The Unexpected Power of Your Old Neighborhood
While working on a book about South Shore, the neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where I grew up, I would often take a walk between two houses there in which I lived. One is on the 7100 block of Oglesby Avenue, the other on the 6900 block of Euclid Avenue. They’re not quite a mile apart, no more than a twenty-minute walk each way, but to go from one to the other is to pass through three distinct worlds.
Let’s start this walk, taken in the summer of 2016, on Oglesby. The compact brick house in which I lived on that block, between 1967 and 1973, is a bungalow—one of more than a thousand in South Shore, one of eighty thousand in a great swath of neighborhoods that make up the city’s bungalow belt. The bungalows on the 7100 block of Oglesby have the distinctive feel of city houses, ranked shoulder to shoulder on tight lots, each asserting its own defensible singularity but also taking its place among its peers, like an armored warrior in a shield wall. The block looks greener, more settled and maintained, than it did when I lived there, but it also feels more precarious to me, more vigilant and embattled.
There’s a shooting just about every day somewhere in the neighborhood, and a great deal of robbery and theft. It doesn’t approach the Wild West highs of the early nineties, when a nationwide spike in violent crime coincided with the maturing of the crack trade on the South Side, but it’s a lot of action. A neighbor across the street from my old house on Oglesby parks at the curb end of his driveway, with the car facing out and a cover on the windshield. Along with the scrupulously maintained house and lawn, the car seems to say, “Yeah, we work hard to have nice stuff, and we take care of it, and we’re home. Try us, and we’ll take care of you, too.”
There are larger forces at work on the neighborhood that can’t be held at bay with locks, bars, dogs, or guns. The financial crisis of 2008 hit the area especially hard, leaving many householders upside down on their mortgages, and many properties still haven’t regained their value. It got to be too much for the people living next door to my old house on Oglesby; they walked away from their mortgage and left their bungalow for the bank. The bungalow block was twentieth-century Chicago’s quintessential landscape of middle-class solidity and working-class confidence in upward mobility, but today it’s harder to enter or stay in the middle class. The middle strata of American society that grew so spectacularly in the postwar era are hollowing out, aging out, contracting, leaving a city of haves and have-nots separated by a deepening divide that makes it hard for them to see each other as neighbors. In South Shore, where the middle class has traditionally decided the community’s priorities and how to pursue them, there has been a general retreat not just from public spaces but also from public life, especially by those who can afford to insulate themselves with money, technology, and educational credentials.
As I walk up Oglesby to the corner, there’s a palpable click of transition when I take a step that carries me beyond a hedge at the property line of the last house on the block and turn the corner onto Seventy-first Street. Every neighborhood in Chicago has at least one traditional main street like this, and the airlock sensation of crossing between residential and commercial realms at the corners is a fundamental experience of Chicago life. There are people around on Seventy-first, running errands, hawking single cigarettes or DVDs, getting high or drunk, selling drugs, or just hanging out, waiting for something to happen, but the street still feels desolate, stark, and exposed. It’s laid out extra wide to accommodate the old Illinois Central tracks that run down its center at grade, the way trains passed through the city in the nineteenth century. Pedestrians coming in the distance seem like riders approaching in the desert.
For much of the twentieth century, Seventy-first was a busy old-fashioned main street. It had begun to thin out by the seventies, but my Keds and birthday cakes were bought there, and I saw “Tarzan and the Great River” at the Hamilton Theatre and “Car Wash” at the Jeffery Theatre. Those businesses are long gone, eclipsed by faraway malls and big box stores, and they haven’t been replaced. You can still buy a wig on Seventy-first—South Shore has been over-endowed with cheap beauty supply stores for half a century—and there’s a plucky bakery café, a new taco place, and a venerable no-frills pizza joint, but mostly there are empty storefronts and a scattering of convenience stores and dollar stores that sell junk and necessities to poor people. With a vacancy rate above fifty per cent, the street feels too big for its remaining functions, like clothes that hang awkwardly off a once-robust old friend afflicted with a wasting disease.
Walking west on Seventy-first, I pass first Paxton Avenue and then Merrill, each of which has its own gang, known, respectively, as Pax Town and the Merrill Boys. These corners used to be the territory of the Four Corner Hustlers, but, in Chicago, large formal gangs with expansive territorial ambitions have been breaking down into loose cliques that hang out on this block or that one, and the proportion of intra-gang shootings has gone up as social-media slights replace battles over turf. Unlike the bungalow blocks south of Seventy-first, the blocks north of Seventy-first are thick with apartment buildings, many filled with tenants holding housing vouchers.
The voucher program was supposed to allow poor people to exercise individual choice to escape the kind of warehousing exemplified by the Robert Taylor Homes, the Cabrini-Green Homes, and other high-rise housing projects that the city began tearing down in the nineties. But they mostly ended up reconcentrated in places like South Shore, which has more voucher holders and evictions than any other community area in the city. Even though South Shore’s worst era of violence actually predates the arrival of displaced Chicago Housing Authority residents, the stories of decline that I frequently hear in the neighborhood attribute a great deal of disruption and degradation to this relatively small set of newcomers and the much larger group they are made to stand for—those who receive public assistance in the form of housing vouchers—all lumped together as “project people” or “Section Eight people” or “the element.”
There are often guys on the corners, on this part of Seventy-first, whistling and wigwagging signals up the block. Every so often, one of the Chicago Police Department S.U.V.s that ceaselessly prowl up and down Seventy-first will roll in and break them up, and they’ll gather on another corner. A recent study found that forty-seven per cent of black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-four in Chicago were neither in school nor in the job market. On a board covering the display window of a failed convenience store at the corner of Seventy-first and Merrill, someone has written:
Men, please respect yourself
Be a real man
And pull up your pants
Allan B. Hamilton, a real-estate man whose family name used to grace one of those long-defunct movie theaters on Seventy-first Street, once said, “The world is always coming to an end in South Shore.” That was in 1969. South Shore, which had been over ninety per cent white in 1960, would be seventy per cent black by 1970, and over ninety-five per cent black by 1980. Offering some historical perspective to those inclined to see this change as the end of the world, Hamilton noted that, in the past, South Shore’s residents of English descent had feared imminent apocalypse when the Irish arrived, as did the Irish when Jews began moving in. Each time, the newcomers failed to destroy the neighborhood and South Shore had remained a pleasant place to live, retaining its respectable middle-class character. Black bungalow owners are just as house-proud as white ones, and their money spends the same, he was saying, so the neighborhood’s merchants—many of whom were his tenants, and to whom his remarks were most pointedly directed—would do well to refrain from panic and carry on with business as usual. In a few more years, though, he would sell off his family’s extensive holdings on Seventy-first Street and join the exodus of white people and their money.
While there are resources in South Shore, especially among its sizable cohort of educated professionals, neither individual nor institutional wealth tends to run very deep, as is generally true of black neighborhoods compared to white ones. There’s not much wealth or social capital held in reserve, not much slack built into the system, so even medium-sized problems tend to loom as major threats to the neighborhood’s preferred way of life and self-image. That helps explain why South Shore’s outward air of respectable calm seems to buzz with expectation of the next shock to the system, the next threat to order and stability.
I grew up in a middle-class world in South Shore, a world that is shrinking and changing, and not just in South Shore. America’s social strata are realigning from a familiar and somewhat fluid tripartite arrangement—upper, middle, working—to a binary and more rigid one: haves and have-nots. The numbers tell the story of a far-reaching transformation of American life. In the 1980 census, fifty-two per cent of South Shore’s population qualified as middle class, while thirty-nine per cent qualified as lower class and nine per cent as upper class. By 2014 the middle cohort had fallen out of the majority to thirty-one per cent and the upper had slipped to six per cent, while the lower had expanded to sixty-three per cent, more than half of them under the poverty line. Over the same period, the income gap between the richest and poorest in the neighborhood grew drastically. The richest used to earn 11.8 times what the poorest did; now they earn more than twenty times as much.
Some of South Shore’s middle-class residents have left for the suburbs or the South, but another important movement happens in the minds and habits of those who stay. Educated professionals who once thought of themselves as solidly in the middle become “haves” who seek to insulate themselves from the disorder and danger and bother of public life. It’s not that they suddenly get richer but rather that they become haves by default. Others who might lack the educational or professional credentials of the haves but still would have once thought of themselves as middle class, or on the way there, now feel themselves slipping into the have-nots: upside down on a mortgage, perhaps, or insufficiently pensioned, and increasingly unable to preserve and hand on gains that so many South Side families made during the postwar boom.
The social order is changing around them at frog-boiling speed: slow enough to be imperceptible from day to day, yet fast enough, year to year, to be disorienting and dangerous. I see the speed bumps that residents have insisted on installing on residential blocks all over South Shore as expressing their wish to contain not just traffic, which isn’t one of the neighborhood’s significant problems, but also more abstract and intimidating processes beyond their control. And it bears noting that what happens in black neighborhoods often happens in the rest of America a generation or so later. So the shallower wealth, greater proximity to the poor, and other distinctive traits of the black middle class that make its status especially precarious also tend to suit it for the role of canary in a coal mine. If you want to see what American cities are going to be like when we’re done reversing the postwar expansion of the middle class, South Shore’s a good place to look.
Continuing west, I arrive at Seventy-first Street and Jeffery Boulevard, South Shore’s central intersection, the kernel from which the neighborhood grew. German truck farmers settled here in the mid-nineteenth century. The Illinois Central Railroad built a station here in 1881, enabling a housing boom that picked up momentum when the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Jackson Park, just to the north of South Shore, in 1893. The South Shore Commission, once one of the most powerful neighborhood organizations in the country, had its offices at this intersection, as did the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League. So did the South Shore Bank, an internationally renowned exponent of community development banking. The bank went out of business in 2010, and its building stands empty. Diagonally across from it is sixty-five thousand square feet of vacant space, in a shopping center financed by the bank. There was a Dominick’s there, the neighborhood’s only supermarket, but it closed, in 2013, and has not been replaced.
There are more people out at Seventy-first and Jeffery—changing buses, going to Walgreens, hanging out, selling loose squares and stronger smokables—but the scene still feels desultory, like the aftermath of a minor cataclysm. Passing through it, I have slipped, without conscious effort, into a middle-aged version of a persona that I first adopted on Seventy-first Street as a child: someone willing to engage but not eager for recognition, minding his own business in a way that projects purpose without challenge, self-effacement without diffidence. There and not there, I’m in a slightly out-of-focus middle state between neighbor and ghost. Old moves come back to me instinctively. Without consciously deciding to, I slide a little to the left so that a light pole and a street tree will screen, until the last possible moment, my approach to a corner where men are milling and shouting.
Born in 1964, to immigrant parents from Sicily and Spain, I grew up in a time when one’s neighborhood was more obviously important in the shaping of a life than it is now. The older you are, the more you remember a pre-Internet, more pedestrian, less magnet- and charter-schooled city where childhood featured a lot of unsupervised free play in the street and a neighborhood’s bounds had more authority in dictating who your friends would be, where you went to school and worked, who you might fall in love with, what you knew and liked. But the fundamental function of a neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much. In 2015, Michelle Obama, who was also born in 1964 and lived on Euclid, five blocks down from me, told the graduating class of Chicago’s King College Prep, “I was born and raised here on the South Side, in South Shore, and I am who I am today because of this community.” It was as true of her audience as it was of her, even if during her speech some considerable proportion of them felt a potent urge to text, take selfies, or otherwise plunge through a handheld screen, removing themselves from the physical here and now into a disembodied realm of data. For them, as for her and for me, a neighborhood is still a principal ground of first encounters with the world beyond the home, and it still plays an important part in the work of developing one’s equipment for living.
The places in which we live, especially the places in which we grow up, lastingly mark and shape us: neighborhoods live in us. They aren’t just neutral stages on which we act out our lives and feel the effect of global-scale economic and social forces. Rather, as the sociologist Robert Sampson puts it, neighborhoods are “important determinants of the quantity and quality of human behavior in their own right,” affecting residents in distinctive ways that can be teased apart from influences like income and race. These are called neighborhood effects, and they’re remarkably wide-ranging, long-lasting, and influential. You can see them show up across the life course—in birth weight and child mortality, school performance, economic attainment, rates of cancer and heart disease, life expectancy. The influence of neighborhood effects can also be traced in aspects of perception and mentality that we usually think of as features of personal character: altruism, sensitivity to disorder, attitude toward the rule of law, and other features of inner life.
Continuing on Seventy-first west of Jeffery, I pass the blank, empty hulks of the South Shore Bank building and the Jeffery Theatre on my right, and the raised platform of Bryn Mawr station in the middle of the street on my left. Then, before I reach the antique neon sign of the defunct Red Pagoda (“chop suey to take home”) or the chained-shut grated storefront next door to it that used to be Wilson Bros Paint & Hardware Company, I turn right, off Seventy-first onto Euclid Avenue. A dead-end circle at the end of Euclid prevents access by car to or from Seventy-first. Walking up Euclid, I pass a couple of fenced-off lots, a couple of small apartment buildings, and then, just as the sidewalk crosses the driveway of the first single-family house on Euclid, a near-mansion on a double lot where the Bourellys used to live, there’s another air-lock moment. The low hum of Seventy-first Street recedes and the wide tree-lined streets grow quiet except for bird calls.
This is the Jackson Park Highlands, sixteen square blocks planned, in the early twentieth century, as a demonstration district, featuring underground utilities, no internal alleys, and architecturally distinctive houses set well back from the street and each other, on generous lots. Its quality of rarefied aloofness has been enhanced, since I lived there, by the creation of cul-de-sacs at almost every point on its periphery where its streets connect with the rest of South Shore, greatly increasing the feeling of being snugged in a well-defended genteel preserve. It feels as if there’s more oxygen in the air here, more room to maneuver, more give in the lives being lived in the big houses, on lush, landscaped grounds. Known for being the home of Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Lewis, Gale Sayers, and other notable figures in black Chicago, the Highlands is as nice as South Shore gets, as nice as the South Side gets, though these houses would cost more like three million or four million dollars, not four hundred thousand, on the North Side. So it’s aloof gentility on a relative budget, fifteen minutes from downtown by car or express bus, but costing less than a typical McMansion in a far-flung commuter exurb of the sort that many Americans still consider the model of a good place to raise kids.
A block and a half into the Highlands, on the 6900 block of Euclid, I pass houses that I still think of as the Parkers’, Trainers’, and Earps’, and I end up in front of a high-shouldered Tudor-style brick house with a brick driveway and no front door. I lived there from 1973 to the fall of 1982, when I went off to college on the East Coast, where I ended up staying. When my family lived in the Highlands, we were part of its substantial white minority, whose continuing presence makes this area unique in South Shore. Integrated and unified by upper-middle-class interest, the Highlands’ residents have long regarded themselves as surrounded by slippery slopes. They treat as an existential threat any incursion from the larger neighborhood into their enclave—any attack on any of its fine houses or householders, any potential degradation of its physical beauty, any unseemly business activity around its borders—and they respond promptly by providing mutual aid and insisting on attention from the police and other authorities.
Like the more modest bungalows on Oglesby, the elegant houses and grounds of the Highlands have become harder targets in the years since I left home. There are more burglar bars on windows and watchdogs barking furiously behind high fences. There are a lot more high fences. There are security cameras, too, and electric gates sealing driveways, neither of which anybody had when I was a kid. There’s almost nobody out at night, which was true before, but there are also fewer people out during the day—and some significant proportion of them are landscapers, who I didn’t see around much in the seventies. Many fewer children play on the streets and sidewalks, and they are much less likely to go down to Seventy-first Street in search of amusement or to run an errand for a parent, both because parents let kids do less free-range wandering than in the past and because there’s less for them to do out there. I always found the Highlands beautiful but eerie, and it seems more beautiful and eerier than ever these days.
Walking from the house on Oglesby to the house on Euclid, through the abutting worlds of a single neighborhood, I’m tracing a pattern deeply imprinted on me—my first and truest atlas of what’s out there beyond family and home, my first and most formative guide to how to carry oneself when abroad in it. I’m also navigating through flows of people, money, materials, power, and ideas that shape the neighborhood and the lives of everyone in it—not just surveying the effects of those flows with my eyes and ears and feeling them on my skin but registering them in my impulses to linger here and cross there and say, “How you doin’,” to one stranger but tacitly agree with another to unsee each other. Nothing really happens on this walk, and yet it’s replete with the consequences of a great deal that has happened to many people, and of powerful forces affecting not only South Shore but neighborhoods across the city and the country.
One lesson that South Shore teaches is that a neighborhood may feel solid and even stolid—mundane, knowable, boring—but it’s also always in motion underfoot, with older orders rising and falling and piling up in layers of fragments and ruins through which succeeding, newer orders are already emerging. The neighborhood is the scale at which we experience both order and flux, persistence and succession, the intensely familiar and the disorientingly unfamiliar, the daily round and the big picture at the same time. Major change can feel like a lot of little things of local and passing interest: the Joneses defaulting on their mortgage, the Johnsons moving back to Mississippi, the bank and supermarket going out of business, the usual worries about crime and alien newcomers. But when you look back later, you can see the outlines of tectonic shifts that show up in history textbooks: folk migrations, transformations of economic and social-class structures, changes in the form and function of the city. The neighborhood, the first step beyond the household, is the most intimate public stage on which we live the consequences of history.