Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town. Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town, Goodnight. - Iris Dement
Outraged objections had been posted, published and puffed. When Spike Lee proposed a film to be set and shot in Chicago titled: "Chi-raq", Aldermen Will Burns and Anthony Bealethreatened to pull tax incentives usually given to movie producers for locating in the city. Mayor Emmanuel counted on his powers of persuasion to squelch the plan.
Motivated not by sensationalism, but apparently by a moral responsibility to frankly, without prejudice open the sensitive, complicated topic of Black on Black crime in American cities, it turned out that the brilliant Black Director/Producer was not dissuaded from his purpose by a few politicians. Walking home form the Community Garden, I saw a young fellow wearing the "Chi-raq hoodie; the nickname may be distasteful to some, but it is now embedded in popular culture.
I'm thinking of a story titled not "Chi-raq", but "Chigri-La". It is the story of people who grew up in an idyllic Chicago neighborhood and gather once or twice a year to share reminiscences and mourn the beautiful place forever lost to them, as though it had vanished in the mist. It is also the story of the middle class people: intelligent, educated, enterprising people who moved into the deserted bungalows, two flats, cooperative apartments and mansions.
It is the story of how both ethnic groups were co-opted by cynical merchants, some operating, if not ethically, at least within the limits of the law; others, with criminal disdain of any law but the law of the gun. For the cynics who manipulated this irrational response- well, there is, or should be, a box-level tier in you-know-where. Chicago's elected city officials from the 1920's on might be assigned front row seating: rigid color lines were drawn and enforced politically.Wards defined by race are an institution in my fair city.
South Shore's racial transition was rapid. Figures gathered from real state companies indicated that African American home ownership in South Shore increased 42% between 1960 and 1966. 1950 Census data shows that South Shore was 98.8% Caucasian; in 1960, 89.6%; in 1970, 29.9%; and in 1980, 2%, which is approximately the percentage today.
This dramatic shift in demography is somewhat comprehensible when taking into account the historic function of the neighborhood. During the first half of the twentieth century, South Shore developed as a bedroom community. Two thirds of the residents here live in apartments. Art Deco court yard apartment buildings along Jeffery, Constance and Bennett are spacious and elegant. Privately owned apartment units such as The Windsor Beach Apartments, my
home, were created as cooperative apartments. The Country Club Hotel and the South Shore Apartment Hotel became rental units. A number of the huge, handsome, luxurious units on Oglesby and Crandon adapted to a newer construct of apartment ownership and have become condominiums.
Harvey Molotch, author of Managed Integration; Dilemmas of Doing Good in the City, published in 1972 by The University of Chicago Press, makes the case for the inevitability of the ethnic turn-over. becauseMiddle Class African Americans had fewer options when seeking a "move-up" neighborhood than Caucasians, who could, without conflict, move to a suburb.
He suggests that many efforts such as improvements in curb appearances of thoroughfares,screening of potential tenants, nightly citizen patrols and racially balanced classrooms, plus a community newspaper, all launched by community activists with the intention of attracting and retaining white residents, actually held greater appeal for Black home seekers, who wanted and could afford a lovely, well maintained community and had fewer options than a prospective white buyer.
He also points out that because American apartment dwellers tend to change residences every seven years,what looked like "white flight" was really more like normal attrition; it's just that African Americans were replacing white residents. That doesn't satisfactorily explain why a white family wouldn't choose to live in a lakeside community with expansive beaches, parks, two golf courses and, at the time, some of the best schools in Chicago.
During the 1960s the incoming South Shore residents were more than equal to those leaving in terms of education, as the first African-Americans moving to South Shore belonged to the professional class: physicians, attorneys, highly degreed educators. After South Shore became a predominantly Black neighborhood, the incomes of many South Shore residents increased. Fine shops and restaurants along 71st Streetwelcomed the new patrons: commerce and prosperity seemed a permanent aspect of life in this neighborhood.
Molotch, during his head-counting research in April of 1967, visited the six grocery stores on 71st Street! We have not had a single grocery store on 71st Street for over a year. Businesses that flourished along our main street have disappeared and, if replaced at all, were supplanted by the likes of Dollar Stores and Wig emporiums.
Disinvestment in this community suffered the coup de grace in 2012 with the departure of Urban Partnership Bank, the successor to Shore Bank, financial linchpin to South Shore. Retail options diminished to an even greater extent and the result has been devastating.
South Shore's reputation as an upstanding place to live was seriously damaged with the demolition of the city's large public housing complexes, when people from other parts of town were summarily deposited in a neighborhood that offered them little but a roof over their heads. South Shore, since the steel mills closed, has virtually no employment opportunities.
To make matters worse, many gang members found themselves situated next door to an enemy. For the past ten to fifteen years, the community has struggled to absorb the influx gracefully.
Expanding on his research in urban development, Harvey Molotch published The City as a Growth Machine in 1999. This work speculates that the political and economic success of any American community depends upon growth. He argues that the desire for growth is the key motivator for consensus among disparate civic leaders, no matter how much they may disagree about other important issues.
"The growth imperative is crucial to determining what measures should be taken in addressing social and economic concerns. The clearest evidence of success at growth is a rising urban population, an initial expansion of basic industries, followed by an expanded labor force, a rising scale of retail and wholesale commerce, a more far-flung and increasingly intensive land development, higher levels of population density and increased financial activity." He believes that those who seriously care about their community will figure out how to bring about growth.
South Shore must grow out of the stagnant socio/economic situation so clearly on display along 71st, 75th and 79th Streets. To return life to our retail corridors, we must put life back in. Moralizing and blaming City Hall hasn't gotten us anywhere. It's going to take some persuasive visionaries to pull it off because social cohesion and solidity of purpose in South Shore has to manage more deeply entrenched demographic obstacles than racial chauvinism. Here are a few statistics about my neighborhood that make effecting social change challenging:
- The population here comprises a higher percentage of Ph.D's than the city of Chicago as a whole, but also a higher percentage of non-high school graduates.
- The population is somewhat older than Chicago and more women live here than men.
- Our household income is only 65% of Chicago's average household.
- The average listed price of South Shore's housing stock is higher than Chicago's average, but the value of our condos and cooperative apartments is less than half of the Chicago average.
We are a disparate group in many ways other than ethnicity and we have some seemingly intractable financial differences from the rest of the city. Without an employer capable of hiring a significant portion of the local populace, it seems to me that South Shore should be marketing its excellent housing stock, especiallythe spacious, elegant apartments.
When the Windsor Beach Golf Club property, owned by an early mayor of Chicago, "Long John" Wentworth was held in trust for his daughter until her death and became available in 1919, Charles Ringer brokered its sale, parceling it off to developers of apartment buildings.He promoted the area's excellent public transportation and its access to public beaches.
Today, not only are we served by the electric Metra, clean and quiet which makes the trip to the Loop in less than 30 minutes, we have express buses can make the trip even faster. LakeShore Drive is right at our doorstep and a car can, given light traffic, be in the Loop in 15-20 minutes. Rainbow Beach is a half-mile of powdery sand and stunning views. The uncrowded waterfront at The Cultural Center seems almost like the private beach of fifty years ago.
The infrastructure here is so desirable: all we need are a few more cafes (there are two in the northeast near South Shore Drive and a Starbucks on Stony Island which is doing very well),another sit-down restaurant, a flower shop, a women's wear boutique, a book storeto make South Shore appear attractive enough to lure enough people away from their high rent districts. Then, what worked in 1919 will work again.
A more aggressive tactic would be to demolish the apartment buildings that are clustered on what once was the Windsor Park Golf Club. This dense area known as "Terror Town", between Colfax and Yates Avenues could become the location for a hydroponics urban farm or something else as useful and non-polluting. The addition of 80 acres of apartment buildings may have contributed to Charles Ringer's wealth, but it did not contribute, in the long run, to the quality of life in South Shore.
A recent study of Chicago communities shows that while neighborhoods identified as thirty-five percent or more Caucasian tend to gentrify over time, neighborhoods identified as least forty percent African American may display a few signs of gentrification at times, butwill never transform completely.
However, I am concerned that gentrification fears may place unwarranted roadblocks in the path of growth in South Shore. Residents here need assurance that economic revitalization will not bring about the reverse of the 1960's demographic shift, creating another "Chigri-La", a neighborhood so dramatic in its social permutation that it no longer welcomes the dispossessed children who once called it home.
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