The South Side is a myth: Tuesday Funk, July 5th, 2016

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With The Frunchroom taking up most of my live lit energy in the last year, I didn’t have as much time as I liked to do live readings. I’m trying to get back into the habit and reading at Tuesday Funk earlier this summer was a good way to do it.

This idea was kicking around in the back of my brain for a while. It felt appropriate for this series since it’s held in a Far North Side neighborhood that was not only adjacent to some of the issues discussed but also more likely to have an audience that was open to hearing it.

A couple notes: There are a couple of time-specific references in this piece, so know that I’m speaking of earlier this summer, not now. I changed a couple instances of “there” to “here.”

And if you like watching and listening to things rather than reading them, scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the video.

There are a handful of books I recommend to people who want to understand Chicago. And, yes, I’m starting this piece off with a reading list but, look, if you don’t like anything else I have to say at least I’ve given you some options for something better. Think of it like Amazon’s recommendation list in reverse. “People who also disliked this reader at Tuesday Funk bought the following…”

Anyway, if you want to understand Chicago politics start with American Pharoah, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s biography of Richard J. Daley and Fire on the Prairie, Gary Rivlin’s book about Harold Washington. If you want to know more about the sectarian, tribal mix of people who call themselves Chicagoans you can’t do much better than Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America. And if you want to understand Chicago’s influence and status as an innovator in everything from architecture to television to literature, read The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja.

Those four books are a great place to start, but they mostly tell you about the past. Natalie Y. Moore’s book The South Side, released just this year, is required reading about Chicago because it tells you about our present and updates the past that Cohen, Taylor, Rivlin, Dyja and Studs all explore.

What’s so essential about Moore’s book is how it argues against myth through a mix of facts and memoir. Against a historical context, Moore explains her own experiences with segregation, the real estate crisis, gun violence, political movements, the decline of the middle class – black and otherwise – and Chicago as the epicenter of social change, good and bad. Moore’s life experience fills in the gaps between headlines and stereotypes. Within chapters like “Notes from a Black Gentrifier,” “Kale Is The New Collard” and “We Are Not Chiraq” lives the nuance of stories often untold.

It’s the kind of nuance that’s tough to fit into a headline, especially headlines about the South Side. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the South Side defies easy explanations.

***

The other day I was talking with these two guys named Max Grinnell and Bill Savage. Max is a writer, professor and University of Chicago graduate. Bill’s a professor, too, as well as a renowned Chicago historian, writer/editor and former bartender. We were talking at that well-known gathering spot for gadflies, loudmouths and public intellectuals called Twitter.

Anyway, about a week ago, Max mentioned his former Hyde Park residency and noted, in an aside, “to some, that’s not the ‘real’ South Side.” Bill replied that “people who say Hyde Park is not the South Side promote a narrow view of the South Side they otherwise despise.”

They’re both correct though I’m not sure such a view is limited to those on any particular side of Chicago. For some who’ve never ventured south of Roosevelt, there’s a desire to convince themselves there is good reason never to have done so, to paint the South Side with the broadest brush possible or tell themselves that Hyde Park has something other South Side neighborhoods do not – like museums or a university or lakefront.

For some who live there, this reaction is something akin to an internal pathology borne of anger: surviving a lack for jobs and feeling overwhelmed by the violence that’s a part of some areas becomes a badge of honor others won’t be allowed to claim.

To make it very clear, the South Side contains multitudes.

31st Street Beach is great if you love water and clean beaches, but hate crowds.

For sheer beauty, heading south on Lake Shore Drive beats the drive north any day, especially if you end up at Promontory Point and walk around.

Maria’s in Bridgeport is one of the city’s great bars.

Vito and Nick’s in Ashburn serves one of the best thin-crust, tavern-style pizzas.

Lem’s in Chatham is barbecue, period, end of sentence.

You can tour a damn submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Pullman contains the city’s only national monument and you can get one of the best burgers and ice cream cones in Chicago at Top Notch Burgers on 95th Street and Rainbow Cone on Western and 91st, which are within five minutes of each other in Beverly.

And that’s just the stuff that Channel 11 will cover. Nevermind the stuff only locals know and oh by the way there’s going to be a presidential library down here in a few years so go now and beat the crowds.

But denying the real South Side also includes Hyde Park or, say, Beverly depends on the tired idea that there are nice neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods – that the problems that plague our city stop at boundaries that are a bigger concern for real estate agents than criminals. It also means denying the nuance within neighborhoods, the prosperity that often lives close to danger.

I live in Morgan Park which is about as far on the southwest side as you can live and still be in Chicago. On the whole, it’s pretty nice with some areas you might diplomatically call “dicey.”

Last week, four people, including a pregnant woman were shot and wounded in Morgan Park.

But the day after that I walked block after block, taking pictures of the historic bungalows, Queen Anne homes and old mansions that populate the neighborhood, blocks that contain more than a few Chicago landmarks and designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. The sun was out.

Three days ago, a man was shot in Morgan Park by the father of his ex-girlfriend. This happened roughly a mile from my tree-lined street with its well-maintained lawns, some professionally so.

I’m barely a block from a park which holds an easter egg hunt every year. It was on this street – my street – two years ago that a couple of guys robbed me at gunpoint two doors down from my house. When a lawyer for one of the guys showed up in my driveway with a subpoena, the first words out of his mouth were “This is a beautiful street. I can’t believe you got robbed here!”

Yeah, me neither.

I could tell you about the pro-am cycling event Morgan Park will host in a little over a week, the annual art walk in October or the live lit series much like this one that I host once a quarter.

I could tell you about all that in an effort to convince you that even within a particular neighborhood nothing is all good or all bad or remind you of the times people have been shot in tourist districts downtown or what we’d call a riot in one neighborhood is called a post-game celebration in another but sometimes it feels like I’m belaboring the point, which is this:

Myths are stories we tell ourselves to explain things that seem far away, things we don’t understand. For a lot of people, the South Side is a myth.

Are there very real problems of poverty and violence in some parts of the South Side? Yes. Let me state unequivocally that there are people living in some places here who would leave if they could escape it. But those blocks – and they are blocks not neighborhoods – are no more or less representative of the entire South Side than Edegwater, Rogers Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview or Wicker Park are completely representative of the North Side.

That’s what’s always struck me: how often problematic areas on the North Side are referred to by their neighborhoods, while shootings are often said to be happening on the South Side. When good things are happening on the South Side, we often speak of them as exceptions or grade them on a curve. Residents of visitors describing a restaurant or bar as “pretty good for the South Side” is literally why we can’t have nice things.

***

Natalie Moore’s book The South Side is a welcome corrective after years of reporting that has focused on the negative of that part of the city. It doesn’t offer easy explanations. Instead, it embraces the complexity of its subject and describes how policy becomes personal. At some point, if you want to get people to stop believing in myths, you have to replace them with your own stories based in science, fact and experience.

While few of us are ever going to write our own book on the complex parts of Chicago we love, we’re all capable of creating the culture we want. Even if it takes a bit of nuance.

METX 204 at 16th Street Tower image by vixla via Creative Commons license.

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