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NATALIE MOORE: Friendship and beauty on the South Side

Columnist Natalie Moore (right) with friend Donna Dillingham. | Supplied photo

At a book talk I gave this spring in the Uptown neighborhood, a woman asked me what makes the South Side special.

I paused. I offered a wistful smile.

For the past 16 months, I’ve been on the circuit promoting my book about segregation. I shatter South Side stereotypes. I write about the loveliness and contradictions. The beauty many don’t see, given the challenges in many neighborhoods and the legacy of discrimination. When I get asked questions like this about the South Side, I typically answer in broad terms or talk about institutions, restaurants, music or art.

I had a different answer for the North Side crowd on that weekday night.

OPINION

Two days earlier, one of my best friends had died of natural causes. The loss of Donna Dillingham colored my response. I thought about our 39-year friendship. We met in nursery school and her mom used to tell us how, when we met, she came home to talk about me. Even though she didn’t quite pronounce my name right. After all, we were two years old. I remember when her brother was born; he’s my brother’s best friend.

Donna and I grew up a few blocks away from each other in Chatham. She’s inextricably linked to my childhood and neighborhood memories.

My friendship with Donna was special. But there’s nothing special or unique about our relationship. It’s pretty common in black South Side Chicago. The connectivity of neighborhoods and longstanding friendship/family ties make this place almost tribal. In a good way.

Donna and I were Girl Scouts together. We attended church and day camp together. All in the neighborhood. I write about her in my Chatham chapter of the book. We were together on the L train at 14 years old when I pieced together segregation when we saw throngs of white people get off on the South Side — Comiskey Park.

We rode our 10-speed bikes around the neighborhood. On warm summer nights, we sat on her front stoop. She had the best pajama parties, either for her birthday or impromptu. We put candles on our pizzas on birthdays. At age 11 we decided to brew coffee drinks and doused the cups with milk and sugar. At her fifth birthday party we got mad at each other and I told her to put up her dukes. We threw spaghetti at each other one time. But Donna and I always made up. She lent me money, shared her candy and let me borrow her Esprit outfits. My mother took us to see Maya Angelou speak on the South Side.

The South Side is synonymous with bedlam for many people living in the region. They have no interaction. But our neighborhoods are often uneventful — no murders, no gun slinging on every corner. Our neighborhoods are filled with people working, going to school, you know, ordinary things people do. I once had a friend visit from New York and ask, why does the South Side smell like barbecue? It’s true. Drive around this summer and smell what wafts from backyards.

I shared some of these stories and memories with the Uptown book crowd. Talking about Donna comforted me. My emotions were still raw. They still are from losing a friend so suddenly, so young. I circled back to the original question from the Uptown woman and said: Simply put, the people make the South Side special. The South Side is love.

Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” 

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