I want to hear Chicago’s West Side stories
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There’s a civil war in my house. The battle between me and my husband is Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken vs. Harold’s Fried Chicken.
Both are venerable local fried chicken chains, the former on the West Side and the latter a South Side staple. I’m squarely #teamHarold’s and can’t understand why my husband, originally from South Shore, favors that syrupy saucy Uncle Remus over the king of mild sauce.
Of course, our banter is all in good humor. But recently I’ve been thinking about the South Side vs. West Side dynamic in our city.
The Jane Addams Hull House Museum recently hosted a forum called West Side/South Side: Bridging the Divide, with folks representing both sides of town via their civic engagement or activism. There was journalist/moderator Richard Steele, public policy consultant Amara Enyia, community developer advisor Valerie Leonard, photographer/urbanist Lee Bey and me.
The forum was the brainchild of museum director Jennifer Scott, who is spearheading the series Making the West Side, a multiyear project through the National Endowment for the Humanities that brings together scholars, activists and neighbors to investigate the connections of neighborhood history to neighborhood change.
Much of the sentiment on stage and expressed in the audience was that West and South Siders suffered from failed political leadership and steady lack of economic development. What we didn’t delve into are the class divides that haunt both sides of town. The established narrative is that South Siders think they are better than West Siders; snooty South Siders view West Siders as ghetto hayseeds. Then there’s the playful rivalry over whose blues and stepper sets are better.
We have more in common than we think — economic devastation, city neglect, disinvestment and battles over real estate through the decades.
In my reporting for WBEZ, where I’m the South Side reporter, I try to link akin issues. My stories are less rooted in geography than in the issues. When I’m covering violence, housing, unemployment, mass incarceration or poverty, I must relate what’s happening in Roseland to places like Austin.
In my personal life, I realize I can do better. One of the toxic effects of segregation in our region is the inability to experience other neighborhoods and as a result falling back on stereotypes. As I prepped for the Bridging the Divide panel, I realized that my husband and I haven’t explored West Side neighborhoods with our children like we do the South and North Sides. Major fail on my part. I’m embarrassed even as I write this column.
The South Side ends up representing the black Chicago experience locally and globally. When the Great Migration began 100 years ago, in which African-Americans left the American South in droves for Chicago, they settled first on the South Side. That history and pattern lent itself to the building of black institutions such as museums, theaters, banks, businesses and cultural centers. And thus a bigger, stronger black middle class formed on the South Side.
Additionally, there’s a canon of scholarship, literature, plays and poetry. Having a John H. Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harold Washington or Lorraine Hansberry doesn’t make South Siders better than West Siders. But the black South Side story has been told better.
As the borders of the West Side fade into the ever-encroaching West Loop, the stories and history of West Siders are at risk of being erased and forgotten.
Museum director Scott realized that as she curated Making the West Side.
“There is a scarcity of information about the history and development of the black West Side,” she said. “And the lack of dedicated scholarship of these communities actually mirrors — maybe even exacerbates — the long-term neglect and invisibility of these neighborhoods.”
Scott said the project is designed “to draw attention to the significant histories of the West Side with the intention of encouraging discussion, documentation and self-determined change in the present. We want tomorrow’s scholar, researcher or layperson looking into the West Side to learn substantially more than we know today.”
And Scott said that’ll prompt the change we need.
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