Maybe I need more sleep. I’m so emotional this morning that I was nearly crying on the train downtown.
I was reading the book that Sara got me for Valentine’s Day, Black on the Block, like I do every morning and evening on the train. Sara really knows how to pick a book. The cashier thought it a rather strange Valentine’s Day gift as he searched behind his counter for wrapping paper, but Sara knows what she’s doing. By the way, you can tell from that last sentence’s phrasing that I’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.
Black on the Block documents the history of Chicago’s North Kenwood/Oakland neighborhood, an area against the lake and between 47th and 31st streets. Like much of the South Side, the neighborhood begins the 20th century as a wealthy, all-white part of town. After decades of racial struggle, property owners and realtors trying to block blacks from moving across their traditional borders, house bombings and race riots, the neighborhood becomes integrated, economically diverse and prosperous. Then the white people leave.
By the middle of the century North Kenwood/Oakland was 97% black and in its golden era. The area was at the heart of the Black Metropolis. A black cultural renaissance like Harlem’s blossomed from Chicago’s South Side, in places like Bronzeville and along the 47th and 43rd street corridors of North Kenwood/Oakland. The area was home to a young Nat “King” Cole and an even younger Sam Cooke. Muddy Waters bought a place at 43rd and Lake Park and his band rented out rooms from him. Hotels like the Sutherland at 47th and Drexel Blvd. featured the greatest acts in black music, or in any music for that matter: Coltrane, Cannonball, Miles, Duke, Max Roach, etc.
And here’s where I start to cry: In the mid 1960s, the neighborhood begins a deep and speedy decline. A number of factors combine to create the oppressive poverty that turned this vibrant hub of work, music, families and commerce into blighted and burned out blocks that offered no opportunity.
No opportunity because between 1967 and 1968 over half a million manufacturing jobs moved out of Chicago into the suburbs and eventually across the Pacific. No opportunity because workers we forced into low-paying service sector jobs. No opportunity because these workers were less able to organize and union membership fell severely.
No opportunity but gangs and illegal trafficking, some residents decided. No opportunity but prison. Incarceration rates quadrupled in the last quarter of the century, in part because of Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” African Americans are now seven times more likely to be in prison as whites.
So the stores closed up and the people stayed inside. The laundromat no longer washed clothes, but was a front for the El Rukns. The elementary school had every single one of its windows broken and boarded up. Trash was strewn on the sidewalks and in the lawns where neighbor kids used to run and play safely. It seemed like the life was sucked from the South Side.
I couldn’t help but cry. Maybe I just felt hopeless at the bigness of the problem. I certainly felt loss. I read this as I rode the Illinois Central line north along Lake Michigan. I passed 47th street, now struggling to support a few hair salons and convenience stores. I passed 43rd street where the Olander projects once stood, providing clean public housing for the working poor until they were overrun with destitution and drug trafficking.
And I entered downtown, where decades of Daley’s have invested in one of the world’s most beautiful skylines, replete with parks, transportation, amenities and luxuries.
I pray to God that while the people of North Kenwood/Oakland lost the committed support of their government, they never lost their faith Christ’s redemption. I thank Jesus that even when our despair is deepest, joy comes in the morning. Somehow.
But, God, I wish I could see 47th street like it once was. I wish I could see the movie theatres and the butcher shops. I wish I could see 55th street stretching west, lined with late-night jazz and blues joints.
There are 300 pages left in the book and I think they are about the neighborhood’s rebirth and revitalization. But it is a slow, difficult and incomplete process. I can’t help but feel that whatever happens to North Kenwood/Oakland in the next decade, something has been permanently lost. And not just here, but all over this city, from 95th street to Austin. And from Oakland, Ca. to Detroit. There was strength and vitality and it has been crushed.
I learn two things from this.
First, I feel confirmed in my gut feeling to never trust trickle down economic policies. When in the history of the human race has “the top” let any resources “trickle down?” That is not how the economics of our broken humanity works. As the incomes of the corporations housed in the loop balloon, they don’t look for ways to employ the people surrounding them in order to make the products in which they invest. They look for the cheapest possible way to make their holdings look valuable so that they can turn around and sell it.
Second, I feel some hope that there’s something in the spirit that can’t be crushed. I was talking with Sara last night about this. I don’t think I was making any sense, but maybe I will make sense this time.
What continent in our modern history has been more trodden on than Africa? And what people in our country have been more oppressed than African Americans? And yet, despite centuries of enslavement, occupation, colonization and crushing poverty, what culture has spread its music around the globe more than Sub-Saharan Africa or the Carribean? Than Cuba or Latin America?
While symphony orchestras (which I really enjoy) are going bankrupt (which I hope they don’t) or held up on the crutches of their philanthropic boards, West African polyrhythm, the clavé, pentatonic scales and the spirit of improvisation permeate popular music in every region of the world.
I don’t know what that means, but I hope it counts for something. It just reminds me a little bit that someday after all this mess is over, the last will be made first and the bonds of the oppressed will be loosed. God, I hope it’s soon.
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