What does “charity” mean?


What does “charity” mean?

Chicago is said to be ‘a city of neighborhoods.’ I live in one of the more affluent of these – Old Town – in a four-story, 1875 brownstone, long ago converted, first to a boarding house, then to four apartments.  There’s no doorman, elevator or parking, of course. It is a house, after all, not a high rise, and it’s charming and the location is perfect. Within a few minutes’ walk lies Lincoln Park (Northwest of me); Lincoln Park Zoo (to the North); Lake Michigan beach (East); the Gold Coast and the “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue (Southeast and South-Southeast). Farther in that direction (time and legs permitting), I can walk to Streeterville. Developed on land that was reclaimed from shifting sands and swamp, built up in the 1870’s  as a dump for debris left by the great Chicago Fire, this area has some of the city’s most expensive real estate. It’s named for ‘Cap’ George Streeter – a colorful character of early Chicago. My house won’t last much longer. The land is too valuable to support such small, privately owned buildings.

My neighborhood is a popular destination for visitors and immigrants to the city, from around the country and around the world. Sitting in a local coffee shop to study and write, I’m apt to overhear conversations in foreign tongues, some of which are familiar. On occasion, I’ll practice rusty foreign language skills, and start a chat. I was lucky to find an affordable home here, over 20 years ago. It’s been very nice, most of the time, but lately I’m feeling uncomfortable. Things are changing for the worse. Why? For one thing, the ‘wall’ of apartment buildings, called Carl Sandburg Village, has been ‘breached.’ It was originally conceived and developed in the 1960’s, by Arthur Rubloff, in league with Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose goal was frank and clear. Build a buffer between the old-monied Gold Coast, and the growing areas of ‘blight, brothels and banditry’ encroaching on it from the North and West – communities of working poor and unemployed, including Puerto Ricans and African Americans. (Does this sound familiar? ‘We have to keep them out.’) The threat was exacerbated by middle class flight to suburbia. The Sandburg development led in the next 30 years to the gentrification of the whole blighted area, including my neighborhood which is now totally ‘up scale.’

Of course, the displaced poor people didn’t disappear; but they were for a while out of sight of the more well-to-do. Many of them moved into subsidized housing, jointly administered by the federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development, and the city’s CHA (Chicago Housing Authority), which has changed policies, procedures and population over the decades, from 1937 to the present. By the 60’s, “The Projects” had become high rise apartment buildings, over crowded and under served, whose occupants were entirely of African descent. These slum islands became more and more noticeable in the public consciousness, since they were seen in contrast to the ever more gentrified surrounding communities. So the nearby complex was eliminated. By 2011, the last of the high-rise Cabrini/ Green homes had been demolished, and the land was left vacant. Only now (2017) is the area being seriously considered by the CHA planners.

Chicago is perhaps the most racially segregated city in America, and has been since the Civil War. The reasons for this are very complex, and very hard understand, let alone solve. Nevertheless, the facts  of segregation and its bad effects are getting a lot of attention in recent years, and unceasing media attention during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. I won’t add to that rhetoric here. My point is that Chicago,  as a ‘a city of neighborhoods,’ is divided primarily according to wealth (and  the influence that wealth includes) – into poor, ‘middle- class’ and rich areas. Political representation at local, state and federal levels is determined by drawing borders (gerrymandering) that make these distinctions ever more evident, and the differences among them ever more combative. These groupings and their boundaries change, naturally. A city is a living thing, parts of which grow, while others get sick or die.

Let me be clear. It isn’t the increase of poor people in the neighborhood that worries me, but the increase of begging, con-artistry, theft, burglary, vandalism and mental illness, which is typically associated with poverty in this country and elsewhere.  Flowers I plant in front of the house are often picked, and thrown down. Even the half-barrels used as planters get tipped over, and the soil scattered on the sidewalk. Discarded plastic bottles, paper cups and half-finished containers of fast-food clutter the walkways and gutters, thrown from car windows, or dropped by pedestrians.  It’s by no means only the ‘underclass’ who do this. I see well-off people in the neighborhood do the same. Walking home recently, I saw ahead of me a well-dressed blond young woman with her dog on a leash. When it stopped to poop by a tree, she dutifully picked up the mess with her handy plastic bag. Then she walked another dozen steps past my place and dropped her burden by the doorstep of my next-door neighbor!

When I was little, walking along the sidewalk with my mother, she would pick up the trash dropped by careless passers-by. I could no more litter the street or sidewalk than shoot my mother. In fact, I also often  pick up trash on walks around the neighborhood.

Chicago, like so many other cities, is falling behind in potholesrepairing its infrastructure. Even this affluent neighborhood shows signs of physical decay. Walking down the sidewalk, a lot of things catch the eye. Sidewalks are cracked and lifted up – stumbling blocks for the unwary; and potholes in the cross walks threaten elderly pedestrians. That’s understandable in the current times of diminished tax revenue and political change (a topic for future posts). But the obvious loss of individual responsibility is neither a political nor a financial issue. It’s a cultural issue, which goes along with changing morals, and personal values.

I don’t, then, attribute these problems to the presence of poor people, but to a general demise of a sense of community. It seems that wherever great differences of wealth are obvious, people seem inclined to segregate themselves – either building ‘gated communities’ to keep others out, or high-rise slums to keep them in.

This post is titled “What Does Charity Mean?” so let me finally come to the point. Recently I saw a young man sleeping (or more likely passed out) on the sidewalk in front of the neighborhood’s newest WinTrust bank building. homeless-at-wintrust(Ironic, I thought.) I asked myself, What should I do about this poor man? Not having a quick answer, and  seeing no immediate harm,  I did nothing. But what should I have done? What should I do about the disorder and social disintegration around me? What’s the charitable thing to do? What does it mean to be charitable?

I don’t think charity is giving money to every street person who asks for it. I do think it’s doing what you believe is good for others. That would require knowledge of circumstances, in every case. Ordinarily I don’t know whether a gift or service would benefit the other, so generally I don’t give money to strangers on the street who ask for it – but the number of such people is growing around me, and throughout the country. That’s clear.

The word “charity” comes from Latin (caritas) and other origins that mean ‘dear,’ ‘costly,’ ‘caring,’ and ‘loving’. It is doing what you believe is good or beneficial for others. It is love, but not in the sense of feelings of desire (amor). Today just happens to be Valentine’s Day: a good  opportunity to sell things ‘in the name of love,’ but Cupid isn’t a symbol of the love I’m talking about.  The deeper meaning is that charity is love to our neighbor, to ‘the other,’ in the sense emphasized especially (but not only) in Christian teachings. Our neighbor is the person next door, or the homeless beggar, our group, or town or country or all people as humans, and relatedly, it obligates us to be protectors and stewards of the earth and its natural contents, for the sake of our neighbors.

By coincidence, just as I write this, a young woman came up and said something like ‘I see you here often, with throw-away cups and food wrappers. Did you ever consider that you could bring your own coffee mug, and ask for a glass when you want water?’ (Mentally I added to her list ‘and a plate, when I buy something to eat’.) Although her tone was a bit accusing, I thanked her for her suggestions. In fact, she did make me reconsider my options. Yes, I’ve often thought about how to recycle and conserve resources, in this coffee shop and at home and elsewhere. I’ve often chatted with the manager about the obvious generation of unnecessary packaging and the lack of recycling possibilities, despite the ‘environmentally friendly’ tone the corporation takes in its ad campaigns. We agree, but his hands are tied. However, I can do more. These things too are a function of charity.

To ‘love’ people and meet obligations is not a matter of sentiment or of warm positive feelings, but rather of doing what puts good intentions into action, and makes them live. In short, it’s the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you.” The old-fashion language here (King James version) is subtle. The grammatical ‘mood’ indicates the notion of imagination and possibility, rather than actuality. Act now as you would act in another situation you can imagine, but which doesn’t exist. I should act as if I were the other person. How would I want another to treat me, if I were in her place? That’s how I should treat her. This is clearly not the same as ‘Treat the other well so that she will return the favor.’ That’s self-interest. But this ‘rule’ rests on the idea that all people are of equal value humanly, regardless of their wealth, influence, intelligence, charm or interest and potential benefit to me. This idea or ideal of equality is the foundation of morality. Although we may not feel all people to be equal, or like them all equally, we should act from this principle of equality. That’s the love we need. That’s charity.