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Reading: Black Metropolis Revisited

In 1945, when this U. of C. classic was first published, the ghetto was a much different place. And sociology was a much different discipline.

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When the lords of gangland gathered here last fall under the benevolent gaze of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, their vows of peace and love found few takers. To those who have to pass through metal detectors every day as they attend school or make their way into the housing projects where they live, the promises sounded fatuous, if highminded; to anyone else with a good memory, they were simply absurd. Twenty-six years ago, in the midst of another gang truce, guerrillas in the Johnson administration's War on Poverty dished out nearly a million dollars to Jeff Fort, the petulant Achilles of the Blackstone Rangers, to run an "antipoverty program" in Woodlawn. The results of that brief experiment with local leadership were not impressive. Since Fort and his myrmidons were accustomed to marching openly with their guns down the streets of the south side, a hail of money from Washington did little to slow them down: Fort eventually did time for fraud, emerged from jail as Imam Malik, then went back to prison on a murder charge. There he remains, still, they say, running his gang, now called the El Rukns. So the good citizens of Chicago may be forgiven their failure to cheer when the Reverend Jackson told the assembled chieftains of the Black Disciples, the Four Corner Hustlers, and the Almighty Conservative Vice Lords Nation, among others at Operation PUSH last October, "This ain't no gang meeting. We're having an urban-policy meeting."

The glory days of American liberalism, when the hose of federal spending could play freely over the cities of this great country, seem a world away now. If the Disciples and Vice Lords are serious in their quest for political legitimacy they may want to go back further for their model, to a time of economic hardship like today, when ghetto entrepreneurs on the far side of the law not only managed to prosper, but also had the respect of their community and the partnership of the big boys downtown. They were, in fact, barons of "policy," though not the kind intended by the Reverend Jackson. That was the old name for the numbers racket, and all through the Depression and into the boom years of the early 40s, policy was the biggest and the best game in the Black Belt. Like crack merchants, the notable's who ran it were sometimes accused of victimizing their own people, but mostly they were seen as businessmen, successful in their own right and essential to the economy of the south side: they employed thousands as runners, checkers, and accountants, they invested in legitimate enterprises, they supported charities, and they always ran their affairs on the level. For a slice of the take, white politicians made sure the police were engaged elsewhere, and the racketeers kept the wards on the south side well oiled by using their networks to deliver the vote. Policy kings, like the princes of gangdom today, rode around town in limousines, and when they went among the people they enjoyed celebrity and respect. They were, to an age still innocent of the concept, role models.

The parallels are not exact, of course, even if the gangsters do manage somehow to habilitate themselves as community leaders. I don't mean just that the drug trade is given to brainless and violent vendettas, where policy was overseen without any hooliganism. Nor is it simply that the gangs themselves seem to be unschooled in the basic decencies of crime, like knowing how to shoot straight. The whole style of the thing has been debased. Instead of Cadillacs gliding up to jazz clubs, BMWs now race down the street booming rap; instead of an elegant display of diamond stickpins and cuff links, we have the militant ostentation of thick ropes of gold; instead of the tailored suit, the camel-hair topcoat, and the shaggy borsalino, it's the hooded sweatshirt, the Raiders jacket, and the black knit skullcap pulled right down to the eyeballs. Well, so be it. The gangs are at least, true to the current, melancholy epoch of culture--no doubt because they've done so much to create it. But as we hand them awards for not shooting up the streets (in the very schools, by the way, where prizes are given out for not skipping class), let's not forget that their forefathers' policy racket was so intrinsically American that it has since been taken over by nearly every state in the union. Can the same be said for the drug business? It might turn into a public monopoly one day too, and with the same happy results, but don't look for that anytime soon. "Urban policy" is against it.

One generation succeeds another in the city, obliging the optimists to believe it's all for the best, while others, disposed to the contrary, see the operation of sinister forces; a few, perhaps, feel obliged only to watch it happen, come what may. For all, there is no better manual for the history of Chicago's south side than Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton. Originally published in 1945, this book was the product of years of collaboration between sociologists at the University of Chicago and survey researchers of the WPA, and it has now been reissued in a handsome edition by the University of Chicago Press. It is monumental. If you already know the south side, you cannot fail to be drawn into this incomparable picture of the Black Belt as it was from its brief heyday in the 1920s through its hard, largely successful struggle to hold on to its dignity during the long years of the Depression. Or if you live north of the Loop and, like many others, eye the lands to the south uneasily as a vast terra incognita, you can use this book to begin filling in the blank spaces of your map. For among its other virtues Black Metropolis is a beautiful illustration of the old idea that the more things change the more they stay the same--except, that is, when they get worse.

The book has a simple aim: to paint the panorama of black life in Chicago clearly, honestly, and with a minimum of jargon. Such directness ought to be unremarkable, but across half a century since Black Metropolis was first published that approach looks almost quaint. Today it would be inconceivable to present a major piece of sociology so naked of hypotheses and grand theory, so unadorned by the baubles of fancy statistics. Yet it was not always so: in the years following World War I researchers at the University of Chicago produced a steady stream of such reports, mostly about their own city. The work of this group, known collectively as the Chicago School, has never been surpassed in vividness, in direct human interest, or in sheer volume of information presented. The tradition was both objective and humane, and its capstone may well be Drake and Cayton's study of black culture in Chicago. Their canvas is larger and more variegated than anything else in the Chicago School, and they produced it at a time, just at the end of World War II, when the vigorous current of Chicago sociology was about to run into the sands of postwar social science.

Next to the stunted outgrowths of that arid scientism, Drake and Cayton's account of the south side looks lush and sweeping, even after all these years. With Black Metropolis in hand you can drop into slum basements, smell the bacon frying, and hear the rats scratching behind the wall; you can walk into storefront churches, sit down next to the desperate, and wait for the crack of doom; you can crowd into old garages lighted up like tabernacles in the early hours of the morning, stand shoulder to shoulder with the hopeful, and watch as the wheel of policy turns; you can mingle in the drawing rooms of the well-to-do and listen to their guests hold forth on social equality for the race. It's all there, the city within a city--Bronzeville. That's what the papers on the south side called it, and Drake and Cayton use the term freely, and fittingly, since what you find between the covers of their book reads today like a lively blend of sociology and journalism. The experts we've got now are easily daunted by the line between the two, but it didn't seem to bother the fellows of the Chicago School at all. Their mentor and guiding spirit, Robert Park, even served an apprenticeship as a reporter before turning to the academy and founding their school. Black Metropolis is dedicated to his memory.

But more than its agreeably relaxed style, what makes this book so refreshing is the authors' voice. We've come to expect almost any discussion of black religion, family life, crime, or discrimination to give way sooner or later to the most tyrannical racial cant; yet as you turn through the 800 pages of Black Metropolis--which take aim straight at these matters and others just as sensitive--you won't find a single one spoiled by resentment, condescension, or fear. (Novelist Richard Wright, who huffs and puffs his way through the introduction, easily manages all three.) Drake and Cayton simply deliver the basic facts of life in Bronzeville, in a voice that's steady, rational, and utterly scientific. And along the way they get plenty of help from the voices of the south side itself: the Jewish merchants and Irish cops who come into Bronzeville every day to work; the street-corner hustlers, union organizers, and Presbyterian ministers who live there and do their best to serve its needs; the bootblacks, beauticians, and bankers who are striving to get ahead--in this book they all have a chance to say their piece, and in their own words.

Here is a preacher, a black man, explaining why his people own so few businesses in the ghetto: "These dagoes and Jews come over here and start out with a peanut stand. They'll eat stale bread and live in the back of an ol' store. They'll starve themselves and get your pennies. And then one mornin' they'll move out in front with a nice fruit stand or a restaurant. While they doin' this, the lazy Negro is jitterbuggin', an' the college Negro is either lookin' for a soft job down South or else is carryin' bags down in some railroad station." But that's only one view of the matter. When two of the most notorious policy kings in Bronzeville started their own department store in the heart of the shopping district on 47th Street, their establishment became a "master symbol of successful Negro enterprise," according to Drake and Cayton. At the opening ceremonies Bill "Bojangles" Robinson himself addressed the crowd this way: "Really, I don't know what you, my people, want. You have everything. You have Jesse Owens, the fastest track man of all times; Joe Louis, the greatest fighter in the world. You even have God--Father Divine Peace, it's wonderful! Now you have the Jones Brothers with one of the finest stores in the world. Patronize them and do everything you can to be satisfied." As novelists often do, the authors of Black Metropolis seem to hear all. And like the best ones, they don't preach.

The roots of Bronzeville go back to the last quarter of the 19th century, when blacks settled a thin strip of land south of the business district, between the houses of whites living along the lake, where many worked as servants, and the "shanty Irish" to the west. As a whole, however, Chicago was not yet segregated. White hostility began to harden into a pattern of rigid racial separation only after World War I, when large numbers of sharecroppers and tenant farmers came up from the deep south, doubling the black population of the city. Until that migration many of the "old settler" families, the Negro elite, held fast to the resolute integrationism of W.E.B. Du Bois, but those ideals were overwhelmed by the thousands of rural folk who poured in during the war (the Chicago Urban League was founded at this time to help the immigrants adjust to city life, giving them everything from jobs to lectures on hygiene and deportment), and then shattered in the cataclysm of July 1919. The "race riot"--actually a kind of spontaneous urban pogrom, condoned if not abetted by the police--slammed the door on any hope of social equality for a couple of generations. Racial solidarity and self-help, the rival doctrines long promoted by Booker T. Washington, had their day instead. But for many on the south side, building a semiautonomous "Black Metropolis" was simply the best they could do in a bad situation. It was conceivable as a goal only for a brief spell in the flush years of the 1920s, since Bronzeville got socked hard by the Depression. By the early 40s it was looking to a new world after the war, like the rest of Chicago, but with a wary eye. That is the setting of Black Metropolis.

You might expect a book that has been sitting on the shelf for 50 years to show its age, especially when it takes on problems that are, if anything, even more incorrigible now. Obviously a lot has changed in Chicago since the days when most residential property outside the Black Belt was bound by restrictive covenants and when even well-educated blacks had to work for tips as Pullman porters. But racial animosity and mistrust have hardly disappeared, and not every change has been for the good: the areas inhabited by the poorest blacks today--a mix of well-kept and derelict housing, abandoned buildings, torch jobs, public projects, and a lot of open space--are larger, more isolated, and vastly more dangerous than the old slums used to be. Drake and Cayton could not have foreseen either the disintegration of the ghetto after the war or the metastasis of the "inner city" during the 60s and 70s, but they do offer a way to understand what happened by giving a precise point of reference: their book is a benchmark for both the facts on the ground and the way core issues like segregation, assimilation, crime, and family were being talked about in the 40s. They're still hotly contested, and Black Metropolis, old as it is, is still remarkably robust.

This may be because the book doesn't give any answers--it aims to describe, not reform. Nor does it accuse. As they sketch out life on the south side, Drake and Cayton steer clear of something that was then just beginning to take shape and that has since come to be taken for granted: liberal environmentalism, the belief that there are no real differences between people, only different conditions they have to deal with. This is not to say that the authors of Black Metropolis ignore these conditions, in particular the barriers thrown up against Negroes by white society: they devote hundreds of pages to the operation of the color line in jobs, housing, politics, sex, and the daily life of the city. Their account of discrimination in Chicago is meticulous and devastating, yet what they describe is not a system of oppression. Racism as an abstract social force simply does not appear in Black Metropolis; even the word is absent. Instead Drake and Cayton use phrases like "anti-Negro attitudes," keeping blacks "in their place," and "Jim Crow." The wording is no accident of vocabulary: it's like calling someone "prejudiced," which anyone over 30 can remember, as opposed to the current term, "racist." The first is a simple description; the second is not only more pungent--it gives off the unmistakable whiff of conspiracy.

By now the idea that the most serious urban pathologies are caused by certain environments is lodged deep in the academic mind. Just how deep may be gauged by a major book published last year, American Apartheid, in which liberalism of that type achieved a kind of apotheosis. Its authors, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, collapse the urban environment into a single dimension--race--and then argue that blacks in cities like Chicago are afflicted simply because they live in all or mostly black areas. (It goes without saying that segregation, likened to apartheid, must be a circumstance for which white society is uniquely responsible.) This way of thinking about race is foreign to Black Metropolis. Those who open it expecting to find racism conjured up as the same inimical social ether they've gotten used to reading about will be disappointed. What they'll find instead is a full and dispassionate report on the subordination of blacks as a group, and then as much, if not more, attention given to relations within that group. And this is where Black Metropolis really shines.

It describes these relations, often in exceptional detail, as they were played out in all the worlds contained by Bronzeville: in its churches, from storefront Baptist to Presbyterian, in its own patterns of color consciousness, in its quandaries over racial solidarity in politics and commerce, and in its system of social clubs. These various worlds were linked, Drake and Cayton tell us, by a sort of ruling principle of life on the south side--class. But class in Bronzeville was not a position you were born into, as in Europe, nor one you could buy your way into, as in most of the United States. It was something you had to earn by your actions: "It's not what you do that counts," people told interviewers over and over, "but how you do it." That's what they called "front"--a sign of class to those who displayed it and hypocrisy to those who did not. As the authors put it, "One of the most fundamental divisions in Bronzeville is that between people who stress conventional, middle-class 'American' public behavior and those who ignore it." The postal clerk with education and a sense of propriety who looked down on the gambler with only money and a lot of flash was no mere Babbitt. He was, like many others portrayed in this book, quintessentially American, judging people not by what they have but by who they have become. The reason is not far to seek. Almost anyone who took his family back two or three generations would find a slave; to go back further, in that idle sport of WASPs, would have been absurd. In Bronzeville everybody came over on the same Mayflower. That's why education and "front"--which included speech, conduct, and values--took on such importance. There were few legitimate black entrepreneurs on the south side (in the late 1930s three-quarters of its merchants were Jews), and the community could support only a small group of professional men like doctors, lawyers, and undertakers; job discrimination, in other words, had flattened out the usual economic markers so that the middle class stayed open, even in hard times, to those who aspired to its ideals. As one man told the authors, "There are people who are not lower-class who have less than many who are lower-class." This is movingly illustrated by a series of pictures in Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943 (edited by Robert Reid and Larry Viskochil), a book that makes a superb companion to Black Metropolis. The series depicts a family in the newly opened Ida B. Wells Homes, the first public-housing project for blacks in the city: Ray Carr, described as a junk dealer, is shown making a phone call; his children sketch out their ambitions for the visitor; and all pose with Mrs. Carr in her spotless living room, which is even furnished with that everlasting symbol of middle-class striving, a piano.

As job discrimination pressed down on the growth of the classes at the top, so housing discrimination kept all classes squeezed together inside the limits of the Black Belt. There was a general pattern of increasing prosperity from its northern end, around Cermak, down to about 67th Street, where the "dicty Negroes," those who were well-off, lived. But as Drake and Cayton tell it, "instead of middle-class areas Bronzeville tends to have middle-class buildings in all areas, or a few middle-class blocks here and there." This too helped the middle class set the tone. And if the south side was cohesive, it also had a focus under the bright lights that drew Bronzeville's commercial and social life together, first along 35th Street in the 1920s, then 47th Street as Black Metropolis was being written, and finally 63rd Street before everything began to fall apart in the 1960s: department stores, first-run movie palaces, ballrooms that booked the biggest acts in the country, restaurants and nightclubs of the first chop--they were all there, serving a sophisticated urban culture that would accept nothing less.

All that is lost now. The ghetto described in Black Metropolis is defunct, like a farm hamlet given up for dead in the dust bowl. Nobody is going to miss the slums left over from the turn of the century, the kitchenettes jammed into old basements, the hard words from police that fell on young men who strayed east over Cottage Grove, or the brickbats that met them if they went the other way, past Wentworth. But those who deny that the exit of the middle class and its values has been a disaster for the people left behind ("Segregation, not middle-class out-migration, is the key factor responsible for the creation and perpetuation of communities characterized by persistent and spatially concentrated poverty," write the authors of American Apartheid) will need more than rhetoric to undo this portrait of a bygone city within a city. It is too richly drawn and too lucid.

And fat too. But big as Black Metropolis is, its index lists only four items under "Gangsters," and they all refer to bootlegging, one of the many trades in Chicago open only to whites in those days. Even The Gang, the definitive study of the city's youth gangs in the 1920s, has little more to say about blacks. Its author, the euonymous Frederic M. Thrasher, quotes the report of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations as follows: "Negro hoodlums do not appear to form organized gangs so readily. Judges of the municipal court said that there are no gang organizations among Negroes to compare with those found among young whites." That city, for better or worse, is gone.

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, University of Chicago Press, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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