In the late 1960s and 1970s Carlo Rotella grew up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood—a place of neat bungalow blocks and desolate commercial strips, and sharp, sometimes painful social contrasts. In the decades since, the hollowing out of the middle class has left residents confronting—or avoiding—each other across an expanding gap that makes it ever harder for them to recognize each other as neighbors. Rotella tells the stories that reveal how that happened—stories of deindustrialization and street life; stories of gorgeous apartments with vistas onto Lake Michigan and of Section 8 housing vouchers held by the poor. At every turn, South Shore is a study in contrasts, shaped and reshaped over the past half-century by individual stories and larger waves of change that make it an exemplar of many American urban neighborhoods. Talking with current and former residents and looking carefully at the interactions of race and class, persistence and change, Rotella explores the tension between residents’ deep investment of feeling and resources in the physical landscape of South Shore and their hesitation to make a similar commitment to the community of neighbors living there.
Blending journalism, memoir, and archival research, The World Is Always Coming to an End uses the story of one American neighborhood to challenge our assumptions about what neighborhoods are, and to think anew about what they might be if we can bridge gaps and commit anew to the people who share them with us. Tomorrow is another ending.
About the Author
Carlo Rotella is director of the American studies program at Boston College. He writes for the New York Times Magazine, and he has been a regular op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe and radio commentator for WGBH. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the Believer, Washington Post Magazine, and Best American Essays.
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A STRANGE SENSE OF COMMUNITY
"I want to get you past Lamentations and into a new book of the Bible, Implementations," said Carol Adams from the stage of the auditorium at the Bouchet Elementary Math & Science Academy, at 73rd and Jeffery. Adams, seventy-two, was one of South Shore's most accomplished and connected citizens, with a long history of activism in the neighborhood that went all the way back to the 1970s, an era of community-organizing successes when residents got together to stop the South Shore Bank from leaving, force the city to turn the old South Shore Country Club into a "palace for the people" called the South Shore Cultural Center, and shut down a troublemaking tavern strip. Adams had studied with the Chicago School sociologist Horace R. Cayton Jr., coauthor of the classic South Side study Black Metropolis, and gone on to a distinguished career in academia and public service, managing thirteen departments and a $500 million budget at the Chicago Housing Authority, heading the Illinois Department of Human Services, and directing the DuSable Museum of African American History. If "money talks to money and power talks to power," as she liked to say, Adams could get both of them on the phone. On this Saturday morning in February 2016, though, community was talking to community. She was speaking at the opening session of a daylong event, South Shore Rising, billed as the debut of South Shore Works, a new "transformative community network and planning initiative" that would bring together local leaders and their organizations to pursue "revitalization through community re-investment."
Facing her in rows of hard wooden seats worn smooth by generations of restless grade-school pupils (including Michelle Obama, who was salutatorian in 1977, when the school was still called Bryn Mawr) were perhaps two hundred local activists and social entrepreneurs. They were pillars of the community who attend meetings and say yes, who start neighborhood groups or join one and end up running it, neighbors to whom others turn when something needs doing. Most were women, most over fifty, and, except for a dozen or so whites, Hispanics, and Asians scattered among them, they were all black. Val Free, the main organizer of the event, was the principal force in the Planning Coalition and the Southeast Side Block Club Alliance, which sought to create and strengthen block clubs to form the backbone of a neighborhood network that could act on the whole community's behalf. Introducing Adams, with whom she had cofounded South Shore Works, Free described her as "my friend, my mentor, my roll dog." Also present were Yvette Moyo, who in 2014 had founded the booster magazine the South Shore Current; Teyonda Wertz, president of the neighborhood's chamber of commerce; Michelle Boone, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; Suzanne Armstrong, proprietor of the Quarry, a venue on 75th Street for jazz and spoken word performances, a weekly farmers market, and other events, and also home to the South Shore Current; and Henry English, the long-serving president and CEO of the Black United Fund of Illinois. English — a big man with a limp who had long ago served as treasurer for the Black Panther Party and had taken part in the struggle to save the old South Shore Country Club — had influential connections to the city's black political elite. Charles Kyle, a young activist who had lost patience with English and the rest of South Shore's community-organizing old guard, had described their feuds and jockeying for position to me as "Game of Thrones." Kyle and others among the younger generation of neighborhood activists were not present at South Shore Rising, and the Jackson Park Highlands Association, aloof in its cul-de-sac'ed enclave, was not prominently represented, but otherwise many of South Shore's major players were there, with aldermen and other city officials scheduled to appear at a culminative afternoon session.
Adams was exhorting these concerned, engaged neighbors to come together and lead the community in standing up against encroaching forces that threatened their way of life. In her remarks she drew freely on a recent column in the South Shore Current in which she'd written, "Longtime residents of South Shore are known to reminisce about how the community was when they moved into it — the businesses along the commercial strip, the great schools, the lovely homes, the cultural amenities and the safety and security. We lament the current conditions where gunfire rings out at night, vacant lots and debris litter our business corridors and we can't even lure a major grocery [store] into our community." Her list of woes — in a booster magazine expressly intended not to reproduce the usual crime stories — also included break-ins and robberies, corner stores engaged in criminal activity, aggressive beggars, "vagrants" who "sleep (and worse) in the Metra station," and the ubiquitous hawkers of "loose squares" who pathetically amounted to "our new economic development plan."
In Adams's telling, the present emerging crisis was troubling in a different way than decades-old concerns about disorder and class tensions. South Shore, like other black neighborhoods, had been hit extra-hard by the financial panic of 2008. As property values foundered in the resulting extended trough, institutional investors and other outsiders had bought at bargain prices. Some building owners were renting their apartments to holders of housing vouchers, making what they could while waiting for South Shore to change. When the moment seemed right, they would get rid of the voucher holders and convert the apartments to upscale condos. Longtime neighbors, especially senior citizens on fixed incomes, were already losing their homes and being turned out on the street. Landlords were also warehousing commercial property, asking absurdly high prices that kept it vacant, waiting for that notional wave of enriching gentrification to roll over the neighborhood. The whole process, Adams asserted, had the look of "planned destabilization," not just the disinterested action of market forces. "You reside on some of the most valuable property in the city of Chicago," she explained, meaning its potential rather than its current depressed valuation, "moments from the beach and minutes from downtown." She broadly implied that powerful forces in both the private and public sectors were intent on clearing black people off this prime real estate so that white people could occupy — or, as those with a sense of South Shore's history saw it, re occupy — the neighborhood. If her neighbors failed to fully and shrewdly invest their collective resources in the defense of their own neighborhood, they would suffer the consequences. As she had put it in her column, "if you aren't at the table, you're on the menu."
A formidable woman with a rising shock of tight curls, Adams forcefully advanced a logical argument but also took pains to convey its emotional truth. She mixed registers, dropping Don Kingisms such as "trickeration" and "politricks" into her diction to pull a corner of the mantle of street authority around her analysis. She played Cassandra, monitory and dire: "If you let it go, shame on you," she said. "Our children will wonder, you will wonder, when you live somewhere the bus doesn't run and there's no Metra service and it takes two hours to get to work downtown, why we gave up on this neighborhood and lost it." And like a stern but loving parent, she reminded her audience that the people of South Shore would need to do better about organizing themselves, as they are not known for their gung-ho community spirit. "We charge conspiracy and we fear gentrification," Adams had written in her column, "but WE DO NOT ORGANIZE!" The significant proportion of Chicago's black professionals and managers who live in South Shore "run the rest of the city ... work in government and the corporate world and in cultural arts and human services," and they "run national civil rights organizations and world-famous religious institutions" and "decide how philanthropic dollars are invested in neighborhoods just like ours." But when those capable professionals get home from work, she said, "We're tired and we want to go to sleep. We run the world, but we don't do it in South Shore."
The portrait of South Shore's black middle class drawn by Adams and other speakers at South Shore Rising presented it as squeezed from below and above: by poor black people, abandoned to their fate by government, who sowed disorder and eroded respectability; and by private capital and state power acting in the interest of well-connected rich white people who coveted lakeside real estate. Enumerating the resources this embattled middle class could draw on in self-defense, Adams had to go beyond the traditional list of the attractions of the container, the physical amenities and locational advantages that made South Shore so appealing. After all, these attractions, in combination with depressed real estate prices, were precisely what had caught the notice of predatory real estate buyers. Instead, she emphasized South Shore's untapped reserves of "human capital." Just as its residents had grown used to spending their money elsewhere, they also exercised too much of their expertise and influence elsewhere — habits they had to change before they let the neighborhood be degraded to the point that it could be bought out from under them.
Mobilizing that human capital and investing it effectively in the neighborhood entailed defining an "us" to wield it. It also seemed to require defining a "them" — actually, two "thems" — to oppose. Anton Seals, a younger ally who spoke before Adams, said, "We have to sell a new narrative, not 'they that are coming' but 'us that are here.'" When I'd spoken with Seals a couple of days before, he'd said to an imaginary audience of potential white gentrifiers, "Hey, you left; now you want to come back?" When people in South Shore talked about "gentrification," even those who qualified by income and education as gentry in their own right, they meant white people displacing black people. But it wasn't clear that such a process was meaningfully under way. South Shore had lost a net of 12,790 black residents, about a fifth of its population, between 2000 and 2014, but white newcomers were not flooding in to replace them. Between 2000 and 2010, the net gain in white residents of South Shore was 30, and by 2014 it had risen only to 194 (out of a total of 897 white residents of South Shore). And yet many people I talked to in South Shore confidently reported that more and more white buyers were snapping up houses and apartments in the area.
But at South Shore Rising, "them" also meant a second foil, a group less self-consciously purposeful than white gentry on the march but just as threatening: the black poor, consistently characterized as a transient underclass, unengaged in neighborhood organizations and unlikely to vote, both vulnerable and prone to criminality, unwittingly partnered with the very perps who had sold them down the river — white capital and the state — in the sense that the black poor prepared the battlefield for the coming invasion of white gentry by unraveling and degrading the neighborhood from within.
One besetting wrinkle of the situation of South Shore's black middle class was that success in dealing with one "them" could weaken barriers against the other. Many improvements they desired — reductions in crime and visible disorder, fewer shady convenience stores and more sit-down restaurants and other such respectable businesses on the commercial strips — would be attractive as well to white "pioneers" looking for signs that South Shore had crossed the threshold from high-risk trouble spot into affordable neighborhood in transition. A juice bar or yoga place on 71st Street could serve as a tipping point. On the other hand, successfully keeping white gentrifiers at bay would also tend to keep away the higher-end businesses that came with them, which would in turn help keep housing prices depressed and ensure the continuing dominion on the half-empty commercial strips of low-end "ghetto" businesses and the unemployed people who hung out around them.
If there was an uncomfortably close consonance of interest at South Shore Rising between black haves and one "them," white haves, there was little serious attempt at bridge-building across the equally uncomfortable divide that separated black haves from the other "them," black have-nots. I was there all day, and I did not hear voices purporting to speak to or for the slightly over one-third of the neighborhood's population, including half its children, who fell below the poverty line. This is typical of public meetings in South Shore, where homeowners' voices and concerns tend to be heard to the exclusion of those of everyone else — not just poor people but also another almost one-third of the population whose household incomes place them above the poverty line but below the middle class, and renters at almost any income level. Just a few weeks before, the news had been full of the study showing that in 2014, 47% of black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-four in Chicago had been unemployed and not in school. The prevailing tone at South Shore Rising held that of course providing better education and job opportunities to these have-nots — rather than, say, moving them out en masse or urging the police to hammer them into quiescence — would be the most desirable way to address the problem they represented. But by whatever means it could be reached, the objective was to get them to pull up their pants and stop shooting each other. As a developer named Ghian Foreman put it, "We shouldn't be afraid to teach them the rules of engagement" that govern life in a middle-class neighborhood.
Some neighborhood veterans I had been talking to in South Shore declared themselves happy to welcome white people and their money, but even those who preached black solidarity and black community, who were in the majority at South Shore Rising, might admit under duress to being willing to replace the poor with white hipsters. The young activist Ava St. Claire, who didn't attend South Shore Rising, told me, "Nobody wants to say they want it, but they do want gentrification." The catch was that, even if such a trade could somehow be engineered, there would be no way to stop the flow. If South Shore reached the point that every third resident was white, and new places to eat, drink, and exercise were opening to cater to them, less adventurous white urbanites would then consider the neighborhood fit for habitation. They would be likely to come and keep coming, each wave indicating that the coast was clear for less adventurous ones to follow, and pretty soon South Shore's remaining black residents would find that they were vanishing Indians à la Dances with Wolves, guarantors of a waning authenticity for a wave of Kevin Costners crossing the frontiers of 67th Street and Stony Island Avenue into a hot new lakefront housing market.
Adams and other speakers at South Shore Rising, offering a litany of "us" and "ours," paraphrased Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric: "We are the people we've been waiting for." But it was going to be a challenge to bring together and effectively mobilize that "we" to act in their own interests. The difficulty arose not just from the multiple and often contradictory nature of those interests but also because the whole endeavor went against the deep-set privatist grain of the neighborhood's culture. As it confronted the prospect of a transformation potentially as drastic as the turnover from white to black in the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary South Shore's leadership could ponder historical parallels to the story of the South Shore Commission, the community organization that back in the day had first tried to stop the flow of black newcomers into the neighborhood and then tried with equal lack of success to "manage" it. Now another middle-class constituency, this time a black one, was trying to organize to defend its purchase on the neighborhood in the face of racial and class succession. There was a new round of warnings that current residents will regret having allowed themselves to be pushed out of an urban Eden, and there were efforts to mobilize South Shore's human capital. Such a group would have to prevail, again, against social and market forces bearing down from the outside as well as a tendency to pull apart operating from within. "They" were coming, again, and "we" were once again scrambling to form ranks to receive them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The World is Always Coming to an End"
Copyright © 2019 Carlo Rotella.
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Table of ContentsA Strange Sense of Community Equipment for Living: History Something for Everybody Equipment for Living: Pulp The Divide Equipment for Living: Ball The Lay of the Land Equipment for Living: Purpose Limited Liability Equipment for Living: Music Lost Cities
What People are Saying About This
"The World is Always Coming to an End is an investigation of a city in continual flux, the roiling tensions of race and class and respectability in wherever one calls home. It's a powerful account that uses South Shore to capture both the story of Chicago (and through it, industrial and post-industrial cities nationwide) and what it means to be a neighborhood. Rotellaas a journalist but also as a memoiristdelves into the significance of the bungalow, academic studies of South Shore, recollections of the first Mayor Daley and childhood dangers, a current resident's cache of guns, another's talk of riffraff and the efforts to stop integration a half-century earlier. All of this comes together to create a neighborhood in all its spectacular complexity and contradictions."
"This book is an unusually personal urban ethnography. As a sociologist myself, I find The World is Always Coming to an End] wonderfully insightful and thought provoking. Rotella interweaves multiple histories: national, city, South Shore, and personal. He effectively uses long-time residents' life stories and their often-pungent words to paint a portrait of the neighborhood’s past and present. He makes the amusing but accurate observation that residents’ (including himself) sense of being on the alert for trouble, and their enthusiasm for concealed carry and guns in general, seem to come as much from pulp fiction as from the actual threat of crime."
"Carlo Rotella has given us a rich, incisive portrait of social change in Chicago's iconic South Shore neighborhood. Remarkably, this portrait also delivers sensitive personal meditations on community, safety and peril, race and class relations, the meaning of home, and more. The World Is Always Coming to an End is valuable urban history with the soul of a memoir."
"The neighborhoods of our childhood still live within us, shaping our perceptions of the world today. Carlo Rotella brings alive the past and present of his own neighborhood effect in the historic South Shore of Chicago. A unique mix of personal memoir, journalism, and scholarly research, this book unites the obsessions, fears, and pleasures that the places we inhabit inspire. The South Shore community, variously challenged by deindustrialization, racial and class tension, gangs, the hollowing out of the middle class, and dysfunctional leaders, is coming to an end according to its residents. But South Shore remains a place of physical beauty and pride of place to many, and the narrative of decline has always existed and always willthere as elsewhere. Rotella brilliantly dissects this paradox, in the process giving us what he calls equipment for living. His experiences conjure the reader’s own lost cities, making the book reach far beyond Chicago."