The Only Constant Is Change: The rifts and connections that bind South Shore together

On one hand, The World Is Always Coming to an End is a collage of stories about author Carlo Rotella’s upbringing on the southeast side of Chicago, and how his neighborhood, South Shore, shaped him and the way he interacts with the wider world. On the other hand, it is a story about community and how South Shore is currently a fractured one; how being a melting pot of haves and have-nots, separated in many cases by just one block, creates dissonance and aversion toward neighborly behavior. Most significantly, though, this is a story about transience, and how the ever-changing conditions within our urban landscapes are fact, not fiction. 

Rotella does this by chronicling South Shore’s origins as a series of Native American settlements, then its role as home to immigrant ethnic tribes consisting of Germans and Polskis or Protestants and Catholics, and now its life as a resilient Black enclave. He tells stories from his childhood, and how the shops and landmarks he knew as a kid have now been replaced by new concepts and cultures, but mostly by nothing at all. He also recounts the rich history of community organizing in the neighborhood, and the now-distant times when South Shore residents acted as a collective. The fact of transience is currently a fear for many in South Shore, but it is also the history of the neighborhood. For current residents and community leaders hoping to build on what exists in South Shore, The World Is Always Coming to an End shows what must be stitched together in order to change course. 

A map in the first few pages of the book illustrates the physical splits in the neighborhood, along with the landmarks of the community. The map speaks of ShoreBank, which was internationally renowned as a community development financial institution, and other lost artifacts like the Jeffery Theatre on 71st and the Regal Theatre on 79th and Stony. It shows the South Shore Cultural Center cozying up with condos and lakefront high-rises along South Shore Drive and cradling the O’Keefe pocket of the community, filled with a mix of multifamily complexes, subsidized housing, and random blocks of single-family homes. The Jackson Park Highlands—dotted with million-dollar homes that house some of Chicago’s Black elite, closed off by cul-de-sacs in every direction—share the map with Terror Town to the southeast, a part of the community popularized by rappers Lil Herb and Lil Bibby that gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous regions in the city.

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From the perspective of a white, middle-class man who grew up in South Shore but, like many of the more fortunate residents of the neighborhood today, attended school and did most business outside of the neighborhood, this book could have been incomplete. Rotella’s experience of South Shore, from the bungalow-lined block at 71st and Oglesby where his family bought their first home, to 69th and Euclid in the Jackson Park Highlands, where they bought their second, is a leap and bound that dodges most of what gives South Shore its reputation. But coupled with the autobiographical account of his upbringing, Rotella spends a considerable amount of time filling the gaps with accounts from generations of residents, who tell stories about how far the community has come, or to some, how far it has fallen.

One interviewee, a former Black Panther turned police detective, shares his understanding of the neighborhood’s evolved conditions, and considers an evil justice system and disconnected police force as one of the larger failures of the community. Having served on the police force in the 70s and beyond, he saw firsthand how virtuous gangs like the Blackstone Rangers fractured into cliques. But he also observed how the police’s relationship with these gangs had evolved as well. “The wrong people are the police,” the interviewee plainly states, encapsulating issues on South Shore’s streets today: officers intimidating commoners from their driver’s seats, breaking up small gatherings at random, and establishing themselves as disruptors instead of generative components of the community. This is not a story that is unique to South Shore, but the rifts here have widened since 2018, when the police killed Harith “Snoop” Augustus, a beloved barber at one of 71st Street’s many shops. 

A string of conversations with patrons of St. Philip Neri’s food pantry, and a walk around the neighborhood with representatives from CeaseFire Illinois, reveals the realities for those on the lower rungs of South Shore’s economic ladder. Many of these residents know the causal relationships that shape their neighborhood, citing gang violence and a lack of resources. A consensus, however, is that many of the more fortunate residents of the area, and even some of their own neighbors, are disinterested in organizing to call out the ills of South Shore. Some say that many residents won’t feel compelled to act unless the violence is brought to their doorstep. Others argue that those in powerful positions in the neighborhood are not interested in the problems of the poor, and are more concerned with issues closer to home: development and property values. 

A more controversial interviewee—a Jackson Park Highlands resident, former military man, and UChicago Lab School classmate of Rotella’s—presents the sour truth of some of the more well-off South Shore residents’ attitudes. Owning an arsenal of guns and wishing for a more sophisticated surveillance state in the Highlands, his desire for fortitude seems to physically and emotionally detach him from the greater community. He denounces shopping in the neighborhood because of poor customer service and pricing. He commends Glenn Evans, former Police Commander of the Third District, who was charged with aggravated battery in 2013 after shoving the barrel of his gun into a suspect’s mouth. And he views the signs of gentrification favorably, citing recent real estate trends and UChicago’s expansion into Woodlawn and Washington Park as indicators that the greater southeast side was finally beginning to turn over a new leaf.

But that new leaf has always had complex implications in American cities. In an anecdote from his childhood, Rotella recalls standing on the balcony of the Museum of Science and Industry and watching the 1939 Minton Cronkhite train set as it traveled between Chicago and the Northwest. Much has changed about the landscape Cronkhite built with his train set, just as decade by decade, much has changed in American cities. Rotella cycles through South Shore’s beginnings as marshes and dunes, occupied first by Native American settlers, then built upon by white ethnic immigrants, and consistently occupied by African Americans since mid-century white flight. But as in many of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, changes in demographics were accompanied by changes in the flow of capital, and South Shore was left to what it is now: vacant corridors, stagnant or declining property values, and a nostalgia for stronger neighborhood institutions and collective efficacy.

There are shifts that have been rumbling under the community’s surface for a few years now. The prospect of the Obama Presidential Center and rumors of the Tiger Woods Golf Course have served as boosters for the community. New dining spots like the Slab, Majani, and South Shore Brew are indicative of entrepreneurial confidence. And more often than not, you can catch an article in Crain’s about newfound interest in South Shore’s housing stock from real estate investors looking to diversify their portfolios. The gross side of this was recently uncovered by the Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova, who reported on Pangea Real Estate’s persistent South Side property grab and on sinister eviction practices that landed them in eviction court with over 9,000 of their residents since 2009. These telltale signs of gentrification pose an existential threat to some residents of South Shore, and the neighborhood seems to be transitioning into the next saga of how the not-so-invisible hand forces neighborhood demographics to change, while former residents are left to reckon with history.   

Rotella recalls a time when there was a will to organize in South Shore; to both facilitate and defend against change. Back in the 1970s, before white flight was complete and before subsidized housing became available, middle-class Black and white residents successfully organized around efforts like making the South Shore Country Club (now the Cultural Center) a public amenity, running a number of problematic taverns along a stretch of 75th Street out of business, and saving ShoreBank. Common interests were more obvious in the 70s, but now the mixed-income community is at odds with itself—and the market won’t wait for anyone to devise an agenda. 

Tucked in between the data, the history, and the personal stories of South Shore residents, Rotella poetically recalls critical childhood memories in which he obtained “equipment for living,” the street smarts and life lessons that are taught daily in Black communities like South Shore. This mix of autobiography and literary reportage makes for a rich, raw, and illuminating read. For those who are curious about the economics—both political and social—of predominantly Black neighborhoods, the book’s deep dive into South Shore is both a great primer and finish. If you’re generally curious about the history of America’s urban communities and their tendency to change with the seasons, Carlo Rotella pulls back all the right curtains on what has fueled those changes, and what South Shore can do for itself as it stares its next phase in the face.

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Malik Jackson is a South Shore resident and recent graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in Urban Studies. He last wrote about how Special Service Areas are adapting their mission due to COVID-19.

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