By Audrey Petty
This essay appears in The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available now from Belt Publishing.
From the outset, we knew a big house wouldn’t do. Togetherness was the whole idea, but we’d need separate kitchens, bathrooms, and front doors with their own locks for the arrangement to last. We were on the lookout for at least three stories.
Hyde Park-Kenwood was our starting point in the search for a family building. After all, my brother-in-law worked in the neighborhood; my sister Jill and I had grown up there, and my husband Maurice had, too. For decades, my father had made his home in Kenwood with my mother, who’d died a few months before we embarked upon our search. Her illness had brought me back to Chicago from central Illinois. The comfort of the familiar was profound. What had sometimes been tiresome about being back in the old neighborhood was suddenly balm. Within close reach were those who would claim me, those who could remember when. To my initial disappointment, the Hyde Park survey went bust quickly. Three-flats were few and far between, and prices were steep, so our search spread to North Kenwood, Woodlawn, Bronzeville. The search lasted two seasons.
Early on, we visited a new construction on Kimbark, due south of the University of Chicago. How I hated that one at first glance. Narrow, newfangled, formed of split-face concrete block. What passed for its decorative front was faux stone veneer, straight-up ugly and soulless, resistant to any change. From the inside, the building made okay sense. The floor plans met our needs. The kids could grow up there. I could see it all when I closed my eyes.
We’d move on to consider a pricey and decrepit red-brick six-flat on Ellis—the light there barely light at all, but its backyard was doublewide immense, promising. We toured an imposing graystone in Bronzeville divvied into odd-shaped units, near-kitchenettes. We lingered long inside a three-flat on Langley, bordered by an empty lot, and stripped down to the studs. So many prospects we encountered seemed viable to me, but, fortunately, we were a five-headed, deliberative body, weighing each listing quite carefully. My father, who drove the hardest bargain, encouraged us to consider ditching him at every turn. “You all should do what you need to do. I’ll figure my own thing out.” We wouldn’t move without him.
We finally arrived at our family building on the day my dad took his time on the walk-through—when he strolled each floor instead of making a clean exit, detouring to wait for us in the car. To be sure, the summer drive from Hyde Park to South Shore—to Oglesby Avenue—had set the stage for our unanimity: Lake Shore Drive, past the museum, the beach house at Sixty-Third, around the bend at Jackson Park Harbor, the public golf course running along our passenger side. We paused to admire our future building from outside. Elegant, made of true brick and stone with craft and with care. Quoins flanked the sides of its stories, and crowning the building was the emblem of a ribbon—festoon—near center, and a concrete urn on the far left.
The interior of this one had been nearly entirely reworked. As Redfin revealed, the sellers had purchased the residence, erected in 1922, on the very cheap, in a tax sale. Now these sellers were flipping it, aiming to bank a nearly eight-fold profit; this was a pattern amongst the many buildings we’d seen, a phenomenon of what realtors dubbed the post-crisis bottom. To my eye, so much of precious value at Oglesby had been excised by rehab; that the sellers were white and faraway added insult to injury. They’d stripped place out of the place, scrapping sconces, tilework, and, likely—from the looks of our neighbors’ buildings—leaded windows and chandeliers. In return, they’d been heavy handed with recessed lighting and cheap, domed fixtures. They’d installed faux fireplaces run by remote control.
Still, somehow (how?), by day’s end, the building was what we all wanted. I suppose we thought as much of what could be as what had been, in making up our minds. And I sought out vestiges upon our second-look visit. Polished hardwood, a set of French doors, crown molding in the dining rooms. “From my floor, I’ve got a treehouse,” my father told us from the first-floor unit. He stood in place for a while, peering out at lovely, lively Hasan Park.
We moved into our place in the late fall of 2012. We met neighbors in the family buildings on either side of us, three generations deep, in South Shore for decades. And Hasan Park was soon our front yard living room, no matter the miserable temperatures. Ella, five, and Malcolm, six, climbed, slid, and raced with their rambunctious set while we paced and shivered with fellow caregivers. We’d become acquainted with more folks at community organizing meetings, brought together by multiple crises. O’Keefe was our nearest elementary school, and its entire staff had been fired and replaced. Fermi Elementary, about a mile to the west, was one of fifty neighborhood schools slated for permanent closure. Our local Dominick’s would also be shuttering, leaving the closest full-service grocery two miles away.
Soon I’d meet Sylvia. A mom and grandmother and former eighteen- wheeler trucker, she made a living as a registered CNA and a part-time caterer. This work was balanced with organizing and creating events for nourishment and fellowship in her neighborhood of Park Side, an area of South Shore where many people displaced by the demolition of high-rise public housing relocated. Sylvia organized Peace Fests, gospel concerts, and movie screenings in abandoned lots; she cooked an annual Christmas buffet that was accompanied by a gift giveaway. She also prepared enormous feasts in the warm months, making the occasion for what she calls Community Feeds. Sylvia’s grandparents had migrated to Chicago as young adults. Her mother’s people came from Louisiana. Her father’s people came from Tennessee and Mississippi. As a girl, Sylvia lived in Wentworth Gardens, then and now public housing. And this is where she first learned about community gardens. Southern folks came up with this know-how, she told me, and at Wentworth Gardens, their gardens once thrived.
Sometimes we’d head out after dinner, just the three of us, scaling the wall bordering the sidewalk at Sixty-Seventh and the public golf course. Atop that wall, we’d inch towards wild mulberry, with Maurice holding Ella steady and high. As she grabbed and tasted the sweetness, I made peace with rose-purpley stains, the only price for what my husband called goodney. From there, we’d pass across the tended lawn, saluting the golfers we’d startle, and then it was on to the tangle of bramble, on to the edge of Lake Michigan. Ella was strong and confident enough to take her own stony path safely down to the water. Back then, we called the place Turkey Burger Beach. The slabs of red-brown slags were our roomy perches before the lake. Quiet beach. Unofficial beach. Free of flags and unattended by lifeguards. The north skyline Oz-like. To the south: the smokestacks of Gary Steelworks. Straight ahead: lake and sky melded. That first summer the beach was magnetic. Can you believe it? Nearby and magnificent, still grieving the death of my mother, the lake was my tonic. Choppy or still. Arm’s length away. Numbingly cold and piercing and wondrous.
We’d measure our time in South Shore by the hidden beach’s changes. The second summer would be the summer of thick dragonflies hovering. There’d be the summer of the coyote dashing away from the brush. And, of course, the near constant occasions: those many weeks of high E. coli count and keeping bacteria test strips in my shoulder bag. We’d meet regulars. A trio of middle-aged Polish women from the Southwest Side, always sunning and swimming for entire Saturdays with a transistor radio, folding chairs, and small overflowing picnic basket in tow. At dusk on weekdays: a young man in a white Thobe and turban, praying on a limestone ledge.
When a visiting friend from Atlanta made the stroll to the beach with us, he’d ask how we could afford all of this beauty. My husband and I would try to explain Chicago-style white flight and the Black Belt, and how Chicago segregation persists—how we’d come to know and feel the city’s ironclad segregation. If a Chicago neighborhood was black enough, it would stay black, we’d attest. This seemed as certain to us as the lake being east. What we didn’t acknowledge was Black Chicago was rapidly shrinking. Maurice and I were children of the second wave of the Great Migration. Ella and Malcolm arrived in the time of the Great Exodus.
In 2018, as summer was ending, we scaled the wall at Sixty- Seventh and South Shore Drive with Ella and her friend and classmate, who’s also our neighbor. It had been over a month since Chicago police had shot and killed Harith Augustus, a neighborhood barber, on busy East Seventy-First Street. The mulberry tree had already yielded its fruit. The golf course was vacant, pristine. On the beach, Ella and Cosima were boisterous, skipping rocks and tapping the lake with their fingertips. In the weeks since we’d last been there, the shoreline was changed. Many slabs were disappeared, swallowed. The few that remained had been shoved aside by currents, the biggest of them all hosted green shoots. Maurice marveled out loud at the power of the lake, while we studied a strange iron bracket at the shore’s edge. Whatever it meant to contain, it was going to rust, loosening, on the cusp of drifting out. The beach wasn’t our final destination that day. I’d been meaning to finally visit the Nature Conservancy behind the South Shore Country Club. I was well overdue.
The next day, early morning, Ella and I headed to our favorite bakery, seeking a large cake, a pie. What we found instead was a case full of miniatures: sweet potato pies and peach cobblers, pecan bar slices, key lime squares. We asked for two of everything, and while we waited, we breathed the sweet air deeply. I tried to convince Ella that smelling cooking butter and sugar was halfway to tasting dessert for free. She disagreed, and, to my surprise, declined my offer of any choice of treat. “Gift?” the clerk asked as she set our box on the counter. Nervously, realizing my nervousness, I paid.
Pulling up to Sidelines Studio, I noticed the red and white sign in the window. “HIRING LICENSED BARBER” it announced. Ella carried the box and I held the door. We said hello to everyone in the shop as we entered. One barber was sweeping. The other finished trimming the beard of a young man whose gaze was fixed on the TV overhead.
“We’re your neighbors,” I told the sweeping barber, whose face I recognized from the news. He’d organized the vigil. “We wanted you to know we’ve been thinking about you.” I tried to find the words as I introduced myself. “We want to share our condolences. For Snoop. For Harith. We’ve been thinking about him. We’ve been thinking about you all.” He hugged me tightly and then he bent down to Ella. “What’s your name, little sis?” he asked as they reached out to each other. ■
Audrey Petty’s first home neighborhood was Chatham. Her poems have been published in Cimarron Review and Crab Orchard Review, and her essays have been featured in such publications as Callaloo, Columbia Journal, the Southern Review, ColorLines, Saveur, the Oxford American, and Gravy. She also is the editor of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing (Voice of Witness/McSweeney’s) and co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom (Haymarket Books). She directs the Odyssey Project at Illinois Humanities.
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