A couple of months ago, we were riding on the new tram which goes from Santa Monica to downtown LA. The route passes by the USC campus. A guy on the tram began to talk to us about the neighborhood. He was a young black guy, who’d been raised in the USC neighborhood. If you have seen the neighborhood around USC, you’ll be struck by the fact that it is very multi-ethnic and working class. According to the guy on the tram, there used to be a pro-USC spirit in the neighborhood. It isn’t that a lot of people could afford to go to USC – but they could afford to go to USC games, and they felt like USC was part of the neighborhood. USC, however, had other thoughts, and has begun a process that rich universities love to engage in, of expansion and squeeze. You can no longer go to USC events, and you can go and shout at meetings against USC plans for expansion but those meetings are run by supposedly “liberal” types who are totally psyched about the prospect of gentrification and USC expansion.
There’s been a lot of political archaeology done about the connections between slavery and certain US universities. But the urban “renewal” of the 50s and 60s in which universities were weapons aimed at cleaning out neighborhoods on a vast scale has not been given its due. If liberal elites live in a “bubble”, the armored part of that bubble is the physical facility of the university and the insatiable drive to expand.
In Chicago, the Daly administration, in the early sixties, felt that the city deserved a great public university. Not surprisingly, the site chosen for the new University of Illinois – Chicago was not among the wealthy neighborhoods or sububs – there was not a chance that Park Ridge, where Hugh Rodham, Hilary Clinton’s father, and his family lived, was going to come under the gun. Park Ridge had in fact grown up in the comfort of racial restrictions that were put in place in 1926 and kept in place since then that essentially barred black homeownership. As a result, the band of wealthy suburbs north of Chicago was almost entirely white. A recent study claimed that even now, the wealthy suburbs are 2 percent black. Diversity there is almost entirely due to a large increase in the Asian population. http://patch.com/illinois/winnetka/bp--african-americans-remain-few-in-the-northern-suburbs
What happens when a supposedly liberal city government proposes to bulldoze a multi-ethnic neighborhood with, at its symbolic center, one of the great monuments of the progressive era, Hull House? What happens, as the residents were shocked to discover, is that the board members of Hull House, who didn’t live in the neighborhood and were, for the most part, affluent liberals, would side with the city and promote the destruction of their own monument.
The reverberation of that struggle begins Division Street. Terkel signals what he is doing by interviewing Florence Scala, the woman who organized the neighborhood against its multi-ethnic cleansing, and who later ran for office as an independent against the district’s council member. Interestingly, the working class John Bircher that Terkel interviewed, Dennis Hart, voted in that election for Florence Scala, who by any measure was to far to the left on the political spectrum. In miniature, what Terkel was looking at in 1966 has been playing itself out nationally in our politics for decades.
What Scala says at the beginning of her interview is a sort of creed that must have resonated with Terkel and his whole reason for doing the book: “I grew up around Hull House, one of the oldest sections of the city. In those early days I wore blinders. I wasn’t hurt by anything very much. When you become involved, you begin to feel the hurt, the anger. You begin to think of people like Jane Addams and Jessie Binford [an activist associated with Hull House who fought with Scala] and you realize why they were able to live on. They understood how weak we really are and how we could strive for something better if we understood the way. “
There is something of the clash between the centrists and the left in the Democratic party now in this long ago drama. This is how Scala discovered that liberals are not your friend:“A member of the Hull House Board took me to lunch a couple of times at the University Club. My husband said, go, go, have a free lunch and see what it is she wants. What she wanted me to do, really, was to dissuade me from protesting. There was no hope, no chance, she said.
I shall never forget one board meeting. It hurt Miss Binford more than all the others. That afternoon, we came with a committee, five of us, and with a plea. We remended them of the past, what we meant to each other. From the moment we entered the room to the time we left, not one board member said a word to us.
Miss Binford was in her late eighties. Small, birdlike in appearance. She sat there listening to our plea and then she reminded them of what Hull House meant. She talked about principles that must never waver. No one answered her. Or acknowledged her. Or in any way showed any recognition of what she was talking about. It's as though we were talking to a stone wall, a mountain. The shock of not being able to have any conversation with the board members never really left her. She felt completely rejected. Something was crushed inside her. The Chicago she knew had died.”
Neighborhoods with European immigrants of all kinds like this one were thrown on the trash heap by urbanists in the 50s. There was an overriding, but unpronounced, idea that the cities were vast targets – as they had been in the War – and you had to separate out what the AEC at the time, in a secret memo, called the “low use” population from the high enders. Whether it was the low use population getting whacked with fallout in St. George, Utah, or the Greeks, Blacks, Italians etc. in the Hull House neighborhoods, the same logic applied. A stone wall indeed.