The bulk of Trinity-goers are among the thousands living on Chicago’s South Side, a sprawl of cracked sidewalks and boarded buildings that inspires fear among the city’s middle classes, and even its wizened cabbies. “You won’t find a ride back,” the taxi driver told this reporter upon arriving at the church. For South Side residents, the best jobs are two hours away via public transport: a bus, an el transfer, and then another bus brings you to Hyde Park, the area’s lone upscale community. The few city-planning efforts to assist South Siders only worsened the situation. The most notorious were the Robert Taylor Homes, prison-like warrens with barred windows, circling police and neglected facilities that often left residents without electricity, heat and plumbing housed thousands until they finally came down in February 2007. The majority of those who died during the 1994 heat wave that killed more than 700 people were South Side residents. Before Katrina, it was the deadliest natural catastrophe in the U.S. since the 19th century. The morgues ran out of room. Bodies were piled in milk trucks.
And that right there is what happens when reporters stroll write about the Chicago of their imaginations instead of the Chicago that exists, the Chicago that is the third largest city in the country behind New York and Los Angeles and one of the most segregated. While it is true that you can drive for an hour and not see a white face on the South Side, the many black neighborhoods it comprises are hardly all crumbling slums, the Robert Taylor Homes were about 50 city blocks north of that church, and Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago) is definitely not the only upscale neighborhood on it. It seems beyond comprehension for many that black folks might actually live well in segregated neighborhoods.
Trinity stands about 3 ½ miles from the last house I lived in before leaving Chicago at age 10 to live with my mother in Oakland, California. The area in which I grew up, Chatham, was a solid working- and middle-class community. My street was mostly single-family frame houses, bungalows, and a few brownstone apartment buildings, my neighbors a mix of young professionals with families and older, retired folks who yelled at us to get off their finely-manicured lawns when we played kickball in the street.
Inspired by the Time article and my imminent visit to Illinois (Springfield, not Chicago) to get my 96-year-old grandmother and bring her back to California with me, I decided to look up my old house on Google Maps, and thanks to streetview, I was able to actually see it. It’s been sold and remodeled since my grandmother moved out a few years after I left, but I still remember sitting on that porch while one of the girls from down the block gave me cornrows for the first time. I remember chasing fireflies down that very-much-not crumbling sidewalk, putting out nuts for the fat brown squirrels that lived in that big tree out front, playing double-dutch with my cousins Debbie and Luanna, being hit in the shoulder with a lawn dart one summer, eating apple pies made from the fruit of the tree in our backyard until it was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination—my grandmother retired from her civil service job shortly after I was born to help take care of me and was on a fixed income, and my mother sent her AFDC checks to Nana every month—but I don’t remember wanting for much then.
(Living with my mother was a completely different story, but ironically it was in integrated neighborhoods in the East Bay and Miami Beach where I encountered real poverty while in her care.)
A simple search on Google today led me to a real estate website that describes my old neighborhood thusly:
A strong history of prestigious African American-owned businesses established a solid base for a prosperous and successful Chicago neighborhood that is still present in Chatham and spills over into beautiful residential blocks and a viable commercial and dining district.
And Chatham is hardly the only such black neighborhood on the South Side.
Thinking more about the trip I’m about to take to Illinois, I’m stuck with a lot of frustration. I’m angry at my great-aunt, with whom my grandmother has been living for the last eight years and who is now, in effect, kicking her out, and at my mother, who is too much of a nervous wreck to do anything in preparation for her mother’s arrival. I can’t help but wonder if this is what it was like for her, over two decades ago, when I moved here to live with her for the first time in my memory. She was a year older than I am now before she had to be responsible for her only child, and I know that she didn’t have the easiest time making the adjustment. Her behavior now—indulging in the worst kind of avoidance and self-pity, drinking every night after work—makes me wonder if this is what she was like before Nana and I stepped off that plane at Oakland International Airport in 1986.
I wouldn’t be surprised.