The View from 71st and Jeffery

By Carlo Rotella

The best spot for ectoplasmic people-watching in South Shore is the raised wooden platform of the Bryn Mawr Metra station at 71st and Jeffery. This is the old Illinois Central station that formed the principal bud from which this neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago grew in the late nineteenth century, supplanting the Potawatomi camps and chipping stations that had previously dotted the lakeside landscape of sloughs and prairie. From the platform you can catch glimpses of the converging ghosts, and the lost cities they represent, that move among the current-day hangers-out on the corners, commuters waiting for buses or trains, and local residents running errands at the neighborhood’s principal intersection.

After the Potawatomi in South Shore’s parade of historical ghosts come the German truck farmers who settled the area beginning in the 1850s. Ferdinand Rohn drives the ox team with which he made the day-long round-trip to the hamlet of Chicago seven miles away, Christian Seip works his 25 acres on the southwest corner, and Charles and William Seigler leave their father’s farm to become policemen. Bessie Goodwin, Mrs. Downs, and Jessie Mann come and go from the German Settlement School on the southeast corner, where they taught local children on weekdays; Messrs. Wunderlich, Urlich, and Keller taught there on Sundays. Travelers to and from Chicago on the Michigan City stage, drawn by two Arabian horses, climb aboard after stopping at Goldhart’s Tavern, just southeast of the intersection, where the church of St. Philip Neri is now. Then, from the era when the city of Chicago expanded southward to engulf satellite communities like South Shore, come the English railway workers who built the station first called South Kenwood and then Bryn Mawr; and the pioneering developer Frank Bennett, who built a tract of houses on the prairie just west of the intersection; and George Bour, whose real estate office was at one time the only business establishment anywhere along 71st.

There are more recent ghosts, too, including officers and volunteers of the South Shore Commission, the once-powerful neighborhood organization that in the 1960s initially tried to prevent African Americans from moving into the immigrant-ethnic Jewish and Irish urban villages of South Shore and then, accepting the inevitable, tried to “manage” integration. The Commission’s office was at 7134 S. Jeffery, north of the train platform. Next door at 7124, once the headquarters of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, you can see the organization’s founders, the young Buzz Palmer and Renault Robinson (both very much alive at this writing, but their youth is long gone), coming and going. The AAPL style of checkerboard-strip police hat perched atop a modest afro signals the tricky confluence of Black Power and blue solidarity that they navigated in the late 1960s and 1970s.

20570051And then there’s the literary contingent of ghosts, populating a body of writing that exploits the storytelling possibilities opened up by the succession of neighborhood orders in South Shore. From the platform you can look down Jeffery Boulevard to catch a glimpse of Studs Lonigan, the protagonist of James T. Farrell’s trilogy of novels published in the 1930s. Studs, a prewar incarnation of the suckerpunching corner guy who lives for the approval of the pack, lives on Jeffery just south of the intersection with 71st, if I read the novels’ imagined landscape right. Offering Studs as a scrappy, doomed exemplar of the South Side Irish, Farrell bends the naturally upward-tending arc of that tribe’s immigrant story into a downward slide toward failure. Studs collapses under the combined pressure of the capitalist disaster of the Great Depression and internal contradictions that divide him against himself–especially, as the Popular Front leftist Farrell saw it, the tension that comes of aspiring to individual success and refusing to recognize the communal ties inevitably attaching him to other members of the working class. Broke, broken, and mortally sick at the end of Judgment Day, the last of the trilogy, he staggers off the train at Bryn Mawr and drags himself down the block toward his deathbed. Like so many characters in Chicago neighborhood novels, Studs, and the way of life for which he stands, has been ground up by the relentless action of business as usual in the city.[1]

In David Mamet’s play “The Old Neighborhood,” which I saw on Broadway in 1997, the immigrant-ethnic urban village personified by Studs Lonigan is a long-lost city, its ruins overgrown with myth and lamentation. From the platform of Bryn Mawr station you can see the ghostly forms of the play’s adult characters going in and out of Mr. White’s long-gone shoe store as children. In the play, a fortyish man named Bobby returns to Chicago and visits with family and friends. Their seemingly tangential talk about the usual Mamet subjects, like who was or wasn’t a fag or why their parents hated them so much, keeps circling back to the topography and meaning of an Old Neighborhood they and all their people left behind long ago: Jewish South Shore. Mamet, born in 1947, lived there, on the 6900 block of Euclid, in its late heyday. Looking back at South Shore over a widening gap of social distance and decades, Mamet’s characters see desolation: “Oh, Bobby, it’s all gone,” says one of them. “It’s all gone there. You knew that… .”[2] This comes after an extended discussion of the thuddingly symbolic Mr. White’s shoe store. Bobby did know that “it’s all gone there,” just as everybody in the play knows certain mock-epic routines of nostalgia and recrimination that locate the inner city in their unquiet past. Running a series of satirical riffs on laments for the urban village, expertly pouring salt in the open wound of shame and regret inherent to them, Mamet has his characters take turns declaiming from atop that headstone-cum-soapbox called The Old Neighborhood. They keep picking at the scab of an idea that deeply marks the neighborhood’s literature: that an apparently passionate commitment to neighborhood masks a deeply felt right to disconnect from any sense of collective peoplehood except as a safely distanced nostalgic curio.

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Train comes into the Metra Station in Chicago, Illinois, Carol M. Highsmith between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The specter of disconnection isn’t unique to white-flight stories. It haunts the literature of black South Shore as well. Turn to look down 71st to the east from the Bryn Mawr platform, and here comes the essayist Gayle Pemberton, picking her way through the ruins of another lost city, the Black Metropolis. In her essay “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard” she describes a Saturday morning walk on 71st from the lakefront to Jeffery in the early 1980s, past heaped garbage, shuttered storefronts, and menacing male idlers. Reaching Jeffery, where there are more signs of life but also more young men “with plastic bags on their heads” messing with passersby, Pemberton enters a shoe repair shop. Inside, a group of middle-aged men are extolling the verities of the Book of Genesis. She wonders how they can talk so complacently about God’s creation when “just outside the door was desolation and death.” Pemberton wants the men in the shoe repair shop to “act in the face of the ironies of black American life, . . . to stop preaching to the converted and get out in the streets to do some small thing, like suggesting to young men that obsession with one’s genitals stunts one’s growth and that curls, though no doubt pleasing to their wearers, look like conked, greasy Afros to a whole lot of people—potential employers, for instance.” She makes 71st and Jeffery into ground zero of a Biblical devastation visited upon the black inner city (so, recalling Mamet, we’re back on shoes and epic desolation at 71st and Jeffery), the kind of plague that drives young men violently mad and turns old men into maundering weaklings. The essay proceeds to other matters, especially the death of her father and her mother’s near-death after being stabbed by someone who broke into her house. At the end of the essay, having returned through the annihilating landscape to her sister’s apartment on South Shore’s lakefront, Pemberton concludes that “something out there today is too much for me,” puts her head back, and cries herself to sleep.[3]

I grew up in Pemberton’s South Shore rather than Mamet’s, and so I recognize her reaction to South Shore’s stark public spaces, which stand in such grim contrast to its trimly kept bungalow blocks, but I’m also aware that her essay makes a portrait of the neighborhood from an angle that consciously emphasizes isolation and despair. When Pemberton took her Sunday morning walk, South Shore was blessed not only with a coterie of active citizens coming off recent big wins in the exercise of collective efficacy–preventing the local bank from leaving, forcing the city to turn the defunct country club into a cultural center, shutting down a notorious tavern strip–but also with the results of one of those victories: the central presence, right at the corner of 71st and Jeffery, of the South Shore Bank, an institution famously committed to helping provide the material basis of a viable inner-city urbanism by reversing the effects of redlining. I’m not overly patient with readings that assign importance to what’s not there in a text (a critical move that usually seems like an excuse to beat up the author for the sin of not being the critic), but in this case any reader who knows that intersection will note that Pemberton walks right by the bank on the way to her encounter with desolation. Pemberton details the landscape with care in making 71st and Jeffery stand for what’s wrong with the black inner city, so it’s not trivial to leave out of this wasteland the central presence, right on that very corner, of what was by then arguably the neighborhood’s most important institution.

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75th and Exchange, “South Shore Bank” circa 1920 courtesy of John Chuckman

When I asked Pemberton during an interview about the bank’s invisibility in the landscape of “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” she said it had not been the result of an oversight. “My sister worked there and she was not treated well,” she said. “The bank is a cold place, because money is cold. The bank maintains itself, whatever happens to the neighborhood.” In that sense, the South Shore Bank might have made the perfect centerpiece for her essay’s cold, class-divided South Shore. “I felt that South Shore is a neighborhood by territory, but it has no feel of a neighborhood,” she told me. “Where would you put the town green in South Shore? It’s split like a zipper by the tracks. I’ve lived in places where a street like 71st will have a set of players you recognize, but it just never felt that way to me. I never saw people. It was a place where life was lived indoors, where the curtains were heavily drawn. There was a fearfulness out of proportion with what felt scary in the street. The blinds were drawn to their own safe neighborhood.” That last image captured the essence of South Shore for her. She said, “My sense is that people don’t know their neighbors,” and perhaps they don’t want to know those neighbors, because “everybody makes different sorts of sacrifices to be there, and everybody’s reluctant to find out what the sacrifices are their neighbors made.” South Shore, she believed, was haunted by a question: “Can you go far enough? It may well have to do with having had a place to get to, and getting there, and that not being it, the reality of one’s kids still being black, no matter how nice the house you give them. I’ve felt that in every parlor I’ve sat in in South Shore, except my sister’s.” Summing up the neighborhood, she said, “It’s about holding on tenaciously to a class place,” as opposed, in her view, to a collective sense of community–which wasn’t that far from one of Farrell’s main themes in the Studs Lonigan novels. “Whatever people have in common,” she said, “they’re not willing to share.”

51uTaowMGTL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_In Bayo Ojikutu’s novel Free Burning, it’s getting harder to hold onto that class place. Written in 2002-2004 and published in 2006 but reading like a primer on what would shortly be coming in 2008, it tells the story of a midlevel service worker who gets yanked out of his information-handling life in a downtown skyscraper and into the drug-dealing street life in South Shore. It’s “last hired, first fired” again–not only as a downtown office worker but as a member of the shrinking middle class. In a crucial scene played out at 71st and Jeffery, our hero pursues and confronts his mother, who used to work on the line in a Ford plant farther out on the South Side but has been reduced to a marginal state somewhere between barfly and bag lady. She’s on foot, he’s in a car; they come right past the Bryn Mawr station platform, eastbound along 71st, desperate in their separate but linked ways and unable to do much of anything for each other. In contrast to the Old Neighborhood narrative’s version of decline, which is really about the sorrows of making it in America, this is a story about not making it, about the fear—pervasive in South Shore these days, divided as it is between black haves and have-nots who have trouble seeing each other as neighbors across the gap left by the disappearing middle class—of being pushed back into second-class citizenship by institutional racism and pulled back to it by underclass neighbors.[4]

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Field Columbian Museum, Jackson Park, Chicago, circa 1901, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The great fear expressed in stories like this, and more generally in contemporary South Shore’s version of the politics of respectability, is that the urban world made by the black middle class that expanded so promisingly in the New Deal and Great Society eras, and by the black working class that confidently believed it had a realistic shot at making it into the middle, will itself become a lost city, like the white-ethnic urban village and the Black Metropolis–or, for that matter, like the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which rose and fell in Jackson Park just to the north of South Shore. This fear of falling complements the fear that white gentrification will impinge from above. Either way, whether the bungalows fall into prairie-grass-choked ruin like a chain of sacked frontier forts or get expensively renovated and fill up with white hipsters who ride fixies and keep organic chickens and cultivate an inauthentically acquired appreciation of Quiet Storm dusties, the worry is that in future people will say, “Can you believe Michelle Obama grew up in South Shore?”–just as they now express surprise when informed that Mamet, the Oracle zillionaire Larry Ellison, or the Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist James D. Watson grew up there.

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Caravels and La Rabida [Sanitarium for Children], Jackson Park, Chicago, Ill., circa 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
All the stories upon which I’ve touched, whether they’re about the Old Neighborhood or the Black Metropolis or some other lost-city version of South Shore, imagine the meanings and consequences of the succession and persistence of urban orders, of the constant play between emergence and disappearance, rise and decline. You can see it all happen–and see how it shapes the lives and inner lives of the neighborhood’s residents–from the platform of Bryn Mawr Station, if you know how to look. And the literature of South Shore can teach you how to look.

 

Carlo Rotella is Director of American Studies at Boston College. His books include Playing in Time, Cut Time, Good With Their Hands, and October Cities.  He contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Essays. This essay is drawn from his book-in-progress about South Shore.

Notes

[1] James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy Comprising Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day (University of Illinois Press, 1993 [1932, 1934, 1935]. For scenes at 71st and Jeffery, see 687, 797.

[2] David Mamet, “The Old Neighborhood” (New York: Random House, 1999), 28.

[3] Gayle Pemberton, “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard,” The Hottest Water in Chicago: On Family, Race, Time, and American Culture (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992), 176-193.

[4] Bayo Ojikutu, Free Burning (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006). See 303-305 for the scene at 71st and Jeffery.

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