Monday, October 5, 2020

The Neighborhood is the Image of the City: Part 5

 Diverse Neighborhood



Prairie Shores at 31st Street


In the mid-1990s, Ross Miller, author of Here’s the Deal, thought he might be witnessing the extinction of the office high-rise and of the city, at least “the city as it has been celebrated for most of human history.”  In hindsight, it seems what he witnessed was a last battle of the old growth machine - that coalition of politicians and business leaders who saw their common cause in the struggle against strong forces of urban blight.

Here’s the Deal is an account of the first 20 odd years of missteps and failed plans in the redevelopment of Block 37 in Chicago’s Loop. The first Mayor Daley told one of his commissioners he wanted that block of buildings to come down back in 1967. He had earned national praise for clearing city blocks to build the Daley Center and a trio of federal buildings a few blocks away.

Miller says the humble structures of Block 37 were old but occupied, bustling with business. If the Mayor saw blight there, he suggests it might have been because shoppers who once frequented the stores of Black Metropolis came downtown to shop now that urban renewal had laid so much of their neighborhood flat.

In 1996, when Miller published his book, Block 37 was a big vacant lot with no obvious prospects. In the early years of the 1990s, Chicago’s Loop had been swept by a frenzy of high-rise development that had doubled the nation’s stock of commercial office space in a period of 10 years. Now the Loop was swamped with it, as much as 26% of it vacant, Miller found it hard to imagine how the surplus could ever be absorbed.

He thought Block 37 was symbolic of a crisis that might end in towering board ups, an abandoned downtown, of neighborhoods filled with a dispossessed underclass as “the achieving side of the bell curve” urbanized the suburbs and drove to work at office parks in the new edge-cities.

He wasn’t alone in his concerns. Just a few years later in 2000, the dot-com bubble had not burst yet, the nation was enjoying full employment, there were even developers venturing new office projects in the Loop. In October, Business Week ran a cover story asking if Chicago had failed to seize the moment.

“Other great cities can claim dynamic sectors that drive them,” like entertainment for Los Angeles or securities for New York.  Chicago was losing out in the contest to keep corporate headquarters. The city’s financial sector, even its commodities exchanges, once undisputed leaders in an industry they invented, were losing market share.

Mayor Daley, son of the first Mayor Daley, told the magazine Chicago’s future lay in the diversity of its business base. “Chicago isn’t dependent on any one industry, that’s it’s strength.”  He was correct, it turns out. At the time, Business Week wasn’t convinced. “Chicago is a great, livable city, but it’s fading as a business and financial capital.”



Chicago Bee Building - a Chicago Public Library

Ross Miller and Business Week were not wrong about the trends they saw, they just weren’t fully aware of countervailing currents that were gathering force. Urban scholars were still working out the terms to describe them. Saskia Sassen wrote her book The Global City in 1991 – then reissued it again in 2001 with data from the 1990s that reinforced all her points.

She found that geographic dispersal of manufacturing works to make some big cities more important, even as their old industrial base moves overseas.  Management of global networks is complex. As central management functions turn trickier, corporations tend to outsource them to specialists – firms providing legal counsel, accounting, marketing, consulting, all the sophisticated services that global companies consume.

These purveyors of specialized services are the real drivers of a new class of global cities. And place still matters to them. They tend to cluster geographically, because being near to one another allows for “unplanned mixes of information, expertise, and talent.” All crucial for adapting their services to needs that are often highly particular, and rapidly changing.

Global cities like Chicago thrive because they can provide dense information loops that “as of now” Sassen wrote in 2001 “still cannot be replicated fully in electronic space.”

It’s true, corporate headquarters can locate anywhere, they’re a lot lighter since they outsource more of their management functions. But then, they aren’t as important as drivers of employment anymore.

 


Townhouses in The Gap


The logic of the global city flipped the equation of urban development. The old growth coalition assumed business interests are the primary driver, that if you build cities that are attractive to business the people who live there will benefit from jobs and all the spill-over effects of corporate spending.

The networks of service firms that drive the global city are highly dependent on a new class of workers, like the new class or clerical workers that helped change relations between business and labor in the 1920s, except they are more highly skilled, and much better paid. In fact, the skills of the new class of workers are so important, the firms will locate where the talent is. So you build the city where the people who could live anywhere will choose to live.

Global cities also generate a lot of jobs on the opposite end of the scale. Many of them perform the routine tasks at professional service firms, many of them staff the restaurants and shops that high wage workers patronize. They work as maids, do the dry-cleaning, deliver groceries – all the business of life the high wage workers can easily pay for, but just don’t have time to do.

Sassen observed the gap between these two classes of workers, both necessary to the new system, was growing, and a clear cause for concern. It builds a contradiction into the system, as high wage workers change neighborhoods around them and price the low wage workers out.  And it is sure to reverberate through politics.

But it was the new class of highly paid wage earners who really captured the imagination of urban observers in the 2000s.

Sassen described them soberly as engaged in a kind of self-exploitation – working hard for very long hours, they are paid well, but at a fraction of the profits they produce. And when they were laid off in large numbers during the stock market crisis of 1987, their lack of ownership was shown to matter.  

Sassen thought the fascinations of their urban lifestyles helped compensate, that the lifestyle serves “an ideological function” to secure their allegiance to the system that has no particular allegiance to them.

The spending power of these high wage workers pays for a new vision of the good life – one shaped by the city as a marketplace of infinite variety. Because the members of this new class are generally unimpressed by the house in the suburbs furnished with mass-produced consumer goods.

They cultivate tastes for the intentional, the curated, but also the serendipitous, the purchase that displays the discernment of the person who found it. “Hence the importance not just of food but of cuisine,” Sassen writes “not just of clothes but of designer labels, not just of decoration but of authentic objets d’art.”

A new genre of consumer studies arises to parse out their tastes. These are not the conspicuous consumers, showing off their spending power that Thorstein Veblen observed in the 1920s, they are engaged in more subtle deployments of cultural capital, a term that translates any lifestyle choice into a slightly ridiculous display.

In fact, lifestyle transforms the urban streetscape, populates it with a profusion of restaurants, galleries, it appreciates authentic street culture. Business Week thought Chicago’s quality of life was nice, but not so important. Now urban observers compete to describe what kinds of amenities should be built or fostered to draw the talent in.

Richard Florida calls them the creative class – he means not just artists and designers, but the whole range of professionals employed for their ingenuity in applying a complex set of skills. He says it is their creative capital that drives growth, and it’s not just amenities, but diversity itself that draws them. He says they find diversity stimulating, and it signals an environment open to difference, one that will allow them to find their own particular course, and express who they want to be.

As a social scientist Florida experiments with different measures of diversity to see if they correlate with economic growth. His Melting Pot Index measures proportions of the foreign born, a traditional engine of American self-starting power, his Bohemian Index measures proportions of artists and performers, his Gay Index is designed to show tolerance for difference. His Composite Diversity Index incorporates all of them, and he finds each of them matter to some measure of urban growth -- be it population, jobs in general, or jobs in high tech or innovative sectors.

The “gaping hole” he admits, is that his measures of the diversity that matters do not track with portions of African Americans or non-whites. There is another gaping hole, they do not address income diversity, or affordability as a factor that supports it.  These things do matter to the model -- the low wage workers are essential to the system, so is the newcomer, income poor but alert to opportunity and driven to try. The model does not accommodate them by itself.

 


"Jesse Owens" - a tile on the Bronzeville Walk of Fame

In 2001, scholars weren’t sure if Chicago ranked among the top global cities. In 2004, Sassen told GlobalChicago it certainly did.

When the results from the 2000 Census came in, they showed Chicago’s population had grown for the first time in 40 years. The city’s median income was up 10%.

The Chicago Rehab Network, an affordable housing advocate, mapped the changes into neighborhood clusters.  A Booming Cluster spread out from the north lakefront, the high incomes there had kept growing, it saw only modest gains in population -- it had a lot fewer low-income households than when the decade started -- but most new construction permits were focused there, its rental housing stock was converting to homeownership.   

Population grew fastest in a Bursting Cluster that spread in corridors through the northwest and southwest sides. They saw large increases in low income households, over-crowded housing units, and high rates of housing cost burden – a measure of the portion of a household’s income spent to pay mortgage or rent.

Bridgeport fell in this Bursting Cluster. An affordable neighborhood, more low-income households moved here, its population had been falling for decades, but it saw a surge in rates of overcrowding, maybe as households doubled up to pay rent.

Alongside all this activity a Thinning Cluster spreading through some of the black neighborhoods on the south and west sides, where population was dropping, and vacancy rates were still remarkably high. Douglas fell in this Thinning Cluster.

 


Supreme Life Insurance Building

In 1993, the Mid South Planning Group, a 77 member body of community organizers, planners and neighbors, published a 30-year plan to restore Bronzeville. The area they called Mid-South bundled Douglas together with Grand Boulevard and Washington Park.

They proposed to redevelop historic buildings built by prominent black businessmen, to add cultural gateways to the district’s boulevards so people would recognize it as they entered, and a hotel to link to all the convention and tourism activity at McCormick Place.

Their plan would rebuild commercial nodes that had been missing for decades, it would add homeownership opportunities to a neighborhood dominated by rental housing, with architecture following the visual cues of those historic homes still standing in The Gap.

The new housing would be aimed toward existing, “indigenous” residents first, and then it would attract new residents – tens of thousands of them. It would restore the area’s population by 50% to 100,000 people.

At the time the plan sounded wildly ambitious. The striking thing about it nearly 30 years later is that much of it has been achieved. There are new commercial nodes, large and small, where the plan suggested they ought to be. Those landmark buildings once occupied by the Overton Hygienic Company, the Chicago Bee newspaper, Supreme Life Insurance are fully renovated and occupied. The South Loop Hotel stands on 26th Street, and new homes are being built in The Gap in the $580,000 to $800,000 range.

The exception is that the area’s population kept shrinking. In 2000, the population of Douglas was about 26,000 people. By 2010 it had dropped to 18,000, a long fall from the 79,000 people counted there in 1950.

That was partly because the CHA’s Plan for Transformation was demolishing thousands of high-rise public housing units to replace them with less dense, mixed income housing. In Douglas, the Dearborn Homes, the first and best built of CHA’s high-rises, was renovated. But Stateway Gardens was demolished and replaced with Park Boulevard, that mixed use collection with the Starbucks at 35th and State.

In fact, the private urban renewal projects built in Douglas in the 1960s and 1970s were designed to balance market rate and affordable housing. Many of them still house a mix of professionals and low-income residents today. Ferdinand Kramer, whose firm Draper and Kramer built Prairie Shores, moved in after it was built and lived there for years.

So far, the redevelopment in Douglas has maintained a place for low income residents to keep stable housing. A community snapshot assembled by the CMAP shows the median income in Douglas is lower than Bridgeport’s ($32,000 to Bridgeport’s $51,000); and the rate of workforce participation among the 20-64 year-old set is lower too (66% in Douglas, 79%. In Bridgeport).  On the other hand, Douglas outpaces Bridgeport in educational attainment. In Douglas, 50% of adults over the age of 25 have an Associate’s Degree or higher, it's 37% in Bridgeport. If the Douglas median income is lower partly because of students at IIT that is not a bad thing.



Lake Meadows

In the early 2000s, as Chicago took off on its career as a global city, Bridgeport struggled to keep up.  By 2010, its median income was not so close to the city’s median – it was about 10% less -- its mix of occupations did not mirror the city’s so well.

In 2010, about 42% percent of the city’s workers were employed in occupations related to management and business, science and the arts -- the census had combined a set of occupation categories that closely capture Florida’s creative class. Bridgeport reported about 31% of its workers occupied in that category, it still had larger portions of people employed manufacturing and hauling things, and preparing food.

But then, by 2018, 42% of Bridgeport’s workers were employed in that creative class category, and even though the city’s portion had risen to 45%, the neighborhood appears to be catching up.

Both Douglas and Bridgeport have changed demographically. The majority of people in Douglas are still black, but a quarter of them are white or Asian. Bridgeport isn’t primarily white ethnic anymore. Asians are the largest demographic category –  Bridgeport is 39% Asian and 33% white, 23% Hispanic. It’s still just 2.6% black. But in a population of 34,000, that’s approaching a thousand people, more than twice as many black people as there were living in Bridgeport in 2000, and an exponential improvement from the 23 Negroes the census counted in 1950.

If you believe that the low-income worker, the newcomer, still has a place in this city, even as it gets richer, Bridgeport has retained a potential advantage. The gap between the households with the highest incomes and the lowest ones is not so great here. If you divide households into income quintiles, the incomes in the lowest quintile are a little higher in Bridgeport than for the city as a whole, the incomes in the highest quintile are a little lower. A narrower gap could mean less pressure on rents threatening to push low income workers out.

Who knows if that gap will stay narrow, or if Bridgeport will catch up in inequality too.  Maybe those high wage workers in the global service firms have found they really can fully replicate their dense information networks in electronic space, now that COVID-19 has forced them to work from home. Probably some portion of them will try moving to other places, cute small towns, or places with better weather. That could take some of the steam out of rents.

If it doesn’t take the steam out though, and you like the area but find you can’t afford it, you might take a shot at high rise living in Douglas. Prairie Shores and Lake Meadows are affordable, they are historically significant, and the views can be spectacular.

This is the last of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Neighborhood is the Image of the City: Part 4

Social Problems



In 1962, the authors of Black Metropolis were cautiously optimistic when they asked what postwar prosperity and the nation’s recent interest in civil liberties would bring. Would the black ghetto finally disappear? Or maybe black families would choose to maintain an urban subculture, and another, more prosperous, Bronzeville would take shape. In the decades after, the ghetto didn’t disappear.

Back in the 1910s and 20s, a Chicago school of urban social scientists noted how the city’s white ethnic slums swarmed with vices. They catalogued high rates of crime and drunkenness, broken families and prostitution, juvenile delinquency. They thought the slum dwellers’ inability to regulate themselves, to organize around shared principles and values, was an expression of their condition as migrants. Cut free from the social bonds that held their old world together, they struggled to control their children, there were fewer informal authorities to keep people in line, fewer shared institutions to extend a guiding hand.

Those early social scientists also tended to see slum life as a temporary condition. As the migrant assimilated, he and his neighbors would develop new networks and new institutions, or more frequently, he would move out to some other neighborhood where the social order is established, he would leave the deviants behind.



By the 1950s, the old Chicago school of sociology that had made its name with its practice of close observation of human behavior in the urban habitat was out of fashion. Social scientists favored statistics, they talked about how cities were built by coalitions of human agents mobilizing power, rather than coming together naturally like ecosystems.

In 1963, Gerald Suttles had just settled in Chicago's west side slum to research the study that would make his name as an academic. The university that would soon employ him was revisiting the Chicago school heritage at the time. And he took up the tradition, he embedded himself in the neighborhood around Taylor Street and set out to study the moral order of the mixed-race neighborhood.

Later, he’d realize he’d happened to settle right near the boundaries of the separate territories of the neighborhood’s four ethnic groups – Italians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Negroes. He called his book The Social Order of the Slum and described how its diverse inhabitants ordered the territory, who could hang out where, how they behaved.

“Almost all societies create a public morality that exceeds the capacities of some of its members,” he wrote. He meant the moral standards shared by society at large, as distinct from the way people might conduct themselves at home, or in backwaters.

He thought the United States has a high moral standard, that many people fall short, and that in order to avoid compromising the ideals of public morality, much of the public had simply moved away from such individuals, abandoning the inner city to the people they distrust.

“Obviously this practice has some limits” he’d say. It tends to “aggregate” the poor and disreputable in the same slum neighborhoods where those mainstream ideals can’t really be maintained.

Watching his neighbors “compromise” on the markers of public morality, he came to believe they maintained an alternate one. He calls provincial, or personalistic, because it centers its ideals on personal trust. Under the provincial code, to be a “fink” would discredit you more than being unemployed or a felon.

Provincial morality builds through networks that start face to face, and extend to encompass the whole neighborhood in some form another – so that everybody knows their place, where they belong and where they don’t, how to behave to maintain their personal safety, and the safety of their families.

Territory is essential to all these things, the storefront, or stoop, or street corner where people hang out are places where bonds are made, where status is settled and leaders emerge. Suttles thought the Negroes living in public housing were at a disadvantage because they had less control over their space, they couldn’t open a storefront in it, or subdivide it into sublets to better their lot or enhance their position.

Bridgeport was no slum – in the 1960s it was the seat of considerable political power, but the provincial morality Suttles describes still resonates there. Acquaintances will point out the corner where they and their friends gathered, and the ones where they couldn’t really go. Or how in their youth you never called the police, there were certain people in the neighborhood who were sort of in charge, if there was a problem your parents would go talk to them and they’d take care of it.

Suttles described how there was some violence in his neighborhood, but more often conflicts got diffused, or stopped before they went too far. There were street fights in Bridgeport too, but there were limits. “We’d fight with our fists. Now they fight with guns.”



Something changed in Chicago in the 1970s. It was most obvious in the surge in violent crime. The sociologist William Julius Wilson writes that there were 195 homicides in Chicago in 1965. In 1970 there were 810, and there were 970 in 1974, a recession year.  The Wentworth police district was one of the worst.

The violence was accompanied by other problems. Unemployment, out of wedlock births.  Family dissolution. Welfare dependency. All the measures escalated at once.

Bridgeport was buffered from these developments. There were certainly factors other than personalistic morality that buffered it, and just as certainly, Bridgeport’s reputation for racial intolerance didn’t start in the 1970s. But as the violence and social problems gained ground across the expressway, territory and trustworthiness could not have seemed less important than before.



Wilson, a black scholar, caused a stir back in 1978 when he published a book called The Declining Significance of Race. He described the rise in social problems in the context of the real advances made by the black middle class, suggesting that factors other than race must also be at play.  He was surprised when readers sometimes took him to be a conservative – something he set out to correct with his 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged.

In its opening pages, Wilson observes that liberals mostly avoided talking about the rising rates of social dislocation in the ghetto. By refusing to address it, he argued, they’d abandoned the field to conservatives who traced the rise in social problems back to a “culture of poverty,” by which they meant a sense of dependency fostered by a welfare system gone off the rails.

Their focus on the moral failures of the poor as individuals reads a lot like the old reformers who rallied around vice some 80 years before. Wilson comes out on the side of systemic change. Assembling all the statistics, he shows the push and pull of forces too big for individuals to counter with moral courage alone.

He starts by showing how structural change in the economy caused massive job losses that hit black workers especially hard. He argues contemporary racism was less a factor than historic discrimination that had positioned them at the bottom of the jobs ladder.

“When black men looked for work, employers were concerned about whether they had strong backs, because they would be working in a factory or in the back room of a shop doing heavy lifting and labor. The work was hard and they were hired. Now economic restructuring has broken the figurative back of the black working class.” (This from his introduction to the 1993 edition of Black Metropolis.)

In 1950, he writes, an overwhelming majority of the men of Black Metropolis were employed. By 1980, only 4 in 10 of the adults in Douglas had jobs, and the ratios were lower in Grand Boulevard and Washington Park, other neighborhoods of historic Bronzeville.

Massive joblessness had ripple effects. It caused poverty and welfare dependency. Young men who saw few prospects sometimes turned to crime, drugs and violence. Unemployed men didn’t seem like marriageable partners. He draws on the scholar Herbert Gutman’s work showing that black families weren’t particularly disorganized prior to these upheavals.

There was still a black working and middle classes – in fact the black middle class was thriving. But they moved out to better neighborhoods. The neighborhoods they left behind suffered concentration effects. It was a vicious circle that changed individuals experiencing hard times into something like a separate social class.

“In short,” he writes “the communities of the underclass are plagued by massive joblessness, flagrant and open lawlessness, low achieving schools, and therefore tend to be avoided by outsiders.” The people who lived there found themselves socially isolated from the mainstream – isolated not just from job networks, but isolated in ways that affect their fashions and habits, even their cognitive and linguistic skills.

In Black Metropolis, when the poor, the working and middle classes all lived in close proximity, the middle class were an important buffer against hard times. They supported the social institutions – the churches, stores, schools and parks -- that gave Suttles’ neighborhood its moral contours. Their example made joblessness seem less terminal, and education more useful. They made family stability the norm.

What Wilson describes gaining ground in their absence sounds like a culture of poverty, except that its root cause is not the moral inferiority of the people caught in it.

 


By 1980, Bridgeport is still the image of Chicago as a working city. Its population is employed, its median income just slightly lower than the city median. Its occupations mirror the city’s new occupation structure, except with somewhat fewer executives and professionals, and somewhat more clerks and laborers, slightly more workers in skilled trades.

Bridgeport workers did not want for access to political patronage and union jobs. Though some men whose careers started in the 1980s can recall how their fathers couldn’t get into the union because it was controlled by some other white ethnic group.

Now an acquaintance asks if a system run on reputation and connections is wrong. “Shouldn’t a father be able to help his son get a job?” He says “You know his son is going to work hard, because he’s not going to embarrass his father.”

Of course, all fathers should be able to open doors of opportunity for their sons. The fathers of Douglas couldn’t do that.

This is the fourth of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Neighborhood is the Image of the City: Part 3

 Growth Machine



Dunbar Park: Poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar with Towers in Douglas


Chicago was volatile in the first decades of the last century in ways not unlike how things are volatile now. Big business seemed all powerful. Workers wanted more than wage concessions – Anarchists and Socialists agitated for fundamental change. Racial resentment erupted into a bloody race riot that started with the murder of a black child.

Then as now, volatility seems to require clampdown, some kind of control by force. Whites enforced the boundaries of the black ghetto by custom and law and when law failed with violence -- crowds in the street with bricks in their hands. Big business rallied its Pinkertons, mobilized the force of the state to make workers submit.

Though what saved big business from socialism, or decades of violent suppression, launched it instead toward a new era of prosperity, wasn’t force. It was change, the promise of opportunity.

Looking back from the 1940s, the authors of Black Metropolis write that a whole class of clerical occupations came up to manage the great volumes of paperwork required by big manufacturing firms. All that clean work was something new, it opened the prospect of a large white-collar middle class, something “neither radicals nor capitalists of a previous epoch had visualized.”

In the 1930s, the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci surveyed the American economic system and called it “Fordism,” after Henry Ford, with his assembly lines. Gramsci meant a whole system of business, government and cultural life that extends from them.

At its core is a bargain reached (and not without conflict) between owners and labor. Labor gives up its control, its pride of craftsmanship and sense of self direction for a place on the assembly line.  Owners find their workers will show up reliably if they’re paid enough to buy the car.

For the next 40 years, business, labor and government all rally around the virtuous circle of fair employment and mass consumption. The economy transforms from an arena of crushing conflict to something like a national faith in the cumulative expression of popular choice.

Big business more or less runs the machine, chasing lower costs and lower prices in its pursuit of monopoly. Government works as machinist -- it builds the regulatory framework for safe markets, and the welfare state that keeps the bottom from dropping out when people struggle. And for when people prosper, government builds a physical infrastructure to smooth the way of the consumer engine: the FHA mortgages to buy houses, the expressways to bring families out to further suburbs, and to carry the interstate commerce that will help them furnish their lifestyle as it steadily improves.

To perpetuate itself, the system must be sewn into the popular imagination, it must be worked into what people want and strive for. In 1945, the authors of Black Metropolis thought that the most profound change to mark Chicago in the 1920s “was a gradual shift in the content of the American Dream as presented by men of power.”

They write that 19th century elites thought labor erred when it failed to see wages as a temporary condition of dependency that workers should inhabit only until they could save enough to shrug it off and open some small shop for themselves. They promoted an American Dream that turned on “thrift, the establishment of small business, and investment in large ones.”  Businessmen of the 1920s had changed their minds, they “began to encourage the masses to spend rather than to save.”

They developed new arts of advertising and new mass media to inform and entertain. The advertising was to tell people what they should buy, the media to show them who they might be. It would feed their shared social repertoire by power of example.

Think of the television shows of the golden era – their picture of the family, of friends and neighbors and of benevolent authorities. People might squabble but conflicts were resolved, everything was alright in the end. Then think of the police procedurals of the 1980s and 90s.

When it first came out in 1981 Hill Street Blues was applauded for its edge, for its willingness to depict unlikable characters and its real world crimes. Entertainment’s willingness to be honest to men’s less attractive impulses had trumped its responsibility to represent the police as guardians of a precinct that is fundamentally safe.

The sense of safety was never uniform. There was always an audience impatient for a more honest portrayal of the darker parts of life. Veterans returning from foreign wars joined their bike gangs, youth rebelled against the compromises made by their parents, outsiders in their ghettos might admire the picture and still chafe at it.

Philosophy professor Paul Weiss chides black writer James Baldwin to be more upbeat about the prospects available to him on the Dick Cavett show. Baldwin tells him “You want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

 


Tribute to the Past, by Ramon Villareal.
"To all the union men and women and their families who shared the steel dreams."

By 1962, the fruits of Fordism are abundant, the nation buzzing with prosperity, and Drake and Cayton write a preface for a new edition of Black Metropolis to acknowledge “new factors which none of us could have foreseen.” The economy has achieved full employment, there is a “vigorous national concern for civil liberties,” and “renewed devotion to the American Creed.”

There’s a new introduction by the sociologist Everett Hughes, who describes cycling through a neighborhood far south of the old boundaries of the black belt, a neighborhood of grassy lawns and brick bungalows originally built for second or third generation ethnic whites. He says he began to notice black and brown faces among the homeowners out washing their cars in the driveways, mowing their lawns, doing the Saturday morning shopping. First a few of them, then all of them.

“The forces which move people toward the middle-class American ethos are tremendous among Negroes of American decent,” he observes. He believes their growing purchasing power will command respect in a way that law might not. “It is the Negro consumer who sits-in demanding the right to be served and to consume the products of American abundance and to use his leisure as other Americans do.”

Though even in 1962 he sees telling changes in the employment apparatus. There are more white-collar positions, and fewer unskilled ones. “The automated steel mill needs no large roving labor gang,” he writes. Rural newcomers once relied on those jobs to get their foothold and acclimate. They will have to learn new skills faster than their predecessors did, or “they may easily become part of the pool of permanently unemployed.”



IIT Campus, Crown Hall, on the site of the former Mecca Apartments

Richard J. Daley took office as Mayor of Chicago in 1955, and by 1963 national magazines like Time and Holiday are publishing enthusiastic profiles with warm praise from the city’s Protestant business elite.

Advertising executive Fairfax Cone, “a Republican and a gentleman” tells Holiday “Now let’s be frank. People brought up as I was, in a completely Protestant atmosphere, can’t help a certain feeling about Catholics.” But Daley had won him over. He says other Protestant businessmen he knows feel the same way.

“Before Mayor Daley came along, Chicago was stalled. From 1929 to 1946 not a single major building went up.” Depression and global war made that true for most big cities. And the magazine profiles all allude to uncertain urban futures, made more tenuous by racial change.  They say Daley gave Chicago’s business elite something to be confident about.

By 1968, Chicago’s American reports a building boom has virtually remade the city’s central area in 10 years. It counts more than $2.5 billion invested, more than 35 million square feet in new office, commercial and civic construction projects completed and underway.

They include new public buildings, like the Civic Center and a suite of new federal buildings, modern towers with wide plazas, built by famous architects -- using new government powers for assembling large blocks of land. But most of the buildings on the list were private.

Daley had mobilized what would later be called a growth coalition, business and government moved by a common interest in a strong city center, and by a common fear about the city’s long-term prospects.

When the 1960 census came in, Chicago’s population had dropped for the first time in its recorded history. It would have dropped a lot more if the black population hadn’t grown by more than 300,000 people in the 10 years from 1950. Which makes it all the more striking that in Douglas, the original hub of Black Metropolis, the population fell so sharply -- from 79,000 people in 1950, to 52,000.

The growth coalition had got its start in Douglas in the 1940s. Private business and institutions took the lead, test driving the new public powers for acquiring and accumulating land. By 1960, Douglas has been almost entirely leveled and rebuilt from the ground. 

Michael Reese Hospital, the Illinois Institute of Technology and New York Life Insurance launched three synchronized projects that replaced 12 square miles of the old urban fabric with new middle-class housing and a university campus, most of it modern high-rise towers surrounded by vast green lawns. They left a small area where you can still see what the old neighborhood looked like – a pocket  sometimes called The Gap, between 31st and 35th Street, Prairie Avenue and Calumet.



Prairie Avenue in The Gap

In the same decade that the populations of Douglas and Grand Boulevard dropped by some 62,000 people, the black population of Englewood rose by almost 600%. It jumped 900% in Kenwood, and 1,400% in Greater Grand Crossing. Neighborhoods turned from white to black.

Even as it was happening the public knew that realtors were using fear tactics to get white homeowners to sell low, threatening how their property values would fall when black families moved in. Then turning around and selling to black families at inflated prices. The courts had released the forced boundaries on where they could live, and they had the purchasing power to buy the American Dream.



Carpenter Street in Bridgeport


Meanwhile, Bridgeport’s population had continued its gentle decline, from 46,000 people in 1950, to just under 42,000 in 1960, and just 65 of them were counted as Negros. The cottages of Bridgeport are of the same vintage as the ones in Douglas. Though Bridgeport’s homeowners had access to credit, they weren’t wanting for city services. And no one called it blight, or proposed it might be best to clear it out and start over with something new. 

This is the third of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Neighborhood is the Image of the City: Part 2

Ethnic Waves


Monument to the Great Northern Migration, at 26th and Martin Luther King Drive

For a hundred years Chicago’s population grew fast and without pausing, and it mostly grew in jumps. Some of it was annexations, the city boundaries redrawn to swallow swelling neighboring settlements. Some of it was native born whites traveling from farms or eastern cities to seek new opportunities. But a lot of it was waves of immigrants from foreign countries. Sent in surges by crises in their homelands, the Irish first, then the Northern Europeans. The 20th century saw a “new wave” of immigrants from South and Central Europe.

They would arrive poor, ignorant of local customs, they’d settle in the slums near the center of the city. And as they learned the language, improved their lot, they moved outward to better neighborhoods. They’d put some distance between themselves and the latest foreigners who didn’t know how to live.

In the 1910s and 20s, social scientists thought their movements resembled populations vying within an ecosystem. They wrote about natural areas, even ‘moral zones’ where people with similar characteristics – ethnic, social, moral - would find each other, settle in enclaves where their qualities would intensify by mutual reinforcement.

Bridgeport is still marked by these enclaves. The faint outlines still distinct in the memories of guys who were teenagers in the 1970s and 80s. They’ll tell you ‘I couldn’t come over here,’ because of the Polish guys who used to hang out at The Shack at the top of Morgan Street. Or they’ll describe how Armour Park was jealously watched by Italians. I’d never heard anyone use the word ‘dago’ in conversation until I lived in Bridgeport. Sometimes it sounds like a justification more than a complaint. “We weren’t racist,” an acquaintance says drily, “we hated everybody.”

Each new wave of immigrants endured their share of indignities and prejudice, remembered for generations after the fact. In the 1850s, the WASPs thought the Irish were natural degenerates, prone to drink and crime. Their labor was wanted to dig canals, but Protestant shopkeepers posted signs in their windows that said “Irish need not apply.” In the 1880s, the Germans rioted when nativists passed blue laws to control their drinking on Sundays -- Sunday being their only day off, they spent it in the beer garden, indulging in socialist talk. By the 1920s, when the federal government established immigration quotas, they targeted the ethnic proportions as they were in 1890, before the “new wave” of Italians and Poles had overtaken the northern Europeans.

The native born weren’t just impatient for the immigrants to learn the language and assimilate, they saw them as suspect in a more fundamental sense.

In Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton  set the stage for their account of Chicago’s negro ghetto by describing the city defined by the antagonism among populations, and observed that antagonism was expressed in two different traditions of reform: “one concerned with stopping ‘vice’ and petty political graft; the other with controlling predatory big business.”

Vice was the special concern of the Protestant establishment – prostitution, gambling, and especially drinking. Their commitment to control the drinking of the lower classes predates Prohibition as a proxy for other tensions.

The working class saw those preoccupations with social control as an excuse to avoid addressing more urgent structural reforms. They wanted to stop child labor, shorten the 12-hour work day, form unions and earn a living wage.

In the early 20th Century, the laborers were the foreign born. Then as now they took the jobs no one else wanted because they were too dirty, too dangerous, the work slaughtering animals and the jobs on the steel mill floor. As they’d assimilate, blend into the ranks of the native born, they tended to advance from hard labor into the skilled trades and clerical work.



The Stockyards National Bank, and a portion of the Root Street transit line,
"In honor of those who traveled this path to toil at the Union Stockyards."


European immigration stopped during World War I, then resumed, but at a trickle, hampered by quotas. With war engines booming, the demand for labor was met by black migrants, traveling north to escape the sharecropping system and unchecked violence in the Jim Crow south.

The black migrants came in the tens of thousands at first, by the 1940s they came in the hundreds of thousands, but already by the 1910s the great migration changed the dynamic between black and white Chicagoans. At the turn of the century, the city’s black population numbered just 30,000, and they safely inhabited most of the city’s neighborhoods “on terms of almost complete social equality with their white neighbors,” according to the sociologist Gunnar Myrdahl.

By 1920, their numbers had tripled, and 85% of them lived in the new black belt that started in the Douglas neighborhood next to Bridgeport, between 26th and 39th Street, and extended south through Grand Boulevard to 47th.  By 1930, the populations of Douglas and Bridgeport were roughly equal – about 50,000 and 54,000 persons respectively, except that there was just one Negro counted in Bridgeport that year. About 5,500 persons in Douglas were white.

The black migrants were not unlike white ethnics finding their enclave in the inner-city slums. They took the place of the foreign born at the bottom of the employment chain; they endured the increased hostility of the native population. As white immigration stopped in the 1920s, William Julius Wilson would observe “eventually, other whites muffled their dislike of the Poles and Italians and Jews and directed their antagonism against blacks.”

The position had been a temporary one for ethnic whites. Eventually, they’d get their foothold and assimilate, they’d move to better neighborhoods and disappear into the population. Blacks couldn’t disappear. For decades, the pathway out of the enclave was tightly restricted – by custom, by law and by violence.

The Chicago newspapers inflamed mistrust with alarming headlines (“Darkies Swarm North”) and stories that exaggerated the numbers of migrants, their suspect character, their supposed propensity for crime.

By 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board had adopted formal policies for controlling the sale of properties to black families (“each block shall be filled solidly and…further expansion shall be confined to contiguous blocks”) and made violations punishable by expulsion.

When, that same year, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation ordinances were unconstitutional, the Board began promoting racially restrictive covenants – legal contracts on the deed of parcels of land that prohibit blacks from using, occupying, buying or leasing properties to which they were attached. A map of parcels bound by such covenants as they stood in 1947 shows the black belt thoroughly surrounded by them – an iron ring cutting it off from other neighborhoods.

Some of the covenants were already falling to challenges in the local courts, and the US Supreme Court declared racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional in 1948. Black families moving to white neighborhoods were still slowed by violence – mobs of angry housewives with bricks screaming obscenities. Men with bats destroying property, threatening and sometimes following through with assault.



The Overton Hygenic Co. building at 35th and State Street once housed an array of black owned businesses, including a bank, insurance firm, architect's offices, and a cosmetics company.


Meanwhile, the black migration grew faster. By 1950, there were almost half a million Negroes in Chicago – their numbers doubled from 1930. They brought Chicago’s population to its all-time peak in 1950, even though the numbers of the foreign born were dropping at the opposite rate.

Bridgeport’s population was declining too, but gently. From 54,000 in 1930, to 46,000 in 1950, the number of foreign born in Bridgeport dropped from 15,000 to 8,000. Its immigrants were assimilating, following that path outward to greener pastures. But the neighborhood they left behind was prospering too, its Democratic machine running at maximum influence. Mayors Kelly and Kennelly both came from Bridgeport, Richard J. Daley would take the Mayor’s Office in 1955.

Next door, Douglas was crammed. Its population was approaching 80,000 by 1950, the population of Grand Boulevard was 115,000. With the regular path of assimilation forcibly blocked, the black belt was bursting at its seams.

Decades later, writers and activists would look back at the community described in Black Metropolis and call it remarkable.

Black professionals, the middle and working classes lived close by the lower classes, black Chicagoans who’d lived in the city for generations side by side with those who’d just come from working in the fields. Of course, they did so because they could not live elsewhere. But in living there, they provide more than their good example as role models to reinforce mainstream values. They provided more formal stability, the kind of economic and educational resources that might lend ballast in hard times. And life in the black belt afforded the black professionals some measure of control over their own lives, a refuge from the prejudice they faced outside its borders.

The boulevards of Black Metropolis were lined with gray-stones, its commercial streets vibrant with black owned businesses, law firms and banks. Black artists and writers heard the whispers of meaning that life might have on those streets, they found their fellows, some of them found their audience and made their names.



But the black belt was not romantic. It was desperately overcrowded, and often desperately poor.  Many of its buildings were run by absentee landlords, including institutional ones who let them deteriorate in ways that would be criminal now. Its residents suffered high rates of illness and mortality, they were starved for city services – garbage was allowed to accumulate, schools and playgrounds were overcrowded, crime and police brutality were high.

And there was the weight that contempt inflicts on the psyche.

What peculiar personality formations must be caused by these conditions, Richard Wright mused in his introduction to Black Metropolis. He calls the Negro “child of the culture that crushes him,” he says his fundamental dilemma lies in the fact that he believes in its ideals, he wants to participate and uphold them, even as that society so thoroughly rejects him.

His dilemma is more than a special interest -- it reveals a fatal division "lodged in the innermost heart of America... It haunts her conscience, taints her actions, and might ultimately cause her death." It is a problem bigger than the Negro problem, he writes, but one of which the Negro problem is a symbolically important part.

This is the second of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Neighborhood is the Image of the City: Part 1

Acknowledgement


“And there in that great iron city… we caught whispers of the meanings that life could have, and we were pushed and pounded by facts much too big for us.”

That’s black novelist Richard Wright, introducing Black Metropolis, a classic social study of Chicago’s negro ghetto in 1945. Chicago’s black belt started in Douglas, a neighborhood geographically side by side with Bridgeport, with a parallel history, close but not touching. You could describe Bridgeport for years without acknowledging it.



In 1945, Bridgeport resembled the city of Chicago the way the writerly like to recall it. Hard working, hard drinking, ready for a fight. The workers saw themselves that way too. They had jobs where they made things of substance. Or they handled and hauled them. Their virtues were different from the patience and courtesy they’re called to exercise now, from their service jobs. They were well represented politically too – the city’s white ethnics having firmly taken control from the Protestant establishment a decade before. Bridgeport was very white ethnic. The neighborhood the image of the city, except in one glaring respect.

The years after World War II were golden years for America’s industrial cities.  Business was booming. There was an abundance of good union jobs, starting on the factory floor where the newcomer could get his foothold. Chicago’s politicians and business leaders moved in concert to take advantage.

But they had their concerns. Chicago has always been a swirl of populations, strong currents moving in and moving outward, but mostly moving in. After 1950, the balance would tip, even while the city was still booming with industry, its growth machine growling to life.

Already the business and political leaders were worried about it. They looked around and saw blight everywhere. They countered with big building projects. They’d remove what was old and crowded in great blocks, and replace it with modern structures soaring upwards, surrounded by lawns and public plazas.

Even the most powerful men operate within the pushing and pounding of facts too big for them, bigger than they fully comprehend. And if they can’t comprehend it then they don’t control it. Their bold action reverberates in ways they don’t foresee.

Later, some look at the effects of some of those projects and say they accomplished exactly what the builders intended – the wall of public housing tied in by the Dan Ryan expressway entrenched the boundaries of the black ghetto, walled it off from neighborhoods like Bridgeport.  What they didn’t foresee was how the effects would ripple through the decisions of ordinary people in their millions.  

The ordinary people were moved by their pursuit of a good life and what they thought that meant. For decades, they thought the good life meant moving outward and upward, away from the neighborhoods where people struggle, toward better ones a little further out, neighborhoods with green lawns and two car garages, the two parent families whose mothers could stay home to manage the family’s lifestyle full time. That picture is not gone.

Some 40 years later, the powerful men of the growth machine would be fretting big cities were obsolete. They thought telecommunications might have broken our ties to geographic place. They spoke of edge cities and built office parks on the outskirts – but even as they were doing it, the currents were starting to turn.

People moved by new whispers were coming back to the city. They said they liked urban diversity. They saw possibility in it, it spoke of the stimulation of new things, and of openness, acceptance that would give them the space to be the individuals they wanted to be.

In practice, there were limits to the kinds of diversity they wanted. And then the waves of their return tended to wash diversity away. But we do have some control over what we want. The picture of the good life that moves populations is shaped by the collective pull of human imaginations. We each have some power to shape it, by what we are willing to see as diverse for instance, by what we describe as good.



Some say human currents change in spans of 40 or 50 years, which would make us about due for a new turn.  And here we are, sitting home with COVID-19. There are already voices murmuring this is really going to break our ties to urban place -- forced to work from home, if we’re lucky to still be working, the stimulations of our urban lifestyles suspended.

If it’s really true this time, and city people start dispersing for the hinterlands, they will bring diversity with them, and some of their confidence in the good things it brings. Imagine it spreading like ripples as they move.

This is the first of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Bill Douglas Finds His Footing at Project Onward




Bill Douglas has been making art since he was a solitary kid, tromping around in the woods outside Knoxville Tennessee. He built houses out of sticks out there, whole apartment buildings, fantastic constructions that no one but him would ever see.

His family was embedded in Tennessee since the 1850s, when his great great grandfather Douglas came from Scotland - his parents lived their whole lives there without leaving it. None of his immediate family is left in Knoxville now. His sister has settled in Nashville. Bill came to Chicago to go to art school in the 1990s; he came to Bridgeport in 2014 as an artist with Project Onward, a studio for artists with mental illness or disabilities at the Bridgeport Art Center.

Project Onward connected him to an audience. It’s also tied him into a neighborhood, which you could make a case is just as important. We all need some context in which to operate.

For the audience looking at art, maybe also for artists making it, putting art in context often entails finding some way to categorize it. In the art world, there’s a whole social apparatus for doing that: schools, critics, galleries collaborate to evaluate art work, to make ways to talk about it. Mapping it into categories is something to start from.

Project Onward participates in a category called outsider art. Critics coined the term in the 1970s, and then promptly began to argue about what it was. You can describe it as art made outside the critic’s apparatus, but then what happens if the critic and the collector start paying attention to it? Or you can describe it as art made by an artist who is self taught.

Bill sometimes says he isn’t technically an outsider artist because he went to art school. He studied painting at the University of Tennessee. He spent a year studying the epic paintings of 18th century French artists like David and Poussin, he studied print making, and abstract art. Later, he studied painting and ceramics at UIC.

After art school Bill got a job at a therapeutic day school, working with elementary school kids for 13 years. He loved that job, some of those kids were coming from highly unstable environments, he got to know them, saw them respond under the attentions they got at school.

He got married too, his wife, Kelly, was a travel agent, before that industry collapsed, they travelled a lot together, got to see the world. Bill’s life was good for a lot of years.

Then, in 2013, things started to fall apart. He lost his parents first. And his job, and his wife. He had been diagnosed with mental illness before that, it was part of his background for much of his life. It was manageable if he attended to it. When things were coming apart he couldn’t do that. There was a surge of clinical depression, and schizophrenia. There was a narcotic interlude. He watched a friend die, watched the paramedics bring her back to life and watched her go back out almost without missing a beat. 

Bill took the lesson himself. He quit the drugs cold turkey and cut off ties with everyone he’d been using with. He found his way to an art therapy program at Thresholds. It was his art therapist at Thresholds, Kathy Osler who picked him out as a candidate for Project Onward.





In an essay they’ve written to accompany an Intuit Gallery art exhibit called Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow, curators Kenneth Burkhart and Lisa Stone describe appreciation for outsider art taking different paths in Europe and the United States. 

In Europe, the genre was informed by doctors collecting the art of psychiatric patients. Institutionalized, socially isolated, their work seemed to represent pure personal vision drawn from deep psychic sources, untouched by fashion.

In the United States, it was fed by an interest in folk art that traces back to WPA projects to document a distinctive American cultural heritage. Art valued as the expression of local traditions more than individual genius, the artists themselves might be anonymous.

Bill relates to both those strands, at least to the extent he has lived with mental illness, and that his art has been informed by tradition. But with the happy caveat that as an artist at Project Onward he isn’t isolated or anonymous.

Project Onward screens its applicants for talent, and also for their willingness to grow, to develop as professional artists. 

When Bill submitted his portfolio for consideration, he was drawing forests from the vantage of someone lying on this back on the forest floor - trees with leafy branches ascending toward the sun, dense with birds, often encircled by streams, or mountain ranges, or tombstones. 

Bill says he isn’t so interested in perspective or shading, he is more interested in other kinds of information. His drawings are dense with it, complex patterns, solid shapes sometimes filled in with tiny patterns of birds and leaves and other creatures indicated only by their eyes. 

They are reminiscent of the piece-work patterns of quilts, laced together with a profusion of stitchery, like the ones his mother, her mother and her aunt used to sew in Tennessee. He keeps a news clipping on the studio wall about the prolific quilting of his great aunt Georgia Mize. The first line reads “Georgia Mize doesn’t think she’s an artist. She just makes quilts."




Project Onward encourages its artists to put in regular hours at the studio. They manage sales of the artist’s work, and split the proceeds with the artists - Project Onward's portion helps keep the studio going. There is a studio manager and volunteers who circulate among the artists, offering encouragement, making suggestions.

Being present in the studio has definitely made Bill’s work more visible to collectors. Collectors can come through anytime the studio is open, and things really buzz on 3rd Fridays, Bridgeport’s open studio night. Bill’s met a couple collectors who have shown particular interest in his work, he describes them as patrons because they’ve been so supportive of him and his development as an artist.

On any given afternoon at the studio, there are a couple dozen artists at work. They are all quietly engaged in their work, but friendly, happy to pause to chat about it. Bill likes to circulate and interview his fellow artists for short videos. He’s made some good friends there.

And then about a year ago, he was able to move into an apartment in a Bridgeport 6 flat owned by Project Onward’s Executive Director. It’s affordable so he’s got an anchor amid the rising neighborhood rents, and it’s right on Throop Street, so he’s close to the studio. That’s a big deal. 

Bill’s friend David Hence takes the train all the way from Richter Park to get to the studio - the trip can take hours. If he arrives early David may while spend an hour drawing streetscapes and passersby from the windows of Bridgeport Coffee, imagining their lives comic book style panels.  When he works late and the trains are even more infrequent, Bill lets him sleep on his couch. 

Other friends from the studio will drop by his apartment to watch a game now and then. And Mike Pocius, who volunteers at the studio, lives a couple blocks away on Racine. Mike is restless instigator, when he’s not out and about he sits in his yard chatting with whoever stops by. Bill often stops by, or accompanies him, they organize the occasional impromptu art show together.




Working from the Project Onward studio, Bill’s perspective started to change. First it changed from drawings of forests, looking up into the trees, to drawings of Bubbly Creek, looking down into the water. There are wavy reflections of trees on the surface, crossed with currents of imaginary fish, their numbers probably always a little fanciful, considering the notorious quality of the water, they’ve grown more diverse and more oceanic as he worked.

And still stitched with intricate detail. Right up until a year ago, when Bill’s life took another turn. He had a stroke. He was alone in his apartment — this was a different apartment out in Berwyn. He was alone for 3 days, passing in and out of consciousness, calling for help.

It was Kathy Osler who found him. Kathy isn’t his art therapist anymore, she was just stopping by as a friend. “She saved my life,” Bill says. He’s mostly recovered, though the stroke still affect his balance and coordination, and he still doesn’t have the use of his right arm.

How do you come to terms with that, Mike Pocius asks, when so much of your identity is wrapped up in making art, and then something happens to the arm you make it with? 



Intuit’s catalog for Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow describes how Chicago’s people and arts institutions have been exceptionally receptive to art “from beyond the academically self identified center.” Then it goes on to identify Chicago as the center for the study and cultivation of outsider art. 

It relates how, as early as 1941, the Fine Arts Club of Chicago presented self-taught negro artist Horace Pippen in a gallery alongside a show of the flamboyant European surrealist Salvador Dali. Bukhart and Stone say it was significant that Pippen was shown not as a folk artist, but as a fine artist. They say Dali was insulted when Pippen asked him “Are you an artist too?”

Imagine Pippen as the figure of Chicago, trying to strike up a conversation with New York. For much of the 20th century New York was the center of an art world that favored the modern, the abstract, high theory, and a critical remove from the marketplace. Chicago was all marketplace. It built its reputation on its status as an intersection of thoroughfares that connect more distant places, an entrepot between other endpoints, multiple centers. 

The purist would describe the center as the place of privileged access to matters of ultimate concern, the circle where talented initiates build a common project, everything outside it sort of fades into lesser significance. 


But if you stand among multiple centers, with competing demands, then it’s the points where they meet, clash, connect that have special access to vital energies. They loose that access if they turn inward, are less open to influence from outside.

Burkhart and Stone suggest using the ecological metaphor of the ecotone, the transition zone between two populations or environments, like an oceanic tide pool. The creatures that thrive there must adapt to survive in air, and under water, they take nourishment from the tidal flux. The authors evoke a “tide pool of the mind” nourished by the unceasing interplay between outsider and academic, creativity and commerce. 

Bill Swislow describes old Maxwell Street market as just such a zone. His essay Chicago We Own It describes professors and students from the School of the Art Institute training their tastes there, learning to pick objects of beauty and wonder out of the flux. He says it gave rise to a different mode of collection: the “more is more aesthetic”, the studio crammed with artifacts, the personal reference library that is both an expression of the artist’s personal vision of the world, and a living source to work from.

The tide pool might be an especially useful metaphor for the artist imagining the context from where he can practice his work. Bill Douglas’ Tennessee roots and his experience with mental illness both connect him to the category. But at their roots, both those sources flourished in a kind of protective isolation — the dream painted from inside hospital walls, the folk art flowering in the hamlet — and some of the first collectors seemed to think they got their power from that.

Bill cut loose from his Tennessee roots. Years later, he was cut loose again in a more radical way. It was more tsunami than tide, Bill’s art didn’t thrive under the experience. He had to get a foothold, first. Project Onward, an institution with an interest, helped him do that. Now that he has the foothold, he’s immersed in an environment conducive to work.




Bill says that when he was alone for those 3 days after the stroke, he experienced a kind of semi-euphoric state, he figures it was his brain protecting him from fear as he waited for help. Some of his first drawings and paintings when he came back to the studio were of neurons and their matrix, brain structures, with notes added about their functions, and the symptoms of damage.

The euphoria was short lived. Recuperation has been frustrating. His right hand couldn’t execute the details it once could. For awhile, he experimented with paper cut outs, revising themes from his intricate drawings.





His friends from the studio have been supportive. His patrons visited him in the hospital and stay in touch on the phone when they’re not at the studio.  Mike Pocius had suffered a stroke a year before Bill did - the common experience strengthened their bond. 

Mike says when he found Bill particularly discouraged one day, he told him “You’ve been making art your whole life, you are an artist, so the things you make are art.” It doesn’t matter if the drawings he makes with his left hand don’t look the same as the ones he used to do with his right.

More recently, Bill’s been drawing Lilith, the unruly first wife of Adam. Legend has it God made Eve after Lilith flew away.  She’s had recent career as a feminist hero, but also a longer more sinister one as a seductive demon, a danger infants and women in childbirth. For awhile, Bill painted her in the style of a comic book heroine, with swirls of entangling hair. Now he figures he’s finished with her, as a topic.




Bill says he’s been wondering recently where he fits as an artist. The question partly inspired when he was told he couldn’t participate in a recent show of outsider art in New York because he wasn’t self taught. He’s not preoccupied with the problem though. In June, he’s scheduled to have a solo show at Project Onward, and a show at Zhou B Art Center at the same time.

In the afternoon at the studio, the walls crowded with artworks and washed with sunlight, the room humming with productivity, Bill is like a starfish with a good grip on the rocks. He’s surrounded by fellow artists, open to influence, he’s alive to what’s next.