Belt Publishing

Patchwork Portrait

Does it still make sense to think of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods?

In the 1960s, teenagers in Marquette Park spent time on 69th Street in smoky bars with “Members Only” signs. No one could say exactly what it took to be a member, because no proprietor ever asked for identification to prove age, a scapular from the church, or a membership card from the Nazi Party or KKK—neighborhood fixtures at the time. Those who entered into the swimming darkness behind the glass block facades only knew that, as the sons of Lithuanian refugees in Marquette Park, a neighborhood of Lithuanian refugees, they belonged. 

Is Chicago just a patchwork of places where one does or doesn’t belong? That’s the question that Gint Aras asks in “Marquette Park: Members Only.” It’s one among forty-five stories, photo essays, and poems in The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, a recent arrival from Belt Publishing, which takes a neighborhood-level look at the city through different lenses including a Garfield Park photo essay, a whimsical essay set in Humboldt Park, and a Gold Coast sketch. The geographic spiral that structures the book’s forty-five chapters deliberately lingers on the South Side and other parts of the city that fall outside a Loop-centric gaze (Lincoln Park does not even get a chapter). 

This patchwork portrait leans into the beloved trope that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. In their varied voices, however, the Guidebook’s authors go deeper than reiterating the neighborhood notion by hitting at the power of place and describing how a neighborhood can shape us, often from a young age. In “Austin: Austin and Division,” Shaina Warfield recalls playing with a puzzle during her childhood as she slowly learns about the world beyond her living room—the yard, the sidewalk, and finally all of Austin—explaining how redlining shaped her life. 

While the first several childhood recollections in the volume are engaging, the next couple of rosy memories start to coalesce into a droning lament. Beyond the work of just several of the contributors, this book about neighborhood change wagers no clear explanation of why nostalgia matters. 

Behind the memories of bygone pizza joints lurks the greatest nostalgia of all—a nostalgia for the days when Chicago was still identifiable as the famous Midwestern city of neighborhoods. Except for a couple of holdouts like the columnist John Kassnone of whom, mercifully, appear in The Guidebook—who still write about Chicago as if it were comprised of ethnic states, most writers have moved on. 

Robert Sampson’s 2012 research on Chicago social networks in Great American City reincarnated a neighborhood-scale analysis to revise the notion of what a neighborhood even is. Over the last several years, writers, some of whom appear in the Guidebook, have riffed on Sampson’s evidence that where you live can shape everything from your health to your professional opportunities. They’ve reflected on the function of nostalgia to help us rationalize forces beyond our control and explained how, today, some neighborhoods remain identifiable as geographic units not because of the shared resources and values that once bound people together, but rather because of a creeping neighborly suspicion between haves and have nots. In the Guidebook’s “River West: Counting Cranes,” author Jean Iversen’s nostalgia for her pre-housing bubble neighborhood insightfully suggests the impossibility of predicting how a place might change and how your own actions might shape its future. Leopold Froehlich’s “Gold Coast: The Alleys of the Gold Coast,” on the other hand, plays up a blustery nostalgia for the city’s corrupt history, to no clear end. 

Neighborhoods haven’t disappeared, they’ve just profoundly changed. A sentiment requiring them to have hardware shops, corned beef on the corner, a gambling racket, and a linguistic barrier between the Italians and the Irish is a disservice to any attempt at understanding what it means to live in a city like Chicago today. Writing about that past won’t lead anyone astray so long as the author finds a way to suggest, in some way, the significance of the contemporary social reality that is cleaving along very different lines. Take a map and divide the city by income, by access to services, by children who have visited Lake Michigan. The patchwork might look like the city’s seventy-seven community areas, whose borders have remained unhelpfully static over the course of the last century since they were defined by sociologists at the University of Chicago based on the theory that a city could be broken down into “natural areas.” But more likely than not, there will be deviations. 

That’s why the Guidebook works best when it transcends the neighborhoods around which it is structured. When writing about how Lithuanian immigrants embraced racial animus in 1960s Marquette Park, Gint Aras is describing what it means to belong to a place and take responsibility for its past, no matter its geographic limits. There are moments in the Guidebook when an author reveals a human connection with the city by giving a curious breath of life to a detail usually hidden away. Lily Be imagines herself as “Queen of the Tunnels” running underneath Humboldt Park, where she says some people who are brown, female, or poor might have to hide if certain political trends continue. In “Ravenswood Gardens: Chicago River Life,” Rob Miller recounts finding misspelled graffiti, “Hail Satin,” under a bridge on the Chicago River, visible only to kayakers. 

Thanks to deliberate editing, some authors talk to each other across the pages, which gives the book a message greater than the din of a dozen voices packed back to back. Aras’s description of white supremacy in Marquette Park, for instance, is juxtaposed with Tamar Manasseh’s interview about violence and peace in Englewood. But then the chapter ends and it’s time for a new neighborhood, a new story, an old memory.

There are other ways to write about cities. One is to write big books about big things and big people, as Mike Royko does in Boss. Another, like Ben Austen’s High-Risers about Cabrini-Green, is to look at a particular place, even a particular block, in order to evoke an entire metropolis. A third is to write prose that mines a city’s heart, as Nelson Algren does in City on the Make

Unlike these traditional modes, anthologies and guidebooks look and sound like a citycacophonous and filled with contrasting voices from up and down the block. It’s a genre that, when the torrent of authors has been channeled and structured, is more agile than big books about big things, more expansive than those about particular places, and more inclusive than the beauties about an urban heart. 

But the torrent of authors looks seductively similar to the layered, sprawling, million-person entity they’re describing, which doesn’t offer much in the way of guidance on order, sequence, or how to get the essays to say something beyond the sum of their parts. That’s why the neighborhood motif, with its geographic and social rationale, is so attractive to authors and editors alike. 

The Guidebook offers a buffet of places you might want to visit, interesting facts, and memorable moments. It leaves you on your own to piece the map together, which is a welcome challenge. 

Martha Bayne, ed., The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook. $20. Belt Publishing. 224 pages

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Max Budovitch is a contributor to the Weekly. He last wrote a review of the recently republished book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History.

 

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