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Q&A: Linda Gartz on Growing Up in West Garfield Park In the Era of Redlining

The Emmy-winning television producer talks about her new memoir and her parents, landlords who remained in the neighborhood through white flight and racial tension.

Linda Gartz and her new book, ‘Redlined’  

Linda Gartz, an Emmy-winning television producer and native of Chicago’s West Garfield Park, has written her first book, Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago, which is focused on her family and the neighborhood where she grew up. After her parents’ deaths, Gartz discovered 25 banker’s boxes filled with journals and letters written by her grandparents and parents, who lived and worked in West Garfield Park for decades before the Great Migration led to white flight in their neighborhood—and where they remained there living and running their three buildings which they rented.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, Redlined focuses on her parents, Fred and Lil, how they overcame their own prejudices, and the effects of redlining on West Garfield Park, which despite being outlawed 50 years ago, resonate today. 

Redlining began in the 1930s as a New Deal policy that color-coded neighborhoods based on the perceived risk of offering home loans there; neighborhoods with large percentages of non-white residents, particularly African Americans, were colored red, deeming the entire area unworthy of loans. Racial prejudice, both individual and as codified by law, led many whites to leave their neighborhoods by the thousands.

African Americans, many new to Chicago, were packed into apartments that were then neglected by its owners, and often forced to live crammed together because of housing shortages, then blamed by outsider whites for the condition of the buildings that their landlords willfully neglected.

I spoke with Gartz in Evanston, where she now lives, about her family and new book.

After your parents passed away and you discovered their journals, how long did it take for you to realize their story would be a great story worth sharing?

Pretty much right away. I started out with the idea that what my parents did on the West Side of Chicago was unusual. There were not many white people who stuck around and actually served the community. They were taking care of buildings day and night. There were thousands of pages of letters and diaries. The more I read them the more I realized that there was a story here.

Then the question became what story was I going to tell. That was my biggest hurdle. I started making charts and spreadsheets to keep track of where the quotes were. I had hundreds of pages of notes. So, finally I wrote the story from start to end, starting with my grandparents. I had 135,000 words and realized that no one is going to read that. All along I kept taking classes because as a documentary producer it’s a totally different writing style than when you are an author, so I really had to learn how to write.

You didn’t sugar-coat anything. Were you ever tempted to make your family members look a little better?

Yeah, of course. I think what kept me honest was reading other people’s memoirs and reading lots of books about memoirs and what makes a good memoir. All of them say the same thing - if you’re not honest, if you’re not vulnerable, if you try to sugar-coat things, the reader will see through it and it’s boring.

It’s more real because life isn’t so black and white, not to use a cliché. People often idolize their parents but as they get older they realize that they have flaws.

Yes. I adored my dad as a little kid. My mom was a good mom. But then as I got older, I saw his flaws. So, yeah. I tried to be very fair. I did not want to paint either of them at fault because I see them both at fault for what eventually really hurt their marriage. I think that’s probably true in most relationships. That’s one of the takeaways, I hope. Look at this marriage, they started out so wonderfully happy and what happened. That was my quest. I had two quests—what happened to my neighborhood and what happened to my parents’ marriage.

It was interesting that you showed that people like your parents weren’t against integration solely because the new neighbors were black, but because everything they worked for—their homes, and in the case of your parents being landlords, it was even more important, was threatened with losing its value because of racist mortgage laws.

It was pretty much on the minds of white people at the time. These are mostly working-class areas because the blacks were not going to be moving to the Gold Coast. They couldn’t afford to. So, the resentment in the neighborhood was sort of like, “Easy for those people to be liberal, because they don’t have any risk of losing their homes.” The blacks couldn’t buy there.

The overall sentiment was that if you drove through a black neighborhood, it looked pretty decrepit. Windows weren’t washed, porches were falling down, paint was peeling off. And of course, we just observed what we saw, we didn’t know the reasons behind it.

I think part of the view among whites at the time was that they were going to lose the value of their homes because it was an understood thing among them that when blacks moved into your neighborhood, the neighborhood went to hell. One woman I quoted said “Any place they’ve moved to turned into a slum.” Well, it wasn’t them who turned it into a slum. The mortgage laws turned it into a slum. Because if there was a place to put a polluting industry, they weren’t going to put it into a white neighborhood, so that made it even worse. They were jammed into these apartment buildings because they couldn’t get out, there was a housing crisis.

And a lot of the landlords were not like your parents who took care of their buildings.  A lot of them let their buildings go.

My parents and grandparents were old-school. They took care of their property. But a lot of the landlords were absentee. When my mother showed one of her apartments to the first black family, they kept asking her about the heat, asking if they had good heat. My mother was totally puzzled and said “of course.” The woman told my mother that they used to have to wear their coats inside at their other apartments.

Do you think redlining was a symptom of the racial fears that drove segregation or did the laws themselves drive segregation?

I’m going to refer to an academic book. Last year a book called The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein and his premise is that the government segregated America. These policies segregated America. There were places outside of St. Louis that were integrated communities because all the people had to walk to work at a car plant. Then they decided to make public housing black and white and the FHA—and if someone was trying to create a housing project, the FHA would not underwrite their loans if there was one black family in it.

So, his premise is that redlining segregated America and that the segregation that we live with today everywhere in the country is because of what he calls de jure segregation—by law, versus de facto segregation, which is what everybody claims—that people what to live by their own people. My sense is that these policies did create segregation.

Most people only think the racist mortgage laws that were intended to give preference to whites only hurt blacks, but your story shows that it hurt people like your parents as well. 

Whites were hurt in the sense that they lost their property values, but they could move out and find other housing. That’s why they fled to the suburbs. The FHA gave almost all of its loans to the suburbs. There was like 300 loans in Chicago and thousands in the suburbs, so they underwrote white flight.

The first black family to move to your block moved there in 1963, and your families became friends. How different do you think your book be if it was written from their point of view?

I think they would have a much deeper story about experiencing racism. My parents didn’t really understand true racism and how it was built into our society.

Redlining began as a policy that emerged from the New Deal in the 1930s and was around until The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed housing discrimination. Yet, would you agree that the effects of it remain still today?

Yes. A recent PBS NewsHour working with the Center for Investigative Reporting looked at who gets mortgages today. They looked at around a million mortgage records and found that even today with all these laws, whites get three times the mortgages as blacks with the same financial profile. It’s still going on in more subtle ways.

The day after a race riot at Madison and Pulaski in 1965, just blocks from your home— in which 79 were hurt, including 18 police officers—your brother and Mr. Lewis [a black neighbor of the Gartz family] were working on your family’s station wagon together at your home. What was the factor that kept your family and the Lewis family together?

None of my parent’s tenants rioted. 1965 was the year my parents started renting to blacks. First of all, my parents were completely unaware of what was going because they were driving home from Lake Geneva that day. They were also unaware of the way blacks felt about the white fire department. [The riot was sparked by an accident when the crane from fire truck hit and killed a black woman.]

I’ve talked to blacks who lived in the area, and one woman said to me, ‘The people that you as white people expect to be for you, as a black person they were against you.’ For example, she said you might have a small kitchen fire and the fire department would come and spray water all over your house just to be mean. So, there was a lot of resentment towards that white fire department. There were some social advocacy groups that were actively interested in getting the fire department integrated but they couldn’t get anywhere. Why we didn’t get involved? We didn’t even know there was an issue.

At one point you do write that “later you better understood how racist housing policies and the bigotry blacks endured from white controlled society in which my family had been complicit, allowed you to gain perspective and put the riots into context.” How was your family complicit?

The way all whites were and the way many whites still are today. They didn’t want blacks in their neighborhood. Is that complicit, if you don’t want blacks in your neighborhood? When the neighborhood was still all white, my mother would say to a woman right to her face, “We don’t rent to colored people.” I was a little girl and asked her, “Wouldn’t that hurt your feelings?” She said, “It’s our property.”

It wasn’t that they were Klu Klux Klan members. They would never go out and do anything vicious, but their attitude was that they didn’t want blacks in their neighborhood. Then of course once we did have blacks in our neighborhood they came to really enjoy them and liked them better than our white neighbors.

You wrote that the only thing that changed is that we had black neighbors.

Yes, right. Of course, over time you see what happens because of the riots and the city never cared about West Garfield Park. They’ve always marginalized my neighborhood.

I noticed you said, ‘My neighborhood.’ Do you still consider it your neighborhood?

Yeah, sorta.

The riots that happened in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. really destroyed what was left of the commercial areas of the West Side and it still hasn’t fully recovered. The neighborhood remains rough–in 2016, the 4400 block of Monroe was identified as the most dangerous in Chicago.

Right. That’s like two blocks from where I grew up. Two blocks south and two blocks west.

Do you think West Garfield Park will ever come back to what it was once?

If it does, it will happen because of gentrification and that’s become a huge hot potato. I don’t know what to say about gentrification because there are so many points of view on it. It’s good for the landlords, but it hurts the renters.

I’m shocked that it hasn’t come back. It is so close to downtown. You can hop on the El and be downtown in ten minutes. It has beautiful buildings. When you say “come back” I can hear African Americans saying “What do you mean? We’re here.”

I didn’t mean come back to being white, I meant come back to be a safe, decent neighborhood.

Yes, right, but that is what it will mean because when these prices get jacked up to the certain point there is stratification in terms of income. Who knows, but I think it needs more city attention which they haven’t given it in 50 years.

Reading the book it seemed that without being aware of it, your mother was an early believer in the broken windows theory—that if you keep the building nice the tenants will keep it nice. It sounded like, despite the beliefs of some whites at the time, no one destroyed your parents’ buildings.

No, they didn’t. We had some incidents were people did some careless things, but the worst thing they had to deal with was a deadbeat tenant. But they always had some deadbeat tenants.

I think if someone reads the book they will figure it out, but can you summarize why they stayed and held on to their buildings for so long?

I think they were sorta in a rut. They were not do-gooders per se but I think my mother did have a social mission that she didn’t know she had. She wanted to prove to all these naysayers that if we took good care of these buildings our tenants would be good tenants and for the most part they were.

I think my dad always looked at it as his neighborhood and felt that he’d be looked at as running away. It was really no longer his neighborhood; all his friends were gone. Even his parents deserted us.

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