WJ column June 2005
RACIST SCUM: Breathes there an Oak Parker with soul so dead, who never to himself has said, "I love diversity"? Of course not. Nonetheless, there are racists among us who joined white flight out of Austin, making that neighborhood slide into rack and ruin.
Take the white newlyweds who set up connubial housekeeping in 1969 in an apartment at 334 1/2 North Lotus, in an 18-unit building. The building was all white because Baird & Warner as management company was keeping it that way by not advertising vacancies, because the largely Catholic-funded and St. Catherine of Siena rectory-based Alinsky-style Organization for a Better Austin (OBA) had told it to.
A young ex-Jesuit seminarian was OBA point man for the building. The building’s manager, also young, had his orders: OBA was trying to keep the neighborhood from being overrun, and this building was to be a sort of rampart. This hard-nosed Alinsky approach was being applied on neighborhood issues in Woodlawn, where Nick von Hoffman, later a newsman and national columnist, was helping to start The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), and on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where the Organization for the Soutwest Community tried to stem the tide of white flight and black inundation. If politics ain’t beanbag, as we hear from its practitioners, neither was trying to keep Austin from going all black.
The newlyweds established their household in July. In October the woman drove past Austin High on time to be pelted with rocks by students getting out of class. The windshield of her Chevy Nova was shattered. She got back to Lotus Street in a hurry, ran up to their third-floor apartment, and knocked on neighbors Gretchen and Richard’s door across the hall. Gretchen called the man at work. He rushed home on the "L." She was O.K., though shaken.
In January a first-floor apartment was burglarized and set afire; the racist couple told the property manager they were leaving, lease or no lease. O.K., he said, we’ll advertise the apartment. The heck with the OBA. The building would no longer be all white. The rampart was breached.
Among people who came looking was a man who asked why the couple was leaving. Burglary with arson, the white man said. Oh, we’re used to that, the other said. In due time, a woman with a child took the apartment. Unfamiliar with Oak Park and being told the rental office was on North Boulevard, she misunderstood and took a bus all the way to North Avenue. She became the first black tenant. The couple moved to Oak Park.
There they met other white liberals who had flown. One hosted a meeting at her very nice house where guests were asked to volunteer as bail-money-suppliers for arrested members of the Black Panthers at any time of day. The couple declined but in conversation learned that the hostess and her husband had left a South Side neighborhood when their black professional neighbors had told them it was time to go. She said nothing of any urge to tell the neighbors where to put their advice or to say, "Wait, this is my neighborhood, we ain’t leaving." Actually, it wasn’t their neighborhood any more. It had become someone else’s.
WOMAN AT WINDOW: A little past 8:30 on a recent week day morning at Bank One, a somewhat bent-over woman standing in line dropped her cane. A man behind her picked it up for her, they chatted. As they waited, she opened and shut several small purses, checking on the money in each. She volunteered that she was 90. No, he said, surprised. Where was she born? Down south, Mississippi. She had come to Chicago when she was 23. On the IC? he asked, meaning Illinois Central Railroad. She smiled. Yes.
On this day she hoped she would not have to pay another fare, referring to the two-hour free-transfer time on a CTA card. She had come on the "L" and would return that way, getting off at Cicero, where she would catch a bus, her little purses emptied, their contents deposited – if she could just find it all.
Each little purse, a sort of miniature carpet bag, snapped at the top. Each had bills folded inside. But she couldn’t find all the money and rummaged for it, muttering as she did so, blaming herself for misplacing things as she grew older. Maybe she had left it on the L, she wondered. She stepped aside from the teller’s window, letting the next customer get it.
Finally, "I’ve got it," she said. The missing money, in one of the little purses. She moved back to the window, only a step away, to resume her business.