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

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

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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.

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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

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