Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Little Flower

I've written in this space before about sense of place in Chicago and how many Chicagoans identified their neighborhoods with the local Catholic parish, even if they were not Catholic themselves. I've also written about my great aunt, Gertrude, who lived for years not in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood as far as she was concerned, but in St. Sabina's. Her older sister Lillian a few blocks away, also lived in the same community on the south side, but in reality she lived in the parish of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus or as everybody called it, Little Flower, after the term of endearment given to the nineteenth century saint for whom the church was named.

Little Flower, like St. Sabina's, was one of the major parishes for the South Side Irish community. Unlike its neighbor about a mile to the east which would become a tremendously successful African American parish under the guidance of the Reverend Michael Pfleger, Little Flower struggled as the neighborhood changed, and closed its doors in 1993, a part of the major purge of struggling Catholic churches in the Chicago Archdiocese under the administration of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. Here is a Tribune article from November 22, 1993 which contrasts the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Archdiocese of Chicago with the final mass at Little Flower.

The article notes that for the first time in a long time, Little Flower was filled to capacity as several former parishioners came back for one last look at their old church, while current parishioners wondered where they would be worshiping in the future. I imagine it was one of the few times in the church's history when the sanctuary was truly integrated. One of the current parishioners noted that if the people who came back that day never left in the first place, the church wouldn't have needed to close.

I was in fact a little surprised to read that folks actually came back to Little Flower from the suburbs, so great is the fear of many whites to return to the old neighborhood which had become predominantly black, even for just a visit. There was an incident a while back involving St. Sabina's that illustrates the situation. Fr. Pfleger wanted his school to join a predominantly white south side Catholic sports league. Many white folks, parents of children in the league, were aghast, no way were they going to risk driving themselves and their children back into the city, to "that neighborhood." The league originally voted 11-9 against admitting St. Sabina's. It was an embarrassing moment for Catholic Chicago, especially coming as it did on the heels of a letter from Cardinal Francis George on the need to close the racial divide. The league later voted a second time and overturned their original vote but the damage was done. Here is an impassioned view on the subject from Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and here is a much more scathing attack from the site Please note in the latter link, a very insightful letter from former Chicago Bear and St. Sabina member, Chris Zorich.

The phenomenon of neighborhoods radically changing population almost overnight, has been going on in this town since the beginning. According to U. S. Census data, the population shift in the community of Auburn-Gresham was especially dramatic. In 1960, the community's population was 100 percent white. By 1970, the population was 31 percent white, 69 percent black, and by 1980, the population was 99 percent black.

The changeover usually begins when a black family moves into a neighborhood. The first to go are the virulent racists who are so filled with fear and hatred that not in a million years would they consider living on the same block as a black family. They pass their venom on to anyone willing to listen. Panic sets in and the situation snowballs. Here in Chicago, other nefarious factors play into the mix. Unscrupulous realtors played on these fears. They approached home owners unawares by phone or even a knock on the door, offering the friendly and helpful advice to get the hell out.

"I've got a nice house for you in neighborhood X or suburb Y where it's safe for you and your kids. Get out now before you lose any more value on your house."

This was not an idle threat. Adding to the problem were the lending institutions who literally drew red lines on maps around neighborhoods they deemed undesirable, and green lines around the desirable ones. Desirability was always based on income and more often than not, on race. It was the green-lined neighborhoods, namely newer, suburban, and predominantly white, that received the lion's share of loans and other financial services, while the red-lined, poorer and predominantly black urban neighborhoods were pretty much left out in the desert. Without help from the banks for new investment, there was little hope for the communities within those red lines to maintain themselves and develop, and not surprisingly many of them deteriorated quickly. From the Encyclopedia of Chicago, here is an article on the practice of redlining in Chicago.

It would be easy to make a blanket condemnation of white people picking up stakes and leaving their neighborhood based on the threat of change. We'd like to think, as that parishioner sitting in Little Flower during its last mass: "If only those people had stayed..."

Yet, next to our children, the biggest investment most of us have is our home. As much as we all would like to be community minded, the bottom line is that most of us need to look out for ourselves and our families first. "Get out before it's too late and you lose your investment..." may not be the most altruistic or public-spirited advice, but one certainly cannot say that it is not prudent.

In the case of Auburn-Gresham however, contrary to a common misconception, census data also shows that while the population shifted almost 100 percent in 20 years, other factors such as income levels, average years of education, and age breakdown indicate that Auburn-Gresham has remained as it has been since its beginnings, a solidly middle class community. As you can see in the photograph, Little Flower has been successfully transformed into a church of another denomination.

Still we cannot force people where to live or with whom to associate. I'm reminded of my own church's now defunct alternative mass in the school lunchroom whose attendance did not reflect in any way the demographics of our parish. The whole community was invited to join the mass but its attendance was virtually all white. For their part, for whatever reason the lunchroom crowd is very unhappy about the termination of their mass, and their being brought back into the church proper. You can draw your own conclusions.

The question is, how can we live together in our communities if we cannot even integrate a church, where we all have a common interest and theoretically all of us are equal?

All I can say is this: St. Theresa the Little Flower, pray for us.


northsider said...

Great post. My mom grew up in Little Flower in the 50s and 60s. Her family then moved to Midway area when she was in college, probably early 70s. By the time my grandparents died in the mid 2000s, the only white people left on their block were elderly. The other neighbors were Hispanic families, solidly middle class. I'm sure this must happen in other cities, but the patterns of white flight in Chicago are truly incredible.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Little Flower from the day I was born until I was fourteen. We moved not because we were racists but because the neighborhood became unsafe for whites. If you look at the crime rate in the area currently, it's not safe for anyone. The rate of violent crime in that neighborhood today is an absolute tragedy. So don't impute racist motives on the suburban parents who didn't want their children traveling there for sports events.

James Iska said...

Thank you for your comment. Having grown up in a neighborhood that also underwent dramatic change during my childhood, I sympathize with your feelings. Having children of my own as I mentioned in the post, a parent's first responsibility must be to the family.

I would make a strong distinction however between living in a community and merely visiting it. The root causes for the extreme demographic shifts in our neighborhoods are undeniably bigotry, ignorance, and fear, and the financial institutions that profited from them. Unfortunately it's those same emotions at work today that prevent us from reaching out to our brothers and sisters of a different color. Yes there is a small risk that by visiting St. Sabina's, something bad might happen, just as there is a risk any time you leave your house. But consider this: the white kids and parents who visit St. Sabina's more than likely would be received far more cordially that the kids and parents from St. Sabina's who venture into the all white suburban schools. These are the lessons we are teaching our children, and so the cycle of fear and ignorance continues. As Cardinal George put it in not so many words: we as Catholics need to do better than that. I agree.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your response, with one exception: the root cause of the extreme shifts in demographics is definitely fear, but not always bigotry and ignorance. The fear is justified. Just look at the difference between the crime rate in the neighborhood during my childhood versus the crime rate in the same neighborhood today. We never wanted to leave but it became impossible for us to stay. And your comment about the way in which white suburbanites would treat black children (besides being irrelevant, because safety is the issue, not cordiality) displays ignorance and bias on your part, so I see no reason why anyone should take your opinions on this subject at all seriously.

James Iska said...

As I pointed out in my post, you are quite right that bigotry and ignorance are not the only causes of white flight. I completely sympathize with people who face sweeping changes in their neighborhoods as I went through it myself. I clearly said, a person's first obligation is to his or her family, not to right all the wrongs of society.

However Father Pfleger wasn't proposing to send bus loads of inmates from Cook County Jail to the suburbs, just families and their kids who wanted to play basketball. And he was asking that families from those suburbs come and play ball at his school as well. Yes, there is crime in that part of town. Yes, there may be a risk that something bad might happen. And yes, it's not unreasonable for a white person to have a little trepidation going into an all black neighborhood in Chicago, just as it is not unreasonable for a black person feeling the same way going into an all white neighborhood in Chicago or the suburbs.

You're also right that my statement speculating how visitors would be treated at St. Sabina's vs. the suburbs was irrelevant, as it was purely hypothetical. However that speculation was based upon my 54 years as a white man living in Chicago, personally observing how black and white people treat each other in a segregated city. If I am biased, it's because there is honestly little in my life's experience to suggest my speculation is wrong.

I have experienced the full gamut of city life, including being the victim of crime on numerous occasions, so I know a little bit about fear. There's nothing wrong with fear, until we allow it to control our lives. As individuals, people have the right to live where they want and to go (or not go) where they please. My problem is that it was Catholic parishes who voted against allowing St, Sabina into their league. I strongly believe as a parent and as a Catholic, we have an obligation to teach our children that there is more in life than to just protect ourselves and our stuff. As a faith community it is imperative that we go beyond our fears to do the right thing. That is after all our calling as Christians. The churches' opening their arms and welcoming the St. Sabina kids is a small but important step.

Of course people don't need to take any of this seriously, they're just my opinions. But they're all I have. Hopefully we can agree to disagree. Thank you for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that very thoughtful response. I object when people call whites racists as a mean of shifting responsibility for social problems. I was raised to treat all people as equal and deserving of respect, so being called a racist hurts, particularly if it's a cynical ploy by the accuser. But I understand now that you're not doing that. You and I have a lot in common -- same age, same race, same gender, same birthplace. So I think we would probably have a lot in common in the way we look at the world, and maybe I could be persuaded to look at this subject your way as well. In any case, thanks again for taking the time to engage in this discussion with an anonymous stranger.

Anonymous said...

I will say, what a post! How is it looking at the world through rose colored glasses. I grew up at 79th and Marshfield. There is a Chicago Police Department camera on a light pole down the block from my old house. Flat out we were chased from the neighborhood. My dad dad had to bring the house up to code, and give the lady the downpayment to get out. She currently pays 250 dollars a year in property taxes. I live in the city and pay 4000$ a year.My dad worked two jobs his whole life, and never asked for a Handout ever. So, its so far from being a perfect world. It would be nice if we all could get along. Sorry, it will never happen. Oh, by the way Auburn Gresham was recently named one of the top ten violent ares in the country! So, why dont you move to 79th and Wolcott, and experience the community. So, I don't want to get in a ongoing argument with anybody, I personally think it would be a great world if we were able to get along. This is just what I think about your post.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but you and many others are caught up in the red herring argument that white flight is the cause of a neighborhood's changing. Before there was white flight there was black flight. Blacks left their crime filled neighborhoods first to get away from the dangers there. Who could blame them? "If only those people had stayed..." works in the black neighborhood too. If they had stayed and cleaned up their neighborhood instead of running then maybe we wouldn't have the problems with crime that we do. Then again, who really has the resolve to do that? When neighborhood after neighborhood turns into a ghetto why would anyone stay when the end result is the same result every time? Lastly, we have no problem with Sabina kids coming to our neighborhoods. To state that we do is an argument you need to believe in order to justify your position. However, you are right about us not wanting to go to Sabina. It is not a good neighborhood, people get shot there all the time. I and many others will not let our wives and children go there because of this. If in your mind and all the others that suffer from white guilt think that makes us racists that is your opinion. The neighborhood is not safe and being prudent does not make us racists. If living in a ghetto is such a great thing and you want to close the racial divide, then why don't you and the others who suffer from white guilt move to the ghetto?

James Iska said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't the whole point of the American Dream the idea that we as Americans have the right to improve our lot in life in part through upward social mobility, brought about by dedication and hard work? Or is that a right only afforded to white people? The black folks who left what one commenter calls "the ghetto" were doing just what people from every ethnic group have done since Chicago rose from the primordial swamp in the early nineteenth century, that is to say, they were looking for a better life for themselves and their families. As evidenced by the communities of Hyde Park/Kenwood and Beverly on the south side, Oak Park on the west side, and many of the Chicago neighborhoods on the north side, drastic community turnaround need not be the inevitable consequence of black families moving into what were once all white neighborhoods.

If you re-read my original post and subsequent comments carefully, you will understand that in no way am I labeling all the white people who left Auburn-Gresham, and dozens of other neighborhoods, racists. To the commenter whose family property was caught up in the spiral of the changing neighborhood, I would say you were victims of the problem, not the cause of it. But just as you are victims of the poverty and criminal element that now exists in the neighborhood, so too are you victims of a history of unscrupulous businesses: namely the developers, realtors and lending institutions who preyed upon white people's fears, and profited greatly from the quick turnaround of your community. In that vein, the race issue in Chicago is complicated and determining its root causes is a little like asking the familiar chicken and egg question. Look, I am truly as put off as the next guy by black people blaming racism for all of their problems. However bigotry and white flight are realities, definitely contributing factors to our current racial landscape, not a "red herring" as the one commenter states.

No I will not take up your suggestions to move to 79th and Wolcott in the predominantly black community of Auburn-Gresham. Nor will I move to the predominantly white suburb of Orland Park. My wife and I choose to live and raise our family in Rogers Park, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse communities in these parts. I would not say all is hunky-dory, there are many issues up here that make life shall we say, interesting. However we feel that living in a community where our children can grow up with kids who don't necessarily look like them or come from the same traditions is a good thing, and taking the good with the bad, we feel come out ahead.

I have no desire to tell people where to live or with whom they should associate. I said in no uncertain terms in the post that an individual's first responsibility is to what is best for his or her family, not to solve all the problems of the world. I DO however have a serious gripe with the faith communities who refused to admit St. Sabina kids into their schools' basketball league. Coming from the same faith tradition, I can say without hesitation that it is the pinnacle of hypocrisy to sit in church every Sunday and accept the Gospel of Christ, then turn around and say these kids who also belong to that tradition, are not welcome.

It's true that we will never learn to get along all of the time, but we have to for the sake of our children, at the very least make an effort. Our nation is becoming more diverse every day and we simply can't keep running away forwever.

Anonymous said...

I served the first mass at Little Flower when the large upper church was completed. It was a wonderful place to worship as a catholic. I understand that Little Flower is now a Baptist Church. I think that is fantastic that it is still being used to worship. My family moved from Chicago to South Bend IN. in 1953. Fifteen years ago my wife, daughter and I were in Chicago looking for a Wedding dress on 95th street. I wanted to show them the apartment that I lived in at 77th & Hermitage. I showed them Little Flower and then turned on to Hermitage. I heard
Hey there is a whitey on the block and there is a white bitch in the back of that car. Why Why do people act like that. I haven't been back since.

Anonymous said...

I know this comment is a couple of years late but there are two things I wanted to point out about the "crime" in Auburn-Gresham, specifically about the Little Flower neighborhood.

First, Auburn-Gresham is a big neighborhood going from around Halsted to almost Western and from about 71st to 91st. Yes, there are some very dangerous neighborhoods within Auburn-Gresham, St. Sabina being one of them, but the area between Little Flower and St. Ethelreda is probably the safest section of the neighborhood.

If you enter 60620 into a Chicago crime map online you will see the crime rate, although not as high as Englewood, Roseland or Austin, it is still high. But if you zoom in to the SW section you will see that the crime rate is actually pretty low compared to other parts of Auburn-Gresham.

If you picture the area bordered by 81st, 87th, Hamilton and Wood, it is still a pretty decent area. I am interracial but I definitely look white. When I visit the area I am sometimes asked what a white boy like me is doing over there or if I lived in the neighborhood when it was white. I have walked down Damen, Winchester, Wolcott with no issues at all. I will admit once I go east of Hermitage or north of 79th, I do feel unsafe. But the area by Dawes Park is much safer that Marquette Park or Ashburn in my opinion.

And my second point, crime spikes in an area with the first ten years of white flight. But there are many reasons for this, one of them being that the neighborhood destabilizes, it becomes very transient and the infrastructure like the schools and other organizations have to adapt. The property values also plunge and very low income people move in. But after this initial period once the neighborhood stabilizes, the crime right does drop.

A perfect example of this is Ashburn just to the west. The areas around St. Denis and St. Thomas More have experience a much higher uptick in crime than Little Flower. And the property values near Dawes Park have held their own. Houses go from $150,000 to $200,000, lower than Beverly of course but pretty good for the south side.