Monday, July 14, 2014

My weekend jaunt...

...took me to the Southwest Side of the city, in particular the Chicago Lawn and West Lawn neighborhoods.

"Why there?" you might ask. In May I read The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America by Alan Ehrenhalt. From a review on Amazon (my emphasis):

Millions of Americans yearn for a lost sense of community, for the days when neighbors looked out for one another and families were stable and secure. The 1950s are regarded as the golden age of community, but 1960s rebellion and 1980s nostalgia have blurred our view of what life was really like back then. In "The Lost City," Alan Ehrenhalt cuts through the fog, immersing us in the sights, sounds, and rhythms of life in America forty years ago. He takes us down the streets and into the homes, schools, and shops of three neighborhoods in one quintessentially American city: Chicago. In St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish on the Southwest Side, we see how the local Catholic church served as the moral and social center of community life. In Bronzeville, the heart of the black South Side, we meet the civic leaders who offered hope and role models to people hemmed in by poverty and segregation. And in Elmhurst, a commuter suburb bursting with new subdivisions, we witness the culture of middle-class conformity and the ways in which children and adults bent to the rules of the majority culture. Through evocative stories and incisive analysis, Ehrenhalt shows that the glue holding each neighborhood together was an unstated social compact under which people accepted limits in their lives and deferred to authority figures to enforce those limits—a compact destroyed by the baby boomers’ rejection of authority in the 1960s. Since that time, an entire generation has come to believe that personal choice is the most important of life’s values. But Ehrenhalt argues that if we truly wish to balance the demands of modern life with a feeling of community, we have a great deal to learn from the ”limited” life of the 1950s. "The Lost City" reveals the price we must pay to restore community in our lives today and the values that will make such a restoration possible.

From another review in First Things:

If you’ve ever entered Chicago at Midway Airport, chances are your taxi took you through the first of these neighborhoods -- St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish. St. Nick’s lies in the “bungalow belt” on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a vast expanse of low, solid, bay-windowed, five-or six-room brick dwellings in shades of beige and ochre. In the fifties, these were the dream houses of a diverse mixture of working-class Bohemian, German, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Slovak families. Outwardly, the bungalows look much the same today as they did forty years ago, even to the ornamental lamps and plants in the front windows. What has vanished is the neighborhood-centered life that once buzzed around them -- the shops where merchants and customers knew one another; the comings and goings between adjacent back yards; the activity in the streets that was “monitored during all the waking hours of the day by the informal law enforcement system of the neighborhood, the at-home mothers.” The mothers had an important ally in watchful Monsignor Fennessy, who, for decades, “walked the neighborhood day and night, dressed in a black cassock that reached down to his shoe-tops . . . greet[ing] people on their front stoops, and hand[ing] out dimes to children.” St. Nick’s Church itself was mother to a host of associations and activities for men, women, and children. Its pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy was richly ceremonial; its masses well-attended; its parish school staffed with a full complement of nuns. As it happens, I knew that neighborhood well. During the academic year 1956-57, I was a part-time reporter for its gung-ho weekly paper, the Southwest News-Herald. Five days a week, after class at the University of Chicago, I took the long bus ride to 59th and Kedzie, journeying, as through a space warp, from the Great Books to the great bake-offs. I spent many hours covering events in neighborhood churches, gymnasiums, and schools; and recording the births, weddings, achievements, mishaps, and deaths of Southwest-siders. Across the street from the News-Herald was a union hall where the Mayor himself would sometimes make a brief appearance, flanked by burly men in Robert Hall suits. The engines that kept that way of life humming were the churches, the unions, the locally owned businesses, and the unpaid labor of women. So far as I can tell, there is not a single false note in Ehrenhalt’s recreation of that busy little world. Today, the Southwest Side is a shell of its former self -- with few stay-at-home parents, most of its local businesses bought up by distant corporations, and not one nun left in St. Nick’s struggling parish school. Plant closings took their toll on the economic life of the community; divorce took its toll on families; and women’s increased labor force participation deprived the schools and churches not only of their volunteers, but of interested close observers of their missions. Community seems to have evaporated. As for authority, Ehrenhalt writes, “Outside the province of the individual family, there are no noticeable figures of authority at all.”

Was this the best book I've ever read? No, not even the best book I've read in the past year. But it did pique my interest in the neighborhood. 

As you can see from the alternating banners outside the parish, St. Nick's now has a large Spanish-speaking population in addition to whatever "Bohemian, German, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Slovak families" still remain. There was a festival going on yesterday, in fact, which seemed to be largely Hispanic (Mexican?) complete with a Latino band. Although there were a few of the old residents in attendance (playing bingo, of course), it was almost entirely Hispanic.

The area also contains Marquette Park, which, if you'll remember, was the scene of some neo-Nazi demonstrations in the 1970s in one of the weirder chapters in Chicago history.

Finally, in a mischievous mood, I took this picture outside Eberhart Elementary School on 65th Place. Its generic sign reminded me of this picture of another Chicago icon, below.

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