NOTE: This blog post was honored with the Peter Lisagor Award for Best Individual Blog Post, Independent 2015 by the Chicago Headline Club and the Society of Professional Journalists.
One of my potent memories of childhood is packing into whatever used Cadillac my Dad was driving at the time for a weekend day trip, Montovani or Percy Faith playing on the 8 track. We lived in the southern suburbs and would snake up the Dan Ryan, the most infamous of Chicago’s expressways, and head north. My Dad was always behind the wheel and the windows were usually down, as both my parents smoked.
It was not uncommon for my Dad to exit at the Robert Taylor Homes, in the Bronzeville neighborhood. These were a collection of high rise housing projects made warm and fuzzy by the 1970s sitcom, Good Times, but in actuality were a vertical concentration of poverty, unemployment, crime, and violence. And, yes, the windows went up, and the doors were locked. My young heart beat faster in the few minutes we drove down State Street before re-entering the expressway north. The buildings were enormous and barren and monolithic and terrifying. Even as a child, I recognized the disparity between “us” and “them.” Even as a child, I thought in those terms, “us” and “them.”
Was that racist? Yes, I think so. How could it not be? Every face staring back at me from the other side of the window was black. I never recall my parents or any of us saying much of anything as we drove down those intimidating streets. There were no racial slurs on those drives. Just quiet and heaviness. I have no doubt that we all breathed a sigh of relief as we got back on the expressway. Was that racist, too? Yes, it was.
Those drives would continue all the way north, eventually winding through the posh, leafy suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore. Places with names like Lake Forest, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Winnetka. The juxtaposition between the extremes of Chicago’s poverty stricken south side and its tony North Shore estates were jarring then, just as they are jarring now. Chicago’s disparity of wealth has not changed, other than becoming more intractable.
An important point to make, too, is that my heart raced as fast in those leafy wide lanes along Lake Michigan’s shore, just as they did in the Robert Taylor Homes. The sense of “us” and “them” was absolutely no different as I watched the people in tennis skirts, Lily Pulitzer prints, and pink oxford cloth on the other side of the window.
Was that classist? Yes, I think so. How could it not be? Every face staring back at me from the other side of the window was rich. I never recall my parents or any of us saying much of anything as we drove down those intimidating streets. There were no class slurs on those drives. Just quiet and heaviness. I have no doubt that we all breathed a sigh of relief as we got back on the expressway. Was that classist, too? Yes, it was.
When my Dad died last spring, I prepared a eulogy for his service. Those long drives on rainy or sunny weekend afternoons would factor prominently in how I remembered my Dad. I thought of those drives as a lesson my Dad was giving, not in words, but in drives, about some people having more than us and some people having less than us and that we should be grateful for what we had, modest as it might have been in a working class suburb filled with ethnic whites with Polish and Irish and German surnames.
My sister had a completely different take on those drives. For her, they were about my Dad laying Chicago at our feet — all of it — the good and bad, posh and poor, ugly and beautiful, dangerous and refined, black and white, that Chicago had to offer. All of it was ours. We had as much stake in what happened at the Robert Taylor Homes as we did with what was going on in Wilmette. All of it was Chicago and all of it was our home. Ours.
Thinking about our conversation, I believe that my sister’s sense of why those drives happened was more likely. My Dad owned every room he ever walked in. Every single room was his. Wealth did not intimidate him. Poverty did not intimidate him. Color did not intimidate him. A person’s circumstances, blessed or damned, did not intimidate him. He was just as likely to strike up conversation with the black man on the street corner as he was the white man dining al fresco and find value in both.
I thought of my Dad last week as I made a drive down that same Dan Ryan expressway, this time headed south, not north, with the Englewood neighborhood as my destination. I was hoping to talk with Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK). I had read a news report about Tamar and her efforts to create a grassroots network of moms patrolling violence plagued intersections on the south side in an effort to discourage gun and gang violence. The mere idea astounded me and galvanized me simultaneously. Motherhood is a powerful thing and Tamar was proving that. (You can read my companion interview with Tamar HERE.)
I’m not going to lie, as I exited the expressway, that rapid heartbeat I had felt as a girl on those drives returned. I don’t recall ever feeling quite that well intentioned or quite that white — the embarrassing stereotype of the Lake Shore Liberal come to life. Yep, that’s me.
It was easy to spot the volunteers dressed in their hot pink t-shirts. I turned onto Stewart and parked my ridiculous mom car. True to form, I had brought along water and cupcakes to share. WHO DOESN’T LIKE CUPCAKES? Again, the stereotype I am makes me cringe at times. I was grateful when a young man approached me. It was clear that he was familiar with the somewhat pensive looking white lady type that I was. With increasing coverage, more and more volunteers and donations are coming in to support the efforts of MASK.
Armed with a notepad and my iPhone, I set about the business of finding people who would talk to me. It was easier than I thought. The legit reporters with trucks and microphones and fancy cameras were across the street, panning the scene. I was crouched on my knees, something no 45 year old woman can do for too long. People were happy to talk with me.
There was Mary, a volunteer since the effort started on June 29th after the shooting death of a young woman. Mary’s son was murdered in 2001. She runs a weekly grief support group at Mercy Hospital. There was Tracy, a PR executive who volunteers for the campaign every night and manages their social media. She wanted me to know about the transformation of the young men with gang affiliations who were now regularly coming by to be a part of the nightly watch. As a sign of respect and cooperation, they were pulling up their pants and wearing shirts. These things made them less threatening to their neighbors.
There was Eddie, Tamar’s cousin, who joined the Nation of Islam at 15 years old, three years after his own father was murdered. There were two young men with dread locks who would not give me their names, but who believed that it would be “business as usual” once the moms packed up and went home. There was the family down the street who did not want me to photograph them as there were drugs on the porch, but they talked to me about being able to let their little ones up and down the street this summer — something that had not been possible before. There were the double dutch jumpers, middle aged women just like me, enjoying the pastime of their childhood, if a little more rusty at it.
There is no question to me that Chicago is deeply divided. Talking with the good folks gathered at 75th and Stewart last week was like breathing air into a news report. The “us” and “them” of my youth absolutely exists, but in those 90 minutes I was there, it was suspended. What separates us is color and opportunity and school quality and access to resources and lack of hope and fear and racist institutions and drugs and crime and so many other factors that are too many to name.
Just as my Dad taught me on those drives so many years ago, this is “our” Chicago, not “theirs.” When we acknowledge that what happens in Woodlawn and Englewood is just as relevant as what happens in Lincoln Park or North Center, and that the tragedy of one neighborhood is the tragedy of our entire city, only then can we truly call ourselves a Chicagoan.
You know who can subscribe to my blog? ANYONE! You don’t even have to be from Chicago. Here is how:
Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.