2006/09/14

Initial South Side explorations

In the last two weeks I've put over 100 miles on the new bike in various trips thru the South Side. In my two years in Rogers Park I got to know the North Side pretty well, but aside from a handful of trips to Chinatown and Hyde Park, I never went south. Since the South Side amounts to half the city of Chicago, I guess I actually did get my wish of going to grad school in a new city. Of course, this city is characterized by poverty and violence and, because Chicago is one of the country's most segregated cities, racial tension whenever I venture out of mostly-white Hyde Park.

But as I'm finding out first-hand, the South Side is anything but the undifferentiated wasteland of despair that popular caricatures would have it be. Hyde Park, of course, is the most obvious complication. Bordered on three sides (the fourth being the lake) by four of Chicago's five poorest neighborhoods, which are all almost completely black, Hyde Park is fairly integrated, stable, and well-off.

That's not to set up an invidious comparison between Hyde Park and its poorer neighbors, or to impute deserved success for HP and deserved failure for the black parts of town. I've been doing some reading on the South Side, but Hyde Park's relationship with (responsibility for?) the segregation and poverty of most of the rest of the South Side remain unclear to me.

Here's some other places I've been thru:

Lakeshore Trail north to the Loop and south to 73rd. The lakeshore parks on the South Side are definitely not as nice as those on the North Side, but they're still well-maintained and get a lot of use, and the bike trail is outstanding until 71st, when it turns into sidewalk but is still pretty usable.

Garfield Blvd (55th) west to Western. As part of my ongoing war of attrition with Comcast, I biked out to their South Side store, waited in line for 40 minutes, then picked up some stuff that, once I started installing the modem, I realized I didn't actually need. The highlights of this trip were seeing the Fireball Faith church (Garfield 2 blocks west of Racine), whose sign features a large red fireball, and finding out that Western is exactly the same at Garfield as it is 5-15 miles north: auto dealers, gas stations, strip malls, and fast food places. Ah Western, my bitter enemy. I've often wondered if we'll preserve Western after the revolution as a reminder of the dark times we will have turned our backs on.

South Shore (the neighborhood south of Jackson Park). I biked down to the closest Jewel in the vain hope that I could pay less than $5 for a tiny container of spices. On a different trip I saw Mosque Maryam (Mosque No. 2), headquarters of the Nation of Islam. South Shore is certainly not prospering, but it does seem to be doing better than some other neighborhoods. Thru tireless efforts, 5th ward alderman Leslie Hairston has gotten a Starbucks to open, and - now that the living wage ordinance is overturned - has a promise from Target to open a new store. I've been thinking a lot lately about an alternative model for economically depressed urban areas to follow, rather than mindlessly pursuing chain stores and consumerism - a path that in addition to being undesirable on its own terms could also end up in gentrification. Any suggestions? I haven't come up with anything good.

King Dr between South Loop and Garfield. Beautiful old mansions and some of the remaining housing projects in the gentrifying Bronzeville neighborhood, center of the historic black community in Chicago. Good bike lanes but an alarming number of condos going up.

Chinatown. A good place to eat a meal and buy groceries. I went to back to 老四川/Lao Sichuan (Szechwan?) for the first time since getting back to the States, and I can now confirm that it has the best Chinese food in Chicago. On the issue of groceries, I'm finding that one of the biggest drawbacks about the South Side is the lack of ethnic grocery stores. Even in rather remote Rogers Park, I had Devon (Indian), Argyle (Vietnamese, Chinese), Albany Park (Middle Eastern), Chicago Food Corp. (Korean), and many Mexican groceries all within 7 miles. Hyde Park's Co-op Market is great and very convenient for me, but is way more expensive than the ethnic groceries and has fewer specialty products.

Halsted from 51st to Diversey. Halsted is pretty bike-friendly, and one of the most interesting streets in the city. I started out with a visit to where the Union Stockyards once operated, between 47th and 39th, Halsted and Ashland (one square mile). Only a gate that marked where the animal pens started is left of the operation that once killed and processed 80 percent of the animals eaten in America. The innovations in animal "disassembly" made at the Stockyards paved the way for such key manifestations of modernity as the Fordist assembly line and the Nazi death camps. Seeing the site of the stockyards is, indeed, like visiting Auschwitz, except no sign of the machines of torture and death remains and neither popular memory nor the official markers of Chicago History care to describe or remember what happened there.

Further north Halsted runs thru Bridgeport, home of the Daley family and maybe the most enduring ethnic enclave in the city. Irish immigrants first settled there in the 1830s to build the canal connecting the Mississippi basin and the Great Lakes system, which began Chicago's transition from swampy backwater to great metropolis. Their descendants still live there, they still root for the White Sox (who were founded and first achieved success as the team of South Side Irish), and they still fear black folks (see here and here for violent examples). The black population of Bridgeport in 2000 was 1.2 percent, even tho Bridgeport is separated from nearly 100 percent black neighborhoods only by the Dan Ryan Expressway - which was built there with the conscious intention of keeping the neighborhood white. As I biked into the commercial strip of Bridgeport along Halsted, it felt like nothing so much as downtown Wilmette, the rich white suburb north of Chicago.

Halsted stays pretty consistently interesting north of Bridgeport. First you go thru Pilsen, the gentrifying heart of Mexican Chicago, then on to "University Village", a dystopian vision of what the city would look like if real estate developers and yuppies were starting from a blank canvas. University Village is built on the ashes of the Maxwell Street neighborhood, once the center of Jewish life in Chicago and later the birthplace of the Chicago blues. The unholy trinity of UIC, the Daley administration, and developers weren't interested in that history but they were interested in the potential property values, so they razed the old buildings and erected über-bourgie condos, townhouses, and consumption opportunities.

And it doesn't get much better continuing north thru Greektown (now nothing but some restaurants), passing close to Cabrini-Green, then into the dark heart of yuppiedom - Lincoln Park, Depaul, Lakeview. There's only a hint of redemption when you finally reach Boystown. So I guess thinking about it, Halsted is pretty dispiriting. But when you're on a bike riding in perfect fall weather, nothing seems dispiriting.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Awesome write-up - really made me want to explore the South Side more. I just moved up to Howard and the lake, tho, so I keep creeping north. At least I draw the line at ever again living in Evanston...