At the City News Bureau, where calling relatives of the recently deceased is an almost daily task, it was not the most unpleasant assignment I had ever been given. Still, breaking the news to the mayor of Ford Heights that his community had just hit the bottom of a list of the country’s poorest suburbs was not a task I relished.
“Hello, Mayor Beck, I’m a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago. My editor has just dropped a report on my desk that says Ford Heights is the poorest suburb in the nation.”
To my surprise, Saul Beck let out a good-natured laugh. “Well, I haven’t taken a survey of all the cities in the country myself to know if it’s true, but we’ve had that report before. Usually it’s Robbins at the bottom, though.” An overwhelmingly black south suburb like Ford Heights, Robbins temporarily stopped paying municipal employees earlier this year due to a shortage of funds.
“But how can you laugh about such a thing?” I asked Beck.
“Well, you know, I’ve learned to laugh about a lot of things out here in order to survive,” said Beck, who is 59 years old and has been mayor of the community of 5,300 people for 14 years.
According to the report issued in March by Roosevelt University urbanologist Pierre De Vise, the estimated 1985 per capita income in Ford Heights (or East Chicago Heights, as it was known until recently) was $4,523, almost $2,000 lower than that of Robbins, which was listed as tenth-poorest nationally. The other poorest suburbs are Kinlock (#5), a suburb of Saint Louis; Cudahy (#2), Bell Gardens (#3), Coachella (#4), Huntington Park (#7), and Compton (#9), all Hispanic barrios around Los Angeles; and Florida City (#6) and Opa-locka (#8), Hispanic suburbs of Miami. The report also ranked 201 Chicago-area suburbs; the bottom of the list consisted of Robbins, Phoenix, North Chicago, Harvey, Steger, Stone Park, Sauk Village, Round Lake Beach, Markham, Romeoville, and of course Ford Heights. Robbins, Phoenix, Harvey, and Markham are predominantly black south suburbs. Steger and Sauk Village, both overwhelmingly white, lie just south of Ford Heights.
“I’ve been calling on the governor and calling on the legislature for help to see if we can get something going in the way of industries out here, but it’s awful hard,” Beck said. “We don’t have one of those illustrious city administrations where you have five or six assistants to the mayor who can get out and promote the town. Basically, you got me.”
There has never been any industry in Ford Heights, and though a sprawling Ford auto parts plant abuts the village, few Ford Heights residents have worked there over the years. (That’s no surprise when you consider that the average adult in Ford Heights never got beyond the ninth grade in school, and that almost one-third of residents over 24 have fewer than eight years of education.) And cutbacks and plant closings have eliminated many jobs in the steel mills, foundries, and chemical plants of nearby Chicago Heights, where the residents of Ford Heights traditionally found their livelihoods. Unemployment in the village is estimated at 60 percent.
“The last six years have been kind of tight,” said Beck, who himself brings home just $5,000 as mayor in addition to a modest salary as head of buildings and grounds for the school district. “People have had to move back in with their families and kind of double up to make ends meet. But we’re not giving up, we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves.”
An electrician by trade, Beck could easily make more money and move to a wealthier community. But he’s seen Ford Heights change–in less than 40 years it’s gone from an unincorporated semirural settlement with two paved roads, little indoor plumbing, no local waterworks, and severely limited police and fire protection, to a fully functioning, if occasionally faltering, municipality with paved roads, eight full-time police officers, five fire fighters, and its own board of trustees.
“There’s a certain love that grows in you when you’ve seen so many things unfold,” Beck said. “I walked these streets when they were mud. My father-in-law and I, we used to pack bricks into chuckholes on Saturdays just to make them passable. We’ve done a lot of things here over the years that they would never have to do in Kenilworth.” (De Vise’s report ranked north-suburban Kenilworth, with a 1985 per capita income of $44,620, as the nation’s wealthiest suburb.)
“When I turn off [Interstate] 394 to Ford Heights, there’s a certain joy that I get, even though it ain’t like I would like to see it–with all lovely buildings and yards–just because it’s my home.”
Saul Beck’s home lies about 15 miles directly south of Chicago, a few hundred feet west of the intersection of the Calumet Expressway and Lincoln Highway (Illinois Route 30). Barreling down the expressway, you’d never know it was there–there’s no sign. Ford Heights is almost completely surrounded by farms, and many who pass through it say it looks like a poor country town in some parts of the south. The resemblance extends to the population, nearly 100 percent of which is black.
The town’s racial makeup contrasts with that of all the surrounding communities with the exception of the east side of Chicago Heights, which is largely black and poor. Together with Chicago Heights’s east side, Ford Heights makes up a kind of centralized black ghetto for the nearby communities of Sauk Village, Chicago Heights, Steger, Glenwood, Homewood, Flossmoor, and South Chicago Heights.
Lincoln Highway bisects Ford Heights east to west, and, although it is a wide, newly paved thoroughfare, many whites avoid the stretch that passes through Ford Heights. A white Chicago Heights resident told me he once paid $80 cash to have a passing tow truck haul his stalled car out of the center of Ford Heights. One day when I was walking through town, a young black man spotted me from across the street and with an expression of mock amazement shouted: “White people! White people!”
Race has obviously contributed to the social and economic isolation of Ford Heights, but not even a loyalist like Saul Beck could argue that the town projects an inviting image. The business district, for example, has a few well-maintained shops and houses, but it is dominated by a jumbled collection of about a dozen active but run-down commercial buildings–at least three of them liquor stores–interspersed with boarded-up and abandoned structures, improvised open-air auto repair operations, and glass-strewn lots. The public library, which looks closed even when it’s open, is sandwiched between two vacant storefronts. Even Ford Heights residents conduct most of their business elsewhere.
Clearly some residents have worked hard over the years to keep their homes and neighborhoods looking sharp. There are many neatly painted homes with full green yards and new cement stoops and driveways; flower gardens and yard ornaments adorn some of the newer houses, which were built predominantly in the 1960s, and white-painted fences rim the yards of others.
But for every 15 or 20 energetically maintained homes, there seems to be one that is either neglected by its residents or abandoned. Forests of untrimmed trees and weeds obscure the facades of some houses, while others sit empty, their windows broken or boarded up, their roofs caved in from age or fire.
One- and two-story housing projects run by the Cook County Housing Authority make up 20 percent of the village’s nearly 1,400 housing units. Like the private homes, some units are neat and livable while others are unfit for human habitation.
A few examples remain in Ford Heights of haphazardly erected and patched-together buildings dating back as many as 50 years to a time when poor blacks arriving from southern cotton plantations built homes of everything from old garages and shacks to train car doors. A few outhouses from that era remain.
Almost all the flimsier structures, however, were razed in the 1960s during a federally funded urban renewal project that also took with it many new buildings. Saul Beck was forced to move his home during that period. Fire hydrants have been installed and new streets laid in the long, empty fields left by urban renewal, but so far no further renewal has taken place.
A new but empty municipal swimming pool and weed-filled park behind a modern village hall are more signs that demonstrate to the world that Ford Heights is the city that doesn’t work.
“In the old west when a town didn’t work out, people packed the wagons and moved on,” says Charles Gordon, director of the East Chicago Heights Community Services Center. Ford Heights, he says, should never have been incorporated.
But there are many people there who packed up and moved to Ford Heights years ago, have seen it improve under incorporation, and who swear they will never leave it no matter what malcontents like Gordon or outsiders like Pierre De Vise say about it.
In the late 1800s, farmers, many of Dutch descent, raised tomatoes, sugar beets, cabbage, corn, and, above all, onions on the land that became Ford Heights. A handful of those farmers built their homes at the top of a rise on what’s now the west side of town. From early in this century, that residential section, considered the best in Ford Heights, has been known to residents as “the Hill.”
By the 1930s, the farmers were joined on the Hill by a few white storekeepers. Below the Hill, a few blacks built modest homes.
While agriculture flourished in the Ford Heights area early this century, heavy industry boomed in Chicago Heights. Three railroad lines passed through town, making Chicago Heights attractive to industry as early as 1893, when Inland Steel built a plant there. A demand for industrial laborers as well as farm workers and domestic help drew blacks from Chicago and the rural south, particularly in the 1920s and 1940s. Those desiring to live in a rural setting, rather than in the expanding black ghetto on the east side of Chicago Heights, headed for Ford Heights.
For example, there’s the story of Alberta Armstrong, who at 83 has lived in Ford Heights longer than any other resident of the village, and her grandmother, Katie Bacon, one of the first black residents of Chicago Heights. As Armstrong tells it, in 1895 her grandmother moved to Chicago from Tennessee with a wealthy white woman for whom she worked. For three years the woman refused to pay her.
“One day she just left that woman’s house and started walking,” Armstrong says, sitting sideways on a pint-sized chair in the Ford Heights day-care center where she works. “Even after being there so many years, she didn’t know anybody in Chicago, so she kept walking till she got to Chicago Heights.
“This lady there offered her a seat on her porch, so she set down and got to talking with the lady, and that’s when the lady told her she needed someone that could stay with her.”
When her grandmother grew ill in 1917, Armstrong and her family moved to the area from Cleveland, where they had lived since leaving Chattanooga, Tennessee, five years earlier. They established themselves in unincorporated East Chicago Heights in what Armstrong calls “a common poor person’s house.”
Armstrong will provide few details about her grandmother’s early life of domestic servitude. She says only that “if people only knew the things that people had to go through and how they were treated, they wouldn’t have a word to say against anyone.
“I could even tell you a lot of what I been through right here in the Heights,” she continues. “But ain’t no need to go into that. No, we haven’t been on any flower beds of ease in our lifetimes. We’ve had it hard.”
Armstrong’s father supported the family by working at Victor Chemical Company in Chicago Heights, but during the Depression, when he was laid off, Armstrong went to work as a house cleaner for a white family in Chicago Heights. Six days a week, she walked three miles to the house and put in 12 hours’ work for a weekly salary of three dollars. “We believe they could have paid us more,” she says, chuckling as she often does when her stories veer into bitter memories.
Though her family lived off and on in both Chicago Heights and East Chicago Heights for years, Armstrong set down firm roots in East Chicago Heights in 1941, three years after her father’s death. She and her sister and mother bought a plot of land there with her father’s life savings and built a house on it. By hand. They hired men to put in the foundation, outside walls, and roof, and then finished it off themselves after scouring the Chicago Heights Star want ads for used lumber, windows, and other supplies.
“It was boxed in all the way around,” Armstrong says of the house in its early stages. “When we got the windows, we measured and cut out the right size holes in the walls and placed them in. We put our flooring in–we had hardwood flooring at that time–and we put the inside walls in; that was with four-by-eight sheets of plasterboard.”
Their house building skills they learned from their father, she says. “My father was a man that never let his children play. I guess he had this house in mind for a long time because we would have to help him build barns and houses and outhouses a long time before that. When you don’t have much, you learn a lot of things.” She laughs.
During the first three decades of Armstrong’s residence in what became Ford Heights, the area was unincorporated and public services were provided by Cook County. Those services did not include fire protection.
“There were a lot of people getting burned up, a lot of women and children, because we were out of the fire district and we couldn’t get a truck out here,” Armstrong says. She ticks off a list of people killed in those fires, including Isabella “Grandma” Greenwood, for whom a street in Ford Heights was named.
Greenwood was three weeks short of her 104th birthday on a bitter cold morning in January of 1942 when fire consumed the small cabin she and her husband built in 1893. Both servants in previous years of a family in Chicago Heights, the Greenwoods were born into slavery near Atlanta and moved to East Chicago Heights. Grandma Greenwood outlived her husband by 33 years, and is said to have lived contentedly in the cabin on $19 a month in state assistance and the crops she raised on a small plot of land. In a 1942 letter to the Chicago Heights Star, an acquaintance of Greenwood’s wrote that the old woman loved her tiny home so much that “when she left this earth she hoped her little shack would go with her.”
At the time of Greenwood’s death, Armstrong and her sister were putting the finishing touches on their new home. Like many other residents, they were concerned about fire, which became an increasing concern in the late 1940s as growing numbers of blacks from the south were establishing themselves there in homes that were less than fire resistant. Armstrong began meeting with a group of women, both white and black, to discuss ways of improving conditions there.
“The first thing we thought was ‘We need a fire truck,'” she says. So the group held fund-raising barbecues and sales of handmade clothing. Falling short of the money they needed for a fire truck, they bought an old oil tanker as a substitute. “Then after we purchased the tanker, we continued to raise money,” she says. “We would buy brickbats–those were bricks broken up in pieces–and when the men weren’t working, they would spread the bricks to make the road solid because we were losing a lot of shoes in the mud.”
By 1948, the improvement group had taken on a name–the East Chicago Heights Improvement Association–and was headed by Charlie Williams, a black Bible school teacher, woodworker, and, when money was short, a bartender. Though a newcomer to the area, Williams could see that, by itself, the improvement association would never meet the considerable needs of a community long neglected by the county, and he began a campaign to incorporate the area as a village so that taxes for improvements could be collected. The idea didn’t sit well with a white man named Harvey Adair. A local school district official, major landowner, and former vice president of the improvement association, Adair argued that property taxes generated from an area where most houses were little more than shacks could not support a village. A large majority of the minority white population agreed. But taxes weren’t Adair’s only concern, according to Wallace George Solum, a white lawyer who served for a year in 1949 and 1950 as village attorney of East Chicago Heights.
“It is never admitted, but it was the whites against the blacks out there,” says Solum. “Adair was sort of the Great White Father, a paternalistic plantation owner. He had a calm territory, but he was under the impression that the natives were getting restless, and he felt he would lose his position as the great white adviser.
“But there was no big bad feeling between blacks and whites. The whites were terribly patronizing but they were not mean to blacks. They just held them down.”
The practical objections and hidden motives of Adair and his partisans did not slow the incorporation drive. Williams, in the words of Mayor Beck, “just kept pounding away at that thing, just pounding away.”
On Sunday, November 28, 1948, at about 8 AM, Williams set out with black Chicago lawyer Alvin Moss to get signatures on a petition calling for a vote on incorporation. He needed 100 names, and by eight that night he had 110. A vote was held on January 11, 1949 and, by a margin of 222 to 124 votes, the village of East Chicago Heights was born.
Adair and his supporters immediately moved to sever from the village a large chunk of land including the Hill. Failing in that, Adair filed suit to revoke the village’s charter and disband the newly elected all-black village board.
The suit, which was appealed all the way to the state supreme court, did not succeed. But its journey through the courts revealed much about what the town was up against in trying to gain a measure of self-determination.
At an initial hearing on the suit, things did not seem to be going well for Williams and the board. Adair’s attorneys had questioned the legitimacy of 17 of the signatures on the incorporation petition, and Circuit Court Judge Harry M. Fisher seemed to be taking their side. At one point the judge tore into Williams, who had signed an affidavit declaring the signatures “genuine”: “If you persist in your contention that these signatures are genuine, I will have you prosecuted for perjury,” he said.
But persist he did during a two-day proceeding before Judge Daniel Roberts, who ultimately decided the case. During the trial, which got comical at some points, a dozen witnesses freely admitted that someone else had signed their names.
“My daughter signed my name,” Lee Hill of 1111 Greenwood Avenue proudly confessed. “I give her orders to write it because I wouldn’t be there. . . . I said if anybody wants my name signed . . . sign it ten times if you want to, if it will help . . . in cooperation.” (To this day many older Ford Heights residents, including Alberta Armstrong, pronounce incorporation “in cooperation,” giving descriptions of the 1949 battle for villagehood a deceptively harmonious ring.)
Other witnesses admitted they signed the names of people who couldn’t read or write. Armstrong, for example, signed for John Hughes. Trying desperately to have other signatures declared invalid, Adair’s attorneys grilled Williams about several signatures that looked more like ink spills. “That’s why one [person] did the signing for another, because [some] can’t write so well, so we let them go on trying and that’s what happened,” Williams explained.
In the end, Judge Roberts disallowed three illegible signatures and one duplicate, but ruled that the rest were valid since no witness had repudiated any of them.
The courtroom testimony made it clear that most of those who signed the petition did so because they believed it would result in the purchase of a fire truck, though John Hughes testified that Williams wanted his signature “so he could get in office.”
Indeed, one of the first acts of the new village board was to buy a fire truck. Long since removed from active duty, the truck, nicknamed “Doc,” is enshrined today in the Ford Heights fire station.
After incorporation, a wave of optimism swept through the newly formed town. “It is believed that some day the village will have nationwide attention and respect as a model Negro community,” Solum, who defended the village board against Adair’s suit, told the Chicago Heights Star at the time. “The opportunities are limitless. Various national foundations are in the process of being contacted to assure that the village will flourish. Much assistance will be needed and it is enthusiastically believed that it will be received.”
It soon became clear, however, that Adair was right: the village did not have the tax base to become anything like a national model. For years, the entire town government, including police, fire, and streets departments, was operated by volunteers. Plans to solicit foundations for support got lost in the day-to-day struggle to keep the town going, and residents had to content themselves with small improvements like the laying of gravel on mud streets.
While other south suburbs, especially those along the Illinois Central commuter railroad, flourished in the prosperity of the postwar years, East Chicago Heights limped along. Wealthier white residents gradually moved away or died and were replaced by impoverished southern blacks. The population of East Chicago Heights doubled from 1,548 in 1950 to 3,270 in 1960 but its tax revenue did not.
Today, with less than $6 million in taxable property in the whole village, Ford Heights still does not come close to meeting its $2 million annual budget through taxes. The nearby Ford stamping plant is assessed at $9.3 million, but it can only be annexed with the owners’ permission, which Ford Heights is unlikely to obtain.
“One of the reasons Ford Heights is so striking to drive through is that it never was a middle-class community with the infrastructure and institutions to support it,” says Larry McClellan, former village president of University Park (formerly Park Forest South) and urban studies professor at Governors State University. Black settlement in Ford Heights was typical of settlement patterns in other black suburbs like Robbins and Harvey, he says. “Hardworking black families working to better their lot have looked to the suburbs the same way whites have, but the cruel reality is it wasn’t possible for them to move to most suburbs.”
Despite the arrival of several waves of aspiring middle-class blacks in the 1960s, Ford Heights has never really been in the running for middle-class status. It has become largely dependent on inconsistent government funding for its survival.
Saul Beck spent the early part of the summer in Springfield and Chicago, lobbying for the construction of a medium-security prison in Ford Heights. When he wasn’t occupied with that project, which appears doomed now that the state has put prison building on hold, he hammered away at another plan–to have one of the world’s largest garbage incinerators built in Ford Heights. The project wouldn’t appeal to most communities, but Beck estimates it could create as many as 60 jobs and revenues of as much as $12,000 a day for the community. (Twelve thousand dollars is about equal to the amount of sales tax money netted by Ford Heights in a year.) Like the prison, the incinerator seems less and less likely to be built. The way the papers are painting it, Beck and the village board were talked into issuing half a billion dollars in bonds for the incinerator using a Wall Street investment banker who has come under fire for a variety of similar deals involving poor, black municipalities–deals that have allegedly been marred by tax and securities laws violations. Apparently as a result of intense scrutiny from the press, the investment banker pulled out of the deal, leaving the village without either money or plans for the incinerator.
When I ask him about the incinerator plan, Beck, whose face seems especially careworn these days, responds with a story about the days when blacks had to secure a chattel mortgage (i.e., put up personal property as collateral) to buy a car.
“If you was a hardworking guy, the bank would tell you, ‘Well, hell no, we ain’t loaning you no money for no car; we ain’t loaning you no money for no house, for no remodeling, no nothing.’ When you’re talking about financing a project, there’s very few people come this way,” he says. “So, I wouldn’t care who it was, if they was Mickey Mouse and they can produce an incinerator, I would accept it as long as the town wasn’t obligated to them.”
Beck has spent 14 years of trying to attract business and industry to a town that has little to offer besides a ready and willing work force and a couple big chunks of undeveloped land. A few years ago, a plastics manufacturer approached the village about setting up shop there. But he was looking for the same thing the village wanted: money to stay afloat. No deal resulted. The village negotiated for a while with the owners of a cookie factory, but the operation went under before an agreement could be reached.
“The businesses that want to come here are usually staggering to begin with,” Beck complains. “It’s been my experience that people only want to give something to minority communities when it’s something no other community would want.”
Residents complained to me about the town’s one restaurant, a weary-looking sandwich shop downtown. They said that if they want to eat out, even a hamburger, they have to drive a couple miles into Chicago Heights. The village has tried to lure the fast food chains. “They won’t even talk to you,” Beck says, adding that the usual excuse given is that Ford Heights residents alone couldn’t support a national franchise and not enough people passing through town would stop off there for a meal.
Beck generally stops short of attributing the town’s inability to attract businesses to racism, but when asked if that’s a factor, he seizes the opportunity: “Always,” he says. “You can’t get around it. You can call it racism, call it process of elimination, whatever. Some people say it’s the attitude of some blacks. Some say they just ain’t coming here.”
July in Ford Heights can be stiflingly hot. Walking along an unshaded street, you might as well be harvesting onions in one of the open fields surrounding the town on three sides. Not surprisingly, during the July heat wave, fire hydrants were opened all over town by residents seeking relief from the sun’s rays.
During this summer’s heat wave Beck said he was “frightened to death” that, because of the open hydrants, a village water pump might burn out, causing the water pressure all over town to drop and potentially leading to contamination of the already less than pure tasting water. This potential crisis could have been alleviated were the village pool, which was opened in 1985 after a five-year struggle to build it with federal funds, available. After one summer of operation, the pool closed because the town could not pay the liability insurance on it. Beck says the insurance runs about $10,000 a year, or about $1,000 a year more than the starting salary of a Ford Heights police officer.
The pool is one of many examples in Ford Heights of what Larry McClellan calls “the old disease of federal projects: you can get money for the project but you can’t get money to operate it.”
In the last four or five years, Ford Heights has received around $4 million in federal funding for putting in new streets, streetlights, sewers, parks, and so on. But almost no federal money went into the account that keeps the new facilities in working order.
Of federal assistance in putting in sewer lines, Beck says, “They put them in but you can’t have a sewer break and have the federal government come in and repair it.”
Charlie Williams Park, built partly with federal dollars, is overgrown with weeds much of the summer because there’s no money to cut them down. Beck works in a $1.2 million federally funded village hall that is just nine years old, but when it rains he has to set out buckets in his office to catch water leaking from the ceiling because maintenance money is in short supply.
And, “Federal money you can’t use to pay police or firemen or attorneys unless it’s a special program,” Beck complains. “You have to get that out of real estate taxes, and that’s maybe $300,000 a year.”
On the day of the fire hydrant scare, Beck was concerned as mayor for the safety of his constituents, but he was also concerned that, as perhaps the village’s foremost authority on every aspect of the workings of Ford Heights, he would be called to help repair the water pump. A broad-shouldered man with thick hands and sinewy arms, Beck can say, without much exaggeration, that along with a few citizens who have been around since the town’s birth, he has built Ford Heights. He helped fill chuckholes with brickbats as a boy, served briefly as village clerk just after graduating from high school, was building commissioner, volunteer fireman, village trustee, and now serves as mayor. Today, when he talks about how important it is for the mayor to understand the system, he’s not talking about knowing the ins and outs of the political scene, he’s talking about knowing how to diagnose a break in a water main and how to fix it.
“I guess I’ve done everything anybody can do as far as hiking garbage on garbage trucks, helping fix trucks, repair electrical, pulling water pumps,” he says.
As the son of a sharecropper from Mississippi, Beck says he doesn’t ever remember not working. As a child he worked with his father planting and harvesting cotton on 50 acres of land. Between planting and picking, he worked for 50 cents a day doing odd jobs for the plantation owner and in his spare time he scavenged old six-volt batteries from railroad yards and made lamps out of them for sale to people without electricity.
Consequently, he was happy when he was sent alone on a bus in the summer of 1942 to live with relatives in Ford Heights. From an early age, he was unenthusiastic about being part of the sharecropping system, which seemed designed to cheat blacks out of the opportunity to get ahead.
“I never understood what the share was in sharecropping,” he says. “The way it was, if you raised 20 bales of cotton, it was supposed to be 10 for you and 10 for the owner, but it didn’t work out that way. The owner charged you for the use of the tractor or the mule and you had to buy your staples like flour and baking soda at the company store. At the end of the year, you had what they call settling time, and usually there wasn’t much left over for the sharecropper. I never remember my father coming out with more than $100 for his share.”
“We’ve never had our share,” Beck says time and time again in discussing the faltering economy of Ford Heights, and when he says it, it seems clear he’s also talking about a historic inequity dating to his childhood and beyond. He is clearly resentful that people seem to forget that “my sweat and my family’s sweat and the sweat of black people built this country.”
In the south, Beck aspired to becoming a county agent, traveling from farm to farm giving advice on crop production. In Chicago Heights, he wasn’t sure what he would do. All he knew was that he planned “to make some kind of mark on the system where I could grow up and be somebody.”
His first step was to go back to work. His first job was selling sweet rolls. “One morning I went to Rau’s department store and I noticed all these boxes in the alley,” he says. “I asked the guy in charge if I could have the boxes and he said, ‘Sure.’ So I took them and went across the street to Schultz’s bakery and asked them if they needed boxes. They said they did but they wouldn’t give me any money for them. But they did give me sweet rolls. So in the morning during the school year I’d get up early and pick up boxes; I’d take them to the bakery, get the rolls, and then go to school and sell them.”
Later on, by working 12- to 15-hour days at the Gold Star roofing plant in Chicago Heights, he was able to bring his mother, stepfather, stepbrother, aunt, and uncle to East Chicago Heights.
Beck attributes his ability to make money to the example of hard work set by his parents and the gift for invention southern blacks needed to survive. “Black people in the south could take nothing and make something of it,” he says, recalling how his family devised a sort of refrigerator for milk, cheese, and butter by lowering a specially made box into a cool, spring-fed pond near their home.
Beck’s term as mayor has been a long, arduous effort to make something of very little. “There’s some folks would say I ain’t had no success at all,” he says with the same laugh he let loose when he heard about the De Vise report last March. Though he wishes he could have accomplished more, he disagrees with his detractors, listing the building of a new village hall, laying of streets with sewers and fire hydrants through long-vacant urban renewal land, and extension of running water to all local homes among his achievements.
But after 14 years as mayor, Beck says he’s tired of public life, tired of the negative publicity, tired of the sleepless nights, tired of the criticism and the seeming futility of his hard work.
“I’m at it for this term and that’s it,” he says. “I got to go into the private sector and try to make some money before I die so I can leave some for my kids. I just feel I want to do something else because, you know, you’re just butting your head against the wall and I want to get into something where I can be more useful.” He pauses for a moment, looks into the distance, and declares, “This is my last hurrah.”
Charles Gordon, executive director of the East Chicago Heights Community Services Center, doesn’t think it will make much difference whether Saul Beck retires as mayor or not since the real power in the village, he believes, rests with him, not the mayor. A long-time rival of Beck’s, Gordon ran for mayor against him in 1977 and was soundly defeated.
Yet Gordon sometimes acts and is treated as if he were mayor. When reporters want a comment about some local happening, they go to Gordon as often as they go to Beck. When citizens have complaints about public housing or a beef with the utilities companies, they go to Gordon; if they’re short of cash, they go to Gordon.
With a work force of over 70 people and a budget of $2.5 million, the center is a larger operation than the village government. And in the absence of anything like a viable, full-service business district, the center, which provides legal, dental, medical, nutritional, and educational services, serves as downtown Ford Heights in many ways.
As head of the center, Gordon clearly rivals the mayor in influence. He has been known to suggest that anyone who wants to find out who really runs the town ought to “go ask the people.” And recently he said that “when they call black officials to Washington, Harold [Washington] gets on the train, Roland [Burris] gets on the train, and I get on the train.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Gordon lives in Harvey Adair’s former home.
Gordon has few good things to say about Ford Heights (which he prefers to call East Chicago Heights, since it was a Beck administration initiative that resulted in the name change) or the Beck administration. Yet, like Beck, he settled there at a time when, despite its problems, Ford Heights showed much promise.
Gordon, who is 53, was working as a data processing supervisor in Chicago and living with his wife and six children in the Cabrini-Green housing development in 1963 when he spotted a newspaper ad for soon-to-be-built low-mortgage homes in Ford Heights. Unable to secure a home mortgage because he was black, and on the verge of being kicked out of Cabrini because he made too much money, Gordon made the long car trip there, paid $37.50 of a $141.50 down payment on a house in the new Sunnyfield subdivision, and headed cheerfully back to Chicago.
“I was so overjoyed I went back and told everybody in the world,” he says. “I was the greatest salesman going.” So excited were Gordon and several others who bought homes that long before the houses were complete, they would drive there on weekends, sometimes carrying picnic lunches so they could stay and watch construction workers go about their business.
Gordon says he and the others invested in Ford Heights “because at the time this represented the best possible chance for blacks. Then came civil rights and open housing laws and integration. Integration killed this town. The guy who came out here because this was the only place he could live suddenly found he could live someplace else. Well, the people [with money] here, they packed up and left this sucker, baby. They went to Park Forest South, they went to Park Forest, they went to Olympia Fields. They left the black people here bereft. They left, and those who stayed were the people who couldn’t get out.”
Now there is next to no chance of attracting middle-class blacks to Ford Heights, he says. “A black coming out of the city today wants more bang for his buck.”
Gordon has the bucks: he brags that his household–he, his wife, and two grown children–has an income of $100,000 annually. And yet he remains in Ford Heights.
“I’ve stayed because this town has given to me what I came here for,” he says. “It gave me a community I could participate in and space to move around in. The one thing you’ve got here that’s hard to give up and which is essential to maintaining your sanity and dignity as a human being is you got space.
“People here never feel crushed. Even in the projects, they don’t stack them up like at Robert Taylor [Homes]. You can get out of your house and sit in your backyard. Everybody’s got a garden if they want a garden. Everybody’s got fresh air. And that makes a big difference.”
Like Mayor Beck, Gordon is well aware that you can’t fill the village coffers with fresh air and vegetables. And like any would-be politician, he has a million ideas about how to improve his community.
“This town has got to put together some kind of really positive plan, something that’s realistic,” he says, “and not sell itself short with ideas like this garbage incinerator or this nebulous prison.
“We need an investment, but a factory’s not going to work, because a new factory would be state-of-the-art and we don’t have people here with the skills to work there. It would just be something like the Ford plant that people go stand around and look at.
“You got to get a guy like me to spend more money in this town. I think we need strip plazas with 8 or 10 or 12 stores. Right now you got a mile of frontage on the highway and most of it is vacant. You got dilapidated storefronts, a rig hanging in one yard to fix cars, a bunch of liquor stores. You got to get rid of that stuff.
“And to do all that you’re going to have to get sharper people up there in the village hall.”
Though he may disagree with Gordon’s assessment of the village leaders and his prescription for prosperity, Mayor Beck agrees that the time is ripe for new leadership. “I just wish some younger guys like Jerry Blakemore and my son would come back and really get active,” he says. A native of Ford Heights, Blakemore was Governor James Thompson’s deputy governor until taking a high-level job with the U.S. Department of Labor in July. He wrote the proposal that built the new village hall. Beck’s son, Dwight, is a lawyer working for the state in Chicago.
“No, you can’t ask them to come back. You can’t ask them to make that sacrifice.”
Emir Hardy calls it “the Wave.” As he explains it, the Wave is made up of blacks in their late 20s and early 30s who have gone off and gotten some education, some worldly experience and, in some cases, made some money, and are now returning to where it all began for them.
It all began for Hardy 32 years ago on Chicago’s west side, where his family ran a small business that still operates on Sundays at Maxwell Street. When he was 14 he moved to Ford Heights with his mother, ten brothers and sisters, and a wave of other black west-siders looking for a better life than the riot-devastated west side offered.
“I remember moving here from the city,” he says. “For the first time in my life that night, I sat down and it was completely quiet. That was the greatest feeling I ever had.”
A standout center for Bloom Township High School, Hardy went to the University of Wisconsin on an athletic scholarship and completed his education in Washington State. He was running youth programs near Seattle in 1986 when he decided his skills would be of more use in Ford Heights and headed home. His wife, who was not anxious to live in Ford Heights, did not return with him.
Lately Hardy has been busy coordinating a private effort to improve Ford Heights. It includes running a summer youth program out of the East Chicago Heights Community Services Center, registering residents to vote, and overseeing a local investment organization made up of his many family members. Hardy has teamed up with a friend, Craig Hodges, who plays professional basketball with the Milwaukee Bucks, to explore ways to spur economic development in Ford Heights through personal investment. Hardy says the two would like to see a locally owned and operated “mini-mall” built there.
The two are also converting a huge former nightclub there into the headquarters of the Future Foundation, a youth training and recreation project for which they are currently seeking donations and other funding.
“I would like to see Ford Heights be self-sufficient,” Hardy says. “I think Ford Heights has the potential to be middle-class. It has its own local government. It has room to grow. Middle-class is only an attitude, an education away.”
Unlike outsiders and some residents who see only despair and hopelessness in the ragged appearance of many homes and businesses in Ford Heights, Hardy looks at the well-kept and modernized homes in his neighborhood and sees promise.
“When I first moved here, East Chicago Heights was a young community and people were excited about their homes and their town,” he says. “Had we acted on that excitement, today Ford Heights would have been a model south suburb.”
It’s going to be a tough job, but Hardy intends to recapture that excitement, and whether he knows it or not, to recapture the excitement Alberta Armstrong felt when the village’s first fire engine rolled into town, and that Charles Gordon felt when he bought his first home in Ford Heights, and that Saul Beck felt when he christened the new village hall building.
He’s trying to recapture the energy and determination and tenacity and ability to laugh at adversity that have kept Ford Heights going through thick and thin for almost 40 years, and which will be needed to get the poorest suburb in America to the half century mark, and possibly, if all goes well, to get it a notch or two higher on Pierre De Vise’s economic rating sheet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.