In the wake of the George Floyd murder, I was dismayed to see looting again in my former West Side Chicago neighborhood, a grim reminder of the looting and fiery destruction on the West Side after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968.
Redlining refused loans to Blacks
My immigrant grandparents had settled near Madison and Pulaski in 1912, worked as janitors, saved obsessively, and eventually bought rental property. My parents purchased their first home on Washington Boulevard in 1949. But buying a house was out-of-reach for most Black families. Redlining, a federal policy, denied loans to Blacks from 1933 to 1968, creating a segregated America.
Redlining, segregation, and COVID-19
That segregation resulted in the health disparities that are allowing Blacks to succumb to the coronavirus at double the rates of White Americans. (Here are articles, videos, and books explaining what redlining is and its still-insidious impact on African Americans today. And here’s a Brookings Institute article: “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?”)
When the first Black family moved onto our block in 1963, Whites fled by the thousands. Soon we were one of the last white families in the community. My family continued living at 4222 W. Washington for the next three years, getting to know, and like, our African American neighbors.
In April 1966, we moved five miles north, to Keeler near Montrose, but my parents hadn’t sold their West Side property. Instead they continued to nurture their tenants and three small apartment buildings in West Garfield Park, driving the five miles south whenever in-person help was needed.
King was assassinated two years after we moved. As with the George Floyd murder protests, cities across the country blew up in riots, an explosion of pent-up rage from decades of systemic racism.
A tenant called my mother and warned her not to come into the area. “They’re rollin’ over cars. Mobs of folks are lootin’ the stores on Madison.”
Barbara Lilly, an African American woman who lived in West Garfield Park in 1968, told me years later, “People were burning up houses. . . . At night, you would have thought it was Vietnam.” She added, “They were burnin’ up their own neighborhood, but after King was killed, it was like they lost all hope.”
A devastated landscape
After two days of arson, looting, and destruction, vast swaths of the West Side lay in smoldering ruins. Fifty-two years later, before these latest riots began, my former community still hadn’t recovered.
WBEZ report from West Garfield Park
Now with the recent looting and destruction of small businesses that Chip Mitchell, reported on last week, “In Chicago’s Poorest Areas, Recovery May Be Long, If It Comes At All” — that same sentiment was being expressed.
It’s news that reflects both present-day reality and a reality half-a-century old. The murder of George Floyd is shining new light on a recovery that has been on hold for at least fifty-two years, since Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The looted Dollar store referred to in the story at 4247 W. Madison St., between Keeler and Kildare, is a block away from where I grew up at 4222 W. Washington Blvd. We shopped at many stores on this street, including at the A&P right on the corner of Madison and Keeler, where we dragged our wagon each week to fill with groceries and pull home. That A&P burned down just as the community was undergoing racial change. Arson was suspected.
West Side ignored for half a century
Now food insecurity is a major threat to the livelihoods of the people in my former neighborhood. Mitchell reports, “The pastor of a big church [Reverend Marshall Hatch] a block away from the Family Dollar store said the neighborhood of West Garfield Park never recovered from riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination more than a half-century ago.”
A Visit to West Garfield Park, August 2019
That’s right. I saw it for myself just last August, when I was invited to meet with members of Leadership Greater Chicago in West Garfield Park to share my personal historical perspective and show them around my former haunts in the neighborhood.
The once-bustling Pulaski-Madison commercial district was a shabby shell of its former vibrant self. Jobless men hung on street corners. Trash clung to curbs. The city had refused for fifty-two years to invest to help the community climb out of despair.
Refusal to invest as punishment
Mitchell quotes Stacey Sutton, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reflecting the same attitude today: “The reticence from many of our public officials becomes punitive: “‘Well, you destroyed your neighborhood. Therefore we’re not going to reinvest.’”
Throughout the time my parents cared for their West Side buildings, they saw firsthand the total disregard for this community.
I recount in my book, Redlined, how my dad had devised ways to trap and kill rats that actually wore the grass away in paths, with their steady tread through the yard. He captured wild dogs that roamed and terrorized the community, delivering them so often to the Animal Welfare Center, they would say to him, “What! You again?”
On-call April 6, 1968, day after WS riots
But my parents were aging; they could only hold on so long and do the heavy maintenance a six-flat and two 2-flats required: painting porches, fixing furnaces, changing locks of burglarized apartments, and more. (The day after the King riots had scorched more than twenty blocks on Madison St., my parents were right there, around the corner from the devastation, meeting tenants to take care of a furnace problem.)
West Side care after the riots
They never gave up on their little corner of West Garfield Park on Keeler and Washington. My dad, despite having a college degree, had been involved in West Side top-quality building maintenance for more sixty years (he helped his janitor dad when he was a kid in the 1920s).
He was nearly sixty-nine and Mom was sixty-five when they half-sold/half-donated two of their three buildings to Bethel New Life, which then converted them into low-income housing. Mom still managed the care of my childhood home at 4222 Washington until she died in 1994.
Waiting for investment for three generations
Reverend Hatch told Chip Mitchell of WBEZ, that society needs to “start seeing people in these communities as worthy of investment, just like we see everybody else.”
Let’s hope that Mayor Lightfoot makes good on her promise to help these looted stores get on their feet again, to see the West Side (and South Side) as worthy of investment, and to finally bring hope to a community that’s waited through three generations for change.
Readers: After the terrible looting on the West Side, consider donating food and helping clean up. Learn more here:
Redlined tells a first-hand story about a West Side Chicago family’s personal struggles and dreams intersecting with the racial upheavals of the 1960s.