by BRITT JULIOUS
The lot is empty. It was empty the last time we were here, driving to or from the city. Sometimes a gate is erected, but a hole is soon cut in the metal, letting the trash that accumulates on the crumbling pavement filter into the vast, domineering space. The lot is empty anytime we are here. It has been like this since the late 60s and even though the clothes folks wear and the cars they drive and the music they listen to continue to change, the space remains as overdone as the day the riots tore through this city like many others. Our cars were nothing special, but they stood out on our few rides home down Lake Street. We took the long way back, the way that curves and bends and rumbles underneath the old Green Line train tracks that look out on the land of the Others.
The break in neighborhoods happens suddenly, but every few months another block gets cleaned. More of the trash is swept into metal garbage cans. Across a major avenue, that same trash sits in black garbage bags on the sidewalk. There is nowhere for it to go, but it must go somewhere. The space is not acceptable, but people still live and breathe and exist there, so they must claim the land as their own. They take care of their grass and their windows and when the broken bottles and grimy containers become too much, they will take care of that as well.
"Our home was our escape," my mother once said about the small house my grandparents finally purchased in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. After moving here from Alabama in the early 60s, the family bounced from space to space, trying to make a home of a city in decline. Their house was "it," a formal recognition of a life accomplished, of a step into a newer, better, and unfamiliar class. Make no mistake, their wealth was not bountiful, but a home? With a lawn and shade and warmth? These things mean something.
The neighborhood has its charms: the wide yards, the long porches, the deep lots. It reminds me of the town next door, Oak Park, with its handsome residences. But the differences of race and class further polarize the sides of Austin Boulevard that separates the two. Most mornings as a young girl, I walked from my grandparents' house in Chicago to my elementary school in Oak Park.
Eventually I was old enough to stay at my home in Oak Park alone without adult supervision in the mornings, but those same blocks became a literal battleground of turf and pride. I came home one day from my school and my mother talked about the shooting on my grandparents' block. This was on the blocks I walked, the sidewalks I played on, the trees I hid under.
“Is she all right?” I asked.
“Mentally?” my mother responded.
In high school, my mother drove me to and from doctor's appointments in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. She had other, quicker options but she chose to exit the expressway rather than wrap around the city for another 5 minutes. We drove through the West Loop, a former home. Back then, my mother walked to school and conversed with the prostitutes on the corners.
"You try-na take what's mine?" one would ask her.
She was twelve.
The streets are cleaner, brisker, but she still recognizes how the doublewide sidewalks are unlike the rest of the city. They stick out and create an empty space. This is where one realizes how small they are, how much more there is out there, how they'll never get to see it all.
Past Bridgeport, the South Side is indistinct. The residents may say something different, but if you live above 35th street, your chances of understanding everything after the divide diminishes the farther north you live. Chicago is a massive city of broad scope and scale, but the desire to explore or understand that scope is finite. This is a city of neighborhoods for a reason.
On a recent Friday night at a bar near my apartment in West Town, I was reminded of my newness, my cog in the machine of change. At one point, this bar was the place among a string of repurposed spaces, but now it is a bar like other bars, brimming with the kitsch of a pop cultural world I'll never inhabit: KISS posters, plastic play things, heavy knick knacks.
We arrived before the crowds and sat at the bar where the bartender gave a certain look of confusion. My friend, in jeans and a backpack. Myself, in heels, despite the heavy rain and broken sidewalks outside. The conversation began. I noticed he only ordered Pabst Blue Ribbon and I felt disappointed by his choices. The night before, we had sat in a booth at Estelle's and he ordered rich craft beers. He talked about their origins, their flavor profiles.
"Why only that?" I said, pointing to my drink that Friday.
I exist inside a vacuum. Peripherally, I touch numerous cultures but none exist as my own. Trying to take ownership of something that is not fully, truly mine feels wasteful of my time.
"I don't know. I just always get it. I always have," he said.
Sometimes my thoughts get the best of me, and that evening my mind and mouth ran freely around ideas of livelihood, of race, of ownership and possession. No one will at first admit to colonizing the land, but eventually, the crowds move in and the neighborhood exists with two identities: What Was and What Will.
The space one inhabits is unique. What I live and where I live is part choice, part circumstance. Because I am a young woman alone, I live where I feel safe. But because I am Black, I can exist in other places and still blend in. My blackness is my awareness. My skin affords me something beyond the new, the hip, the here. Even if my life were only Oak Park, I would be able to fake the life and land I’ve never possessed. There is an underlying assumption there. But also, I take on these stories and lives and neighborhoods as if they are my own. They give me something — perhaps caché — that makes my life feel authentic in a way that I didn’t realize I craved.
“I never really venture past Augusta or Kedzie or Armitage,” my friend said. “I’ve been here for three years. That’s my space.”
"I hate," I began, "how people move in to a neighborhood, a culture, a lifestyle and claim it as their own. It's that possession, that ownership, that disregard."
When I finished, he had little to say. He was looking at the back of the bar lined with bottles of vodka and gin. He was rubbing his hands against his legs. He was sighing.
"You've...given me a lot to think about," he said.
And then he said, “Well, what about you?”
Britt Julious is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about a hundred other things and the divine. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. You can find her website here.
Photographs by the author.
"Out Getting Ribs" - Zoo Kid (mp3)
"How Come You Never Go There" - Feist (mp3)
"Not Long Now" - James Blake (mp3)
"Keeping Up" - Arthur Russell (mp3)
"Houstatlantavegas" - Sonnymoon (mp3)