BOOK REVIEW: Chicago's massive racial segregation and the 'border' along Austin Blvd. between Chicago and Oak Park...
As I was reading the December 2016 Chicago Union Teacher paper that I received in late January 2017, I got very excited to read that a book was written about the racial segregation in the Chicagoland area. Jeff Ferdinand’s book, Austin Boulevard, spoke to that and to me in a very personal way. I could not wait to read a book that will describe 33 years of my life both growing up in Austin and later living in Oak Park. It would be an emotional read for me as I still bear the scars of seeing what was the neighborhood of my childhood become a place that was neglected for more years than I can remember and feeling guilty about living in Oak Park just blocks away from my birthplace.
Book Review: Austin Boulevard by Jeff Ferdinand, A Modern Version of A Tale of Two Cities, By Susan Hickey
The neglect of Austin started many years before the rapid change in the late 1960’s. That is another story that needs to be told. I have corresponded with Jeff and plan to work with him on developing that story along with the tension that has been in place between Oak Park and Austin for more than a hundred years.
I approached reading this with that emotional lens at first which caused me to be disappointed in the book. A reviewer of the book on Amazon voiced my initial reaction:
‘It's unusual to read a book that has almost nothing to do with the specific issue it was attempting to address. The book was merely a regurgitated history of slavery and the civil rights movement. The unbelievable and stark difference between Oak Park and Austin is something I've experienced most of my life having been born at St. Anne's in Austin and living there from 1970 onward. I lived through the white flight, saw all my neighbors move out and the community fall into ruins. I constantly mention the invisible line to countless folks as a matter of fact. Seeing that someone actually wrote a book about it was what I thought a fantastic idea. I couldn't wait to order it and even support a young independent author. I couldn't believe after 75 pages I had read literally nothing of what I was anticipating to be some kind of insight, revelation, even stab at what might be a reason other than the fact that Chicago is segregated’ ("Austin Boulevard: The Invisible Line Between Two Worlds: Jeff Ferdinand: 9781539302278: Amazon.Com: Books")
Once I looked at Jeff’s well written book without my subjective viewpoint and read it for its intent, I understood the importance of his premise. The racial divide that is starkly shown physically between Oak Park, being mainly white and middle class, and Austin east of Austin Boulevard is painful and real. Jeff Ferdinand and his wife moved into the Austin neighborhood known as the Austin Village which is just inside Austin around Lake Street. There are a number of white families that live there because it is much cheaper than Oak Park.
I can attest to the high price of owning or renting in Oak Park as I had to move after my husband died. I could not afford the taxes so when my youngest child graduated from Oak Park - River Forest High School in 2004, I moved to a similar house in a western suburb with taxes a quarter of what I would be paying now if I stayed in Oak Park.
When Jeff Ferdinand or his wife mentioned to friends that they were considering living in Austin, they would say “Oh you can’t live on Austin. It’s too dangerous. My initial reaction was one of fear. I wasn’t familiar with those neighborhoods,” said Ferdinand, who grew up in a mostly white, middle-class neighborhood. “I was driving through and was just nervous. But when I got back I was like, ‘Why did I feel like that?’ And my wife was the same way.” (Dean)
They moved there and when they started to get to know their neighbors, their fears went away. Jeff decided to look into why there is this chasm between white and black communities. Chicago has the dubious honor of being the most segregated city in the United States and the fact that Jeff teaches in the Chicago Public Schools which has huge disparities between schools that serve black/brown children and those schools that have a sizable white population. He decided to delve into the reasons for this and give a history lesson for those who might not have knowledge of America’s and Chicago’s racist past. I will not review this portion of the book which is the largest portion as the historical part is self-explanatory. I will say he did an excellent job in his research and made it easy for those who have a basic understanding of race relations to understand why we are in the situation we face now in Chicago.
The chapter where Jeff lays out what he considers solutions to the ills of the impoverished black community in Austin but also the other areas of Chicago with an eye to the rest of the country is important to read. He comes up with seven solutions:
“First, we need to educate ourselves and the public on the history of racial discrimination. Second, some form of reparations need to be paid to African-Americans affected by the legacy of racism in the United Sates. Third, the war on drugs needs to end, and we need to find alternatives to mass incarceration. Fourth, significant law enforcement reform is necessary. Fifth, economic inequality has to be reduced substantially. Sixth, neighborhoods need to be more integrated. Lastly, the public needs to fight for justice and equality.” (Ferdinand, p.142)
Jeff’s arguments make for compelling reading and he makes very good use of his resources to make his arguments. But even before the November election of Trump, this was a tall order as we have Rauner as governor and Emanuel as Mayor of Chicago.
I believe the first solution mentioned here is crucial to happen if any of the others can be examined. The second one - reparations - is going to be impossible to implement given the current climate which has seen a resurgence of bigotry with the election of Trump. It is now fashionable to not hide your prejudices as we have Steve Bannon as a White House strategist- a known racist among his other prejudices. Now with the Attorney General being Jefferson Beauregard Session, a ‘good ole boy’, the war on drugs will intensify leading to even more arrests. He has already decided to disregard the findings of investigations into the police that were conducted recently and will not pursue reform.
Right now we are facing cuts in all the life-line programs that assist those in poverty let alone getting job opportunities in the areas of Chicago that desperately needed. Our mayor is more interested in getting jobs to bring into Chicago young white people doing jobs with no benefits or security. The minority communities are faced with even more obstacles to get a decent wage and have even their basic needs met.
This review will end with a recent event in Oak Park. A high school teacher, Avi Lessing, at Oak Park River Forest High School had his students research Oak Park’s history as well as reaching out to Jeff Ferdinand to assist his theater students write scenes that showed the racial divide. The students staged their play, Crossing Austin Boulevard, March 17-20 of this year. ("OPRF Play Explores Austin Blvd. Divide") This is one small way that teachers can use this book to help teach students about racial disparities.
"Austin Boulevard: The Invisible Line Between Two Worlds: Jeff Ferdinand: 9781539302278: Amazon.Com: Books". Amazon.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.
Dean, Terry. "New Book Sheds Light On Black History On Chicago’S West Side". AustinTalks. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.
Ferdinand, Jeff. Austin Boulevard: The Invisible Line Between Two Worlds. 1st ed. 2016. Print.
"OPRF Play Explores Austin Blvd. Divide". Oakpark.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 Apr. 2