Chicago and St. Louis: A Comparative Look

I spent last weekend in Chicago. Only a four to five hour drive and cheap bus and train ride from St. Louis it is a city I have been to many times. My first trip to Chicago I was maybe 18 and travelled there with a taabliqui jamaat. Later I would come to visit MCC on Elston and Pulaski and sit with Amir Ali (R.I.P.) at the Reading Room with Ismail Royer.

Ismail dreamed of going to study at the University of Chicago. When he was not accepted he was really sad until he was accepted at American University in DC.

A lot of St. Louis kids move to Chicago. It’s bigger, more vibrant, more opportunity, close to home and maybe far enough away from exes, family drama and undisclosed baggage.

I see Chicago as being better than St. Louis in many ways and in other ways lacking. Here are the pluses:

Muslim Community: There is really no comparison between the Muslim community of St. Louis and Chicago. While indigenous Sunni Islam in Chicago has lagged behind the East Coast Sunni Muslim pioneers it has excelled in other ways and is decades more advanced than St. Louis.

In St. Louis the reality of indigenous Islam is you have masjids of old and dying WDers, a small Salafi Madkhali prison gang masjid, and a masjid of mostly heroin-addicts, the homeless, and crackheads. There are also the indigenous beggars who frequent the immigrant masjids. Mixed in are a small sprinkling of educated professionals and guys like me just barely holding on and not that active.

The immigrant Muslim community in the city is heavily made up of students, just trying to get their education, and refugees just trying to establish themselves. No real community life outside of their ethnicities. In the suburbs the Muslim community is rapidly growing and there is a lot of progress. Similar to 1980’s Chicago or 1970’s Brooklyn in terms of development.

In Chicago you have a variety of indigenous masjids on the south and west sides. IMAN with it’s pioneering mission. I may have got a little pissed when Rami Nashishibi taught his American-Muslim history class and didn’t give the pioneers in NYC and Philly their just due (the Dar al Islam, Islamic Party, MIB, MOA, Hanafis, Imam Jamil, etc.): but there is no doubt he has helped to establish a good and much needed thing. IMAN is the only organization I know of that can bring disaffected second-gen immigrant Muslim youth together with indigenous Muslims for dialouge and community engagement.

Ubaydullah Evans to me the best young man in Muslim America. Now because he is black (and cant pass a paper bag test) he wont get that much push from the major organizations who are looking for white,beige and brown faces to promote. Nonetheless he is in Chicago and if you are there you can benefit from his knowledge.

My brother Abu Noor Ryan, another one of the most brilliant minds of Islam in America, is now the chaplain at DePaul and basically rewriting the book and taking Muslim campus life to the next level.

There is also the American Islamic College, Usama Cannon coming in for Taleef talks, and the legacy of Imam Mohammed. From indigenous perspective there is just not comparing the two. (Let’s also  keep in mind the study and practice of traditional Sunni Islam is only 20 years old in St. Louis. Only beginning with the return of Mukhtar Abdul-Malik from the East Coast in 1992 and Mujaheed Abdul-Qadeer aq-Menepta and Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Baseer teaching at Masjid at-Taqwa wa-Jihad and later Geraldine in 1993.)

From an immigrant Muslim standpoint Chicago is also way more advanced. Muslim schools, Muslim boarding schools, loads of masjids, a second-gen Muslim culture and lingo, it’s just more advanced due to sheer numbers and the time they have been there. Personally I don’t want to go to any of these masjids just saying their existence adds to the life.

Not that I am a strict halal eater anymore (I’ve gone Saudi): but a simple visit to Zabihah will show you Chicago is a great city to live in for a halal eater. St. Louis is making a lot of progress though but will probably never catch up due to low demand.

Diversity: St. Louis is still a black-white city. Blacks and blondes. I grew up in a racially-polarized segregated city and VERY little has changed in my lifetime. People who say race-relations are good in St. Louis are normally white people who don’t know shit, clueless folks, or people who seldom see or interact with people outside of their race. They are NEVER people like me from a racially-mixed family or who grew up in North County.

The brightest Muslim brothers left St. Louis. They felt unfulfilled. We have a big black “brain drain”. St. Louis has one of the smallest Latino populations in the country. Without an infusion of refugees fleeing war and ethnic-cleansing we wouldn’t have the small level of diversity we have now in south city. I have been saying for a while this city needs massive immigration to survive. Many agree. It just isn’t there yet.

Chicago reminds me of living in NYC and DC. Latino kids listening to hip-hop their mothers speaking to them in Spanish them answering in English. Desi kids in Bears jerseys. Hijabs, beards, turbans, kippahs, all common sites. Not just immigrant cultures. Arrived groups. Fully multi-lingual. Adding their flavor. People who see my beard and know I’m not Amish or in a biker gang. Not quite New York. Light-years ahead of St. Louis.

On a short walk I saw Romanian, Greek, Polish, and Ughyr restaurants. St. Louis was an ethnic city. In midwestern and “up south” fashion though it rapes anyone of their identity. The goal is blandness. Drowing in an ocean of whiteness. The Italian is just a hoosier with the vowel on the end of his name. The assimilated goyische Jew breaks his Yom Kippur fast with a pork steak and a Bud Light, the Romani kid told to never tell anyone he is a “gypsy”.

Street Tribes: There was a time the game in St. Louis was organized. Fat Woods running the Pruitt-Igoe, the Petty Brothers, Jerry Lewis-Bey and the Moors, the Conway Brothers and others before them in Kinloch, etc. . Crack killed all that. And it aint came back. The Street Tribes of Chicago from Jeff Fort and the el Rukn to the Folk Nation to the Peoples Nation to the Latin Kings provided structure and organization. It could be a positive force or negative force. The point is it provided structure. Which meant less violence. It also meant a structure for self governance was in place detached from the system. The government saw this as a threat. Destroying the leadership led to the removal of structure which has led to Chicago becoming the murder capitol. The ideas still exist though as do the tribes. That in itself gives Chicago a progressive advantage over the petty, chaotic and cannibalistic streets of St. Louis.

Modern: Chicago is a modern city in a modern America. A good portion of the St. Louis Metro has one agenda-the return of the 1950’s ( and that wasn’t a bad decade). They aint coming back though.

Culture: I’m not that well-cultured. I go to a museum every now and then, I like thr library and have a thing for flowers, old buildings, public radio and the symphony. That’s about it and I believe St. Louis competes well with Chicago on all of those if not better. The area where Chicago really kicks St. Louis ass is film. There was a time when the Tivoli, Hi-Pointe and Plaza Frontenac showed a lot of good foreign-films, documentaries, and edgy indie-fims. Not anymore. Even the St. Louis International Film Festival has went downhill. They all seem to be focused on yuppie love stories and gay or ironic comedies. Like Girls isn’t bad and white enough on the small screen. Every time I see a film I wanna see and it’s not here I look and it’s in Chicago.

Public Transit: I don’t think Chicago’s public transportation system is all that great. It definitely is not as good as NYC, Boston, DC or Philly. it also is not as pedestrian as the East Coast. Still, it isn’t bad, and it is way better than St. Louis (which doesn’t take much). Metro in St. Louis is for poor people. When I was poor I caught the bus and Metrolink. Now that I have a decent job I don’t. That simple. I don’t miss the unruly passengers, rude drivers, and being late everywhere. Chicago, while still kind of lacking, has more diversity on the train. Not just poor people. The city is also a lot more pedestrian. I love walking and in Chicago there are a lot of places to walk, a lot to see, and a lot to take in. you are also not the only person on the sidewalk. In New York I walked several miles a day. In St. Louis my fat ass only walks to the car (OK I go on nature walks when nothing is good on TV). I miss walking. Every time I go for a walk in my neighborhood I may have to beat a mother f****** ass or die trying.

St. Louis has many pluses. Great friends, favorite places to eat, family, familiarity. You are born here you die here. Few people surprise you in St. Louis or alter their destiny. They play the roles they were born to play.


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