Liz London is from New York City. She graduated from Vassar College last May after concentrating in Creative Writing. As a Chicago Corps member she works as a Program Assistant at America SCORES Chicago.
Driving through North Lawndale there is little to see, or rather there is much to see that amounts to very little. Boarded-up houses are as common as not and most every building seems to be in dire need of maintenance. One of the few businesses I’ve seen, a hole-in-the-wall simply named, Corner Store, across the street from my bus stop at Roosevelt Avenue, is more meeting ground than a stop for customers. Grown men sit on plastic crates in Douglas Park in the middle of the workday. North Lawndale, or Community Area 29, looks, to an outsider at least, like an abandoned landscape that many Chicagoans care to erase from their mental map.
I work at a school in North Lawndale implementing the writing portion of America SCORES Chicago’s writing/soccer after-school program. I meet with my team of twelve third to fifth grade girls several times a week to do poetry and dramatic exercises that culminate in a public performance at the Community Poetry Slam. In the abstract, North Lawndale is an inner city, one of the “bad” neighborhoods, rife with poverty, gangs, drugs, violence, abuse, poor education, etc. Yet there is a rich and complex history that helps to concretize it as a unique neighborhood and community.
In some fascinating cohesion of my AVODAH year, I learned that from the 1920s-1950s North Lawndale was almost exclusively home to Eastern European immigrant Jews. They built a vibrant community, establishing a number of businesses and public institutions, until Blacks started moving in from the southern states and the South Side of Chicago. After a decade of transition, fierce community activism and the corrupt housing practices of slumlords, many of them Jewish, there was a sweeping movement of white flight; white and, in this case, Jewish. However many of these Jews, though they lived elsewhere, continued to work in and dominate the economy of North Lawndale, which the remaining black community resented. After Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, this extraordinary period of change resulted in violent riots that decimated businesses as well as many residential areas. A sharp population decline followed and steps to rebuild and revitalize this community are still a tremendous work in progress.
This history has provided me a very interesting lens through which to view my experience as an AVODAH Corps member working in this neighborhood. At once, there is a poignant circularity in my Jewish return to North Lawndale; despite the tension during the time of coexistence, there were also examples of Black and Jewish collaboration in facing prejudice and racial discrimination. But, a more challenging lens is to see myself repeating the pattern of my forbears, and being able, once work is done, to desert the school and community I work in and retreat to my middle class home uptown.
I do not live where I work. Geographically, this is the case for most people, but on a deeper level, I am constantly reminded of the comforts, security and privileges I enjoy, which my students and their families do not. In what ways, I wonder, is my departure on the long bus ride northeast, a form of white flight. Of course, the circumstances are drastically different, but I feel my very Jewishness compels me to wrestle with the possibility that I, like the Jews who once lived here, am fleeing.
There is no answer or reassuring resolution to this question. It is, simply, another piece of baggage I carry with me, a load that weighs heavier and lighter from day to day. But this being what it is, I also see great value in recognizing the other baggage I carry with me: my students and my experiences interacting with and in North Lawndale, limited as it may be. I observe the exuberance and energy of my students in the classroom and shared in their pride as they performed their words at the Community Slam. I’ve had moments of connection with parents and teachers, people on the street and the bus. This isn’t my home and I will always bring my privilege and difference with me where I go. But this travels with me, or more precisely, is in me, just as those positive, encouraging moments are now a part of me. And if I’m returning home with those new memories, I want to believe that my students and the community, in some way, hold the other end of these relationships. Through a certain lens, I may not be leaving North Lawndale completely. In the meantime, I spend hours in transit, trying to sort it all out.