News & Articles
2011-2012, Volume 1
The City & The Other
A conversation with Bill Savage, Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Northwestern University and Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf Artistic Director
Martha Lavey: Bill, in addition to being an expert on Chicago literature, you are also, it happens, a lifelong Chicago resident. Correct?
Bill Savage: I’ve lived in Rogers Park my whole life so while writing and talking and teaching about neighborhood novelists, I also have the experience of being a neighborhood guy. I was born in 1962, right now I am almost 50 years old and I have the same phone number I memorized when I was five.
ML: Oh, those 50 years are coincidental, because as you know, the first act of Clybourne Park is set in 1959 and the second act is set 50 years later in 2009. Perhaps you and I can spend some time talking about Chicago in this last 50 years.
BS: Well, one of the things that happens if you’re in the same place for as long as I have been, or some people end up being, is you end up having “vertical knowledge.” That is, layers of knowledge over time about how the place has changed--remembering streets and places as much by what used to be there as by what’s there now. And that is a really important part of understanding cities over time, because cities are always a combination of persistence and change.
ML: That’s a fantastic way to describe cities – as a testament to persistence and change. Talk about those forces in the first act of Clybourne Park.
BS: It seems to me that the first act helps us understand what whiteness means. Up until the late 19th and into the early 20th century, what we think of as ethnic white groups would have been considered almost as separate as the races. You had as much conflict between Irish and German, and Irish and Polish, and Italian and Lithuanian and all these groups that now we tend to think of as primarily “white”. One of the ways that sense of white identity got created in the urban landscape was through racial covenants that would exclude African-Americans from renting or buying in particular neighborhoods. These covenants were created in usually two ways. One way would be through, and I use the term very loosely, “gentlemen’s agreements” among real estate brokers (and this is very vividly depicted in Richard Wright’s Native Son). Alternately, community groups would get all of the property owners in an area to sign off on a covenant agreeing not to sell to whatever group they defined as “the other,” which sometimes would also include Jews and Catholics.
ML: One of the things that I want to talk about is the manifestation of racism in the American South vs. the North. In the South, racism was enforced by actual law, and in the North, it worked differently.
BS: Well, in the South you had the Jim Crow laws that started to be put in place right after Reconstruction was abandoned. I hate to say Reconstruction failed, because it didn’t get a chance to succeed. So African Americans begin coming north not long after the Civil War in order to escape that particular form of legalized racism, which was, of course, backed up with lynch law. Racism in the North, particularly the industrial North, was tempered by the need for workers. When African-Americans came to the city, they were often used as strike-breakers, which didn’t help with race relations, which were also made tense because of the de facto although not de jure racial segregation where real estate companies would not rent or sell to African Americans outside of a certain prescribed area. Northern segregation was a matter of real estate covenants and then of white violence and vigilance essentially around the edges. Richard Wright is the first guy you want to go to read about this, along with Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes and other African-American writers. But James T. Farrell is a great writer to read from the perspective of white neighborhood people feeling threatened – or not - by blacks moving in.
ML: Bringing this back to Chicago – in your reading, how does Clybourne Park intersect with all this history?
BS: Bruce’s play is so great, because he’s got so many nuances and layers. For instance, calling it “Clybourne Park.” He’s invoking Hansberry’s fictive neighborhood, but he’s obviously created his own. There is no 406 North Clybourn.
ML: There is a little pocket park called Clybourn Park.
BS: Clybourn starts at Division, right around the corner from here at 1200 North. But Clybourne with an “e” was the name of one of the first white settlers, Archibald Clybourne. His name was spelled with and without an “e,” they didn’t have spell-check back then so they couldn’t keep track, but he came in 1802, so as far as the Pottowatame were concerned, he was the first gentrifier. Or one of the first. And “Park” is the eponym of so many Chicago neighborhoods on every side of town. So Bruce has got all sorts of little details that are really, really interesting in terms of making this a Chicago play, as well as a more broad address to American identity.
ML: From your observation, is gentrification in Chicago a perpetually evolving process?
BS: For a neighborhood to be gentrifiable it has to have a certain kind of housing stock, a certain kind of relationship to the transport systems (usually the CTA but also arterial roads and so forth), and it has to have once been a good neighborhood that declined and became a bad neighborhood or an industrial working district where the factories shut down. That first becomes attractive for artists, or poor people, who need a place to live, then the people who open coffee shops for the artists, then the people who open bookstores and bars for the artists, then the people who want to live around the bookstores, bars, and coffee shops in a neighborhood full of artists. The most vivid examples of this in Chicago in the past few decades are Wicker Park and Bucktown. When Nelson Algren lived in Bucktown, it was a Polish ghetto that was transforming into a Latino ghetto. Now it is a hipster capital of the planet. The irony of this is when the hipsters complain about the Yuppies moving in, even though the hipsters are the ones who drove out the Latinos and the Poles.
ML: No strollers, please. You mentioned a couple of writers. For someone interested in reading the stories of Chicago’s neighborhoods, what would you recommend?
BS: I’d begin with James T. Ferrell -- “Chicago Stories”. Then, chronologically, after Ferrell would be Richard Wright with “Native Son,” which is just a monumental book, a book that really dramatizes the essentially self-fulfilling prophecy of white racism, which is: if you treat people like animals eventually they will turn into animals and bite you. Then, Nelson Algren writes about the ‘40s and ‘50s in Wicker Park -- “In the Neon Wilderness” or the novel “The Man with a Golden Arm.” The writers to read about post-Industrial Chicago are Stuart Dybek, “Coast of Chicago,” “Magellan” and “Childhood and other Neighborhoods.” Also, there are a lot of great Latino writers in this town, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo. Bayo Ojikutu teaches at DePaul -- his book “47th Street Black” is fantastic contemporary work. All write about this kind of new wave of immigrants, new kinds of encounters between the “other” and the settled, or the already there, whoever they might be.