THE CODE HAS BEEN BROKEN…!
“Southside” and “westside” have been the media’s ciphers for Chicago’s crime-ridden minority communities for years. They use these to maintain what they call un-provocative reporting. However, as we face another summer-of-blood in these once stable neighborhoods, it can’t hurt to get past the niceties. And get our historic and demographics bearings unvarnished.
This is not to say we need any more facts & stats. Good lord, there is no shortage of exotic analyses and algorithms to explain the causes. Nor any lack of bluster and blame to avoid dealing with the persistent consequences. One visit to the real world, Police Headquarters, and you realize they have to deal almost exclusively with the consequences.
All this is something like when Nazi General Rommel facing the enormous Allied invasion on D-Day asked Hitler for immediate reinforcements, he was told: “We have secret weapons that will soon totally destroy the enemy..” The beleaguered commander shot back: “But what do I do tomorrow morning…?”
Try walking the streets of Austin’s struggle with the consequences of slow but steady ghettoization. This westside bedroom community [the city’s largest] was originally annexed in 1899. By mid-century it was a classic Chicago success story. Middle class bungalows and two-flats lined a tree-canopied enclave of Irish, German, Scandinavian, and Italian families with their schools and family-stores just a wish or a walk away.
But now all that is mostly a memory previous White neighbors such as myself like to recall, and current Black neighbors I meet would like to see again. Instead, aging buildings, empty shops, boarded up churches, and closed movie houses have become the stage for a cast of punks, pimps, and pumped up gang lords.
Because my family and my neighbors’ families and their neighbors’ families all fled Austin in a classic case of witless White Flight during the second half of the century. Our legacy can be seen in the lines of rusting cars,
the walls of graffiti, and the rates of shooting and homicide among the highest in the city. In the nation itself.
The guilt for that headlong panic belongs on many hands — unscrupulous realtors, unprepared educators
and clergy, a city hall which saw profits in investing elsewhere, but mostly very good families like mine who
were guilty of very bad judgment. So now we should share some of the burden that has fallen almost exclusively on the local families, and the over-worked, over-condemned cops.
To see how planning rather than panicking might have meant a different history for Austin and similar neighborhoods, we-the-witless need look only a few blocks west to they-the-intrepid in Oak Park. When
minority families began migrating, the White population of Oak Park did what their peers in Evanston did.
They met…they talked….they invited local and minority groups to re-channel family fears into community
foresight. They forged imperfect yet viably integrated communities.
Today, Oak Park [comparable in size to Austin] is a mix of White, Black, Asian and Latino whose Police Department reports wide-ranging success. Ideal? Hardly! But Oak Parker’s — from the playgrounds to the schools to the community programs — are doing what people were destined to do. Co-exist.
As for those of us who lacked the fortitude and foresight required, we can do more than public mea culpa’s. We can contribute to those local organizers who see Austin as tarnished Gold. With a persistence rooted in conviction, these various Austin-Oak Park organizations gather regularly to see how Humpty-Dumpty can be put back together again.
Their imprint is everywhere. Streets marked and protected from gangs….schools mixing the races….churches and synagogues pushing as well as preaching the word…. most encouraging of all, residents rehabbing their homes and newcomers re-gentrifying their blocks. These events often occur under the media radar which
tends to do what the media usually do — feature the tragic. But I have also seen the triumphant. Elders and
Millennials moving back in with more than hope. With the money that makes their mouth honest.
Those of us who fled are now too old to fight the good fight. But Austin and other westside communities are
well worth fighting for. Fighting to take back from the punks, and give back to the pro-active residents there
who are saying: Lets become another Oak Park, Evanston, Wicker Park and Bucktown where old and new, majority and minority, voter and voter use our numbers to slow insidious ghettoization.
Jack Spatafora’s photo.
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