Saturday, January 18, 2014

Adirondack Diversity And The South Side of Chicago

Mom's House, 89th and MayLast week I began a series arguing that racial and socioeconomic diversity is the number one issue facing the Adirondacks.  My multi-part argument is sustained in part by overwhelming demographics that I will be presenting soon.  But there is a deeper moral and cultural dynamic to my argument far more important than statistics.  I need to get to it first or the rest of the argument will suffer a lack of meaning.  As always, I’ll try to accomplish that with a story.

In the early 1980’s I lived on the South Side of Chicago.  My apartment was in an old brick high rise that was owned by a slum lord.  Consequently the management and service ranged from poor to appalling.  Despite the many elderly and disabled residents, the 1930’s-era elevator was out of service on a regular basis and sightings of the repair truck were infrequent. I remember one woman who was on dialysis and regularly had to schlep herself and her things nine floors.  Heat was not reliable.  Someone sent an aerosol can down the incinerator shaft and blew it apart; it was not repaired and rotting garbage began to mount in the basement.  Roaches and rats ought to have been charged rent.  The security system was inoperative.  The lock on the front door was warped and frequently remained jammed in an open position.

There was a management office on the first floor that was staffed by a rotating cycle of people who would arrive on the job with either an indifferent or officious attitude, become increasingly hostile over the ensuing weeks and then disappear.  Eventually the office sat unstaffed.

There was little to be done.  For one thing, tenants’ rights were not in vogue on the South Side at that time, either in law or in practice.   However the crux of the matter was that the population in the building was not equipped to oppose this kind of pervasive institutional neglect.  The building was about three quarters black and poor, by and large people who came from a history and environment of oppression where political leverage was in short supply.  There was also a large contingent of Vietnamese Boat People recently escaped from even worse conditions, coming to live in America at great peril and sacrifice, almost all who had disadvantage of not speaking English.  There were many residents over the age of sixty, on pensions or aid, most without the energy to contest conditions established by a landlord whom none of us ever saw.

This was what most people in the building were used to.  This is what they accepted.  One has to live in those kinds of circumstances and come to know people in order to understand – to feel deeply – the tremendous sense of dignity possessed by men, women and children who live under oppression and accept it as a fact of life without giving up their humanity, their character or their good will.  I have lived in that world and I have lived in the highest echelons of white privilege.  I can assure you in which context I have repeatedly found the most powerful expression of our human values.

The most dramatic lesson was still to come, thanks to a man named James Pierce.  James was a few years older than me, polite, generous, sober and composed but intense.  James was fed up with apartment matters and looking to do something about it.

One afternoon I was chatting with another tenant in the lobby when James came walking by.  The conversation quickly turned to the conditions in the building.  Both of us mentioned we had experience in political activism and organizing.  James, who had plenty of natural leadership skill and passion but no experience, was keen to see if we could do something working together.  A few days later the faulty building security led to a woman being raped in her apartment.  That was the final straw.

We formed a 24 hour security detail, reviewed the existing landlord-tenant laws, documented violations and incidents and engaged a high-powered civil rights attorney pro bono.  At the right moment we formally established a tenants’ union and began escrowing rent.  Long story short, we eventually prevailed.  The landlord abandoned the property, the city engaged a management company and the building was completely refurbished.

In the middle of this tussle James invited my wife and me to a wedding.  The wedding was in a Baptist church in the heart of what was at the time was as poverty stricken and violent a neighborhood as could be found in Chicago, nested amidst the South Side projects.  On the afternoon of the wedding my wife and I drove to the church and entered through the front door to a raucous, music-filled celebration the likes of which I would have wanted at my wedding.  There were about three hundred people in attendance.  We were the only white people in the room.

There were a handful of looks of surprise and one glance that seemed to hold suspicion, this from a teen-age boy.  Other than that the welcome we received was as warm as I have ever experienced.  There was no effort in it, no posing, nothing forced.  It was simply a sense of genuine joy and community in which we shared almost immediately.  The color of our skin was irrelevant to all except my wife and me and our awareness of it rapidly faded away.  We had a fabulous time.

I remember that afternoon as though it just happened and I remember the next day too.  That day, in nearby and all-white Cicero, a black family who had dared to move there was torched out of their home, which burned to the ground.

The lesson I learned from this, which I will apply to the Adirondack question next week, is two-part.  The first part is that we human beings tend to rope off, both experientially and symbolically, entire neighborhoods, entire classes of people.  I know of almost no white person who would ever venture willingly to the neighborhood where we were invited (even today, when it has been remade by urban investment and the removal of the projects).  The closest they will get to it is to quickly drive past it on the Dan Ryan Expressway, ignorant by choice of the realities of life there, ignorant of the true nature of its people who at best are rendered in the destructive imagination of stereotyping.  Yet many white people I know will opine about the inner city, express various wisdoms that belie the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about.

The second part is that these divisions, these sequestrations, are unequal. A black family living just off Jefferson Avenue in Detroit may have no better idea of what it is like to live in Grosse Point Park just up the street than a white family living there knows about the inner city, but surely these gaps in knowledge are not on a par.  Sequestration may be a two-way street, but it is not a level street.  It is a steep hill, an inexorable gradient.

When we consider the issues of socioeconomic and racial diversity in the Adirondacks, I contend that we must first remember the truths of inequality and sequestration, truths laid bare by the lessons I learned thirty years ago.

Photo: My Mother’s childhood home just west of the “Wild Hundreds,” South Side of Chicago.  My Grandfather John Rinkema built the house by himself in the early 1920’s and  operated a still in the basement during the depression.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

13 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Pete, first a couple of asides.
    How many people know that Chicago is known for houses built of brick in reaction to the famous Chicago fire?
    How many people realize the poor (be they black, white or whatever) put up with poor housing conditions because they can’t afford better and are often pushed out of their neighborhood when things are “fixed up?” May I add this is happening in the Adirondacks?
    I have lived in mostly black neighborhoods in the Bronx and have found the people to be very friendly. I have never felt threatened or in any kind of danger when in the city.
    May I go a bit out on the limb and say I believe as I hinted above, many Adirondackers share more in common with inner city minorities that they do with those who visit or own second homes here.
    Always keep in mind that you are more likely to get ripped off by your “own kind” than you are by someone who is “different.”

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good asides, Pete, true in my experience too.

      I think your point about commonalities between many Adirondackers and inner city minorities is exactly right. I wrote about that in a column some time ago (and got a little blow back, but that’s okay.) I think some of the dignity and authenticity I find in people who struggle every day with the challenges of every day living in inner city violence and poverty is the same in people who struggle with harsh conditions, sometimes-stark class divisions and a weak economy in the Adirondacks.

      Thanks for the good input.

  2. Paul K says:

    Pete, i am afraid you are sounding a bit self rightous,i’m sorry YOU do not know of many white people who do what you have done, you are peddling a “white quilt” for which i do not subscribe. The black middle class is expanding and they are welcome in my world anytime

    • Pete Nelson says:

      “My world…” interesting wording.

      In any case you are at least partly right, statistically the black middle class is expanding in many places. However it must be said that this is happening even as the income gap between rich and poor continues to grow in America.

      To speak to the specific intent of my series, this expansion is not happening everywhere and one place in particular its not happening is the Adirondacks.

      • Paul K says:

        yes Pete, my world, as an individual we all have one, i like mine as i’m sure you yours. It is nice to have a forum where you can write about YOUR world view, claiming that white people in general “that express various wisdoms that belie the FACT we do not know what we are talking about” when it comes to the inner city, reeks of arrogance and elitism.

        • Pete Nelson says:

          Paul, I’m offering more than my world view here, but you may not see that. Oh well.

          If you are going to quote me, don’t change words to invent positions that don’t exist. In this case you changed “they,” specifically referring to the many white people I know personally who have never been to the South Side neighborhoods I described, to “we,” implying that I mean all white people, which I certainly do not. I don’t think that way about white people – or any other people, for that matter. So far you’re the only one demonstrating that you think in those terms. You’re quite right: that we-they kind of thinking sure is elitist. I loathe it.

          You’re also right again, it is lovely that I have this forum. It is lovely that you do too, to be able to comment for all to see. I have to tell you though, for my part nothing impresses me less than a defensive white male.

          • Paul K says:

            Pete, you have a way with words thats for sure, you make statements like “ignorant by choice of the realities there”. you make accusations, sounds like you just made me a “stereotype” THE DEFENSIVE WHITE MALE

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Labels, labels, labels.
    I was once told by a fellow professional jazz musician, “you’re not white, you’re Jewish.” Go figure.
    We need to take what Pete Nelson says very seriously becuase it greatly effects the Adirondacks which is where all of us converge with much caring or we would not be reading these posts.
    Keep on keepin’ on Pete!

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Labels, labels, labels, indeed. My friend Clyde Stubblefield, in whose band I played for more than a decade, would wheel good-naturedly on people when they called him black. “I’m not black,” he would retort. “I’m brown. Just a poor brown step-child.”

      Clyde hates labels, especially in music where for him either its got a groove or it doesn’t. Clyde can destroy the beat in any genre. I did a recording gig for a country-western dude for which Clyde was doing the drum tracks; honest to god he doubled the energy of that stuff while still playing exactly what was needed. But I digress.

      For such a renowned musician Clyde has dealt with a lot of crap over the years: no health insurance, bad agents, copyright stuff, you know the drill. Some of it has been racial but he is so cool about race, like everything else. He sets an example for me, and pretty much for anyone else who knows him.

      Keep playing, Bob… and keep that groove going.


      • Bob Meyer says:

        Thanks Pete,
        Clyde is one of the TRUE GREATS of American music! And yes, indeed i know the drill.
        On another note: i want to share with you a long ago bushwhack adventure but, not being sure if you want locations to be public, please contact me via the email address found on my website.
        i hope we get to meet sometime.

    • Paul K says:

      I enjoy Pete’s articles for the most part, but this one just does not cut it with me… is there anyone who DARE disagree with Pete? or do we just fall in line with every word he says

      • John L says:

        I’m with you Paul K. I can’t wait for Pete to flesh this out because so far I think his point is this: That conditions between races and/or economic classes in the Adirondacks today are exactly the same as they were THIRTY FIVE (35) years ago in downtown Chicago. I could be wrong of course, and I’m sure he’ll point that out to me.

  4. Paul says:

    Isn’t the south side of Chicago where Bad Bad Leroy Brown used to live?

    Looking forward to the next article since I am not sure where this fits into the earlier stuff?

    Was in Baltimore over the weekend and I found it interesting to read a story in the Sun where they called a particular church a “black church” in the headline. Of course like the church Peter describes above anyone is welcome but it really was/is a black church.

    Perhaps the Adirondacks are a “white” place where we need to figure out how to make everyone feel welcome? It could be a long time before whites are the minority in the Adirondacks like they are in Baltimore but it probably will happen some day as demographics change. I think we are already a minority majority country?

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