Thursday, October 25, 2007

Community and Choice: The Lost City





I came across Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City: Discovering the virtues of community in the Chicago of the 1950s (New York: Basic Books, 1995) by accident. I was actually looking for books about the 1968 Democratic convention. The title and cover were intriguing, so I checked it out.
Ehrenhalt looks at two Chicago neighborhoods: St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on the Southwest Side and Bronzeville, the center of Chicago's black community, along with the western suburb of Elmhurst, to show us the sense of community all these neighborhoods had in the Eisenhower Decade. He takes great pains not to romanticize life in the 1950s, showing us the negative as well as the positive. But he concludes that even in the tenements of Bronzeville, there was a real community which has since vanished. (In fact, much of Bronzeville has vanished, having been torn down to make way for high-rise housing projects, which have since been demolished as well. )

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that we have lost our sense of community because we have too much choice. It sounds rather silly at first, but Ehrenhalt makes a strong case:

In the Chicago of 1957, most people believed, as most of us have ceased to believe, that there were natural limits to life. They understood, whether they lived in bungalow, tenement, or suburb, that choice and privacy were restricted commodities, and that authority existed, in large part, to manage the job of restricting them. Most people were prepared to live with this bargain most of the time. And they believed in one other important idea that has been lost in the decades since: the existence of sin. The Chicago of the 1950s was a time and place in which ordinary people lived with good and evil, right and wrong, sin and sinners, in a way that is almost incomprehensible to most of us on the other side of the 1960s moral deluge.
The book tells us of the businesses, politicians. and religious leaders who were the authority figures in the three communities. In St. Nick's Parish, we have the Tallman Federal Savings. the machine politicians, and the priests and nuns of St. Nick's. In Bronzeville, Ehrenhalt introduces us to the black-owned banks and insurance companies, the Chicago Defender, Congressman William Dawson (who ran Richard J. Daley's machine there), and the Reverend J.H. Jackson of the Olivet Baptist Church. Elmhurst is the least authoritarian of the three communities, but even there we see a a very regimented high school. Because Ehrenhalt focuses on the new developments in Elmhurst, there is more sense of choice. The newcomers establish the Elmhurst Presbyterian Church largely because the existing Yorkfield Presbyterian Church "had a fundamentlist tinge." But in all three communities, people accepted the "limited life."
At the end of the section on Bronzeville, Ehrenhalt writes:
"Could a dream," Gwendolyn Brooks had asked years before in her poem, "Kitchenette Building," "send up through onion fuemes its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes/And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall?...We wonder." But the answer to her question, as she knew, was yes.
Ehrenhalt's choice of the three communities strengthens his point. St. Nick's Parish did not experience the racial "blockbusting" of the late 1950s and 1960s, where the movement of a few black families into a neighborhood would cause a panic among the whites, who would then be pressured to sell their houses at a fraction of their value to unscrupulous real estate agents, who would then sell the properties to blacks at a substantial markup. And his example of Bronzeville, in spite of the dire poverty of most of its residents, was the cultural center of the city's black community.
Had Ehrenhalt studied a neighborhood such as Old Town, a haven for nonconformists, he would have, I suspect, found many of the same virtues of community that he found in St. Nick's, Bronzeville, and Elmhurst.

Yet my experience suggests he may be right, at least in part. During most of the 1980s, Kathleen and I lived in the Village of Oak Park, a suburb bordering on the West Side of Chicago. (Even though it has over 50,000 residents, it's legally a village.) During the 1960s and '70s, much of the West Side, including the Austin neigborhood abutting Oak Park, experienced the Chicago pattern of resegregation, with white businesses fleeing along with the residents. And of course there was no time or opportunity for black-owned businesses, like those of Bronzeville, to replace them. Virtually all the urban sociologists assumed that Oak Park would folow the same pattern.
But Oak Parkers refused to accept what appeared to be inevitable. They decided to welcome blacks to the community, but to impose strict rules to prevent resegregation. They banned for-sale signs, which often led to panic selling. They established the Oak Park Housing Center, which steered whites toward apartments in the eastern part of the village (closest to Austin), and blacks to the central and western areas. And it worked. Today, Oak Park is stable and integrated. And it's more of a community than most suburbs. When Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass refers to it as "the People's Republic of Oak Park" (meaning that most of its residents are liberal and Democratic), he's defining it as a community even though he doesn't like it.
The success of the Oak Park Strategy depended on people accepting limits. Real estate agents could have successfully challenged the regulations in court. They never have. Apartment building owners could have fought the Oak Park Housing Center and challenged its reverse steering. They haven't. Oak Park thrives today because people have accepted limits. But they chose to accept limits, which is different from believing in a "natural limits to life."
Rejection of what Ehrenhalt calls "the limited life" is only one factor in the decline of community in America. But it is certainly a major one.

6 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds interesting. I remember reading about Oak Park in works on Hemingway.

steve said...

Charles--Hemingway called Oak Park a place with "broad lawns and narrow minds," while some old-time Oak Parkers thought of Frank Lloyd Wright as that bounder who ran of with Mrs. Cheney. (the wife of one of his clients). Today Oak Park celebrates both former residents.

SzélsőFa said...

Steve, I've just dropped in to say thanks for your constructive comments!
I hope I might have some time to read this entry of yours.

It is now 2 November.

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, some day you ought to list every place you've lived; I'm always surprised to read about yet another town with which you have personal experience!

steve said...

Karen--I don't think Peoria counts--I was born there, but my parents moved to Iowa City when I was 9 months old. From there it was Albuquerque, back to Iowa City when my parents divorced, a year in Cedar Falls, IA, then back to Iowa City. Then it was the little town of North Liberty. In the summer of '72 I worked for the Dick Clark senatorial campaign and lived in Cedar Rapids. After Kathleen and I waere married, we lived in Iowa City, then spent a few months with her parents in Davenport, before moving to Oak Park. Technically I've been a resident of Elkhart, IN since 1989, but I lived for a year and a half in Philadelphia, and now for over two years in Bloomington, IL. And when my dad was alive, I visited him wherever he was teaching. Logan, UT, Fort Collins, CO, Bemidji, MN, Marshall, MN, and Murray, KY. I think that's everything.

Sustenance Scout said...

I was right, Steve -- it is a long list! K.