FOUNTAIN: Did my neighbors believe they had missed the Promised Land?
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Editor’s note: This is an installment in an occasional series by John Fountain on Chicago’s West Side.
I remember when my neighborhood went south.
I was 12 then. Grandpa got the call from the Lord. The year was 1973. Richard Nixon was president, Woodward and Bernstein were knocking on Watergate’s door, Richard J. Daley was still mayor and the Soul Train line was doing the Robot and pop-locking to the Jackson Five’s “Dancing Machine.”
It was four years since the bodies of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were riddled with bullets by Chicago Police who raided their West Side house as they slept on the morning of Dec. 4, 1969.
The year Grandpa got his calling to pastor was the year Nixon ordered the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. I still have memories of seeing newspaper headlines of casualties splattered across the front page.
At the time, I didn’t understand the gravity of this war being fought in some faraway place with a strange name. The looming end of the war carried a wind of change in the country.
As the nation moved toward urban renewal, away from the socially turbulent 1960s, there was a sense that whatever remained of life in my neighborhood was being sucked out.
There was now a need for car alarms, steel bars, deadbolts and a loaded .38 Special hidden in the bedroom. Where once it seemed everyone went to church, many in my neighborhood no longer did. Or maybe it was the case that many of those who were “left behind” never had.
It soon became apparent by the still quietness of streets on Sunday morning that those who did go to the Lord’s house were greatly outnumbered by those who did not. That something got lost in the transition from black folks seeing the Promised Land to possessing it.
Was it the loss of hope, faith and purpose that contributed to a sense of disillusionment, which ultimately fueled the disintegration of life as it once had been in K-Town? Or was it that some people somehow believed they had missed the Promised Land? I do not know. Whatever it was, it ignited an exodus of those with the most means.
Although there were still men to look to as role models — working fathers, decent men who exuded a sense of purpose — there seemed to be a shortage of good God-fearing men who didn’t live it up on the weekend, have a couple of chicks on the side (or a whole other family), or else drink to excess and gamble.
Not that there weren’t any good men. Just not enough providers and protectors in my eyes. It also did not help that many of the men who remained were still struggling, working day and night and barely getting by, while “the Man” held a foot on their neck through a premeditated system of oppression and disenfranchisement that back then was far beyond my prepubescent comprehension.
But if the system’s sights were set on the black man, it’s aim was to destroy, at least cripple, the black family.
There seemed to be a shifting of moral ground. The emergence of pimps and players in the movies, which nearly every boy in my neighborhood went to see, chipped away at what moral foundation remained.
It was, in my mind, the beginning of the end — the gateway to gang violence, drive-bys, crack cocaine and a steady descent into social chaos boiled in a toxic soup of racism, poverty, hopelessness and economic disenfranchisement.
Among my extended family, we would soon be last of the Mohicans in K-Town, as everyone else moved west in search of a suburban Promised Land.
And our old neighborhood slipped further and further south.
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