Usually people resent people who judge them. Teachers, bosses, co-workers, and that hammer-head in the other car waving his fist at me. And yet there are times when judging comes from a hurting core rather than a heady arrogance. I’m talking about Chicago’s largest and sickest neighborhood- community: Austin. What’s happened here is like watching a splendid Norman Rockwell mural peel and wither before your eyes. I know, because I was born, reared, and glorified there.
Austin — a verdant pastoral community — was annexed onto the city’s far west border in 1899. During its prolific first century it became an ideal of that cozy small-town-within-a-big-city image Rockwell painted so lovingly. A few square miles of stately Queen Anne’s, stout brick bungalows, and two flats; all scattered among local mom & pop stores, food markets, eateries, schools, churches, and temples swaddled inside thick green lawns, fragrant backyard gardens, and the proud protection of endless rows of lush oaks, maples and poplars.
The collars were both white and blue; the households were sen-tried by strong loving mothers; the safety of all was a given, so doors were left unlocked and welcoming rather than shut and defensive. Not an especially sophisticated community, but surely a good and decent all-American one in which Irish, German, Swede, Italian and Jew took for granted they each belonged. Why there was even our share of celebrities like Gene Krupa, Bob Newhart, Kim Novak, Hugh Hefner and Andrew Greeley.
However, the celebrity and consensus to our little community was slowly lost in one of those post WWII demographic shifts. Call it a recession, White flight, Black invasion, whatever you choose, but it all happened without anyone’s choice. Without anyone’s plan or purpose. As a bitter result, Austin’s last 25 years have become another bone-jarring portrait in urban plight. Its homes graying, its lawns yellowing, its stores shuttering, its schools and churches disappearing, its gangs flourishing.
Good friends and former neighbors continue to live here. And strive here. The battle is not over. But for now, those of us who left [deserted?] this once-shimmering piece of Americana hunger to share in the Mayor’s vision to win it back. And what a victory that would be for every Austiner past, present and future to celebrate. Indeed, for everyone who has lost their home….
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