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Neighborhood Bookshelf

My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King

Set in West Town and Humboldt Park, this is the true story of a young Puerto Rican's entry into gang life. When his own family is unable to provide a nurturing environment, 13-year-old Sanchez (a pseudonym) finds solace in the arms of an older woman, and from there begins a harrowing journey. Sanchez provides a numbing portrayal of day-to-day life on gang turf, complete with beatings, demeaning sexual relationships, heavy drug use and ultimately the loss of possibilities in a community with few other support systems. A sequel, Once a King, Always a King, (2003, Chicago Review Press) covers Sanchez's term in jail and his subsequent struggle to build a normal life.

"I was told that the Latin Kings had shot a couple of Gaylords for what they did to me, but I didn't care; I still wanted to get revenge myself. That attitude that I must do something to prove my worth was turning me into an animal."

The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood

Racial change swept across Chicago neighborhoods like a tidal wave from the 1950s to 1970s, stunning entire communities as tens of thousands of white residents fled—sometimes in the middle of the night—as equal numbers of African Americans moved in. The trauma of this rapid turnover is traced from both the Jewish and African-American perspectives in Louis Rosen's memoir and oral history of the Calumet Height's neighborhood's transition in the late 1960s. More than a dozen of Chicago's South and West Side neighborhoods—representing about 500,000 residents—experienced similar rapid turnover between the 1950s and early 1980s.

"Then once it started, it happened fast… It was like a fire… You have principles and all of a sudden your principles are hitting you in the face."

—Marilyn Kier, former president of the board of the neighborhood Jewish Community Center.

"By the end, it was like a military march into a territory. The neighborhood was finished."

—Keith Roberts, one of the first African-Americans to move into the neighborhood.

House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods

These stories of neighborhood revival around the country suggest the role that involved residents and community development corporations can play in inner city areas. Von Hoffman documents recent development efforts in Chicago's Gap neighborhood, where African Americans first settled, and on the Near West Side, where residents organized to stop construction of a Chicago Bears football stadium in their neighborhood.

"During the 1980s the old ghettos were being cleared again, but not by government urban renewal programs. First, a building was abandoned or caught fire, then the city government tore it down. The process was relentless. Almost 19 percent of the 32,200 units in Black Metropolis neighborhoods—including 10,000 units in public housing—were vacant in 1990.

I'd be away from a block for a while," remembers Sokoni Karanja (of Centers for New Horizons), "and come back and the whole block would be gone. Amazing!"

The Jungle

An early portrayal of the industrial juggernaut that lured millions to Chicago, where survival usually proved more difficult than anticipated. Sinclair paints a vivid picture of work conditions in the factories and the struggles of immigrant families on the rough-and-tumble South Side.

"So they began a tour (of a steel mill), among sights that made Jurgis stare amazed. He wondered if ever he could get used to working in a place like this, where the air shook with deafening thunder, and whistles shrieked warnings on all sides of him at once; where miniature steam engines came rushing upon him, and sizzling, quivering, white-hot masses of metal sped past him, and explosions of fire and flaming sparks dazzled him and scorched his face. The men in these mills were all black with soot, and hollow-eyed and gaunt; they worked with fierce intensity, rushing here and there, and never lifting their eyes from their tasks."

American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto

A sensitive ethnographic portrayal of the many levels of society in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project, from the underground economy to the social safety nets built by residents.

Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago

Two teenage boys become radio reporters to explain the way life works in the Ida B. Wells housing projects.

The American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation's Permanent Underclass

A stark and controversial series of newspaper stories and photos portrayed ghetto life and the local politics behind it, with a focus on the North Lawndale community.

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

What ultimately impresses about this economic history of 19th Century Chicago is not so much its exhaustive research (e.g.: bankruptcy records, bills of lading, railroad timetables) or even Cronon's gift for weaving stories from the minutiae. Rather, it is a message laced, if not expressly stated, across its 530 pages: Things change, especially technologies, and cities rise or fall on their ability to exploit that change. Might the same be said of neighborhoods? For 100 years Chicago rode the crest of every new wave: ship by rail; sell by mail; buy and sell by proxy; gather, make, distribute. Every time it lost an enterprise (meatpacking to Omaha) because of a techno shift (diesel trucks on Interstates) it seemed to gain another (commercial aviation hub).

Just as technology transforms markets and cities, it has a profound impact on the way we think. Compare the psychic impact of e-mail, say, or the Internet, to Cronon's description of this jolt:

"And so, on November 18, 1883, the railroad companies carved up the continent into four time zones, in each of which clocks would be set to exactly the same time. At noon, Chicago jewelers moved their clocks back by nine minutes and thirty-three seconds in order to match the local time of the 19th meridian. The Chicago Tribune likened the event to Joshua's having made the sun stand still."

Moral? A city or neighborhood out to "keep things the way they are" runs a fool's errand. Change is inevitable, especially within ourselves.

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