When America celebrates its 241th Independence Day next month, spotlights will be bathing events from the National Mall in Washington to the firework displays in California. Midway between the two coastlines, a spunky replica of the Founding Fathers’ Independence Hall will sit without fanfare. Too bad, because it may have a better story to tell than most others.
The building is one of the oldest historic sites in one of Chicago’s newest neighborhoods. Constructed in 1870 as the city hall for the Township of Cicero, it was included in the 1899 annexation of the township into the city of Chicago. It stands here to this day, a vivid re-imagining of what those men meant when they put their names to the Declaration.
To be clear, the site is not on any of the sightseeing tours of Chicago. We have more visually compelling landscapes and lakescapes for our visitors. Frankly, this west side neighborhood is an embarrassment to city officials who privately realize it as one of our great city’s worst failures. From a burgeoning community of grand boulevards, parks, and homes early in the century, it has fallen on hard times since the 1970s. Once home to respected bankers, land developers, and public figures like Gene Krupa, Hugh Hefner, Bob Newhart, and Johnny Lattner, today it houses more impoverished families and gangs than its residents are willing to tolerate.
And therein lies the story this Town Hall has to tell on Independence Day.
Enough local residents have made it their commitment to keep this aging building alive with community activities and services. Swimming, basketball, dances, crafts, seminars and yes young lovers are all part of the scene. All part of the Founding Fathers’ vision that people should be free, and that freedom should be expressed even in the face of repression. As aregretful member of the White Flight from the community, I return often to be energized by the way Chicago’s bleeding west side continues to bind up and bond its wounds in the face of repressive gang life, drugs, and crime.
In a gratuitously hyperbolic way, I actually believe the Founding Fathers would have considered this neighborhood a proper example of their mission. They saw repression imposed by the Redcoats in their daily lives; not unlike the same trauma created by marauding gang members here now. They felt repression imposed by British tax collectors; not unlike the same locked-doors way of living here now. But check out their Austin Town Hall both day and night, and see what’s best about what’s best about people.
As the nation takes stock of itself this Independence Day, there are compelling issues and crises at the top. But here near the bottom, near the neighborhood that was my childhood, and near the everyday rhythms of everyday life, here stands a living replica of what this holiday is supposed to be all about.
You don’t have to be living here to wish their cause well.
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