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From north to south

I'm in the early, conceptual stage with my novel, Express. The first section will be about a former jazz musician and now homeless man named Leon. I envisioned his story revolving around Chicago's Near Northwest Side (near Elston and Armitage), taking its cue from this old sketch which I wrote more than ten years ago, while I still lived in the city. The book will be very much about loss, both for the city as a whole (Algren's line "some sort of city-wide sorrow" is always present when I think about this section) and for specific characters. The setting of Leon's section comes straight from that sketch, and involves the departure of heavy industry from that neighborhood and the resulting economic impact.

But this morning I missed my usual train, and had to take the Rock Island Line instead. I ride the Rock Island now and then, and usually sit on the right side of the train, but today I sat on the left side, which provides a westward view as the train rolls through the South Side. This change in perspective drew my attention to the neighborhoods, so much so that I couldn't concentrate on my reading. I set my book aside, and focused on the passing view outside. The South Side is a tough place to begin with, and appears even more grim on a cloudless winter day. As I saw block after block of shabby houses, I was saddened with the realization of how solidly comfortable and middle-class these neighborhoods once were. My mom is a South Sider, having grown up in Auburn Park during the thirties and early forties before the family moved to the western suburbs in 1945. She has only rarely been back to the old neighborhood since, and not all for several decades, so heartbreakingly decrepit as it has become.

I finally came to the realization that Leon's story is, instead, that of the South Side. The North Side may have endured decades of decline, but it's gradually come back during the past twenty years. Much of the South Side, I'm afraid, will never come back. It's been hollowed out by the departure of factories and blue-collar jobs, then white flight and finally the diminished social safety net, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor to mostly fend for themselves. That's not the case with most of the North Side, and thus Leon's story would be much more compelling if set somewhere to the south. The deterioration of the South Side is a metaphor and frame for Leon's steady decline, from the heyday of Bronzeville's jazz clubs to the tumultuous sixties and the exodus of prosperity from that decade onward.

Now I'll have to rethink most of Leon's story. His circumstances will remain mostly the same, but the entire setting would have to shift, to neighborhoods that I'm not as intimately familar with as my old North Side haunts. Writing this won't be as easy, but I think it will be a better story for it.

February 14, 2012 in Chicago Observations, Fiction | Permalink


I have my dad's old library card from the 1950s. It has his address on it, when he was still living with his parents. So last weekend my wife and I found the address online then drove over there. It's in the part of the city that's in decline too. But maybe the people who live there don't think of it that way. The houses weren't in the best repair, and the yards were sad (but there were always tiny yards in the city). Yet it was obvious that people lived there. Families. Pets. Lives. and so on. I wonder what my dad would have to say about it if he could see it. What memories it might stir for him.

Posted by: Paul at Feb 14, 2012 6:53:22 PM