Chicago's South Side

Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008 2:00 PM

In the Sunday Style and Arts section, staff writer Wil Haygood writes: "The South Side never had the silky ties to whites and international celebrities like Harlem and its famed literary renaissance. But building on the once-plentiful jobs at the city's meatpacking plants, it developed its own economic, cultural and political muscle and launched a who's who of black American achievement. Richard Wright, Lou Rawls, Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Harold Washington, comic Bernie Mac and "Dreamgirl" Jennifer Hudson all came of age here.

"But it is a sad fact, too, that many South Side dreams do not come true. For this is a place haunted by urban nightmares and the weight of entrenched poverty. It's a place where a community organizer looking for genuine challenges might come and get down to work. The vast area -- it covers about half of Chicago -- feels like an edgy, screechy film with that silvery El train looping around it like an electronic snake. It's a community that struts -- and yet starves for a break. It has an urban Northern vibe, yet sings the Southern song of the gospel and blues."

Haygood was online Monday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about the social and cultural impact of Chicago's South Side on African-American life.

The transcript follows.


Wil Haygood: Hello. This is Wil Haygood. Thank you all for joining in, and I am ready to chat about the South Side of Chicago.


Bethesda, Md.: How does the South Side of Chicago measure up to, say, Anacostia? Similarities? Differences? It still amazes me that people can live in abject poverty in the shadow of the Capitol.

Wil Haygood: Great question. Anacostia is considerably smaller. That is not to say the problems of poverty are smaller there, just that they are more epic-like on the South Side of Chicago. And those questions of poverty -- even in the shadow of the nation's Capitol -- have haunted social workers and others for decades.


Rockville, Md.: Did you encounter anything while you were there that left you hopeful that change might actually arrive eventually? I'd heard that some of the projects had been demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing.

Wil Haygood: I think the demolition of those housing projects was paramount to attacking the ills of overcrowding, crime, and poverty. I spent some of my youth growing up in a housing project myself in Columbus, Ohio. The barriers are huge; it is as if they seep into the air. In Chicago the mixed-income housing, already under way, should be an enormous help: A lawyer might suddenly be living next to a single mother with three children. Each can teach the other things about life.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Great article. I lived in Northbrook back in 95-97, but went in the city often. Chicago is such a great city, it pains me to read of the abject poverty that consumes lives. Just before I left, the tragedy of "Girl X" happened -- young girl who lived in Cabrini Green, on the north side was raped and had drain cleaner (or something like it) poured down her throat. I don't know if she survived, but there are sad stories on the North and West sides as well.

Wil Haygood: I know it becomes difficult to comprehend some of those stories. When I landed in Chicago, the little Fowler girl had been killed. I went over to the site of the shooting and looked around and talked to folk. The day was gray and funereal. The parents had one demand: It must stop.


Alexandria, Va.: What does the state of the South Side say about Barack Obama and his candidacy? When he was doing his community organizing, did he try to organize the residents of this part of Chicago? If so, did his efforts have any results? Do you know if he's publicly addressed the struggles those folks have had?

Wil Haygood: Very interesting question. I don't know if one can measure the effect of community organizing -- or a particular community organizer -- from one generation to the next. As you know, it involves debates with government officials, elections, voting -- the whole gamut of society and its workaday problems. I've read accounts of where Obama said the work was quite challenging. and difficult.


Lorton, Va.: Why in the world hasn't someone done something to clean things up there? It boggles the mind to think that these problems have persisted for decades. Have you talked to any sociologists? Does anyone have an answer?

Wil Haygood: It does boggle the mind. Sociologists talk about all of the ills combined -- teen pregnancy, crime, lack of jobs, lack of adequate health care. And personal responsibility, meaning those who do harm to others should be held accountable.


Washington, D.C.: Garth Taylor of the Metro Chicago Info Center seem to indicate the lack of "financial actors - financial institutions" in the South Side of Chicago. Are there not any banks, lenders, credit unions, etc.?

Wil Haygood: There are financial institutions. I think what Mr. Taylor was intimating was that the areas might be seen as risky to invest in. How do you turn around a street where the crime stats are shown to be rising? How much money do you offer for business startups? Notice he used the term "bootstrap." Many of those startups might have to start at the living room table.


Chevy Chase, Md.: You cite a number of celebrities who have come of age in the South Side. Have any of them returned to champion change? It seems like a few big wigs making some noise would possibly help things. Maybe Brad and Angelina should move there for a few months... (I'm only half kidding.)

Wil Haygood: That is a good point. A lot of celebrities do things quietly, wanting to avoid publicity. I don't know which of them have returned to Chicago's South Side to offer assistance.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Wil, this is a wonderful story. I am rooting for Gregory Pitts, who opened a record store as the economy goes into a recession. Are there other hopeful signs on the South Side of local capital going in there?

Wil Haygood: Thank you. That has always been the success of the marching forth businessman or businesswoman: They don't see obstacles, they just go and do. Pitts -- and this is a perfect example of bootstrap financing -- saved for years and one day just went at it full bore. In many ways, as well, the South Side is a throwback to a nostalgic America: Mom-and-Pop stores, storefront businesses, the importance of word-of-mouth. There's a charm to all that, but it also defies modernity.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think it will take for true change to happen in Chicago? Why did you choose to write about Chicago when we have similar problems here in D.C.?

Wil Haygood: We chose Chicago because the Democratic presidential nominee worked for years there. And no, the story wasn't about Obama, it was about the landscape that helped nurture him. We had a story on the front page of the Post Sunday about McCain's years imprisoned in Vietnam. The writer traveled to Hanoi to do it. The story undoubtedly will help readers understand an almost impossible time at a particular point in McCain's life.


Washington, D.C.: Did you get a sense that Albertina Walker -- an influential resident of the South Side with means -- was involved at any level in helping to reshape the future of the South Side?

Wil Haygood: Whew. I'm so glad you asked that question. Ms. Walker sponsors The Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation. Their motto is: "Helping to make the dreams of talented youth a reality." Ms. Walker sings the song and walks the walk.


Forget about Brad and Angelina: Where is Oprah? She's building school compounds in Africa when she could instead (or at least also) be making huge inroads to bringing some semblance of prosperity through education, etc., to folks in her own backyard. Imagine what would happen if she decided to front the funds for, say, a grocery store, to open near Cabrini Green. She could do so much and her name alone would bring others along to join her. Now that would be a legacy. Moreso that giving $100 candles to audience members during her "favorite things" episode!

Wil Haygood: I do not know exactly what charitable deeds Ms. Winfrey has engaged in on the South Side, but she, like Michael Jordan, has done some things.


New York, N.Y.: Much has been made of Geoffrey Canada's efforts to educate the children of Harlem by create an education zone that takes kids and parents from early childhood (for the kids) through their school years. Has anyone tried anything similar in this area of Chicago? What is the state of the education system?

Wil Haygood: I'm no expert regarding the school system in Chicago. Charter schools seem to be a phenomenon there, like in many hard-hit urban areas. And I don't know if the Canada/Harlem model has been adopted on the South Side of Chicago. But the South Side of Chicago is so much larger than the landscape in Harlem which Mr. Canada works in.


Washington, D.C.: Sigh. Great piece Mr. Haygood but there is more misery than triumph it seems in the South Side. The future looks grim. If children are living in crowded conditions, eating Fritos and drinking Kool-Aid, jumping rope and dodging bullets, how can they learn in school and make it out of a life of poverty?

Wil Haygood: Yes, the heart breaks, and breaks, and breaks. I think there will have to be a massive look at urban education. It might be fashionable to bemoan the involvement of government, but so often it is government that has the resources and tools to offer help on a massive scale. It is not impossible, but it is difficult to learn in a housing project/strapped school environment. And I speak from personal experience.


Falls Church, Va.: Have you read "There Are No Children Here" by Alex Kotlowitz? He perfectly captured the lives of those living in the Henry Horner homes in the late '80s. It's sad to think that not very much has changed since then.

Wil Haygood: That is a powerful book. I would have to say that there have been changes -- the tearing down of those housing projects for instance. But when one sees another child killed on the streets, it seems as if not one thing has changed. There sits another set of parents wailing.


Hyde Park, Chicago: As a lifelong South Sider, I'd like to thank you for writing an incisive, thoughtful piece. It does a good job of creating a feel for an area that is (as you point out) as big as many cities.

I'd just like to point out that it isn't as isolated and insular as it used to be. Besides Hyde Park, there are many, many neighborhoods that are diverse, and are very much part of the fabric of the greater city.

Hyde Park, South Shore, Beverly, and even Marquette Park, where Martin Luther King infamously got hit in the head with a thrown brick in 1966 are not without their problems, but are also thriving, forward-looking communities that are part of the South Side of Chicago.

Wil Haygood: You are absolutely right. One thing I found that was disturbing was there are many people in Chicago who won't even venture over to the South Side. It is the image of the place. As you point out, there are wonderful places -- museums, shops, libraries -- to visit. It has a summer season of festivals that are second to none. It is just that it is this big vast place with some seemingly intractable problems.


Metro Detroit, Mich.: We lived on the South Side of Chicago near the U of C -- talk about a culture shock and a war zone. It got to a point where I left the car open without a battery. Where are the fathers in this thing? How culpable was the U of C in the social engineering of folks who were taught that family values do not matter?

Wil Haygood: That is a good point about fathers. The funeral home director I talked with bemoaned the absence of fathers. It is easy to say they need to get back in the lives of their children; who will make them do that is another question.


Lewes, Del.: Dear Mr. Haywood: This was an excellent and very interesting article. I read it in the paper today, and will send the link tomorrow to my daughter, who has recently moved to Chicago as a newlywed, after completing a master's in city planning. Thank you so much for all of your research!

Wil Haygood: Thank you. I can hardly think of a better city to go to if one has studied city planning.


Winston Salem, N.C.: Mr. Haygood, first thank you for the article. I grew on the South Side and have never forgotten the link after over 30 some odd years away after finishing college at Morehouse. One area on the South Side that would be interesting to cover would be Chatham. It was enclave of black middle class and many residents from my childhood are still in those homes.

Jennifer Beals the actress ("Flashdance"), grew up on my block in Chatham.

Thank you for your efforts. I don't know why you did the article for the Post, but I really appreciate it...

Wil Haygood: Thank you. And again, we did the article to showcase a piece of landscape that played an important part in the life of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. The story wasn't about Obama, of course, but his terrain.


Washington, D.C.: Great story. Josephine Wade (restaurant), Gregory Pitts (record shop), the Childs family (funeral home), the Chess brothers (recording studio), Albertina Walker (recording artist) are positive examples of what can happen in the South Side. But these are traditional models. Did you get any sense that the University of Chicago was involved in turning things around in the impoverished areas? Or do the areas serve only as case studies for their students?

Wil Haygood: Thank you. I got the feeling that the University of Chicago is, in a way, shielded from the South Side, even though it is right in the middle of it. Urban-located schools (Columbia University's proximity to Harlem; USC's to South Central LA) always, it seems, have a problem in debating how to get involved in the community. A common complaint is that these schools know how to start gentrifying a neighborhood but do not do enough to help the residents. College administrators have to deal with that issue all the time.


Washington, D.C.: As a product of the South Side, I think that many proposed solutions to the poverty on the South Side fail to take into account how balkanized Chicago neighborhoods are in general. Ethic groups in Chicago have established their own tight-knit communities and as a result, the city does not have very much cross-cultural integration. For example, what other city in America has neighborhoods where the billboards and stores are all in Polish? Not to mention the enclaves of different Latino communities, Greek, Chinese and other ethnic groups.

Chicago is a unique and complex city. And the South Side, remarkably so.

Wil Haygood: You are exactly right. In recent years the city has been trying to better publicize the cultural festivals, believing them a way to introduce one segment of the populace to another.


Asheville, N.C.: Wil, your article was excellent. I was born in Roseland on Chicago's far South Side, but I currently work in Asheville at University of North Carolina at Asheville. I have been "teased" a lot by my colleagues and students about my staunch Chicago Pride. I love my city. I have a friend that states everything "great and black" has come from Chicago. Your article in a way confirms that. It only makes sense that a city founded by a black explorer would retain such a rich heritage. Yes, the South Side is not without its woes (i.e. crime, drugs, poverty), yet its people still persevere.

Wil Haygood: Very true. The spirit of the South Side struck me as indomitable. And I walked a great deal of the time, up and down streets and through neighborhoods. I found plenty of kindness there.


Wil Haygood: Thanks so much for joining the discussion today. Goodbye, Wil.


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