Chicago Yesterday and Today: A Conversation with Carlo Rotella

Carlo Rotella is a professor of American studies, English, and journalism at Boston College; he’s also one of the most talented writers in the humanities ...

Carlo Rotella is a professor of American studies, English, and journalism at Boston College; he’s also one of the most talented writers in the humanities, as comfortable crafting profiles of prizefighters and political officials as he is doing literary criticism in a scholarly journal. Carlo’s new book, The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood, is unlike any work of contemporary urban studies that I know. It combines elements of journalism, archival research, ethnography, and memoir in a study of South Shore—the South Side, Chicago, neighborhood in which Carlo grew up, in the 1970s. It’s at times lyrical, at times analytic, and always engaging. I invited him to NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge to discuss the book when it was published this spring.



Eric Klinenberg (EK): Your book is a story of the affinity you feel for a specific place, as well as a story of the shared sensibility that develops when people share spaces, generally. The book is also about the multiple fractures that carve up a given neighborhood.

I love the idea you propose in the book that we live in the neighborhood, but the neighborhood also lives in us. What strikes me is that, when you’re walking in any neighborhood, it’s easy to feel the difference between you and everyone else. You may be ethnically or racially the same, but it’s almost always clear that neighborhoods are full of divisions. I wonder how you think about that.


Carlo Rotella (CR): That’s true enough. But the level of division can change in a neighborhood, as in the case discussed in the book—South Shore, on the South Side of Chicago. I grew up in a fundamentally middle-class world in South Shore. Even those who weren’t in the middle class, many of them had realistic aspirations to join that group. There was just a lot more commonality, and some kind of rough consensus about the neighborhood’s problems and priorities.

People I’ve never met before—people I met for the book or I interviewed for the book or I ran into—if they lived there in the late ’60s and the early ’70s, all of them are clumped in the middle: the upper working class, middle class, a few upper-middle class. Now, that’s probably less true. There are fewer shared experiences and fewer shared pieces of landscape for people in the neighborhood to connect with in the same way.

Even when they’re talking about the same piece of landscape, the class divide creates entirely different experiences of it. The view of Lake Michigan from the ninth floor in a condo overlooking the lake is not the same as the experience of the lake of this one woman I interviewed, who lives in a basement apartment. She has no view at all. She goes very, very early on Saturday morning to the lake with her son. They take their shoes off and walk in the water a little bit and the whole point is that nobody is around. She doesn’t take him to playgrounds when kids are around. She puts him in the car and takes him to Hyde Park, because she thinks the playgrounds there are safe. So, she and her neighbor who was looking out the ninth floor window and loving the lake—they share the lake, but they really don’t click on what it is about the lake that is so meaningful to them.


EK: As you argue in the book, over time people in South Shore—and in many neighborhoods like it—have retreated from public space. You describe a world of people turning inward and, in some places, barricading themselves behind private security and guns and working hard to cut themselves off from others.

My sense is that there is a bit of a lament in the book. It takes us from the shared world of pickup basketball games and walking through the neighborhood and having occasional tussles with other kids into a world where people are anxious about sharing spaces with others they don’t know and who want their children to be more protected, less exposed.


How Gentrifiers Gentrify

By Max Holleran

CR: I’m really careful about lament. There’s a certain set of controlled substances in the book: “lament,” “decline.” Robert J. Sampson (of Harvard) and others have pointed out that to talk about community is always to talk about the decline of community. When you say community is important, the next thing you say is that it used to be a whole lot better, right?

But it is true without question that the nature of childhood has changed. And the nature of parenting has changed. I talked to all kinds of parents, especially on the have-not side, whose main goal as parents was to keep their kids out of public space. There’s a woman in the book who is a home health aide and a Lyft driver; she drives her kids two blocks to school every day because she doesn’t want them on the sidewalk. The proximate reason, the part of the iceberg sticking up above the waterline, is that they could get shot; below the waterline, it’s the transformation of childhood. There is less free play, there is more of a sense that you are going to get kids out of public space, get them into a magnet or a charter, get them out of the neighborhood to get them on their way to wherever they are going. People are still imagining their move up, but they are not imagining it in the neighborhood.


EK: You’re not saying that everything used to be better and now things have fallen apart. But I do believe you register concern that a public world that was once created and sustained by a city—one that generated a collective sense of confidence that kids would be OK on the sidewalks and in parks—has since slipped away.

When I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s in Chicago, no one had any idea where I was between 3 and 6 p.m. every day, within a couple-mile radius. We were all free-range children, even though the city was objectively dangerous. If I raised my children that way now, I would be arrested, you know. Something has gone wrong—not just in our collective psyche but also in our capacity to produce confidence in the public realm.


CR: It’s useful to think about the public realm in the past. When you look back to the 1970s, there were a series of big collective-efficacy wins. People in South Shore got together to accomplish needful things: of those three big wins, two were about public space and connected to raising kids.

(The big one that wasn’t directly connected to public space and raising kids was stopping the South Shore Bank from leaving the neighborhood. The bank was famous for community banking and community development; ultimately, it became a backbone of the neighborhood.)

As to the other two wins: First, the people of South Shore stopped the city from tearing down the defunct country club and, instead, forced the city to turn the country club into a cultural center. Today, it is still a beloved public amenity, where, among other things, your kids can play. Referring back to your book,1 during the campaign for the South Shore Cultural Center, a tagline of that initiative was “a palace for the people.” It really is the neighborhood’s golden public amenity. It’s beautiful. The Obamas’ wedding reception was held there.


What Was Public Housing?

By Catherine Fennell

The other win was that the people of South Shore voted a part of the neighborhood dry, so as to close the city’s most notorious tavern strip, which was on 75th Street. Both of these victories for the neighborhood were about the middle class exerting its will on public space. The argument they made, in part, was, “We’re doing this for our kids.”

But today, as that middle shrinks and ages out, it’s getting harder for people in the neighborhood—or any such neighborhood, really—to pick something to get together about, even in the name of their children. So, the battles they have chosen, they have not been able to wage successfully. Take the supermarket. The only supermarket in a neighborhood of roughly 50,000 people closed in 2013 and it is still empty. You can say, “Well, everybody’s got to eat,” but the question today is, “Eat what?” What should you put there: A Save-A-Lot, or a Whole Foods? There are too many rich people for one, too many poor people for the other.

The people of South Shore haven’t been able to get together to make those changes. I’m firmly convinced, having interviewed so many people, that there are just as many model citizens in that neighborhood as ever. People of good will, who are passionate about South Shore. But they are finding it hard to find something to agree to get together on and do.

So increasingly you take that energy and you pour it into the container. The bungalow that I lived in between 1967 and ’73, it’s gorgeous—just gorgeous, like a little pocket castle. It looks so much better than when we lived there. That’s where the owners’ energy went. That’s where a lot of that neighborhood energy has gone. Instead of toward collective efficacy, it has gone into efficacious private life.


EK: Let’s talk a little bit about this issue of gentrification: as you put it, the thing that will happen when the people who are always “about to show up” finally do!

What’s significant, you say, is not just that people are about to show up, but that they’re going to help produce a new desirable social infrastructure: a new set of grocery stores, retail establishments, and other local amenities that everyone in South Shore wants.

We talk a lot about gentrification in certain neighborhoods in Manhattan and Chicago. People are aware that white people and wealthier people move in and assert control of space, so much so that suddenly long-term residents no longer feel welcome in their own neighborhood. Even if they stay, they lose their home. There are neighborhoods in Chicago where that has happened.

But Chicago also has neighborhoods that not long ago had 80,000 people and now have only 50,000 people; these neighborhoods used to have a whole commercial infrastructure and now they don’t have a grocery store. In those places, residents are often eager to get some economic development, and they may not see gentrification as wholly bad. That’s one of the surprising arguments you make, and I wonder if you could talk about it.


CR: There was a great variety of voices on this question. There were people who owned houses who said, in essence, “Bring them on; bring on those white people.” Those are the people who have been telling me white-people-sighting stories, like faeries in the gloaming or like a species that had been thought extinct but is back. They’d say things like: “I was on 79th Street, it was evening and this white woman came along, this well-dressed white woman. Where was she going? We wanted to follow her, but we thought we would make her nervous.” So, there are people who are saying, “Just bring them on, we need the capital infusion, we need the businesses that will cater to them, we need that.”

And there are people saying that this is a black community, or this is the black community, and we don’t want to be displaced. And some of the people saying that qualify as gentry themselves, right? They are not the ones who are going to get displaced. The people who are going to get displaced, they fall into a couple of different groups. There are people on fixed incomes, the older people who will get pushed out. There are also a lot of big institutional investors buying apartment buildings in South Shore and filling them with people holding housing vouchers, but doing a basic rehab so that, it seems to me, if it comes time to kick out all those housing-voucher holders and “condo-ize” the building, they can do that.


“Say Chi City”

By Peter Coviello

Those voucher-holders and those on fixed income are the most obvious of the threatened groups. And yet, there isn’t a unified community voice saying: “We’re worried about gentrification.”

Some of the people I talked to keep track of every young white couple that buys a bungalow anywhere within 10 blocks of them, and point them out to me, and say, “Look, it’s coming, it’s happening.” Some of them because they are excited about it, and some of them because they are saying that the displacement is beginning: “Look, this neighborhood is 20 minutes from downtown. It’s physically beautiful. It’s on the lake. It’s going to happen sooner or later. It makes sense.”

But they’ve been saying that since the late ’70s, and it hasn’t happened yet. For those of you who live in New York and don’t spend time on the South or West sides of Chicago, it’s hard to imagine less population pressure than there is on the South and West sides of Chicago. South Shore feels, if not empty, then at least as if there is just plenty of room.

But the neighborhood does change. Change has been a constant, so to speak, in its history. When I was wandering around impressionably as a kid, that’s when the neighborhood order that is now in crisis was forming. Everybody was new in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It had just become a black neighborhood. We moved there in ’67, which was when a whole lot of black families got there. So, the block networks and the neighboring networks that had all been swept away were being rebuilt.

In those chapters of my book where I go back to the ’70s, I’m also going back to the formative moments of the neighborhood order that is now feeling itself squeezed from below by the poor and squeezed from above by this ever-imminently incoming wave of white hipsters, who are perpetually about to arrive and buy all the bungalows but who haven’t yet.

Although, let’s see what the 2020 census says, right? On the last census, there was almost no sign of them. There were a few hundred more white people in South Shore. This time, there will be more.


EK: Apparently, on the next census they are going to ask: Are you a hipster? And it’s very controversial.


CR: Well, they are going to say, like, “Do you have a fixed-gear bicycle? Do you brew your own beer?”


EK: I want to ask you about genre. I’m trained as an urban sociologist, and there’s a world of people like me who go and do ethnographic studies of neighborhoods just like the one you’ve discussed in your book. But we work with a different set of constraints. And one of the things about this book is that you worked with basically no constraints. It’s a wild ride to read this book! There is some history, some journalistic reportage, memories of childhood experiences and of new ones, too.

Since you’ve obviously read a lot of urban ethnography, can you tell us what you find useful about the tradition? But also, if you would, what you think we gain when we free ourselves from the tradition’s constraints?


Toward the Black Girl Future

By Jehan Roberson

CR: The first thing to say is that I think of urban sociology—and especially the Chicago tradition of urban sociology, which is a century old and incredibly deep—as another genre of nonfiction literature. It has produced some of the best scholarly writing, for example, in studies like The Taxi-Dance Hall or Black Metropolis or The Jack-Roller—those great classic Chicago studies are fabulous. There’s a passage in Black Metropolis that is almost like a film tracking shot through a building, so as to say what’s going on in this building. It’s beautiful, the kind of thing Émile Zola would have written. So, first of all, sociology is not just of use to me because I’m looking for a method or data; it also provides models of good writing.

But just because I’m not a sociologist doesn’t mean I wasn’t bound by rules in writing this book. Rather, there are different sets of rules. I’m bound by journalistic rules: I name people, and you guys don’t. A couple of people I interviewed insisted on first name only, but I name people in the book because I’m bound by journalistic rules to do that. I dug around in the archives a lot, and the historical parts have to follow the rules of history, and so on.

But my overarching category is the essay. Because what I and the book needed was exactly what the essay can do. The essay can allow me to say: I went in the archives and I found this historical note, and Robert Sampson has an interesting sociological idea I can use like this, and I have this memory of getting in a fight with Alfred Thigpen in front of my house and this is what happened. The essay allows you—as long as you’ve got a purpose, as long as there is a force of argument driving you—to combine methods and disciplines.

Here’s a story that the essay allows me to tell: there was a once-famous naturalist named Donald Peattie who lived right where Kanye West lived, except he lived there 80 years before. Peattie’s description of 79th and South Shore Drive worked really well paired with Kanye West’s mention of this area in one of his songs. There are all these ghosts that you can pair with each other to create onion-skin layers of the neighborhood. For me, I had to go walk around 79th and South Shore Drive, with Peattie and West in mind, and then I could put the song in conversation with the naturalist’s memory of walking around there when it was essentially a prairie. icon

Featured image: Group of Black Children in Chicago at a Playground at 40th and Drexel Boulevard (1973). Photograph by John H. White / US National Archives