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The First Presidential Debate: A View From Bronzeville

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The upstairs unit of the Bronzeville building Lonnie Jones owns is furnished with a pink couch and a plush chair covered by a sheet. The walls are blank, and one needs a coat of paint. The wood floor is clean, and a rotating ceiling fan casts soft, strobing shadows over the room. In anticipation of the first presidential debate, Jones, who announced this watch party on Barack Obama's website, leaves the door unlocked. He optimistically faces 13 folding chairs toward a TV on top of a stand holding trinkets, books, portraits of children, and a bottle of blue tequila. He puts out grapes, as well as plates of carrot slices, lettuce, and tomatoes, toppings for a frozen pizza baking in the oven.

A friend sits on the couch, and a tenant in the unit comes and goes. No one else shows up.

Jones, 75, wears glasses, a collared shirt, and has a closely cropped beard that's black, except for the gray on his chin. He said he spent nearly three decades as a teacher and administrator at South Side high schools, retiring in 1994. He lives further south, but bought this building in the hope of fixing it up and turning it into condos, which mix in the neighborhood along with aging, stately brownstones and vacant lots. "But when the bottom fell out of things in 2008, it wasn't in position to be sold, so I'm stuck with it," he said. Since 2007, median area prices have dropped by as much as 80 percent, and Jones thinks he's lost half of his investment, but hopes things will turn around.

The recently headlines most commonly associated with Bronzeville involve crime. From September 13 through September 26, there were 43 reported incidents within an eighth of a mile of the house, according to CPD statistics, including a homicide, five burglaries, and six robberies. Over the past three months, the 3rd ward, where the house is located, saw 2,196 reported crimes, including five homicides, 113 robberies, 23 cases of aggravated assault, and 107 burglaries.

Jones says he feels safe in the area, but admits crime is an issue. He attributes it to a sense of "idleness" that leads to "passion crime, and that is mainly males reacting to this idleness that I'm talking about, and they are fighting those closest to them, 'cause they're frustrated." The most recent census data placed the house in a tract with 20 percent unemployment. Twelve percent of households were in poverty, and over 21 percent had received food assistance at some point in the past year.

When asked what the community needs, Jones laughs softly. "Same thing they need nationally: jobs. Money coming into the household so they can then spend more and do more." He also thinks the country broadly, and the neighborhood specifically, need a change in attitude. "The middle class in this nation for years were the ones that had the greatest aspirations for doing things," he explains. "They were the explorers, they were the builders. The lower class were the takers. I ain't doing nothing, and I don't want anything, so if I just work, I get payed and I go home. I'm not creating anything." The problem now is that the middle and lower classes have merged, resulting in a loss of work ethic among members of the former.

For a minute, Jones appears to be turning into a South Side Mitt Romney, but he disagrees with the "47 percent" assessment the governor offered at a fundraiser last May. "He had his numbers wrong," he explains, noting that many of those Romney spoke are receiving legitimate benefits, like social security.

Jones voted for Obama in 2008, impressed by the organizational quality of the campaign and the candidate's opposition to lobbyist influence in Washington. He supports the Affordable Care Act, which he thinks will lower healthcare costs, and applauds Obama's attempt to wrestle with a "broken" education system, though he thinks it's not yet fixed. He thinks Romney is "awful," in large part because there's "not enough meat" on his proposals, which are purely "prescriptive." Obama's plans, by contrast, are "descriptive."

The day after the debate, Jones tells me by phone that both candidates presented themselves well, but that Romney again avoided specifics. I ask him about the impact of Obama's administration on Bronzeville. "It's minimal at this point," he says, but adds that things will get better as more of the government's investments reach the community.

On the way out of the house the previous night, a woman was in the entryway, rummaging through a plastic bag on the ground, looking for her keys. She found them and stood up, her face moist from sweat. She was moving too quickly, and there was something about her that was desperate.

A version of this post appeared on Medill Reports.

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