“You don’t have to go to Mississippi”

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

He sits in his Roseland studio apartment, attempting to list all the cities and states and neighborhoods and apartments and addresses he has resided in over the span of his nearly eight decades alive—and why he left.

“I just wasn’t for ’em,” he offers as an explanation for leaving Mississippi in 1954 in the thick Southern drawl he brought with him. “You couldn’t rent no apartments,” he says of the housing choices available to African Americans like him in 1960s Roseland. “They almost foreclosed on it,” he says of the home he paid off and raised over a dozen children in, but almost lost due to subprime refinancing. “It got too rough,” he explains of the senior housing complex he lived in for a few years with hallways reeking of urine and an out-sized population of drug addicts.

Otis (who asked that his last name be omitted) is 77, although he looks a good two decades younger. For years he has made his living by “junking,” and is featured in Scrappers, a documentary on Chicago junk collectors released last year. But just as his work has had him roaming the city’s alleys in search of scrap, his search for decent housing has had him constantly moving through the South and West Sides. As I watched the film, seeing Otis and his family move from apartment to apartment, I was struck by the disconnect between his daily backbreaking work and his repeated forced displacement. If the ability to live in peace in a decent home was based on merit, Otis had certainly earned it. But it isn’t.

I wanted to hear from Otis about what this disconnect had looked like throughout his lifetime in Chicago. He agreed to meet with me in his home on the far South Side.

Otis was born in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1933 to sharecropper parents. He left the state in 1954, along with millions of African Americans departing from the South to urban areas in the North and the West of the US, in the Second Great Migration. I assumed Otis had left the region for the same reasons other African Americans left during the Great Migration after 1910: a violent and suffocating Jim Crow racism combined with the draw of supposedly plentiful economic opportunities in the North.

It wasn’t so simple. The racism in Mississippi was real—Otis says he faced constant police harassment when he worked mowing lawns in white neighborhoods, and was repeatedly tossed in jail for minor offenses, and eventually decided to strike out for Chicago. But he also felt pulled back to the state over the years, returning to Mississippi multiple times after trekking across the country

“It was home,” he states, and besides to see racism, “you don’t have to go to Mississippi—I can show you some right here in Chicago.”

When Otis arrived in Chicago in 1954 and settled down here a few years later, there was, indeed, some racism right here. Forced to migrate from a violently racist South, Blacks faced wretched conditions in tiny sections of Northern cities. In Chicago, Blacks lived overcrowded and overcharged in squalid tenements on the South and West Sides. It was in the midst of what historian Arnold Hirsch identified as Chicago’s emergence as a “pioneer in developing concepts and devices” to create and maintain housing segregation.

Otis moved from apartment to apartment—always in the West and South sides, never the North. He eventually purchased a house in Roseland in 1972, in the 100s on Winston Ave, where he raised a dozen children with his wife. There were few Blacks in the neighborhood at the time, he says, and he faced constant harassment from police.

“It was just like Mississippi,” he says. “They’d give me a bad time.”

Still, he called the neighborhood home for decades, eventually paying off the house and seeming settled. But in the 1990s, he almost lost it after a refinancing went haywire and his monthly payments shot up—a classic subprime loan that could be found in low-income communities of color throughout the country long before the 2000s, when they blanketed the country and helped collapse the economy.

Today, foreclosures are still soaring throughout the city—more than 45,000 in 2010—and continue to disproportionately affect African-American neighborhoods, devastating entire city blocks. Eviction numbers are astronomical—it is not uncommon for over 100 new eviction cases to be filed in a single day in Chicago, and for more than 50 scheduled to be carried out, the majority of which are against African Americans. And it is impossible to know the number of residents who are displaced every year due to dilapidated and unsafe building conditions.

Otis managed to beat the foreclosure and eventually sold his house, but when he began renting apartments—both private and subsidized—he began to encounter those same unlivable conditions. This is where Scrappers begins, with Otis and Loretta living in a senior building on 63rd Street. Later, the two are packing up the apartment, Loretta with tears in her eyes. Their apartment is infested with bedbugs, and they can’t stand living there any longer. They move into a rental house, only to be forced to move six months later—the house was in foreclosure. They find another apartment; again, the conditions are intolerable, and they are forced to move.

Otis ticks off over a dozen apartments he has lived in over the years in Chicago. I find it hard to wrap my head around how, despite maintaining a steady income stream, he has been repeatedly forced to relocate for one reason or another. Like many low-income African Americans in Chicago, he is constantly migrating—and usually not by choice.

African Americans as a group have left the city in droves over the past decade, heading out past the city limits to increasingly impoverished suburbs. But Otis seems unlikely ever to leave. Despite housing conditions in the city that have constantly kept him migrating, he still says “there’s no place I’d rather be than Chicago.”

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