Fat Tuesday Musing on Election Day in Evanston: Mayoral Elections and The Thread of History

Image result for nichols middle school evanston illinois

On local election day, a few thoughts on how these decisions matter, and how history plays a constant role in today’s horrors. 

Today is an election day in Evanston, as it is in so many other towns in Illinois–generally little primaries, school board and town councils and things like that. It’s a small election in an off-year, but one held in the tumult, where voting seems to have taken on a new edge, as people realize the weight of consequences.

Not that I’m expecting a huge turnout today, even in politically-active Evanston, the Chicago suburb in which I live. We’re having a mayoral primary today, although if any candidate gets above 50% he will avoid a run-off and be the next mayor. It’s a race that has generated some heat, with some local and esoteric controversies, but like so much else, has been subsumed under the panicking terror of the new administration.

I haven’t gone to vote yet–will do so this afternoon–but go with a bit of trepidation. The last time I was at the beautiful junior high building, Nichols (pictured above), a few blocks from my apartment was in November, excitedly exercising my franchise for a candidate I deeply admired, blooming in the confidence that our nightmare was hours away from ending, secure that the curtain was falling, not rising on a new grim and garish spectacle.

It’s an interesting building though, and I was glad to be there, on the morning of what I thought would be a solidification of progressive gains. Because the junior high holds a special place in Evanston history, which is one of stilted progress, classic liberalism, race and segregation.

It’s a story that is beautifully told by Mary Barr in a history book that is equal parts sociological and personal, Friends Disappear: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Evanston.  Barr was attending Nichols in the early 70s, when having integrated classes was still novel and students, teachers, parents, and administrators were still dealing with the tumult, heightened by the actions and reactions of the 60s.

There wasn’t supposed to be a reaction in Evanston, of course. The town had always been racially accepting, with a higher level of integration than nearly any of the other suburbs. But integration on paper was stratification on the ground. Evanston has a few layers radiating out roughly from the lake: the incredible wealth of the lakeshore mansion community, the upper-upper-middle class (and probably upper class) houses about a half-mile in, mixed apartments and houses/mansions for a few blocks (which is where we live–there are cute little houses and enormous million dollar homes and middle-class townhouses on our block). This belt runs roughly concurrent with the booming downtown, all mixed-use condos and amazing restaurants. It’s a strong, transit-oriented downtown, extremely walkable, and very well off.

This is followed by some busy industrial streets, and then the poorer part of town, mostly black, and where the huge majority of Evanston’s crime takes place.

This isn’t an accident either. Even though Evanston was always “progressive”, it was that late 19th and early 20th-century liberalism, which translated to “we’ll let the blacks work for us.” It was more progressive than race-riot filled Chicago, or other burning racist towns like Cicero, of course. But there was definitely an area where the black help could live.

Racist housing restrictions made that possible, and then zoning decisions enforced it. Restrictions routed most major traffic coming south from the city to the west side of town, which is laced with strip malls and tire shops and fast-food restaurants. It was a deliberate attempt to wall off the black community, much like the highways of Chicago.

Integration changed that, but the decisions made–to close black schools and integrate the white ones–were also heavy-handed (if made sense, as white schools were better funded and had better facilities). It was difficult for black students to walk to their new schools, having to cross major roads, and “fiscal” arguments broke out over lunches and busing. Should the city pay for lunches? Why? All the white kids could go home for lunch, so why should “we” be subsidizing lunches just for the black kids (whose parents tended to be working). Out of that crucible came the idea of school lunches, cafeterias, and the way most of us view the school day now.

It’s weird how those things tend to form. What we take for granted and what seems normal (our kids eating at school, those annoying and ugly intersections) were the products of a hundred decisions, in good faith and bad, and the visions of revisions of history.  The Evanston of today–prosperous, proudly liberal (87% Hillary) was created from those decisions, and they still reverberate. It’s still a largely segregated town, and you can see it in the mayoral election. The black candidate has signs all over the west side, but I haven’t seen many east of there.

Still, though, all the candidates are roughly the same. Progressive on diversity and gun violence, serious about making economic growth more equal, maintaining Evanston as a sanctuary city. There are minor differences about taxes and development, but nothing major. Whoever wins will most likely keep a downtown-focused agenda that works to make the poor west side better without alienating the rich lakefront and more conservative northern areas, and will be to various degrees successful. And we’ll take that for granted, because that’s what Evanston is.

But it is because of decisions made in Barr’s searing book, where we see the degrees of opportunities in her integrated friend group, how their lives split apart due to chance, choice, and the mile-high decisions of others. Her white friends were largely successful; her black friends less so. Or dead, from poverty and violence. The weight of those decisions–where to put a road, how to handle lunch–reverberated through the decades, and still do now. Who was in charge mattered. Even these small local votes, seemingly insignificant, had generational impacts.

As I go to vote, I’ll notice, as I always do, the large rusty fence rattling at the outside of Nichols’s huge lawns. It was put there in the 70s after small riots broke out near the school following Martin Luther King’s murder. The reason there were riots there is because, my stratification aside, there was a tiny thin black belt that ran alongside the railroad tracks. It was too noisy for white people to live there, so a string of rented houses and apartments, mostly owned by distant and careless landlords, was allowed to spring up along the rattling of the Union Pacific North line. It’s where many of Barr’s friends lived.

And you can still tell. The houses there are a little more ramshackle, a little more run-down, than a block in any direction (or even dead across the street) While it isn’t cheap to live there, you can see the results of this history, of older neglect, of choices made. You can see where the city enforced codes, and where they did not. You can see that the past isn’t really past, that it impacts us and distorts lives today, and that the decisions we make now will tendril for decades, just as history snakes us in today.

And that fence, a reminder of violence and fear that isn’t gone, isn’t even buried, will rattle in the wind and the rain.

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