A Citywide Interview

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

Every so often, AREA Chicago develops a “city wide interview” where we distribute a question that we would like to have a wide range of folks respond to. The question is usually quite broad and it can get interpreted many different ways. It is designed to complement the content in the rest of the magazine that deals with important and complicated issues facing Chicagoans, but doesn’t have a personal or reflective quality to it. This time around we spread the word via our email list and through our collaborators and friends over at the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, publishers of the Journal of Ordinary Thought (http://www.jot.org).

From our email survey: Jesse Mumm, Sonjanita Moore, Euan Hague, Peter Zelchenko, Erika Mikkalo, Jim Nelson. From Neighborhood Writing Alliance: Margo Coulter (King Branch Library), Helena Marie Carnes-Jeffries (Mabel Manning Branch Library), Diana Cruz (San Lucas Church), Marisel Melendez (San Lucas Church), Amelia Ramos


Margo Coulter

I was born at Cook County Hospital on January 23, 1941, and came home to a basement apartment at 3415 S. Calumet. When my dad passed away, we moved to a slightly larger apartment, but shared the toilet and kitchen with two other families. Housing was limited in terms of whether children were allowed, and how many. My mom had to sneak two boys in and ask us not to make much noise.

Schools were overcrowded with Willis Wagons. After being chased home from Shields Elementary School every summer by the white children living on South Shields, we finally got a new school built. We moved to a larger apartment building on 36th and Vincennes. We were really moving up: the third floor with our own kitchen and bathroom, along with an elevator that never worked. Schools were still essentially segregated. But I got into Englewood High School by falsifying where I lived. There were a handful of whites there, but many were leaving because “Negroes were taking over.”

Before I graduated from high school, we moved to 5049 Drexel. I’d never seen a neighborhood so beautiful and quiet, with people of different races living in the same area. But our “rich and famous” life didn’t last long. My dad’s social security ran out, and my mom didn’t make enough for us to remain. But through it all, our standard of living improved, as did the education level of my siblings.


Helena Marie Carnes-Jeffries

I have been in Chicago my entire life. All 33 years of my existence on planet Earth. All through my childhood, I skated at the Rainbow Roller Rink, the only roller rink on the city’s North Side. I remember when the “Green Limousine” was actually green. Buses had nice cushy seats. The trains had shutter doors, instead of the sliding Star Trek Enterprise doors of today. The CTA transfers were light paper whiffs of what closely resembled toilet paper. You had to be careful while removing it from your wallet, lest you tear the poor thing in half. On Sunday, a super transfer could take you all over the place. I remember seeing cigarette machines inside grocery stores. You could ride your bike on any sidewalk, nobody cared. There wasn’t an overflow of condos, and more condos, and more and more condos. The Howard Street Station once looked like a gigantic green aviary housing numerous, fat, dirty, little pigeons.

I used to envy people who lived in other places, who got a chance to move from place to place to place. But I don’t anymore. This is home. I am a Chicagoan. I don’t have to move anywhere else to experience something different, something changed. Chicago is changing all the time.


Amelia Ramos

Whatever happened to truant officials? When I went to school the 1960s, I remember school truant officials. They did home visits. This helped to identify why students missed so much school. I remember when my mother kept us at home from school. The school official would come to check up on us. My mother’s poor excuses were not excused, and she was reported by the Department of Children and Family. Students need this kind of influence. Today, no one is checking to see why they miss school.

As a result of No Child Left Behind, many students are on the streets. The system fails them by making them invisible. The dropout rate is shooting sky-high!

The education system must change. Let’s care for these missing kids, and let’s show them that someone is looking out for them. I felt safe knowing that the truant official would visit. If my parents opposed that, they knew they would be in trouble. We need to bring back the old system so kids and parents know that someone is checking up on them. Stay safe.


Marisel Melendez

I moved to Chicago from Ponce, Puerto Rico, when I was one year old. Growing up was a challenge. I attended Roberto Clemente HS, where it was like this: if you wanted an education, you had to want it with all your heart and soul. Gangs were everywhere, crossing borders and drawing invisible lines. Because who is to say, “This is our turf,” or “Those are the wrong colors to wear” Back then, we were able to wear what we wanted, but nowadays uniforms are enforced. White shirts and blue pants. Many students got shot just for wearing the wrong colors. That got a lot of attention then, but now we have to take a closer look at the imaginary line because our kids are still getting killed. “When will it stop?!” That’s a question no one has an answer to. We need more after-school programs and more attention paid to what our kids are doing after school. After-school activities are due. If not a project or drama, then please: a job! Education! Education! We need more programs! Without them we will have more kids killed in gangs, and more young ladies pregnant.


Diana Cruz

I have lived in the same house in Lincoln Park, Chicago for 32 years. Within the past twenty years, I’ve seen lovely, warm, and inviting houses torn from their foundations. Erected in their places are cold and lonely habitats.

I read a humorous ad on the side of a #76 Diversey bus shelter stating that there are two seasons in Chicago: “winter and construction.” As a child, I looked forward to when school let out and I could relax at home. Instead of waking to the glorious sounds of chirping birds, I heard the relentless beep, beep, beep of trucks backing up. Instead of inhaling fresh air, my nose was assaulted with the odor of tar and motor oil.

I am saddened at all the changes. Not only is there a constant destruction of the old, but the property taxes have skyrocketed. We have received letters and greeting cards, asking us to consider selling our home to a family who would love to purchase it. New neighbors have negative attitudes towards long time residents. We are pushed to sell our homes.


Sonjanita Moore

I have lived in Chicago since I was 5 (1978). As a child I was not aware of the reasons why we only lived in apartments that seemed always to be 1-2 blocks from a housing project. As an adult, the reason is now clear–the housing outside these areas was not affordable or accessible to middle to lower-middle class African American residents! Never having lived in (or owned) a house, I never really wanted to. While visiting people with backyards, grass, and room to run around inside and outside was fun, cheaper apartment living seemed just fine to me. I’ve lived in various places on Chicago’s west and north sides–off 116th and Carpenter as a renter (no real problems, but there’s not a lot of community development because it’s not near the lake or expressway); off 71st and Vincennes in a high-rise (before it “went condo”); off Jackson and Washtenaw (on the “New West Side”. . . so dubbed for the Democratic convention some years ago), one block away from where Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson filmed the “Jam” video in 1992; in a South Loop high-rise (SERIOUSLY overpriced when compared to other properties owned by the company). Now, I am a South Shore resident (content with my condo but HATING that gentrification means I can’t afford the parking spaces right outside my backdoor so that I sometimes have to walk 1-2 blocks when I get home after 8pm).

The changes in the African American communities I’ve lived in seem to be on the positive side for developers. . . no question about that, but it’s a catch-22 for buyers and renters. You may get a nice place to live, but you either can’t afford all the amenities or, as a renter, have to be willing to overpay for your prime location.


Jesse Mumm

I have lived in Chicago since 1979. My family was a part of the exodus that followed the steel plant closings in Buffalo, and we arrived here when I was seven. I grew up in Logan Square and have spent most of my life on the Near Northwest Side. There have been two major sea changes in the landscape of Chicago since my childhood, which parallels the era of the deepest deprivation and disinvestment in the history of the city. One is the rise of the Latino community, in numbers, in community development, in aspiration, creativity, and political power. The second is the gutting of the inner city and its replacement with an amnesiac, upscale consumer paradise for outsiders with money. What has changed the least in Chicago is this state of control by a cohort of elite gangsters known as The Machine, who are desperately trying to buy out the first change and raking in buckets of cash over the second. I hate how we betray the best of our histories and our communities, which I love to death.


Euan Hague

I moved to Chicago in summer 2002 and rented a place in Roscoe Village. When I go back there now I notice that there are new houses and condos on every other lot. This was certainly beginning to happen when I lived there but the pace of development has been rapid. You see the same condos going up almost randomly all over the city. New shops and restaurants have opened along Roscoe , and some neighborhood favorites of mine, like the Tiny Lounge on Addison, have gone. I bought almost all my used furniture from the basement of the Village Discount on Roscoe Street, but they don’t sell furniture there any more–it is all baby and children’s clothes, showing how the area’s demographics have changed. Now I live in Rogers Park where the thing that has changed the least is the Heartland Cafe and its menu. The vegetable of the day is always kale, and the beans of the day remain pinto. Still, you can’t beat the Heartland for atmosphere, Charles H. Kerr books, and a side of veggie sausage.


Jim Nelson

I came to Chicago in 1974. I had met some people here connected to the Solidarity Bookstore on Armitage Street and hung out with them for several years. Gradually the group dissolved as people moved to other parts of the country. I used my free time to get acquainted with the city: the parks, the lakefront and colleges.

The most noticeable change since I arrived is the explosion of gentrified housing in all parts of the city, especially south and west of the loop.

This was contrasted with the decline of the C.T.A. system in the 90’s on, with the trains and buses constantly warning people to report suspicious people (keeping fear a daily part of travel).

But at the same time, privatization started with the mayor’s charter school program and closing “failing”schools, turning public services over to profit -making agents, increasing surveillance and racial profiling, and the destruction of most CHA housing.

What has changed the least are politicians (The Machine, transferred from one Daley to the next). The scandals keep coming, the corporate media keep “forgetting” them, and Daley escapes indictment for the corruption of people running the city’s departments.

Most of my time in town I’ve lived in the Armitage area and later in Rogers Park. In the late 80s there was a drain of well-off people who became afraid of how “dangerous” the area had become. But they are returning to the growing amount of condos. After working part time jobs, I found work at an area college with relatively low pay but at least with health benefits. I am approaching the time when I might retire, but I’m unsure of having enough saved for living without a job. Such is the security of life in this nation.


Peter Zelchenko

I’ve lived in Chicago all of my life (except for stints in Urbana, Washington D.C., and Beijing). Sadly, what has changed the most, I think, in the years from 1962 to 2008 is that we went from having liberal power to pseudoliberal power here, where social justice ideals are no longer really taken seriously by most of the population. This is due to the comprehensive reformulation of labor and class in the city over this period.

What has changed the least is the way the public tolerates the prevailing power, that is, The Machine. It really bothers me that the son of the very powerful mayor who held sway when I was born should be doing much the same thing as his father, and worse. Daley I has often been characterized as a racist. He certainly didn’t serve minorities in a liberal fashion. But his son, I’m afraid, has done less and worse for the working class of all races, causing this city to remain segregated and still poor in so many places while cultivating a veneer of liberal opulence in our affluent neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be this way after 45 years.


Erika Mikkalo

In August of 1992 I arrived at Ashland/Division with all my worldly goods in a 1980 red Chevy LUV pickup truck, and I am now almost sixteen years Chicagoan. The region where I first resided was the Warsaw/Guadalajara border. People would come up to me and start speaking Polish, seeing that everyone in the neighborhood was either Polish or Mexican, and I was obviously not Mexican, so I must be Polish. Podhylanka or La Pasadita for dining. Then it was immediately south of Wells High School, and I’ll admit that I tainted my karma by snickering when I emerged from the three-story brick walk-up to see that a new neighbor’s Mercedes was now a charred metal skeleton. The joke was on me: after a four-year practice marriage in Humboldt Park, I’d bounced back to the Ukrainian Village only to have the building go condo. I scratch my head that you can now get sushi west of Western. To the south, I discover a neighborhood that I never knew. Podhylanka and La Pasadita are still open despite the gentrification—now to check out the vegan soul food place on 57th. People are the same. The nod of recognition at the standard sandwich place, the wave while walking the dog, the access to global culture cheek-to-jowl with a ‘you got a problem with that?’ working-class outlook—Chicago is home.


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