The ballyhooed gang peace summit wasn’t the only thing happening at the Congress Hotel last weekend. The notion of drug-running killers holding court while in another room medical professionals discussed emergency-room issues seemed so ironic that the item topped the “Inc.” column in Sunday’s Tribune. But there was another event taking place at the old Michigan Avenue hotel that Saturday that helps explain–in ways that bullet-riddled bodies never will–why Chicago is in such a sorry state.

While gang members from 28 states met on the first floor to talk about how to stop the violence, agents from a Du Page County real estate company took over the second-floor ballroom and attempted to unload more than 100 south-side, west-side, and south-suburban properties at cut-rate prices. About 100 people–a pretty even mix of blacks and whites–were scattered through the cavernous space as Inland Group, Inc., hawked an inventory that included graystones, bungalows, condos, six-flats, and an occasional commercial building.

“You’re lying out there in the weeds on me,” the auctioneer shouted gleefully as a hand waved near the back of the hall. Inland agents–each wearing a suit, a white shirt, and a red carnation –hovered in the audience, coaxing people to get into the game, while the man at the microphone upped prices by at least $1,000 per bid.

A slide projector flashed an image of each building on a screen at the front of the room. Most appeared habitable, though many were probably among the 107,865 residential units that the 1990 census said were vacant or boarded up. The city tax rolls annually lose thousands of housing units, and with 46 cents on every property-tax dollar earmarked for schools, it’s little wonder the public schools are paralyzed by a $300 million budget deficit.

Singing the praises of a dilapidated South Loomis bungalow, the auctioneer guaranteed that “this is the only piece of real estate in the city of Chicago at that address.” When nobody topped the opening $5,000 bid, he admonished the crowd, “Remember, we’re talking real estate.” His eyes moved quickly through the room, and he reminded his audience that “snoozing is losing.” A roomful of silence led him to move to the next listing, but not before pouting that Inland would hold this bargain for private sale.

One of Inland’s areas of expertise is selling farmland for development. Out in the collar counties, on the fringes of metropolitan Chicago, the company owns eight to ten thousand acres of “predevelopment land”–mainly farmland–that it hopes to pave over in the next ten years. There’s a lot of risk involved in buying such land because there’s no guarantee the land will become a prime location in what newspaper real estate sections call “the path of progress.” Yet the rewards can be great. After all, land acquired for, say, $5,000 an acre can easily sell for $170,000 if it becomes attractive to McDonald’s.

Even though population growth has tapered off, land development stakes remain high. Collar counties like Kane, McHenry, and Will (and neighbors like Boone, De Kalb, and Kendall) are today’s frontier for a growth-and-development industry that increasingly engages in neither. Between 1970 and 1990, while the six-county area’s population grew by 4.1 percent, the area’s amount of developed land nearly doubled, according to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. A slew of public subsidies–for roads and sewer lines, for example, and also the home-owner mortgage-interest deduction–helped to finance the construction of new housing, commercial strips, and industrial facilities. This expansion doesn’t represent the creation of wealth so much as its shift, since what’s happened is basically the migration of people and jobs from Chicago and 90 of its oldest suburbs to 165 newer ones. As Elgin seeps into Rockford and Joliet into Kankakee, the real estate development industry more and more resembles a shell game of relocation.

The abandonment of the American inner city is unique in a world where such neglect usually results from famine, war, or pestilence. Only here have decades of disinvestment promoted community disintegration to the point that churches and gangs are the most vital local institutions and compete for the allegiances of youth. Call the gangs antisocial, they have no monopoly on such behavior.

Inland vice chairman G. Joseph Cosenza told me recently that his company is banking on growth on the edge of the Chicago region–banking on a demand for everything from housing to shopping malls and corporate centers and office buildings. Knowing that Chicago’s office market has its highest vacancy rate in 50 years and that even such bustling edge cities as Schaumburg and Naperville are hurting for tenants, I asked how there could possibly be a need for more office buildings. The glut is localized, he said. Chicago, Cook, and Du Page are overbuilt, but that doesn’t preclude opportunities 50 and 60 miles to the west in Kendall County towns like Oswego, Plano, and Sandwich. Cosenza is right. If enough tenants buy the message proffered in the real estate sections, Inland will land the financing to hire workers, start building, and create a new tax-generating revenue stream. What if an empty building in Chicago or Oak Brook goes bankrupt? Inland is always looking for real estate to sell at auction.

At the Congress Hotel, one of Inland’s boys hustled like someone whose most ardent dream is a corner office. This rotund, pink-faced fellow was in constant motion, walking up and down the rows of chairs, echoing the auctioneer’s pitch about each property. He stood over one man, encouraging him to up the ante. With help from a colleague on the other side of the room, the price on a drab-looking house quickly rose by $5,000. When a nightclub came up for sale, he became positively animated. “Own this and the babes will love you,” he said, though nobody seemed interested. “For that price you can use the place just to have over the family.”

Downstairs, the gang peace summit was hailed as “a family gathering” even though the assembly’s disorganization didn’t suggest tradition. The Saturday-afternoon program advertised successive forums on “Political Unity,” “Political Empowerment in the Hood,” and “Economic Self/Help–New Economic Plan.” But all these forums were combined into one lengthy session that was moved in progress into a larger hall so the smaller one could quarter a session titled “Women of the Struggle/Delivering the Male Child.” There were well over 200 people in the large hall–nearly all of them black males, including former gangbangers in colorful African robes and caps and a number of sheepish youngsters sporting the garb of contemporary urban warfare. A few people brandished cellular telephones. The hopeful talk about healing wounds allayed any fears I might have had about concealed weapons.

As one of maybe ten white people present, I was an easy target for the harried press contact for the Chicago-based No Dope Express Foundation, one of the event’s sponsors. I was handed a thick booklet full of information describing this, the fourth in a series of peace summits that began last spring in Kansas City. Many people have mocked these summits; the advance notice by Chicago’s media was largely contemptuous.

Despite the skepticism about “a time to heal and a time to build,” something important seems to be taking place. The magazine Sojourners explained why in a series of articles in its August issue. One was an interview with Carl Upchurch, executive director of the Council of Urban Peace and Justice in Granville, Ohio, and the summit’s national coordinator. In 1992, during a monthlong trip to south central Los Angeles after the disturbances that followed the Rodney King verdict, Upchurch was pained to see that neither traditional civil rights organizations nor faith communities were promoting peace-and-justice values there. He returned home and began tapping into the gang-truce movement. “It was unbelievable to me that this was actually happening,” Upchurch said. “Here we were, urban America and the people who serve urban America, coming together for the purpose of bringing peace and economic justice to our communities. Whether a person is wearing a baseball cap or a kufi, a dashiki or a three-piece suit, we are all on the same page with regard to saving urban America from disintegration.”

“I made a mistake in Kansas City,” a robust man wearing a suit and sunglasses told the gathering from the podium at the front of the room. A leader of Minneapolis’s Conservative Vice Lords and president of United for Peace, Sharif Willis conceded that after talking about “brothers coming together, the sisters castigated me.” He invited one woman to read her poem and later asked a pregnant woman to step forward. He put his arm around her, gestured at her swollen belly, and spoke of a need to build “a future for our young people.”

Willis asked a Conservative Vice Lord to repeat what he’d told an audience in Cleveland. The fellow mumbled about having apologized because “during drive-bys you don’t know who you hit.” Another fellow admitted that at first he didn’t like the idea of stopping the violence because “I kind of like it.”

Soft laughter rippled through my row. One teenager turned to whisper agreement to another. These boys hooted at a young man who said that not being in the cocaine trade he didn’t “know the difference between an eight ball [an eighth of an ounce of cocaine] and a cue ball.” Then he said that kids running million-dollar street operations are stupid if they fail to do as the Italian gangs used to do–make sure that some of their people get enrolled in Harvard.

“The ballot box is going to talk,” said a representative of Century 21 V.O.T.E., the grass-roots group that is alarming downtown’s powers that be with its massive marches protesting the school crisis. The group, whose gang ties led Mayor Richard Daley to dismiss marchers as pawns of organized crime, was registering voters at a table near the back of the room.

“Before we challenge people on the outside, we need to challenge people on the inside because the whole village has to raise the child,” said Mark Allen, of the Black Leadership Development Institute. In an impassioned speech from the podium, the 31-year-old Allen called on black professionals who are reaching positions of power to “come back home. Now that black men are finally coming together, those who have been saying we needed to do this now have to help train us.”

A young options trader sat down next to me at one point during these remarkable testimonials. When I told him a real estate company was upstairs auctioning off inner-city parcels of land, he didn’t skip a beat. “These people should be up there,” he said.