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The terminal was just a few blocks from our apartment. Often we were the first people on the bus and had it all to ourselves. These were days in the summer months when I wasn’t at school. I would get the window seat so that I could feel the feeble air-conditioning being emitted from the metal frame. From there I’d watch the city scenes moving past me, transfixed the way I’d watch television. My mother sat by the aisle with a book opened on her lap.
Being among the first on the Broadway 36 meant we could sit near the front. We never sat at the very front, where the long seats ran lengthwise. Those were for old people and the occasional blind person with a dog – the only type of dog allowed on the bus. Why was the front so important? My mother didn’t need to say it. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but there was the assumption that – in the language of childhood – good people at the front, bad people at the back.
The bus would leave our Chicago neighbourhood, full of its Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians like us. That was how we categorised people. But as the colour of skin hides these finer distinctions, the Broadway 36 bus started its journey driving from one white neighbourhood to another.
When I was still a toddler, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr on a visit to Chicago referred to our city as “the most segregated city in America.”
The bus would roll on, stopping every few blocks, through other working-class and white neighbourhoods, passing along the commercial streets of shops and eateries. One strip of the early route followed Sheridan Road, with its residential high-rises and views of Lake Michigan. “That’s where the boss lives,” my mother would say each time as if I hadn’t heard it before. She worked for a pool of court reporters and did her typing at home. It’s the only time I’d see her look up from her book, almost as if she knew it was coming. I’d gaze at the glassy building, imagining its rooftop swimming pool and simply nod for my mother’s benefit.
The driver – usually black – would stretch his arms across the steering wheel as the bus turned off Sheridan Road. The bus would then be on Broadway Avenue and groan and squeak its way through the notorious Uptown area. It was a mixed neighbourhood. The whites who boarded often left a smell of alcohol as they swayed past us. The Hispanics and blacks would get on with the young men among them going towards the back. I knew that meant they were in some sort of trouble – or soon would be. My mother hadn’t noticed any of this. Her head remained bowed down in a book of pop psychology or some Eastern religion.
But I noticed people who appeared different from me and wondered what their lives were like. I didn’t always know what to think. From a young white girl’s point of view, the 1970s were full of contradictions. Black was cool. It was street films like Shaft and the music of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. As a baseball fan, black was also Ernie Banks and Billy Williams – two all-star players. Being a racist was clearly a bad thing – like the villains in the TV drama Roots. But at the same time, blacks and whites rarely mingled socially and after we did we would return to our own monochrome neighbourhoods.
Unlike the states in the US south, Illinois is not a state associated with Jim Crow laws, setting down the rules of segregation. You have to go back to 1853, before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery to find a law which made it illegal for a “negro” to move to the state of Illinois. But being one of the northern anti-slavery states, Illinois has a rich history of Anti-Jim Crow legislation. The 1853 act was overturned at the end of the Civil War, when a statute was written barring residency discrimination. Yet, a hundred years later Martin Luther King came to Chicago to protest housing rights and laws that confined blacks to neighbourhoods on the south and west sides.
How could this have happened? According to some sociologists, it was a matter of historical timing. In the 1890s Chicago experienced a huge economic boom and population growth. This coincided with the popular interest in the new science of eugenics. At the same time the real estate market in Chicago became organised, forming the first association of realtors (estate agents). Soon Chicago would become an international leader in real estate economics and the idea that property values were affected by the race of the people living in certain areas.
When my family arrived from Italy in the early twenties, housing covenants were being formed in Chicago. These arrangements among realtors deliberately created white and black neighbourhoods. To sustain this, the city broke away legally from the rest of the state of Illinois and created its own municipal housing code. This code forbade realtors from selling or renting property to “members of any race or nationality” into areas where their presence would be seen as “damaging property values.” This opened the floodgates in creating racially segregated neighbourhoods that still exist today.
Over the years, blacks and progressive whites have tried to put an end to this. In 1948 the US Supreme Court ruled against Chicago’s racially restrictive covenants, saying they were “unconstitutional.” But this didn’t stop property owners, landlords and homeowners’ associations from choosing who lived in which neighbourhood.
A couple of decades later, when Dr King visited Chicago, he and his supporters marched through a couple of white neighbourhoods. They were greeted by people waving confederate flags and chanting “We don’t want to integrate!” King’s popularity afforded him a meeting with the city’s long-standing and infamous mayor, Richard J Daley. The result was an agreement intended to spread social housing for blacks across city neighbourhoods and to promote more “open-housing” laws. As soon as King left town, Daley was quoted as saying the meeting produced nothing more than “a gentleman’s agreement.”
There has never been a time in Chicago when African Americans had to sit at the back of the bus, according to the laws. But like the racial segregation of neighbourhoods, what was in common practice was something else. All of these Anti-Jim Crow laws arose from the need to change human behaviours.
The Broadway 36 that began its route in our white neighbourhood, going through other white neighbourhoods and one mixed area, would eventually reach downtown. Downtown was neither white nor black – it was where people worked. The skyscrapers were filled with offices for the white-collar sector – banks, law firms, insurance and the stock and commodities markets, where my teen-self would later work. Other buildings housed the clothing shops, restaurants and bars for the convenience of the workforce. The bus would fill with workers and shoppers – black people, white people, people of all hues. They sat side by side or stood and jostled against each other. I’d look at their expressions to see if they would flinch or show disgust in these awkward moments with strangers. They never did.
Downtown was where we’d get off the bus that we had been sitting on for over an hour. Initially hit by the muggy heat in those summer months, in something of a daze, I’d follow my mother through the crowds. She’s go to an office building to drop off a box that held the loose-leaf court transcripts she had so meticulously typed or to pick up tapes that needed transcribing. As I was with her, these outings were often combined with a trip to a bakery, a diner or one of the large multi-levelled bookstores.
At the heart of the city is the Loop, named as the above-ground trains circle around the centre of downtown. Some streets after we got off, the Broadway 36 did its own loop, turning a corner and then a block later another to start its journey back again. In other words, the bus didn’t go into the black neighbourhoods of the south side.
When I was growing up the south side had a notorious reputation as a cesspool of crime – drugs, high murder rates, robberies. Before I ever stepped foot on the south side as a young adult, I held fears of it. I didn’t think it had to do with poverty, but some strange tendency that came with being a certain type of black person. At a young age, my mind followed the patterns set by the white adults around me. That I ever harboured these thoughts now makes me cringe.
When I was on these downtown trips, I noticed other buses that I had never seen in my neighbourhood. One of these buses was the King Drive 3. It went down the first street in America named after Martin Luther King. The street was christened with its new name by the same Mayor Richard J Daley who ignored King’s pleas for neighbourhood integration.
Like the Broadway bus from the north side, the King Drive bus from the south side came into downtown, did a loop and returned to its racially segregated neighbourhoods.
My mother’s tasks done, my stomach full, we boarded the Broadway 36 back to our white neighbourhood.