Ontiveros: Small town folks not only ones nostalgic for lost past

SHARE Ontiveros: Small town folks not only ones nostalgic for lost past

An aerial view of U.S. Steel’s old South Works site, near 85th Street and South Shore Drive. | Sun-Times file photo

Follow @Sueontiveros

Small town USA isn’t the only one with memories.

You’d think that was the case from the countless news stories waxing on about what small town folks remember and feel they’ve lost, which we’re told is what prompted them to vote as they did in the presidential election.

But you know what? Those of us who grew up in working-class city neighborhoods – as I did on Chicago’s Southeast Side – have our memories too, and they’re really not all that different. I get nostalgic, too, up to a point.

OPINION Follow @Sueontiveros

For me, it just takes that turn onto the South Lake Shore Drive extension to remember when the lake and the open land there were not visible. That was OK because what stood there once was the South Works steel mill, some 430 acres of economic beauty because of all the jobs. At its height, South Works employed some 20,000 men and women, more than the population of many small towns.

These were jobs with benefits and salaries that workers could not merely survive on, but thrive on and even build savings. Salaries that bought family cars and homes, put kids through college. Those houses weren’t palaces, but they were certainly pieces of the American Dream, and they were cared for with pride.

Thanks to South Works and other mills like it, as well as myriad manufacturing plants, we had the economic power to support neighborhood business strips that resembled Small Town USA’s main streets. The owners of those businesses were able to make solid livings, too.

See the resemblances?

Unfortunately, the similarities continue.  The mills on the Southeast Side are gone now, just as they are gone in small towns, and only a fraction of the old manufacturing plants remain. Without that jobs base, small businesses have withered, sometimes replaced by national chain stores that profit only the fat cats at the top. Houses look worn.

Rural America’s younger generation has descended into opioids for the same exact reasons many of our own young people have turned to violence: too much time on their hands, no viable employment and a rage against a bleak future.

I understand that feeling of being left behind, although I’m not sure how so many people came to the conclusion that a boastful self-described billionaire was going to make their lives better. (That’s a whole other column.)

But let’s takes this return to the past a step further.

I recently saw the movie hit “Hidden Figures,” and within that uplifting story I was reminded of something else from those good ol’ days: the deference that African Americans and all minorities were expected to practice if they wanted to be safe. This was not a form of courteous respect; it was forced submission. It was demanded as a way to keep minorities – African Americans in particular – fearful and “in line.”

Women, too, were expected to behave a certain way. And what if you were gay? Make sure you kept that information under wraps because who knows what danger you might face.

Watching “Hidden Figures” got my memory to working again, this time recalling certain frightening incidents from my past and leaving me thinking: Oh, hell no, we’re not going back there.

It’s time we took off those rose-colored glasses when looking at days gone by.

We can’t afford to forget the ugly side of that lovely past or to ignore the advancements time has brought minorities, women and the LGBT community.

That dignity is priceless. We’re not going to let anyone take it from us now.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

Follow Sue Ontiveros on Twitter: Follow @Sueontiveros

Tweets by @Sueontiveros

The Latest
Executive Director Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek hopes to open more sites that offer free financial services like federal and state tax prep and helping students get financial aid.
Why Government is Failing the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better with Jennifer Pahlka on March 27.
This is the first grey seal pup born at the zoo since 2020, and he is expected to make his public debut sometime this coming spring.
The Hawks won’t be busy leading up this year’s March 8 trade deadline, but they could still make one or two moves. Tyler Johnson headlines their list of available players, and they could also weaponize their ample salary-cap space.
WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling prepares for retirement, the Chicago Board of Education votes to remove police from schools, and paradegoers celebrate the Lunar New Year.