By Ben Joravsky
The first half of the Chicago Historical Society's exhibit on the west side is a little deceiving. It's artifacts and pictures arranged behind glass, as if to say too bad the good old days are gone.
But the second half is filled with tearful accounts and sad mementos of west-side neighborhoods destroyed and working-class residents displaced to make way for highways, hospitals, and a university.
That's when it becomes apparent this is no ordinary museum exhibition. Instead, "Rooting, Uprooting: The West Side" is a flesh-and-blood account of the painful conflict between the powerful and the powerless, a tale so bitter and biting it might have been written by Nelson Algren or the pre-Tribune Mike Royko. It's strong stuff for the Historical Society, which like most mainstream institutions generally avoids heated political issues, and very relevant to today's politics.
"This is pretty powerful, not at all what you would expect to see," says Steve Balkin, a Roosevelt University economics professor and key advocate in the recent unsuccessful effort to preserve the Maxwell Street open-air market from development by the encroaching University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's a fair portrayal of the history of the west side."
The display's the last in a series of four exhibits at the society that have been dedicated to Chicago's neighborhoods. If it's more pointed than previous exhibits about Bronzeville, Pilsen, and Rogers Park, that's partly because of the stories told by the residents who helped shape it.
Using a grant from the Joyce Foundation, Tracye Matthews, Susan Samek, Russell Lewis, Laura Kamedulski, and other CHS historians held several meetings during the last few years with west-side residents. "We developed a long list of contacts of people who lived in the neighborhoods and had important stories to tell," says Kamedulski. "It was come one, come all. We wanted to hear what people had to say."
Among those responding were prominent local historians Timuel Black and Christopher Reed, as well as lesser-known advocates from both sides of the fights over the construction of the Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways, UIC, Presidential Towers, and the west-side medical complex. "After many brainstorming sessions, it became clear that the recurring issues in the last 50 years were land use and contested space," says Kamedulski.
The display opens with a giant aerial view of the area, in effect two neighborhoods (the near west side and East Garfield Park) roughly running from Arthington Street on the south to Kinzie on the north and from the Chicago River on the east to Hamlin on the west.
By the 1920s, bustling working-class communities of African-Americans, Jews, Greeks, Italians, and Mexicans had taken root in the area. The exhibit doesn't sugarcoat the early years--one placard explains that "poverty and overcrowded sweatshops were all too familiar to neighborhood residents and the housing decayed as it was subdivided to house more people."
But the main theme is of separate communities living in relative harmony. There is, for instance, a photograph of blacks and whites swimming in Union Park pool in 1920, just one year after a bloody race riot erupted on the south side when five black teenagers inadvertently crossed an unmarked boundary that divided blacks from whites at the 29th Street beach.
There are photographs of Greek, Mexican, and Italian churches, including a classic of a large group of beaming women who have gathered around Liberace outside Our Lady of Pompeii.
There are union posters written in Yiddish, tributes to Hull House, and several references to the black community established around Lake and Ashland near the turn of the century, with pictures of the Alabama Pit Bar-be-que (apparently frequented by such swells as Sophie Tucker and Claudette Colbert) and Hudson's Quality Records (which promises "Swing, Sweet and Spiritual Records."
By the 1960s most of these neighborhoods were being erased, and the second half of the exhibit shows why.
Much of the racial harmony was destroyed as blacks streamed in from the south, white families moved out, and the entrenched Democratic political organization became more distant and less responsive.
In the meantime the area was targeted for massive urban renewal projects. For instance, the barbecue joint and record store along Lake Street were cleared to build the Henry Horner Homes.
The Greek area just west of the Loop was sliced by the Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways. A map illustrates the devastation, and a TV screen fitted to the hood of a car shows a portion of Good Night, Socrates, a black-and-white documentary made in 1962 about a boy wandering through his neighborhood during the days of its destruction.
One wall of the exhibit memorializes skid row, which once ran along Madison and Monroe just west of the Loop. It offers pictures of flophouses, saloons, cigar stores, gambling dens, missions, and diners. "Hot dogs with all trimmings 15 cents," reads the sign over one establishment, "a full shot and a beer 25 cents."
"In 1923 there were 30,000 to 75,000 homeless men in Chicago. There were 300,000 to 500,000 migratory workers, such as deckhands and construction laborers, passing through. This is where they lived," says Kamedulski. "Something was destroyed when the Loop was remade."
Those joints that didn't fall apart were knocked over to make way for projects such as Presidential Towers, a federally subsidized upper-income residential complex whose advertising brochures (also exhibited) promised "a complete health club."
It's hard for many to get weepy over the death of the bowery, Kamedulski notes, and most Chicagoans would probably view Presidential Towers and the upscale development it helped trigger as progress. Yet fading arguments from that old fight (Presidential Towers went up in the mid-80s) are echoed by the gentrification squabbles of today.
"The more subsidies there are for high-priced housing, the more such housing there will be (in excess of households to fill it) and the more calamitous the urban housing crisis will become," reads a critical report from that fight titled "When Everything Works and Nothing Is Right."
The early 1960s battle over UIC was even more intense. Much of Little Italy was plowed under, displacing at least 10,000 residents and 820 businesses. There are pictures of midnight protest marches against the university; one resident carries a sign reading, "Buried here by Mayor Daley is his promise of a better community which will never come true."
There's the recorded testimony of Oscar D'Angelo, a prominent near-west-side developer and one of the few local leaders who supported Mayor Richard J. Daley and the university, as well as of Florence Scala, who led the unsuccessful fight against it.
"I was hung in effigy by some people who thought I should be hung in reality for taking the side of the university," says D'Angelo, in a video on the struggle.
On display is the June 16, 1963, program for the last church service at Holy Guardian Angel Church, which was destroyed a few days later. "The Holy Guardian Angel Parish so dear to so many thousands and thousands in Chicago has passed into history. May our hearts be always warmed by the memories of more happier and inspiring days of the past," the Reverend Italo Scola wrote in his good-bye note. "I would like also to pay tribute to the members of the Harrison-Halsted group who with the courage of freemen in defense of human rights have sacrificed so much for our community. They have been good opponents, waged a good fight and in the long run the generous sacrifices of all will be rewarded."
There's a section of the exhibit given to the residents of the Henry Horner Homes. Once a beacon of promise, Horner became a horribly mismanaged public-housing slum. New west-side development, partially spurred by the United Center, will replace it with low-density units. That's if the city and developers keep their promises--always an iffy proposition, as the exhibition shows.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Laura Kamedulski photo by Robert Drea.