When Will You Come Home?
by BRITTANY JULIOUS
We don't talk about status. We pretend that we are black like everyone else and that we are still "real." But our conversations over holiday dinners acknowledge the separation. There's a lot of "them" and and a lot of "us." Blackness is not a monolithic culture. I know this inherently as a woman whose tastes run counter to what I've been told I should like. These tastes were not a choice to be different, but the things that shaped me as an individual. They continue to evolve and so too does the notion of blackness.
I think of this in relation to my parents, my family, and our summer holidays together. Fourth of July or Memorial Day barbecues were a way to connect to the other side of the family that didn't live in the suburbs and live like we lived. My sister stopped attending years ago, first due to her job, then college, then friendships and adulthood. But I always went, in the back of my mind feeling like these trips down to the South Side were a means of rectifying the wrongs of breaking away from the community.
This summer, my mother called from her car. She was outside of my new apartment, ready to pick me up so we could ride together to join the other side of the family for the Fourth.
"It's not happening," she said.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means they celebrated and didn't tell us. It means we're not going down there."
There was a visible anger in the tenseness of her body and the direct stare she gave me as I entered her car. I sat in the passenger seat as we drove to Oak Park.
"I knew this would eventually happen. This is so like them. This is what they do," she said.
What they do is stay down South. They like where they live. This is their home, their streets and sidewalks. This confused me as a child, but as I've grown older, I've understood the symbolism and importance based on where one lives. Place holds meaning and meaning changes with age and time.
What we do is take the expressway past Chinatown and Bridgeport and straight to the neighborhoods that "blend together." I went to school on the north side of Chicago. Years later, I still live up here. When I discuss this part of the city, I break things down by neighborhoods, official and emerging. I live in Wicker Park. I live in the East Village. I live in West Town. I live in Ukrainian Village. These names encompass large areas and then smaller groups of streets. But to me and to many Chicagoans, this makes sense in a way that saying Back of the Yards or the South Shore may not. Everything is just the South Side past 35th street. This is not the reality, but place also builds stereotypes and laziness. It is easier to dismiss than understand.
Our new part of town, the South Side of Oak Park, was about the same in terms of beauty. We lived off of a major avenue filled with boxed businesses that attracted temporary visitors. Before, we had a run-down Dominick's, a Subway, and a Blockbuster. Now we had a Walgreen's, a car dealership,and a laundromat.
Our blackness existed on the other side of town. Blackness as a whole existed on the other side of town. The Austin neighborhood, predominately Black and predominately troubled, was across the street. We lived over there too, nearly two decades ago, but I still claim the vast, cold, and penetrating neighborhood as my own.
When I mention Austin to New Chicagoans, they don't understand. It is a part of the city that is not: is not nice, is not new, and is not desirable. It is not where they live and walk and ride. It is the city that is vast and the city that we tend to forget about, or the city that we ignore.
My memories are of my grandmother's living room, the expansive backyard, and the few friends I made on the street where my grandparents live. To the Chicagoans who were born and bred here, a mention of Austin is a point of fear and respect. Even they don't meet a lot of people from that side of the city. It shuts them up. There is no question of authenticity. It is an unknown Chicago, and therefore a respectable one. It is not for tourists, but people live and work here. They have done so for years and will continue to do so.
The other Oak Park was no less beautiful, but the residents were largely black and they moved into that part of town perhaps because they could see faces like their own. Or maybe, as my parents did when we first "crossed the street," to be close to the place they were before. That part of Oak Park was a reminder of that part of Chicago. It was a reminder of where they came from, where they're going, and the structure of this city.
On Madison Avenue, past Taylor Boulevard is where the Black businesses begin. They are not always Black-owned, but they cater to the Black customer, and in particular, the Black woman. A number of beauty supply stores sit next to and across the street from one another. They are always large and always packed, but I've grown to love them the older I get for their convenience and comforting familiarity. I can always find heavy, curly wigs or tiny bottles of neon-colored nail polish or make-up that is sustainable for exactly one day. No one store is owned by the same person, but you can walk into any and find your way around with ease.
I came home during the holidays and I pointed out the new beauty supply store across the street. It was the first such business to exist outside of the segregated neighborhoods this town pretends don't exist. It was a bid deal, at least to me, and symbolic in its arrival. It took over an old pharmacy. Neon lights shine long into the night. This store, this space for this particular culture that I know and participate in, but does not define me, surprised me.
My mother hadn't noticed it, or perhaps she blocked out its existence along with the new cheap shoe store, the other hair braiding salon just a few doors down from the one she's gone to for years, and the low-income housing apartments being constructed from the long-dormant remnants of a local cable company.
These spaces were empty before, a true dimming on the small community within the local community inside of the town. But it is these new businesses that inspire a fear of change. It is a gentrification of the dilapidation that arose from the break in the economy. It is a renewal. It is an expansion of what it means to live here on this side of town and in the town as a whole. It's not just us anymore.
At first she said, "You know what kind of store that'll be," but last week, the lights were on and the doors were open.
"There are mannequins in the windows, modeling clothes," I pointed out as we drove down the street.
"Hmm," she said. "That's unexpected. Maybe it won't be that bad."
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find the first part of this series here.
Photographs by the author.
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