By Ben Joravsky
At about one o’clock in the afternoon J.C. Smith is sitting on the steps of his neighbor’s front porch, watching people pass along Evergreen Avenue in the slab of Old Town that’s squeezed between North Avenue and Cabrini-Green. “You see it all from the front porch,” he says. “Kids, men coming home from work, mothers and their children.” In the last few years he’s been seeing something new–white people. “At first it was a surprise, but not anymore. You see ’em pushing their baby strollers or walking their dogs. Lord, Lord, I’ve never seen so many people with dogs. The neighborhood’s changing, for sure.”
There is of course nothing new about gentrification. But the transformation of west Old Town defies tradition by shattering the myth that whites will never buy in a black neighborhood–at least they will if the property is close to the Loop. They can buy because people will sell. “Rents rise, so people have to move–or they offer you so much you have to take it,” says Smith, a retired electrician. “Every day someone else moves out. I never would have predicted this when I first moved in.”
That was in 1957, when Smith was a 30-year-old army veteran just up from Mobile, Alabama. “I came up here to visit a friend of my brother’s,” he says, “and I never left.”
He rented an apartment at 1007 N. Orleans and found a job at a west-side factory. Within a few years he was married and raising three children. By 1961 he and his wife, Maggie, had saved enough money to buy a house next to the el tracks on the 300 block of West Evergreen. “Funny thing is, there were white people on this block when I first came around here,” he says. “But they moved out. This was the kind of neighborhood a black family could buy in, and you know how that goes. Back then it was black business all over here. Shoe stores, laundromats, rest rooms, clothing stores, pharmacies–all black owned. For a while I had two jobs and a business of my own. I owned an ice cream parlor on Sedgwick. I called it the Cool Spot. I also owned a few vending machines in stores around here. I figured it was a way to make a few extra bucks–while I was asleep, the machines might make a few bucks for me. But it didn’t work that way. I never had much luck in business.”
The neighborhood–roughly bounded by North, Wells, Halsted, and Division–was easily overlooked. To the south was Cabrini-Green. On the other side of North Avenue were the richer, whiter sections of Lincoln Park. “Around here it was mostly working-class black people,” says Smith. The biggest local employer was the Oscar Mayer hot-dog factory, near Sedgwick and Division, which employed more than 1,500 workers. The largest housing complex was (and still is) the Marshall Fields Garden Apartments, a subsidized apartment complex on Sedgwick. Most of the locals sent their children to Manierre grade school and Waller High School (later named Lincoln Park High School).
“I never had any problems with this neighborhood,” says Smith. “The el didn’t bother me. Well, at first it did. Then you got used to it. To tell you the truth, that el was supposed to be taken down. The old Mayor Daley had plans to have it demolished. But you know how politicians are. They’re always changing their minds. Now it looks like that el’s outlasting me. It’ll be there forever.”
The area took a hard blow in 1968, when riots followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “I saw those riots with my own eyes,” says Smith. “Folks were tearing down businesses, looting stores. They were pulling security bars off of windows. After that, a lot of white businessmen moved out, and the black businessmen just went out of business. There were vacant lots and abandoned buildings. There were new sorts of people moving in. Sedgwick got kind of rough. Had the drug dealers and the gangster types.”
Throughout the 70s and 80s the racial divide ran along North Avenue. White people might frequent bars along North, but they rarely settled in Smith’s neighborhood. They rarely walked along Sedgwick, or shopped at the storefronts in the Marshall Fields complex, or sent their children to Manierre.
Then in the early 1990s the wall began to crumble. It was so subtle–a house sold here, a town house built there–that Smith was slow to notice. “I remember there was a drunk standing on the corner one day saying, ‘They’re moving back, they’re moving back,'” says Smith. “I didn’t understand. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘White folks moving back.’ You see some crazy stuff, but that old drunk knew what he was talking about.”
By the mid-1990s there were upscale developments along Mohawk, Orleans, and North Park. The Oscar Mayer factory was demolished; in its place came a massive complex called Old Town Square, with single-family houses that went for about $400,000. “All those years, I was living next to a hot-dog factory, and then, poof, it’s gone,” says Smith. “It’s still hard for me to believe.”
He points to the brick homes along the south side of Evergreen, which make the street look a little like Schaumburg–little plots of grass behind wrought-iron fences. One house recently sold for more than $500,000. “One day I went to a neighborhood meeting, and this fellow’s telling me that to buy one of these houses I have to put 20 percent down and make a monthly note of about $2,800,” he says. “For that kind of mortgage you have to have big money in the bank and make at least $100,000 a year. Now, he wasn’t talking about folks like me. He wasn’t talking about no fireman, no schoolteacher, no policeman, no factory worker. He was talking about someone else–someone I don’t know. Because I don’t know nobody making that kind of money. Funny thing is, you see these new people moving in–and they’re so young. I wonder what happened to me? How come I never made that kind of money? I guess the good times just passed me by. I’m wondering what in the world a man does to make that kind of money and be so young.”
Since he’s retired, Smith has had more time to study the newcomers. One of his favorite perches is the front porch of his longtime neighbors across the street, Tommie and Lucille Westmoreland. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t around the neighborhood all that much when I was working, but now I have more time to get to know my neighbors, so to speak,” he says, meaning his new white neighbors. “They’re nice to me. They see me on the street, and they always say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ Every last one of them doesn’t know me from Adam, but it’s ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’ll try this on one of the brothers.'” He raises his voice to a falsetto, as though imitating Eddie Murphy’s imitation of a white person. “‘Hello, how are you doing?’ The brother looks at me like I’m crazy and says, ‘Man, whatsa matter with you?'”
He laughs and turns to Lucille Westmoreland, who’s sitting behind him on the steps. “Say, where’s Tommie anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“He said he’d be here. There’s his car.” Then he sees Tommie Westmoreland walking down Sedgwick carrying a cup of coffee. Smith lets loose a piercing whistle. Westmoreland looks up.
“Where you been?” Smith demands.
“At the clinic,” says Westmoreland. “I had a doctor’s appointment.”
“Look at you–got that phone on your belt and everything. Probably don’t even work.”
“It works,” says Westmoreland, sipping his coffee.
“Say, listen, I was trying to remember–when did Oscar Mayer close?”
“It was 1991,” says Westmoreland.
Smith shakes his head in amazement. “The man knows everything about this neighborhood.”
Westmoreland explains that he’s lived around Old Town for more than 50 years. “I came here from Mississippi a long time ago. I stayed north ’cause I had a sister living here on Wells Street. I got a good memory. I remember faces, houses, names–everything.”
In the mid-50s he went to work at Oscar Mayer. “I started off as a laborer–did that for five years. Then a foreman quit, and I took his job. I worked there a long time. I didn’t feel sad when it came down. I did my 32 and a half years. I know it was hard for others. Some people had put in lots of years but not enough to retire. When it closed they had to find a new job.”
A police car whizzes by. A gaggle of teenage girls passes, giggling and whispering conspiratorially. A boy jogs past dribbling a basketball. Houston Day, a neighbor’s son, limps by on crutches.
“What happened to you, son?” asks Smith.
“I sprained my toe playing kick ball,” Houston says.
Across the street a couple of white women pushing baby strollers stop to talk. They’re wearing running suits and jogging shoes.
In the next few weeks the Westmorelands will be moving. As Tommie explains, they never bought their house–they’ve been renting the top floor of a two-flat on Evergreen for more than 30 years. Now the building has been sold, and they, as well as their seventy-something cousin, have to move. Rumor has it the new owner wants to tear the building down and build two luxury condos on the lot.
“We’ll be moving to a senior citizens’ place,” says Tommie. “It’s got a balcony and a garden. It’s nice.” He adds, “I’ll still be around here. I work part-time for the Old Town Chamber of Commerce, you know. But I’ll miss the old block.”
“Everything changes–that’s just how it goes,” says Smith, who has no plans to move. “There’s a new type moving in. In 30 years folks won’t even remember that black folks like us even lived here.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.