Racism is etched into the landscape of Chicago.
It’s a scar you can see from the train: exactly where 'white' ends and 'black' begins.
North and West of that magic line, the buildings are grimly magnificent, burly gothic, dusty and grumpy, but wholly serviceable. They jut against one another and jostle for elbow room.
South and East of that magic line, there is suddenly too much space. The lots are uncomfortably broad expanses of rubble, weeds, and litter. Interspersed between the mostly dead fields stand old, battered apartments, or grate-windowed storefronts, or burned-out husks, or just abandoned sheds.
Here’s how you take pigment to pavement:
1. Demand that everyone insufficiently white live in a box of streets on the South Side of the city. Enforce this demand with universal, absolutely unyielding community agreements to neither sell nor rent property in the 'white zone' to black families. On the one hand, this gradually overcrowds a deliberately underserved area of the city. On the other hand, this mixes higher and lower income families, which means there are the financial resources available at the community level to keep the neighborhoods safe and vibrant despite governmental hostility.
2. Suddenly rescind the compacts that had forced all blacks to live on the South Side. Escaping overcrowding and near total lack of city services, middle and upper class blacks will scatter across the ‘white zone’ of the city and suburbs. With them, they take the resources higher social and financial status can afford. The floor drops right out from under the communities they left behind. Those remaining on the South side gain space, but lose too much else. Things begin to fall apart.
These days, the historically black neighborhoods of the South Side depend on an informal economy to stay afloat, ranging from the black market end (drugs, weapons, theft, prostitution) to the grey market end (off-the-books deals and unofficial home businesses).
The thickly woven nature of this economy substitutes for the support that both government and private investment have refused to provide to the neighborhoods of the South Side, but it’s also a net that holds the participants down. Facing a whole community dependent on economic arrangements spanning from felonous to merely mildly illegal, the private investment that would give the businesses, parents, children, and workers of the South Side an equal opportunity shies away. So the magic line remains.
Lines on the ground beget lines in the mind. Residents of the rest of the city see block after block where they won’t feel safe (or racial stereotypes if they’re feeling hateful). Residents of the South Side see the unfamiliar and the borderline hostile (or racial stereotypes if they’re feeling hateful). So everyone sticks to home base.
Usually, at least. There was one night when an accident put me far, far over the other side of the magic line.
What I expected to happen, didn’t.
It’s a story worth telling, if only to remind myself that a line is not a wall, no matter how thick it’s drawn.
It was nearing 1:30am. I was taking a bus home from downtown to Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood that centers on the University of Chicago, near the middle of the South Side. To its North, East, and South are much poorer, primarily black neighborhoods. In terms of relative wealth, Hyde Park is an outpost. You could also call it an encroachment. Community relations aren’t always smooth.
I just wasn’t paying attention. I was exhausted and I thought the bus was going somewhere it wouldn’t. When it came to what should have been my stop, I didn’t get off. So the bus just kept going South until I was the only one left riding it. By the time I realized it wouldn’t loop around again, I was twenty blocks South of Hyde Park. And this was the last bus of the night.
Twenty blocks is a long way.
The driver was willing to drop me off at the nearest stop with a bus going North, but that was all she would do. She left me off in front of a liquor store with barred windows and drove away.
I am going to put it simply and directly: it was not a good place or time to be any other race than black. It wasn't a safe place to be any race, actually, but my skin color here brought me to immediate and unwanted attention. The moment I arrived, the gang of guys approximately my age who had claimed that corner for the evening began to harass me. It was humorous, but humor edged with hostility. They started with jokes about my skin color, moved on to jokes about my clothes, debated among themselves whether they wanted to rob me or not, and took occasional breaks to advertise what they were dealing to passing cars ("BLUE SQUARES! ROCKS! WE GOT 'EM BOTH!").
I was scared, but mostly I was embarrassed. I shouldn’t have been there, they didn’t want me there, and it was all around uncomfortable. So I explained why I was twenty blocks out of my element, insisted I’d be gone as soon as the bus North came, and most of all apologized. I played along with their jokes and made myself out as the idiot I was. Gradually, the hostile edge to their voices dulled and they took to bragging about their sexual conquests among themselves. In my ear shot, and probably for my benefit, but it was better than hearing them speculate how much cash they could score off me.
There was a black woman waiting at the stop with me. She looked tired and hard. Occasionally, she would say very quietly, "I feel your pain. These guys are scaring me too."
After about an hour, the gang moved on to more lucrative territory. I never did see them actually follow through on a deal. By this time, fear and embarrassment had given way to the pure annoyance of waiting on a bus that looked like it would never come. I got out my cellphone and offered to share a taxi with the woman. She said she didn’t have the money, so I offered to pay. This turned out to be the sort of fairytale act of kindness that saves the main character’s ass later on.
The first company I called hesitated for a few seconds when I gave the address, asked me for it again as if they’d misheard, and then the line went dead. The second company just hung up the first time. It quickly grew obvious that no taxi company was coming to my particular intersection.
Later research showed that it had one of the highest rates of violent crime of any intersection in the city of Chicago.
Looking entirely unsurprised, the woman asked if she could have my phone for a second. She planned to call a gypsy cab company she knew. From her side of the conversation, it sounded like even the jitney driver was hesitant, but eventually he agreed. He said he would be there in fifteen minutes.
Just as she got off the phone, a thug came storming around the corner and into the bus shelter. He grabbed me by my hoodie and slammed me against the wall. Then he tried to rifle through my pockets. I pulled away from him and we started up a semi-comical dance around the bus shelter as he screamed at me that I was a "stick-up man" and lunged for my pockets, while I protested I was nothing of the sort (whatever that was) and dodged aside.
Eventually, he calmed down to the point of demanding to see my expired bus ticket, which I showed him. He looked at the expiration time to make sure I was telling the truth. Then, after handing it back to me, he told me that if I wasn’t out of his neighborhood in ten minutes, he was bringing his crew with him, and they were going to kill me.
I didn’t take it for an empty threat.
I considered running. I considered calling the police. I considered just curling up on the ground and crying from exhaustion.
But as it turned out, I didn’t get a chance to do any of those, because the gang from earlier had returned.
They explained to me that they’d seen the whole thing from down the block. They’d decided that I didn’t deserve what had just happened to me, so they were going to do me a favor. They were going to stand guard around me until my cab came. If the thug from before returned, they’d defend me.
Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe it, but we’re still gonna call those next ten minutes among the most stressful in my life.
The thug never came back though. And the gypsy cab, a brown minivan with no markings, came right on time. I shook hands with the gang leader, a guy named Martell, and he invited me to come back sometime. I politely refused.
While the jitney driver took the woman and me to our respective homes, he gave me an earful about my stupidity. I can guarantee you I’ve never been so relieved to be called "shit for brains."
I didn’t die. I didn’t lose anything. Not a scratch on me, just a scary/entertaining story to tell for it (and one I tend to milk more for laughs than for shivers).
I haven’t been to that intersection even once since the night I spent there. It’s on the other side of the magic line. Whatever my best intentions, I still don’t cross it.
But I know I can cross the line in the mind. And I know there are people on the other side who can cross it too.
Racism is etched into the landscape of Chicago. But it’s not etched into everyone who lives there.