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Dispatches from the Bush: Looking Behind the Curtain of Baseball Fever

All eyes are on the American League Championship Series this week on Chicago’s Southside. The White Sox led by venezolano, Ozzie Guillen, and Cuban exile, pitching wizard José Contreras, bring the national spotlight to Chicago. And while light shines on our city, this light obscures more than it reveals…

Pancho McFarland

The Bush is part of the neighborhood of South Chicago, Chicago’s first Mexican community. Mexican émigrés came to work in Chicago’s steel mills during the teens and twenties. Southern and Eastern Europeans also migrated to the Southside. Racial tensions have always characterized the area. Today, the neighborhood is populated with a majority of working-class and poor African Americans and a minority of Mexican immigrants and second and third generation Chicanas/os. The South Chicago neighborhood is adjacent to Lake Michigan and as such is coveted by developers hoping to gentrify the neighborhood. Many families who struggled to create the Bush and broader South Chicago will have to give up their homes because taxes will have risen as the high value properties including yuppie high rises and upscale shops move in.

Community organization Healthy South Chicago led by long-time residents, Dinah Ramirez and Sylvia Ortega, houses OJOS (Organization for Jobs on the Southeast Side), a gang diversion program, a community garden/urban farm, and several other organizations. OJOS works with out-of-work women and men and hopes to have a say in how the community is developed. They connect workers with jobs, training programs and other resources. OJOS is developing an oversight committee that would work with the neighborhood’s aldermen to shape city development plans for South Chicago. The neighborhood will get rebuilt. Abandoned lots, rundown houses and other buildings, and former industrial sites will be turned into housing and businesses. The questions for OJOS and other community members are: What kinds of housing, businesses and public spaces will be created? Will working class Black and Brown people be priced out of their homes and/or otherwise be exploited for corporate profit and upper middle class benefit?

Community organizers have witnessed the controversial remaking of the public housing projects near the University of Chicago and are concerned that some of the problems for long-time Black residents created by the new developments will make their way into the development plans for South Chicago. The City determined that rebuilding Cabrini Green and other housing projects should include a mixed-housing plan in which middle-class professional whites would live in the same buildings or near the community’s Black working-class. City planners, politicians, and do-gooders believed that mixed-housing plans would decrease racial tensions caused by the resource rich University of Chicago placed directly next to resource poor Black communities. They also reasoned that the good examples set by new residents would serve as models for the Black underclass whose supposed “pathological culture” caused high crime, high poverty, laziness and a lack of desire to work, gangs, and a less negative view of vice and street crime.

Their “concern” for poor Black children resulted in part from the logic and perspective of the Moynihan Report and William Julius Wilson’s scholarship that shaped federal urban policy during his service as an advisor to President Clinton. Wilson’s work on the “underclass” was conducted in the very neighborhood’s that were targeted for redevelopment by the City in the 1990s. City leaders took a part of Wilson’s argument (that middle-class flight from the inner-city intensified problems caused by economic changes of the 1980s) and decided that settling professional whites in Black communities would fix many of the problems there.

Unfortunately, problems remain and elements of Black culture have come under attack. In order to entice, assure and appease potential white residents the City has imposed repressive forms of social control and many families have had to relocate as the criteria for living in the area have increased. A favorite pastime in Chicago is gathering outside on stoops and engaging in joking sessions, storytelling and other forms of communion. For some this includes drinking beer and whistling at passing members of the opposite sex. Such gatherings have been criminalized by the City. Ordinances in affected Southside neighborhoods outlaw this pastime which not only increases community unity but serves as a mechanism to beat the scorching summer heat for many who do not have air conditioning units in their homes. Moreover, the building of these mixed-housing units has displaced many families as fewer units are being built than were (or are scheduled to be) destroyed and new regulations make it difficult for large and extended families and those with ex-convicts to have their rental applications accepted. Further, residents fear that the new upscale residents will bring gentrification and more repressive policing action.

The postmodern gladiators of the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels flaunt the excesses of Chicago’s middle and upper classes. Shiny logos, catchy slogans and fleeting fan unity hide racial inequality and governmental lack of concern for working class residents of the Bush, South Chicago, and the greater Southside. The muscular heroes mesmerize the public with their powerful feats. Their unique and incomparable highlights are replayed ad nauseum by the sensationalist corporate media. On the Southside of Chicago there is no inoculation from Sox fever. Fueled by media hysteria (one identifying symptom) even new residents to the area, like myself, have developed mania, sudden fits of shouting and screaming, amnesia, confusion, misplaced emphasis, and 24 hour per day monitoring of Sox news indicative of Sox Fever Syndrome. This fever has spread to epidemic proportions as symptoms of confusion and amnesia have been sighted throughout the country. Misplaced emphasis may be the primary symptom of the fever. Millions have emphasized the ‘importance’ of Sox statistics (the White Sox haven’t won a World Series since 1917 I’ve been told over and over), and player personalities, salaries and star qualities. The series has taken on an importance for many people’s lives that games shouldn’t have.

While the media promotes the billion-dollar sports industry further misplacing emphasis and starstriking us blind by the glitter and glitz of professional sports, my neighborhood, The Bush, continues its steady decline. The multimillion-dollar salaries of superstar players and coaches could feed and house my entire block for years. The profits made by owners in a single year could pay for food, drug rehabilitation, decent housing and job training for all of South Chicago. The media spotlight highlights Chicago’s skyscrapers and “the good life” in our fine city. But, pull back the curtain on this Oz-like fantasy and you find residents of the Bush, unemployed, underemployed, marginally employed and hustling. Behind the curtain you find people like my witty neighbor, Lil Will, a twenty-something ex-con who can’t get back on his feet again because the stigma related to his status as a former prisoner denies him employment; you find Azceina, a single mother of three, raising her children the best she can on her minimum wage job at a local supermarket. You also find the many impoverished, fatherless, curious, loving children that run and shout outside my apartment waving to me to come play and laugh with them. Pulling back the curtain and inoculating us against Sox Fever and misplaced emphasis reveals the teenage and young adult members of the Latin Kings who dwell in the criminal underworld since few other options remain in this once thriving neighborhood. Groups like Healthy South Chicago also struggle and survive behind the curtain that is the American League Championship Series and media indifference.

Louis McFarland is a Bad Subjects editor.

Copyright © 2005 by Louis McFarland. All rights reserved.