When you set out to write a book that you know will take years to complete, it’s reasonable to wonder whether it’ll still be relevant by the time it’s published. It took historian Beryl Satter a full decade to write Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (published last month by Metropolitan Books), but if she had any doubts about the material keeping its edge she needn’t have worried. Her account of the circumstances that fueled Chicago’s ghettos in the mid-20th century is more pertinent now, thanks to the subprime mortgage debacle, than she could have imagined when she started working on it.
Satter’s book is, in part, a quest to understand her father, Mark J. Satter, who was both a crusading white lawyer fighting against stacked odds on behalf of exploited African-American home buyers and a Lawndale landlord—the owner of four apartment buildings that proved to be the financial ruin of his family. Thoroughly documented and totally readable, it’s the story of a man who alienated conservatives and liberals alike by trying to stop the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining of black and racially changing neighborhoods, along with the contract sellers who exploited it. According to Mark Satter, slums grew and became entrenched not because of poverty but because there was so much easy money to be made from them.
While white home buyers could find affordable, government-insured mortgages, blacks in densely packed neighborhoods on the west and south sides couldn’t. They had to get private financing—contracts, not mortgages—on extremely unfavorable terms. Contract sellers bought ghetto or changing-neighborhood property on the cheap, sold it at huge markups, charged exorbitant interest, and saddled buyers with near-impossible debt. A single missed payment could mean eviction. The cast of characters in Family Properties includes everyone from Mayor Richard J. Daley to the grassroots organizers of the Contract Buyers League, who carried on the battle against contract sellers in federal court after Mark Satter’s death in 1965.
Beryl was six when her father died. She grew up in the Chicago area, got a PhD in American studies from Yale, and now chairs the history department at Rutgers’s Newark campus. She says she agonized over writing about her father. But after getting the FBI file on him—he’d briefly been a Communist Party member—she decided “the story was bigger than my family, and what happened was more important than anyone’s feelings.”
Real estate opportunists used the same excuses then as now—and Chicago, still one of the country’s most segregated cities, now bears the distinction of having the most residents with subprime mortgages, according to a study of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data from 2004-2006. “They say they’re just trying to help low-income people get homes,” Satter told me. “But if you want to help people find housing you give them fair terms and you base it on their ability to pay.”
Satter says that what we’ve seen lately is “all the same stuff that was going on in the 1950s and 1960s—the same collusion between appraisers, sellers, and mortgage lenders,” the same pattern of flipping properties for rapid profit, and the same hard-sell techniques that load buyers with more debt than they can handle. She watched with “shock and horror” as the subprime crisis unfolded on “a much more massive scale” than the contract-selling scandal.
And there’s still the racial bias, nationally. The NAACP, she notes, “is now suing HSBC and Wells Fargo, charging that blacks with higher incomes and better credit were charged higher interest rates for subprime loans than lower-income, poor-credit whites.”
Reparations at the Trib?
The April 19 issue of the ever-shrinking Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine was devoted to “Art in Chicago.” The cover carried a photo of painter Angel Otero, and the page-two note from editor Elizabeth Taylor was aglow with the adventure of Sunday-magazine journalism. “We love putting together the Magazine every week,” Taylor wrote. “We are a curious group with a rapacious appetite” for learning, and “this week, the sophisticated Tribune arts critics and the Magazine’s own art directors were our tutors.” She added that “one of the great parts of working at the Magazine is that we learn something new every day—not just new facts or tidbits, but meaningful ways of looking at the world.”
The issue looked promising to Lowell Thompson, an African-American artist and arts promoter. “I was happy when I saw it,” he says. “But I looked through it and didn’t see any black faces, and I didn’t see any names of anybody that I recognized as being African-American.”
What he did see was Art Institute head James Cuno, Merchandise Mart president Chris Kennedy, some “emergent” artists, and the home of a woman whose mother trained her to buy the likes of Jeff Koons. Thompson says he checked through the issue twice more, and spotted only one listing that mentioned an African-American—and that was internationally known sculptor Richard Hunt.
In an open letter he distributed that day, Thompson wrote, “The Trib had managed to do something I would have thought unlikely, if not impossible, in the year 2009, in the city of Obama. They had written a whole magazine titled ‘Art in Chicago’ without a single image of or by a Black artist.” Two days later, he called for black artists to picket the Tribune Tower at 12:30 PM on Wednesday, April 22. They would carry signs saying i am an artist, and a delegation would take a letter into the building requesting a meeting. He asked them to gather the night before, at Gallery Guichard, 3521 S. King Drive, to prepare.
But on the morning of April 22, Thompson issued a statement announcing that the protest had been canceled. “Today’s demonstration at the Tribune was a huge success . . . even though it won’t happen,” he wrote.
On the phone that day, Thompson explained that Tribune associate managing editor Geoff Brown had come to the Tuesday night meeting and apologized. “We came up with some ideas about what they should do and they basically agreed,” Thompson said. Among the suggestions: getting arts reporters to the south and west sides of the city and devoting an issue of the magazine to Chicago’s black artists. (The Tribune did not return calls. for this story.) “My whole issue is that the media ignores and discriminates against African-American creativity,” Thompson says. “He seemed to get it. We’ll see.”
Taylor’s giddy appreciation of her job and staff might have been juiced by the atmosphere at the Trib. Three days after the “Art in Chicago” issue, management laid off 53 editorial employees (for details, and reader comments, see Michael Miner’s News Bites blog at chicagoreader.com). The list included three magazine staffers and longtime art critic Alan Artner. At press time it wasn’t clear whether dumping Artner would mean a total loss of visual arts criticism and reporting at the Trib, where it’s pretty much been him or no one for decades. Maybe they’ll drop the verbiage altogether and slap on the stars. v
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