By Cara Jepsen
Louis Rosen’s parents gave him a choice. It was 1970, and Rosen was a sophomore at Bowen High School. The family could either stay in their home in rapidly integrating Calumet Heights, just east of Stony Island around 90th Street, or they could follow their former neighbors to a Jewish enclave in the south suburbs. Rosen, who was up for a plum spot on the varsity basketball team the next year, chose to stay. “I wanted to see it through,” he says. “I also knew people who had moved out there and didn’t like the area. It seemed desolate to me.”
In Rosen’s book, The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, one of his high school friends who did make the move to the suburbs likened the experience to “living in a hotel for two years.” His statement came out of the 60 interviews Rosen conducted over a year and a half with people who had lived through Calumet Heights’ relatively nonviolent transformation from a primarily Jewish neighborhood to an all-black one in the late 60s and early 70s.
“I never thoroughly either understood or reconciled why what happened there happened,” he says. “Four years ago I became aware that I had never really spoken to anyone outside of my family in any detail about what happened–and certainly not any black folks.”
At one time the Calumet Heights synagogue counted 800 families among its membership, and 1,500 children attended its Hebrew school. Rosen remembers the neighborhood as an idyllic place where Ernie Banks once played a pickup game with a group of local kids and the only real tension was between Jews and the gentile “greasers” who occasionally started fights with them. But in the years after the first black family moved in, the synagogue’s charismatic rabbi took a post in another city, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and the riots that followed polarized race relations around the country. By the time Rosen’s parents decided to move to Hyde Park in 1975, they were practically the only Jewish people left in the area.
Rosen, a theater composer who now lives in Brooklyn and is perhaps best known here for his work on the late 70s adaptation of Bob Greene’s book Bagtime, originally envisioned the story as a musical theater piece, but then realized the subject matter was too complex to portray onstage. Instead it is told through the voices of 15 characters–6 black and 9 white–created from his interviews. They include an interracial couple who dated in high school, the neighborhood’s first black residents, and Rosen’s older brother, who is disguised as a cousin. Rosen himself is represented by the narrator, Lawrence, whom he says is “essentially me, with a few differences.
“I didn’t make up anything in terms of experiences people related to or the emotional reactions they had or the intellectual perspectives they had. By creating composites I was able to cover a wider range of what happened through a smaller number of characters.”
As Rosen conducted his interviews he got some African-American perspectives, including why blacks moved to the area in the first place. They weren’t interested in integration so much as a safe place to raise their children. A black couple who moved to Calumet Heights because there were no houses available in Chatham told him one of the reasons they chose that neighborhood was because they didn’t expect a violent reaction from the relatively affluent Jewish community. “I never felt fearful movin’ in here,” a woman says in the book. “It just didn’t occur to me that we would not be tolerated. I didn’t think that people would throw things at us. Out here I thought we would probably be ignored more than anything else.”
Rosen also unveiled the motivations of the people who moved away. As one of his Jewish characters explains, “You have principles, and all of a sudden your principles are coming up and hitting you in the face.”
For the most part, Rosen recalls, Jewish and African-American students got along at Bowen, while their parents regarded each other warily. After King was shot, he remembers, a group of African-American students marched around the school calling for a memorial service for the fallen civil rights leader. Some lashed out at white students, while others escorted their white friends home. But after King was shot, “the race was on,” says a Jewish character.
Rosen says some residents attempted to bring the community together. The local Jewish Community Center conducted an educational service devoted to King and hired a woman to work on community relations. Some neighbors put signs on their lawns stating, “This house is NOT for sale.” In the late 60s Muhammad Ali moved into the neighborhood, attracting a trail of children when he ran in Stony Island Park (later renamed Jesse Owens Park).
But things didn’t remain peaceful. There were also a few cross burnings and a movement to redraw school district lines to keep blacks out. African-American students said they were being intimidated by school administrators. The blockbusting and panic selling continued, and both the synagogue and the JCC building were eventually sold to the Chicago Board of Education.
Rosen says the two groups wanted the same thing–a good place to raise children–but never communicated their common goal. “One of the things I came away with most strongly was that there simply seemed to be no field on which the two groups could ever really meet and communicate,” he says. “In some sense I felt like the telling of this story would likely be the first time both white and black folks heard a more thorough telling of the other side’s point of view.”
Rosen spent his last two years at Bowen “floundering,” suffering anxiety attacks, alienation, and depression. Part of his malaise, he says, was due to the turmoil in the neighborhood and his anger at the hypocrisy of his former neighbors. “But I’m still glad that we didn’t leave,” he says.
Today Calumet Heights looks much the same as it did when Rosen finished high school, only the trees are taller. But Rosen admits in the book that he drives differently on the south side. “I avoid doing anything that might risk the type of confrontation that could result from cutting off another driver or getting into an accident,” he writes. “I am very aware that I am in some ways an interloper, a trespasser, a white traveler in a black neighborhood.”
Recently there has been talk among current residents that Jesse Owens Park is beginning to attract a “bad element” to the area. Indeed, one of the African-American couples Rosen interviewed has since moved for that very reason.
“The issue of class is still a largely unspoken one,” says Rosen. “And it cuts across racial lines. You see that tension now replaying itself in that neighborhood again. I don’t know if it’s catching or not, but I do know that the people who left are not in the majority–yet.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Louis Rosen photo by Hiroyuki Ito.