How to Integrate a Chicago Neighborhood

2019-09-04T16:12:56+00:00August 29th, 2019|

In three (not so) easy steps.

By Scott Smith

Here’s what it takes to racially integrate a Chicago neighborhood.

You have to be a black real estate agent in 1971 who brings families who look like you into a white neighborhood even when neighborhood associations ask you to stop and someone throws a Molotov cocktail at the front door of your house.

Six months later, you have to be a white guy who stands up in front of your similarly white congregation on a Sunday morning in 1971 with a set of poster boards which say things like, “Integration is inevitable.”

And you have to be willing to be the only black family on your block.

Then you have to spend the next forty to fifty years acting in fits and starts as black and white residents strive to live among each other, not just with each other, in a city so poisoned by segregation that neighborhoods with black populations higher than forty percent stop growing economically.

At least that’s the way it’s been in Beverly/Morgan Park, a racially integrated area of the city roughly bound by Eighty-Seventh Street on the North, 107th Street on the South, California Avenue on the West, and Vincennes Avenue on the East.

According to the most recent census numbers, Beverly is fifty-five percent white and thirty-five percent black. Residents with tight-lipped Midwestern smiles forgive outsiders who believe these tree-lined streets full of historic architecture are some Oak Park-ian suburb.

Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook - Cover

This essay appears in the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.

In fact, Beverly, along with Morgan Park (sixty-six percent black and twenty-nine percent white) and Mount Greenwood (eighty-six percent white, four percent black, and six percent Latino) make up the Nineteenth Ward on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side, one of the last strongholds of the legendary Democratic machine. It’s a community that rallies and fundraises when one of its own needs help, whether it’s a family displaced by a fire, local police in need of bulletproof vests, or a young child stricken with cancer. Its strongest businesses—in stark contrast to the big-box stores in the suburbs next door—are small and unique, from decades-old stalwarts like Top Notch Beefburgers, County Fair Foods, and Rainbow Cone, to newer establishments like Horse Thief Hollow Brewpub, Belle Up Boutique, and Tranquility Salon, which is a hairstyling business in the front with occasional live music in the back. The South Side Irish Parade is still a Western Avenue tradition, but so is an annual neighborhood art walk started in the last decade, which features a multiracial coalition of artists and changemakers.

Though nearby Morgan Park had some racial integration in the first half of the twentieth century, the Encyclopedia of Chicago tells us this didn’t occur “on a large scale” until the 1960s. Meanwhile, Beverly was ninety-nine percent white in 1970.

By 1980, Beverly would be fifteen percent black.

None of that change happened naturally.
The years in between were when Frank Williams, Pat Stanton, and Audrey Peeples entered the picture. None of them were looking to make history, nor did they know each other at the time. Their stories are merely representative of what happens when ordinary people don’t act in ordinary ways.

 

Frank Williams will tell you he’s a fighter. But he got kicked out of high school for being a lover.

In January 1971, Frank opened a real estate agency at Ninetieth and Ashland in Beverly. Soon after that, he began showing houses in North Beverly to black families who wanted to live there. This did not endear him to some of the neighborhood associations there and they asked him to sign a consent decree, promising not to show homes there.

He refused.

It was not the first time white people tried to persuade Frank to act counter to his interests.

Frank was on the high school football team when he lived in segregated Flint, Michigan. He was dating a girl named Joanne, who was white. The school was not happy about it and Joanne’s parents sent her away for a time. The principal of Frank’s high school sat him down and asked him to promise he would not date another white girl. Frank said he could not make that promise.

Kicked out of school at eighteen for this refusal, Frank went to work in a factory, which he hated. Eventually, Joanne returned to Flint and the two decided to get married and move to Chicago. Frank found work, first as a mail carrier, then as a realtor in 1966.

When asked if he was purposely trying to bring black families into predominantly white Beverly, Frank doesn’t mince words: “All my life I’ve attempted to do that.

“I always believed I—and my children—had a right to live and play everywhere, in all communities.”

Ask Frank what the reaction of the residents was to his efforts and he laughs. “Oh, you know, heh, heh, heh,” he says before begrudgingly admitting, “I was not welcomed with open arms.”

This is Frank’s way of saying the windows of two of his real estate offices were broken. Someone bombed the front of his house with a Molotov cocktail, too. Frank seems to consider this the price of doing business the way he wanted to do it.

“We lived our lives on a daily basis. No, we didn’t like it. But I’ve always been a fighter. And I fought. And I told those folks, ‘No, I will not sign a consent decree that I would not solicit in Beverly.’” So that was that.

Incidentally, Frank and Joanne have been married for fifty-nine years now.

Frank doesn’t have much good to say about the neighborhood associations of the time, suggesting they weren’t much concerned with anything other than “the niceties” of a community until black people started to move in. “They would do things such as integration management, integration maintenance.”

He describes the practice this way. “The strategy was that no more than two or three so-called minorities on a block [was] acceptable. Once you get to that fourth person, that’s the tipping point. That creates flight, that creates the exodus from the community.”

Just so we’re clear, Frank means “white flight.”

There’s a long, sordid history of white flight, panic peddling, redlining, and other government-sponsored segregation through housing nationwide. Chicago plays a particularly odious role in it. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic magazine article, “The Case For Reparations,” is a good place to start if you’re new to the topic.

To Frank, “integration management” was just another form of segregation. To the neighborhood associations of the time, it was smart urban planning, which brings us to the Beverly Area Planning Association and a white guy named Pat Stanton.

 

Laurence “Pat” Stanton was an advertising man, comfortable winning over people in a pitch. The one he delivered in the summer of 1971 would change the community of Beverly for decades.

A resident since 1959, Pat saw what was happening in Beverly with black families moving in and had a very simple view: “Integration is inevitable.”

A member of the Human Relations Committee at Christ the King’s Catholic parish in North Beverly, Pat and others had some success with anti- solicitation efforts aimed at keeping panic peddlers out of the community, but they were looking for ways to have a broader impact.

So Pat wrote a ten-page plan and presented it to the board of C-K, which felt that before it could endorse the plan, it would need the congregation’s input. A couple weeks later, Pat found himself in front of the C-K congregation, a layperson standing at the pulpit—unheard of for the day—delivering a presentation off flip charts.

On July 11 and 12, Pat would deliver his sermon at five different masses. A low-quality recording of one of his presentations was made surreptitiously by a parishioner.

“We call this presentation ‘Beverly Now.’ And ‘Now’ should be underlined three or four or five times because now is certainly the moment for coordinated action in this community.”

Rather than stirring oratory calling upon the higher ideals of those assembled, “Beverly Now” is often mundane, with facts and figures about housing migration and real estate prices. Pat’s words sound pragmatic at best, even though they likely sounded radical for the time.

“Let’s face up to it. Change is beginning to affect our community. And that change will continue. There’s nothing to prevent it. There are thousands of blacks who want homes, they can afford homes and certainly they deserve to live where they can afford to.”

“Beverly Now was for realists,” Pat says on a Sunday afternoon forty- seven years later. “It wasn’t a do-gooder approach. I certainly had strong feelings about what was right, but you don’t convince people because it’s right, you convince them because it’s practical and it’s right for the community.”

During his presentation, Pat made it pretty clear he anticipated pushback and where those folks could go.

“There will be a certain percentage of people—let’s hope most of them have already moved away—who won’t want to live here because there are blacks in the community. . . .

“Fight the panic peddlers and the blockbusters . . . let’s insist that if blacks are going to look in this community, they look throughout the community.”

Pat explains this approach years later. “The South Side changed block by block. The secret, we thought, was that you have to convince the realtors, if they have black prospects, to show them houses throughout the community and not to the obvious place where blacks have recently moved.”

Had Frank been in the pews that Sunday, he may have objected to this. But Pat, ever the ad man, knew his audience and how to craft a message that got them to buy. In fact, the majority of Pat’s “Beverly Now” presentation is less a call for racial integration in housing and more a verbal white paper, a holistic program of urban planning which includes improving the schools, supporting local businesses, promoting the area’s historic architecture, and talking up the local arts center.

Pat says a handful of people told him they objected to his plan and a few people interviewed for an article in the Southtown Economist (now the Daily Southtown) said so, too. No broken windows in his case, though he does note that two realtors quickly moved their offices.

Most importantly, Pat knew the most important color in the discussion was green.

“The genius was ‘And Christ the King will contribute $15,000 toward the implementation of this plan,’” the older Pat says. “For the life of me, I can’t think of what sparked that thought.” Nevertheless, the pastor of C-K committed the money. At this point in the telling, Pat leans in conspiratorially. “Years later, he got in deep shit with the Cardinal.”

Within a month after Pat’s “Beverly Now” presentation, the decision was made to fund an expansion of the Beverly Area Planning Association. At the time, BAPA was a small organization without much clout, concerning itself primarily with real estate and zoning matters. BAPA became an organization charged with managing not just integration but small business, real estate, beautification, and safety concerns. It still carries out this mission to this day, though its dedication to integration has waxed and waned, depending on its leadership.

But hard-charging real estate agents, advertising men, and planning associations are only part of the solution. It also takes residents willing to risk being the first black face on a white block.

 

Audrey Peeples moved to Beverly in 1972 from what is now called Bronzeville. In Beverly, she and her husband were the only black family on the block.

“They would try and show us a place in Morgan Park or Washington Heights on the other side of the railroad tracks,” she says. She specifically instructed the agent to show them homes from Ninety-Seventh to 103rd, between Wood and Western. Beverly proper.

Like Frank, Audrey’s husband believed “people should live where they want to live.” He wanted to live in Beverly because the older style of architecture and hills reminded him of Haverford, Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

Audrey says they moved to Beverly in May, over the Memorial Day holiday. It was hot and they had the windows open. Someone driving by yelled the N-word and “get out of that house.” In another incident, a kid from the neighborhood rode by on a bike and yelled a slur at Audrey, who was pregnant at the time. Her husband jumped in the car and drove to the kid’s house to inform his mother. “Oh I’m sure it wasn’t my son,” she said. It was. Most everybody in Beverly then knew where everybody else lived.

“It wasn’t real friendly,” Audrey says.

Still, a white neighbor invited them to a “welcome to the block” party. Audrey remembers a Protestant friend of hers saying she fit in better with the neighborhood because, unlike her friend, Audrey was Catholic. She says she didn’t experience any bigotry within Christ the King when she started going to services there in 1977. Over time, she found more acceptance. Integration, after all, was inevitable. Many years later, Audrey would chuckle to herself and say her lighter skin may have helped.

“I’ve been in situations when people say ‘What are you?’ And then I say, ‘Why do you ask?’ and then they don’t know why they asked.”

Ask her why integration took hold in Beverly and Audrey brings up a point not mentioned by Frank or Pat. Interest rates were going up at the time and white families who might otherwise have been tempted to leave and sell their homes would not have been able to get as much for them as they would have liked, nor would they have been able to get as much home in another neighborhood.

Once the only black girl in her Girl Scout troop, Audrey would go on to be an anti-racism trainer with the YWCA as well as a board member with the Chicago Community Trust.

Unlike some families of the 1970s, Audrey says today’s North Beverly families accept integration as a given: “Diversity is who they are.” Beverly has, in her words, “settled down.” “It takes dialogue and conversation. Can we have a quiet dialogue and not make people feel guilty?

“I bring it up at every opportunity.”

 

Underlying all this is that question of the tipping point and whether BAPA and others were right to try and spread the integration throughout the community rather than expecting it to occur naturally, whatever that means. If the government can try to manage it negatively through redlining, can’t others try to manage it positively? Doesn’t that ultimately help the economics of a community?

Natalie Moore addresses this in her 2016 book The South Side. In writing about Bronzeville she says, “no infusion of capital and amenities followed when new black middle-class homeowners bought into the neighborhood, therefore confirming the theory that green (as in money) doesn’t trump black (as in race).” She goes on to cite a 2014 Harvard University study that found economic opportunities halted once a neighborhood became forty percent black.

By 1990, Beverly was twenty-four percent black. It’s thirty-five percent now and often shows up on “Best Places to Live in Chicago” lists. Its residents have a significantly higher than average income and crime is low, especially compared to surrounding neighborhoods.

Frank, Pat, and Audrey’s efforts all predated the Harvard study by forty years, but the questions are the same. Is this how you keep integration from becoming segregation? Was this the right approach? Is it now?

Whether the Beverly/Morgan Park of the 1970s has settled down in the 2010s is perhaps in the eyes and ears of the beholder. No broken windows or porch bombs, certainly. But a few times a year, a racially charged controversy will erupt publicly over slurs at a local bar or ballfield, or Nazi graffiti that appears overnight on a garage or wall. Other racial issues simmer beneath the surface in schools or local businesses, ever ready to break through.

On the other hand, a local artist recently took discarded lawn signs from political campaigns and repainted them with messages like “Multi-Racial Unity” and “Black Lives Matter.” Residents send her their addresses via Facebook and, under cover of night, the signs show up on front lawns. Sometimes they get stolen. The artist always makes more.

As for Frank, he’s still showing homes in the area and was recently given the Gale Cincotta Community Visionary Award by Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

Pat spent the early 2000s as a columnist for the Villager, expounding on the history and the present of the neighborhood. Last year, BAPA gave Pat and his wife Lorraine an award for all their years of volunteer service to the community.

Audrey still lives in the same house she moved into back in 1972. She just started her second stint on the board of the Beverly Area Planning Association, too, still starting conversations.

Depending on where you stand, the neighborhood of Beverly can seem either of another time or slowly embracing change.

There are always a few ordinary people working on the latter. ■

 

 

This essay appears in the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.

Scott Smith is a media strategist and Chicago fundamentalist. A child of the city’s southeast suburbs, he’s lived in Chicago proper since 1998. He lives on the South Side in Morgan Park with his wife and daughter where he hosts and produces the live lit show The Frunchroom, featuring stories of, by, and about the South Side. Follow his further musings on Twitter at @ourmaninchicago.

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