By Phuong Ly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 9, 2008
On most sightseeing trips in Chicago, guides point out the skyline punctuated by the Sears Tower, the high-end shops along the Magnificent Mile and the coveted homes lining Lake Michigan. The Ghetto Bus Tour, however, shows what's missing: businesses, buildings and, most of all, people.
The tour through the South Side, the city's poorest section, is the latest addition to "poorism," or poverty tourism. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, an air-conditioned bus travels through the favelas, shantytowns with no running water but awesome ocean views. In Mumbai, visitors see how residents of a slum manage with one toilet per 1,400 people. And a Gray Line bus tour in New Orleans highlights the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina.
The idea of other people's misery being treated like a museum attraction makes me uncomfortable, but so does the thought of ignoring parts of a city not included in glossy brochures. My husband and I had just moved to Chicago, and we hadn't ventured far from our downtown apartment. The ghetto tour would be a good way to quickly learn about the city.
The first stop is an open field. Overturned dirt and scattered orange cones mark a stretch of State Street that once contained the Robert Taylor Homes, the biggest and baddest public housing project in the country. Gang violence killed more than two dozen people in one weekend. City leaders thought the only way to clean up Robert Taylor was to wipe it off the face of the earth.
Beauty Turner, the tour's founder and operator, is a longtime South Side resident who often guided journalists and academics through the neighborhood. In July, she started running three-hour tours for the general public. Although most people want to hear about the South Side's infamous past, Turner doesn't dwell on the neighborhood's notoriety. "I don't want you to see this being, wow, look at how bad this community is," says Turner, 51. "I want you to see what I see."
It's getting harder to see what she sees, and not just because we're outsiders. The South Side is in the midst of a major transformation. The Chicago Housing Authority, with the help of the federal government, is tearing down the concrete public housing high-rises that once lined State Street. According to the $1.6 billion plan, the new neighborhood will have brick townhouses and apartments for middle-income families and the low-income folks who used to live in the projects.
In between vacant lots, three-story brick apartments and townhouses have sprung up. We see a few corner convenience stores, their windows braced with iron bars. Food and community converge at a low-slung brick building, the WIC Center. WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. Residents receive their food stamps here.
Our bus stops in front of a three-year-old brown brick building. We take the stairs up to the second floor as Turner points out that the elevators haven't worked for months. The halls are dim and smell like fried food.
Down the hall, Barbara Moore is waiting for us. She sits up in her bed, wearing what looks like a hospital gown. Turner motions for us to come closer so the entire group, including a high school class from the suburbs, can fit into the room. I bump into Moore's wheelchair near her bed.
"It's okay, come on in," she says. "I've had 90 people in here before."
Moore used to live in the Robert Taylor Homes. She recalls the day that she and her neighbors moved out. Police came in with dogs. "We had to move out of there so they could tear it down," she says. "Tear it down to make room for nothing."
Thankfully, the tour isn't completely bleak. Often forgotten in the crime headlines is the fact that the area had been a pivotal -- and positive -- part of Chicago and American history. Starting in the 1920s, black families migrated to the city from the South, worked in the factories and built a middle-class community.
Accompanying us on the tour is Ron Carter, publisher of the South Street Journal, a community newspaper. He grew up during the area's heyday in the 1950s. "These buildings were taken care of just like the condominiums downtown were taken care of," he says.
"That's my high school," he says, as we pass DuSable High School. "You've heard of Quincy Jones? He went to this high school. You've heard of Nat King Cole? He went to this high school."
We drive by Oak Woods Cemetery. Carter reels off the famous names on some of the graves, including Olympic star Jesse Owens and Chicago mayor Harold Washington.
Teen tourgoers Veronica Kovengold and her friend Ellen Behr tell me later that the trip brought them out of their comfort zone -- in a good way. Ellen says she was fascinated by the book her class is reading about the South Side and had wanted to see the area for herself.
We end the day at the "Ghetto Gallery." Of course, no tour is complete without a gift shop.
The tiny storefront doubles as an art gallery and the Demo Kings Recording Studio. Artwork with African American and revolutionary themes hangs from the walls. A group of framed photographs and newspaper articles showcases the housing projects, resident protests and such celebrity visitors as Jesse Jackson. I am most drawn to a photograph of gray, prisonlike buildings that loom over tiny patches of lawn. These were the Robert Taylor Homes.
Certainly this is history many people would like to forget, but the Ghetto Bus Tour helps us remember.
* Ghetto Bus Tours are available by appointment. $20 per person on group tours. Info: 773-297-5619, http://www.beautysghettobustours.blogspot.com.