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Reading: The Way We Weren't

The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt's nostalgic look at 1950s Chicago, pines for a place that never existed

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Ah, the good old days. Everyone's looking back to better times when people knew their place and respected authority and didn't expect a whole lot of change. Newt Gingrich has looked back to fictional versions of earlier times, taking Boys Town as a model for what to do with all the orphans he's laboring to create. Bill Bennett has reaped millions peddling platitudes from earlier writers (it saves writer's fees). Bob Dole, who's old enough to compare at least five generations, reminisces fondly about the days of self-reliance before farmers were softened by government subsidies. Phil Gramm has made nostalgia trips part of his campaign, settling in with Iowa farmers for discussions just like the ones the Gramms used to have "around my momma's old Formica kitchen table." (Wouldn't you love to have heard the talk around that table when momma found out Phil flunked another grade in grammar school?)

Then there's the conservatives' mother of all backward looks, Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society, a book Gingrich has praised enthusiastically. She argues that we need to look back to the "Victorian values" Margaret Thatcher's grandmother taught her--hard work, self-restraint, thrift, cleanliness, patriotism--if we want to develop a decent, caring culture (like Thatcher's England?). Himmelfarb's arguments are based on exotic examples, twisted facts, and suspect samples, but that hasn't muffled the praise from conservative reviewers eager to find easy answers.

And there's a Chicago voice in this chorus. Alan Ehrenhalt--a city native who's been a reporter for the Associated Press, Congressional Quarterly, and Washington Star and is current editor of Governing magazine--wrote The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s, a book whose faults define the whole problem with nostalgia.

The book's thesis is simple and straightforward: we've been done in by a culture that, unlike the good old days, gives us excessive choices, making everyone feel dissatisfied. (Ehrenhalt is never explicit about what he means by "choice," preferring to define it only by implication.) Ernie Banks's long career with the Cubs is one of Ehrenhalt's metaphors for the old stability, the perfect contrast to free agents and bidding wars and lack of loyalty to the home team. In the 50s, he argues, we were all Ernie Bankses, because we'd struck a social bargain that resulted in "conventional families, traditional neighborhoods, more stable patterns of work, school, politics, religion." He admits this bargain gave people limited choices, but they accepted limits because they "recognized the existence of authority and abided by its dictates....It made an orderly community possible."

Ehrenhalt develops his thesis by taking detailed looks at three Chicago communities around 1957: the white, working-class neighborhood of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine parish on the southwest side; the Bronzeville area about five miles east, then the center of African-American life in the city; and the new subdivision of Brynhaven in the middle-class suburb of Elmhurst. In every community, he writes, you found people who had limited choices. The folks in Saint Nick's parish were generally limited to blue-collar jobs in the area's factories and warehouses; the people in Brynhaven were pretty much forced to be social conformists; and the denizens of Bronzeville--well, they couldn't even leave the neighborhood safely, as Alvin Palmer learned one terrible day in 1957 when he wandered too far west on 63rd Street and was beaten to death by thugs from Saint Nick's. Nevertheless, writes Ehrenhalt, people were generally happy and willing to pay the price of obedience and conformity that was required for safety and stability.

It's an appealing argument, for in a way the 50s were a tranquil time. Having misspent much of them hanging out at 63rd and Kedzie, the center of one of Ehrenhalt's "ordered communities," I can vouch for the accuracy of some of his details. Our crowd claimed rights to the northeast corner of that busy intersection, technically across the street from Saint Nick's parish, but close enough to be spiritual kin. We knew our place, all right. We didn't aspire to much beyond what our neighbors had, and we took our moral signals from the culture in which fate had planted us.

Ehrenhalt's portrait of Saint Nick's parish is a paean to the thrifty, cheerful working-class people who lived in all those bungalows just west of Kedzie between 59th and 67th. They did their banking at Talman Federal, their drinking at one of countless neighborhood taverns, and their shopping at a variety of specialty stores. Mothers stayed at home, and neighbors shared the parenting--they weren't afraid to discipline someone else's kid if he was out of line. Stern priests heard frequent confessions from devout parishioners, and nuns ruled supreme in classrooms where little but memory and obedience was required or developed. Ehrenhalt captures the atmosphere pretty well, even for those of us who didn't experience a Catholic education. But the public schools were full of tyrants too, mostly unmarried Irish women whose knowledge of parts of speech and multiplication tables was infallible and whose faint aura of cigarettes and cheap perfume made them a bit exotic.

Ehrenhalt does note some signs of the virulent racism that was also part of the white south side in the 1950s, but he makes it seem like an aberration, not the rule. And as he does with so many examples that don't support his thesis, he brings up such things mostly so he can dismiss them. For example, he simply cites the case of Jesse Booker, who moved into white Garfield Park and a few days later had his house pelted with stones, then goes right on to Palmer's brutal murder. "The murder was as frightening to the inhabitants of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish where it occurred as it was to those of Bronzeville," he writes, then goes on to argue that people in Saint Nick's parish were outraged--though he offers no proof that that was a majority view.

He doesn't acknowledge how frequently such incidents occurred in a city where the races had little contact and less chance to develop or test their tolerance. The air was always ripe with menace, and you heard frequent talk of impending race riots at Lindblom High, the public school where students from Saint Nick's parish went if they couldn't choose the Catholic option. I remember hearing a white Lindblom basketball player bragging about how his teammates would sabotage black players who tried out, throwing passes at their ankles and generally making them look bad.

I remember all too clearly the ugliness at Harper High (the public school for those of us who lived east of Kedzie) around 1954, when the school's first two black students--two small, frail-looking young women--were mercilessly harassed and ostracized. And the race riot that occurred at the Harper-DuSable football game that fall, a huge melee that brought in scores of squad cars and put an end to nighttime Public League sporting events for decades. Ehrenhalt mentions neither the harassment nor the violence.

A few white Harper students might have heard about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and decided that segregation was morally wrong, but it was too risky to step up and be called a "nigger lover" in a community where even those in authority were open about their belief that black people were inferior and dangerous. You had to be like Huck Finn, deciding whether to go along with the prevailing wisdom or condemn yourself to perdition by holding some radical minority view. Only a few were brave enough to rebel.

Ehrenhalt's portrait of Brynhaven in the 1950s is no less troubling. It was a classic suburban haven, full of young families just starting the climb up corporate and professional ladders, promoted in 1957 as a place where "any family with a yearly income of approximately $7,500 from all sources...can now live a life of luxury." It was a place where people spent their weekends sprucing up their yards or taking barbecue lessons at Soukup's Hardware, which gave away free steaks from Otto's Meat Market "to acquaint the public with the family fun of covered barbecue cooking."

But even in Ehrenhalt's description it was also a place of oppressive conformity, where citizens felt enormous pressure to fit in, whether at raucous block parties or at church. It was a place where a choral group from Bronzeville wasn't allowed to stay overnight after a performance, because--well, because black people just weren't welcome there after dark. Whether people wanted to or not, they joined clubs and sponsored Scout troops and went to parties and allowed racism to fester. They didn't want to feel different. And Ehrenhalt sees this as a positive thing. "Some pretending was required--some hypocrisy, if you insist--but it served a purpose."

The highly regarded York High School stressed obedience and passivity and couched most of its objectives in terms of behavior, not intellectual substance. The students' ideas for improving the school centered on the quality of the food service, not the rigor of their classes. Ehrenhalt suggests that this too was part of the bargain that made the halls of York High safe, but he doesn't mention the cost of discouraging students from thinking critically, maybe even rebelliously.

Perhaps most revealing is Ehrenhalt's celebration of religious life in Elmhurst. He praises the Reverend Clare Tallman, brought in to start a new Presbyterian church, as above all "a man who was very good at business," a man who "understood the bottom line." He joined the Rotary and Kiwanis as part of his campaign to raise funds for the new church building and meshed well with the pragmatic, ambitious congregation that hired him. The church's 1955 annual report read, "Blessed are those who use the offering envelopes, for their contributions shall be recorded, and shall be deductible from their income tax. Blessed are the systematic givers, for there shall be order in their lives and in their quarterly statements." Without irony Ehrenhalt states that the congregation "had a profound faith in so many things: in American capitalism, in democratic government, in the technology that had made prosperity possible and given most of them their livelihoods." A church where George Babbitt would feel right at home.

There was stability for Bronzeville's citizens too. Their neighborhood was home to the new Dunbar High School, a totally segregated public trade school, and it could boast of several black-owned businesses and the annual Bud Billiken parade, sponsored by the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's great African-American newspapers. Ehrenhalt acknowledges that only 6 of the 77 hospitals in Chicago at the time accepted black patients, and 5 of the 6 had quotas, so that a desperately ill black person could still be denied admission. And that Chicago police were notorious for arbitrarily stopping and searching black motorists just to harass them. And that work was scarce and housing overcrowded, with families of four and five living in two-room apartments and sharing kitchens, toilets, and bathtubs. And that some Bronzeville schools enrolled 2,000 students on double shifts, while 300 classrooms sat empty elsewhere in the city.

But all this contributed to the communal spirit, Ehrenhalt blithely writes. "Bronzeville flourished because of adversity. Its residents became experts at community building because they felt the urge to band together against a larger and less friendly world that excluded them from any meaningful participation, no matter how respectable they might be." And perhaps slaves reveled in their condition, happy to be free of the stress of decision making. If Bronzeville residents had a communal spirit in 1957, it came mostly from their sense of having a common oppressor.

Ehrenhalt's bleak examples continually undermine his rosy conclusions, yet he gushes on about "communities that were, for the most part, familiar and secure" and laments the loss of "conventional families" and "traditional neighborhoods." It doesn't seem to bother him that these were also neighborhoods where religious hypocrisy and white bigotry reigned. Only a few years after Ehrenhalt's idyllic 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was stoned by whites in Marquette Park, a half mile from Saint Nicholas parish. Apparently this too was part of the bargain.

Ehrenhalt's argument is fashionably right-wing, down to his Gingrichian homage to Gertrude Himmelfarb. He cites her celebration of the "'Puritan ethic' of work, thrift, temperance, cleanliness; of the idea of 'respectability' that was as powerful among the working classes as among the middle classes" in the Victorian age. And like her and Gingrich, he conveniently ignores the greed and hypocrisy that allowed 19th-century factory owners who mouthed Christian platitudes to employ ten-year-olds to work 12- and 14-hour days.

For Ehrenhalt, today's villain isn't the greed of corporations that downsize and move operations overseas and thereby destroy lives and neighborhoods. It isn't the hypocrisy of politicians who argue for tax breaks for the comfortable while refusing to raise the minimum wage or provide health care for the marginal. No, he declares, it's our "worship of choice" that has made our families unstable, our schools unfit, and our streets unsafe. We've lost the steadfastness of Ernie Banks and embraced the opportunism of Rickey Henderson, he says, apparently forgetting that Banks and his peers were virtual slaves to their owners and couldn't have moved if they'd wanted to. "A generation ago in America we understood the implicit bargain, and most of us were willing to pay the price. What is it really like to live under the terms of that bargain? Would we ever want to do it again?" His own examples of institutional racism, mindless obedience, and sterile faith ought to have persuaded him the answer is no.

The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s by Alan Ehrenhalt, Basic Books, $24.

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

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