Thursday, October 21, 2010

Literary Lawndale

When I first begin working in North Lawndale in 1998 I was somewhat aware of its recent, at the time, sociological profile. I knew that it was heavily African-American, and that a disproportionate part of its population had household incomes below the federal poverty level. The demographic information on the community was generally out there in the academic environment. I had looked at demographics on Chicago's community areas in a sociology class at the University of Illinois, and had written a profile of North Chicago for a book of Chicago communities (North Chicago, by Charles M. Leeks and Mary L. Robinson, in: Local Community Fact Book : Chicago Metropolitan Area (1990). Chicago : The Chicago Fact Book Consortium, Dept of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago, c1995). This process helped me become aware of Chicago's community structure, including an awareness of North Lawndale. I had heard discussions about North Lawndale in the context of it being a poster child for environmental racism. The Silver Shovel site image was fresh in my mind. But, there was still little written about contemporary North Lawndale at that time, or so I thought. I sat this concern about my perception of a dearth of literature on the community aside for a bit, but did keep a keen eye out for any information about the community.

As I became more grounded in the complex nature of North Lawndale's narrative, Lawndale's Jewish past begin to manifest itself. This was an incredible discovery for me as the buildings that had obviously been synagogues began to appear all around the neighborhood like sentinels... or ghosts, either protecting the community's epic historical moment, or alternatively, guarding its secrets and preventing it from moving forward. At any rate, years of transition, economic disinvestment, racism, and the unintended consequences of massive social policies at the local and national level had obscured the rich narrative. Indeed, the politics that often pit minority groups against each other was the one intangible that was obvious to me, and layered on top of the rich architectural built environment within the community. I was certainly aware of the often contentious dialogue between Cornel West and Michael Lerner in their book Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America. I was even more intrigued when I came across the California Newsreel video, Blacks and Jews. What was most compelling about this 85 minute video was the middle 25 or 30 minutes focusing entirely on the relationship between African-Americans and Jews in North Lawndale. It was replete with scenes of blocks in North Lawndale like the 3300 block of West Flourony, and included discussions with current North Lawndale residents like Clyde Ross. I was now completely hooked, and began to look for more written material about North Lawndale. To my surprise, there is considerably more than I realized.

Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, with its innovative focus on a dominant housing style in North Lawndale, the Greystone, developed the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative.  Several publications have been spawned by this effort.

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

From The New England Journal of Medicine
Like motorists who slow down to stare at the aftermath of car crashes, most people are fascinated by meteorologic disasters. The perils of weathering a hurricane, a tsunami's destruction of property, and the human drama of a flood all make for riveting tales of struggle and survival. Yet one kind of weather-related catastrophe -- a deadly wave of heat and humidity -- seems not to get nearly the notice given the others, despite the fact that it kills more than all the other kinds combined. Why heat waves are such a quiet menace and how social conditions contributed to more than 700 deaths during a week-long wave of unprecedented heat and humidity in Chicago in 1995 are the focus of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, written by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The term "social isolation" is usually applied to those living in remote locations, but Klinenberg demonstrates that this unfortunate condition also applies to thousands of people (primarily senior citizens) in our nation's largest cities. And so it was in 1995. Thousands of Chicago's elderly lived alone (many of them in or near poverty), isolated in many ways and by many factors. When the record-breaking heat and humidity arrived and stayed, these men and women started dying, one at a time and quietly, behind closed, locked doors. The immediate reasons were apparent. Many seniors did not have air conditioning in their houses or apartments. Of those who did have air conditioning, many chose not to use it, fearing utility bills that they could not afford to pay. Fear of crime kept others from leaving their homes to use free neighborhood "cooling centers." Still other elderly Chicagoans knew, from a physiological standpoint, that they were hot but were simply unaware that they were in danger. Klinenberg shows in detail how the tragedy was compounded by many factors and interests, including a public health and medical establishment that did not anticipate the magnitude of the looming danger and local news media that treated the severe heat and humidity as little more than a novel topic for lighthearted feature stories. The author also examines key sociological factors relating to the elderly, including the perils of "aging in place" while the surrounding environment changes; the idealization and valuing of personal independence among seniors; and differences between men and women in the establishment of friendships and other interpersonal connections. Heat Wave is a fascinating book, in part because the social conditions that led to Chicago's 1995 tragedy still exist, for the most part, throughout our nation and its aging population. People are still at risk. The book is not without its flaws. Klinenberg strays from sociological analysis and into a politicized attack when he examines the 1995 response of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his administration. He makes far too much of the mayor's brief questioning of exactly what constitutes a "heat-related death" -- a question, I might add, that most of us had at the time. The author erroneously claims that the response of the Daley administration was driven more by public-relations damage control than by a desire to understand the tragedy and prevent further deaths and that a report issued by the Mayor's Commission on Extreme Weather Conditions was little more than "spin," when it was in fact the product of careful deliberation by leading figures in public health, medicine, gerontology, meteorology, and other fields. Indeed, the report laid the groundwork for Chicago's successful response to extreme weather, which was credited with saving hundreds of lives in the summer of 1999. The report has been widely requested by and circulated to public health planners throughout the nation. Other descriptions of the mayoral response are similarly off-base. As a deputy commissioner of the Health Department in 1995, I was there for every step of the action, in front of the cameras and microphones and around the table at meetings about emergency response. Klinenberg and his sources were not there. Klinenberg also puts considerable emphasis on racial disparities in the 1995 heat deaths. (The raw death totals indicate a rough parity between mortality rates in the black and white populations, but age-adjusted rates supplied by the author claim otherwise.) In his biography posted on the Web site of Northwestern University, where he teaches, Klinenberg notes his interest in the exploration of "race as a principle of vision, division, and domination." His focus on race is therefore understandable, but many do not see race as the risk factor that he claims it is. Its flaws aside, Heat Wave is a thought-provoking examination that challenges everyone in medicine and public health to look beyond our training to consider sociological conditions as risk factors. It issues a call for all segments of the population to reestablish those familial and social connections that we once seemed to have but now, all too often, do not. John Wilhelm, M.D., M.P.H.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

Ploys in the Hood

Published: March 19, 2009
Historians who write about close friends or relatives do so at their peril. Personal engagement, so essential to the memoir, can confound historical judgment and scholarly detachment, especially when family honor hangs in the balance. Beryl Satter, the chairwoman of the history department at Rutgers University in Newark and the proud daughter of one of the central characters in “Family Properties,” has taken the hard road to glory in her study of race and housing discrimination in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s. Yet somehow she has managed to stay on course, using her considerable investigative skills and unwavering sense of fairness to write a revealing and instructive book.

From The Chicago Sun-Times
A protester contrasts her landlord’s home with the living-room wall of her apartment in 1969.


Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
By Beryl Satter
Illustrated. 495 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $30

She begins with the complicated story of her father, Mark Satter, a Jewish lawyer and landlord who represented “scores of African-Americans who had been grossly overcharged for the houses they had bought.” His legal and real estate interests centered in Lawndale, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago that became overwhelmingly black by the late ’50s. Lawndale, like many other urban black enclaves, was the scene of widespread and systemic economic exploitation, exacerbated by the Federal Housing Administration’s practice of redlining predominantly black neighborhoods, which effectively eliminated mortgage insurance within their boundaries.
In cities like Chicago, redlining forced a vast majority of black homeowners and tenants into the vulnerable world of “contract selling,” in which unscrupulous speculators dictated onerous terms that often led to default and social pathology, simultaneously reinforcing black stereotypes and white racism. The “lack of equal access to credit,” the author explains, had profound ramifications: “fabulous enrichment for speculative contract sellers and their investors, debt peonage or impoverishment for many black contract buyers and an almost guaranteed decay of the communities in which such sales were concentrated.” Once we recognize the full impact of contract selling, she insists, it becomes clear that “the reason for the decline of so many black urban neighborhoods into slums was not the absence of resources but rather the riches that could be drawn from the seemingly poor vein of aged and decrepit housing and hard-pressed but hard-working and ambitious African-Americans.”
“Family Properties” is a tale of race and class, but it is not a simple story of white power and black victimization. Irony and ambiguity abounded in a system that often pitted blacks against blacks and sometimes drove men like Satter’s father into moral confusion and financial peril. Indeed, much of the book documents the rising resistance to an unjust system rooted in racial segregation and poverty. Beginning with her father’s truncated legal efforts — he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1965 — Satter traces the community-organizing campaigns of a host of activists, from Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King Jr. to a series of lesser-known but no less committed individuals. At times, the characters and organizational abbreviations are dished out in mind-numbing proportions, and the specific story lines are not always easy to follow. But no one can accuse the author of glossing over the messy details of life on the ground in Chicago. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, slumlord by slumlord, she takes us through the complex realities of racial division, economic exploitation and local politics.
The final chapters focus on the widening reform efforts of the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially the protests organized by the Lawndale-based Contract Buyers League, a grass-roots organization that helped to expose the F.H.A.’s instrumental role in redlining. The league initiated two landmark federal lawsuits, and in 1972 the formation of a broad coalition of housing activists known as National People’s Action set the stage for meaningful reform at the national level. In 1975, Congress passed the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and two years later it followed up with the Community Reinvestment Act. Together these laws eliminated some redlining and made life more difficult for predatory speculators, though, as Satter points out, neither measure offered a definitive solution to the problem of racially discriminatory credit practices.
As the continuing subprime mortgage crisis demonstrates all too well, the long-term effects of what happened in Lawndale and other black communities a half-century ago are still very much with us. Today we have too many mortgages rather than too few. But the underlying realities of a nation plagued by chronic debt and persistent racial inequality remain the same. A cautionary tale of governmental complicity, “Family Properties” follows the social historian’s dictum of “asking big questions in small places.” It reminds us that history and memory are essential tools for anyone pondering our current predicament.

One of the most compelling reads on Lawndale is by John W. Fountain's True Vine: A young Black Man's Journey of Faith,Hope, and Clarity.

John W. Fountain grew up on some of the meanest streets in Chicago, where drugs, crime, decay, and broken homes consigned so many black children to a life of despair and self-destruction. A father at seventeen, a college dropout at nineteen, a welfare case soon after, Fountain was on the verge of giving up all hope. One thing saved him—his faith, his own true vine.
True Vine is John Fountain’s remarkable story—of his childhood in a neighborhood heading south; of his strong-willed grandparents, who founded a church (called True Vine) that sought to bring the word of God to their neighbors; of his mother, herself a teenage parent, whose truncated dreams help nurture bigger dreams in him; of his friends and cousins, whose youthful exuberance was extinguished by the burdens they faced; and of his religious awakening that gave him the determination to rebuild his life.
An award-winning journalist, Fountain has been a national correspondent for The New York Times, based in Chicago (2000 to 2003), joining the Times from The Washington Post. He is currently a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Until recently, he was a tenured full professor at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor Fountain was formerly a visiting scholar at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston. He is also working on his second book. His return to Chicago marks how his story has come full circle, this time in triumph.True Vine is an inspiring, moving, gripping story of one man's American dream--a dream that all of us can share. provides a good look at his work.

1 comment:

  1. Charles, I'm honored to see West Side bluesman Larry Taylor's work posted here. His CD album, They Were in This House has one of those LAwndale greystones on the cover; a six flat apt. at 1131 S. Mozart where young Larry grew up, which was filled with visits by outstanding musicians like his stepfather,guitarist Eddie Taylor; Howlin Wolf, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. I co-authored Larry's autobiography, Stepson of the Blues. set on the West Side. Find out more and listen to Larry's blues and soul tunes at the website: