from the University of Illinois at Chicago, revealed that Chicago boasts the most convictions since 1976 in the country. Since then, more than 1,500 elected officials, appointees, government employees and some private individuals have been convicted of corruption in Illinois' Northern District – the judicial zone that includes the Chicago metropolitan area.

 A man wearing a restaurant T-shirt that proclaims the city
A man wearing a restaurant T-shirt that proclaims the city's pride in the president. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters/Corbis

Politics here is about as raw as it gets in the west. Rod Blagojevich, a fomer Illinois governor and a Chicago native, was caught on tape trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama when he won the presidency. "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I'm not gonna do it." For this Blagojevich got 14 years in prison, the fourth of the last eight governors to end up behind bars in the past 50 years.

The notoriously profane Emanuel (nicknamed Rahmbo) once mailed a dead fish to a pollster whom he accused of costing his candidate an election. When he was inaugurated, he said: "I am not a patient man. I will not be a patient mayor."

For most of the postwar period, Chicago politics was also a family affair. For 43 of the last 56 years before Emanuel took over the city was run by just two men, father and son, with the same name – Richard Daley. The father and, to a much lesser extent, the son doled out jobs and released funds to those who did their bidding and punished those who did not.

In 2005, a judicial inquiry found the city council had been granting jobs to people who were ostensibly interviewed while dead or serving in Iraq. The fact that, a year later, Daley Jr was re-elected with a whopping 72% tells you something about how many Chicagoans view these matters.

"We have a higher level of tolerance for corruption than other towns," Simpson, author of Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps, a history of Chicago city politics, told me when the inquiry was at its height. "Our political culture makes an allowance for corruption because it's our tradition. Corruption by itself will not cause a mayor in Chicago to be defeated. It has to be coupled with other issues, such as poor services or high tax increases."

It is this attitude that makes Chicago such an endearing city to me despite all the obvious flaws. Its citizens display a remarkable ability to convert its insecurities into a positive local identity. As corrupt as the Daleys may have been there was never any suggestion that they were in it to line their own pockets or that they weren't generally driven by their passion for the city. Mayors are more likely to be fired here for not clearing the snow than interviewing dead people because Chicagoans appreciate leaders who get things done and can deliver. That doesn't make the corruption excusable. But it explains why it's not definitive.

There is a healthy disdain for the self-referential arrogance of the coasts. When people talk about midwestern hicks or the flyover states, Chicagoans, not unreasonably, feel they are also disparaged. "A lot of Chicagoans are sensitive to the accusation that their city is too provincial," explains Mike Dumke, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Reader. "We're the third-largest city in the country by size. But they fear we're a distant third in influence." But unlike many New Yorkers, they love their city in its own right, not because they think it's better than anywhere else.

And there is a general sense that City Hall is cleaning up its act. When I was visiting schools recently, most principals emphasised that all attempts to buck the system are futile. "I couldn't even get my daughter into this school. There's no such thing as the 'Chicago Way' any more," said one, using the shorthand for the kind of corruption particular to the city.

None of this compensates for the sense of insecurity when a shooting takes place at the top of your block – as it did recently – or when your five-year-old asks to cycle a different way to school because "people over there keep getting arrested".

But it makes it liveable. Because all the things New Yorkers referred to in their first five minutes are still true. Cycle alongside Lake Shore Drive in the early morning and you will pass black church groups jogging, Asians playing cricket and the tinkling of masts in the marina. All this with the lake lapping at your feet and the John Hancock Centre looming ahead. Whether I will feel quite the same next winter is another matter.

This article was amended on 3 September 2012 to make clear that the Chicago teachers' strike is scheduled to start next week, not on the first day of the Democratic national convention. The original also referred to the John Hancock Tower, which is in Boston, rather than John Hancock Centre.

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