My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ranting into the Void

There's been a lot of talk about blogs being the subversive new media, with a new breed of citizen-journalist daring to tell the truth in the face of the corporate media juggernaut. This kind of talk strikes me as mostly bullshit. If you should take anything you read in the paper with a grain of salt, you should take anything you read on the internet with a whole cube, followed by two tylenol and good night's sleep to mull it over. For one thing, people like me don't have time to do much research, we have actual jobs to do. So what you get is mostly uninformed, unreflective ranting, not to say gibberish.

You can't just read this blog, for example, and think you have some idea what's going on in Chicago. In this space I have been recording, intermittantly, the destruction of neighborhood buildings which I felt were beatiful and good and contributed to the city's unique character and personality, to be replaced by a blank, featureless autoscape somewhat resembling a huge suburban apartment complex but louder, and with more traffic. The other week, however, when I was late for an appointment on the South Side and took what I remembered as a short cut, I discovered that I have missed what should have been the story of the last year.

Downtown Englewood is gone.

The area around 63rd and Halsted was once the downtown of one of the first suburbs of Chicago, a working class immigrant community south of the Union Stockyards, where many of its residents worked. By the end of the 19th century Englewood had been annexed to the city proper, and in the first half of the 20th Century its old downtown served as an important commercial strip for the central South Side, which at the time was pretty much the residential and industrial heart of the city. In addition to shopping, the area was home to several theaters where locals could catch both live jazz and "talkies."

After World War II, as discrimitory "housing compacts" were held to be illegal, Chicago's growing African American population began moving west across Cottage Grove and towards Englewood. The idea of racial integration was not viewed in a positive light by the local white community, and in the early 50s a riot famously broke out in the area after the rumor spread that a local man planned to sell his house to a black family (actually, a nosy neighbor had merely observed a black man attending a labor meeting at the house. Rioters burned the house down anyway, or maybe they didn't - we bloggers are not so big on fact checking, remember).

Long story short - as African Americans began to move into the area, virtually every white resident left the community in the course of perhaps years, pretty much one block at a time moving east to west. At first there were enough new residents from the crowded Bronzeville area to buy or rent whatever space opened up, but soon there were more sellers than buyers, property values tanked, and new residents became poorer and poorer (during the period of urban "white flight" the first black families to move into a neighborhood generally had higher incomes than the previous white residents - they could afford to escape the ghetto, but their choices were limited by rampant discrimination by lenders as well as sellers). Soon, the original middle class black settlers, realizing they had been joined in Englewood by the very same ex-neighbors they themselves had been trying to get away from, moved again, this time to the south, leaving Englewood as a segregated community with increasing poverty and a rapidly declining population. Today the neighborhood has less than half the population it did in 1960.

Soon all the businesses around 63rd and Halsted were closed and boarded up with the exception of a liquor store and a drug store, if I remember right. By the time I arrived here a few years ago the abandoned downtown was an honest to God ghost town, with boarded up 19th Century wooden and brick storefronts lining an eerily quiet street, with an impressive and abandoned old bank building and a few other gems. Ironically, the city had hastened the commercial strip's demise by demolishing part of the area to put in parking and routing traffic through a detour to create a "pedestrian mall" - those things almost never work. For years the boarded up district was flanked by taunting signs with arrowd for "Through Traffic" and "Shopping" - hence my old short cut through the ghost town. I used to find reasons to take out of town visitors through the area, just so they could see firsthand exactly what's happening to America's cities. As Juan Cole recently noted in a blog post about the riots in the French banlieu:
(Americans who code themselves as "white" are often surprised to discover that "white people" created the inner cities here by zoning them for settlement by racial "minorities," excluding the minorities from the nicer parts of the cities and from suburbs. As late as the 1960s, many European-Americans were willing to sign a "covenant" not to sell their houses to an African-American, Chinese-American or a Jewish American. In fact, in the US, the suburbs were built, most often with de facto government subsidies in the form of highways and other perquisites, as an explicit means of racial segregation. Spatial segregation protected "white" businesses from competition from minority entrepreneurs, who couldn't open shops outside their ghettos. In France, government inputs were used to create "outer cities," but many of the same forces were at work.)

Couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try. Anyway, apart from the bank building and a few neighboring structures, the entire 19th Century downtown has been demolished. It's one big, flat construction site today.

Urban historian Max Grinnell tells me the corner of 63rd and Halsted is going to be the location for the new campus of Kennedy-King College. Which brings us to one of the things you haven't heard much about if you're getting your news about what's been called "gentrification" just from bloggers and alterna-rags (you haven't heard me use the dreaded G-word, but people read it into my posts anyway): some neighorhood changes are good, and even necessary. While it pains me that unimaginitive bureaucrats could not find a way to preserve and re-use more of the charming old facades that lined the street, it's hard to argue with the kind of development that will bring students and their spending money, as well as a libraty, bookstore, and swimming pool all open to the public, to a neighborhood that had none of these things. If it's done right, it should create an actual functioning commercial district in an area where for the past 25 years a ghost town has stood.

It's true, based on the execrable design of the other City Colleges I'm scared of what monstrosity may rise there - another cold, uninviting bunker separated from the street by fences, hedges, and expensive, useless little patches of grass will certainly not enourage anyone to stay around and have lunch. But the bones of the old neighborhood - Englewood is very nicely laid out, with above average access to parks and civilized, tree-lined streets, and would be walkable if there were any businesses left to walk to, plus it has it's own El stop, unlike most of the transit-deprived South Side - make me hopeful that the area will recover.

Apartheid was bad for South Africa and it's bad for America today. A little "gentrification" in Englewood would be a very, very good thing.

1 comment:

Trope said...

Shouldn't that be "K. Max Grinell"? I love the citation. Love it, love it, love it.

BTW, have you ever seen a cube of salt? They are fascinating. And since it's the Internet, it would probably lead us on another wild tangent. More on that later...