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Documenting a Divide in South Shore

A new book chronicles the neighborhood’s exacerbating wealth disparities, as told from the perspective of someone who grew up there.

Photo: University of Chicago Press

In 1967, Carlo Rotella’s parents, two doctoral students at the University of Chicago, moved to South Shore, buying a bungalow at Oglesby and 71st. Rotella — an English professor at Boston College and 2006 Guggenheim Fellow — would spend the rest of his childhood in the neighborhood, leaving only to attend college on the East Coast.

But he remained fascinated by South Shore. After his parents moved away to New York, Rotella returned frequently, conducting research and interviews about the area’s changes and continuities. His book, The World is Always Coming to an End, released by the University of Chicago Press last month, attempts to take stock of how large-scale transformations — disinvestment, racial change, crises of crime and policing — play out on South Shore’s blocks, interspersed with personal reflections on pulp fiction and blues music.

I spoke with Rotella about the book at South Shore Brew, a new coffee shop a block away from his first home in the neighborhood.

Can you tell me what the book is about?

I really wanted to write about how the neighborhood works — not only how people live in a neighborhood, but how a neighborhood lives inside of people. South Shore was the neighborhood I knew best because I grew up here, and I knew its history. So I made South Shore my case study.

Although [South Shore] looks quiet and green and placid, there are these big, slow forces that are changing the neighborhood. Neighborhood is the scale at which you live the consequences of history. What does that look like in the day-to-day? The supermarket closing, the bank closing, the Joneses moving back to Mississippi, the Johnsons getting upside down on their mortgage. When you step back, you can see the historical transformations.

How does that look in South Shore?

Usually when we talk about neighborhoods, we talk about people’s relationships to other people in the community. But in South Shore, it’s also really important to talk about people’s relationship to the landscape, to the physical container of the neighborhood — their houses, the lakefront, the park. When people talk about their investment of themselves in the neighborhood, a pretty large proportion of it is actually in the lay of the land, rather than in the community.

South Shore has traditionally been a neighborhood where the middle class decides the agenda and how to pursue it. And it’s also been a neighborhood where people move into a middle class, and then the middle class shrinks and hollows out and ages out. You can see the effects at the neighborhood level as the middle class recedes from public life: You get much more a neighborhood of haves and have-nots. That divide makes it hard for them to see each other as neighbors, and it makes it very hard to come together to get things done.

There are just as many community-minded people in South Shore as ever; there’s just as many people who are passionate about the neighborhood. And what I see is that they are increasingly pushing against the grain of this much bigger transformation. If you go back to the 1970s, block clubs and area councils were successful in doing things like keeping the South Shore Bank in the neighborhood and turning the [South Shore] Country Club into the Cultural Center. I think the next logical question is, “What about the Obama Presidential Center, and what might it do?” I think, like everything else, the answer is different. If you’re on one side of the divide, you’re going to get your property [values up]. But if you’re on the other side of the divide, and [believe the Obama Foundation is] serious about using the Center to train the next generation of community leaders, then that’s a reason to be optimistic about it. Maybe that next generation of leaders will figure out how to pull people together across that divide, or at least will organize them much more than they have been so far.

When I read about neighborhoods on the South Side, there can be a sense that the community is a monolith. Were you consciously going in with a different approach?

Yes, coverage of the South Side and the West Side tends to seek simplicity. And if you seek complexity, you’ll find it.

South Shore is interesting in that 70 percent of [residents] live in apartments, but 70 percent of the land area is single-family houses. There’s this backbone of bungalow blocks that are machines for producing middle-classness, and so there are these really strong bundles of blocks that that look great, well-maintained.

In recent years, South Shore also has led the city in both housing vouchers and evictions; sometimes they’re on the same block or separated by just an alley. But if you want to see what city life is going to be like when we’ve [shrunk] the middle class back to where it was before World War Two, South Shore is a good place to look.

There are little chapters titled “equipment for living” throughout the book. What were you trying to do with those?

I wanted to say that your neighborhood, especially the neighborhood where you grew up, is one of the most important places to pick up your equipment for living. That’s why there’s chapters on pick-up basketball, pulp fiction, music — that was the stuff I used to think with. The neighborhood leaves an imprint on your sensibilities, on the equipment you have for dealing with life.

What about pulp fiction, for example?

For me, it’s very much connected to the landscape. To get to the library, I would have to leave my house and cross Yates. Crossing Yates, you’re crossing kind of a social thermocline, so you gotta be on your game. I’d come back with a stack of pulp fiction, and a lot of [fantasy literature] is about this order that’s collapsing, or decaying and falling apart. It’s being replaced by an emerging order. And it’s very lurid, very dramatic. But it’s also a template that I got really used to seeing [in the real world].

You also write about some of the children who live there now, whose parents won’t let them even go outside because they’re worried about their safety. I talked to a lot of parents for whom good parenting meant keeping your kid out of public space. That really affects what equipment for living you pick up, how you use it, and your relationship to a place.

Childhood really was different back then. All the kids I grew up with were wandering the neighborhood at will. [It was] that usual thing you hear from old people like me: “Just be home for dinner.” And I didn’t encounter anybody whose kid led that kind of life. That’s not just South Shore; that’s a transformation in how you raise kids. But you really see it in a place where there’s been a retreat from public life.

What did you read when you were writing the book?

The Chicago School of sociology. There was also Stuart Dybek, and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks — A Street in Bronzeville. There’s no lack of models for how to write about a neighborhood.

There are also many writers who’ve written about South Shore. David Mamet wrote [The Old Neighborhood] about South Shore. Gayle Pemberton wrote an essay collection called The Hottest Water in Chicago. She has a terrific essay about walking from here to 71st and Jeffery called “Waiting for Godot on Jeffery Boulevard.” Bayo Ojikutu wrote a novel called Free Burning that’s all set here. If you go back to the 1930s, to the Studs Lonigan novels by James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan lives on 72nd and Jeffery.

Of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia for the neighborhood. In Caryn Amster’s book, The Pied Piper of South Shore, she has an appendix that’s just a door-to-door listing of what the businesses were on 79th Street. For people in the neighborhood, that’s the most resonant possible catalog — “The dry cleaner!” I think of that as a genre of poetry, you know?

I’m as happy as anyone else to indulge in that, but I do think nostalgia is a controlled substance. The two things you want to avoid are nostalgia for its own sake and [for] telling a story of decline, because that’s the default setting for any neighborhood: Thinking it used to be better, and now it’s worse. And it’s not the case. There are these big slow forces transforming neighborhoods and people are living with the consequences of that. But I’m impatient with nostalgia for its own sake, and I’m impatient with decline as a default narrative.

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