Excerpts from Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago - Winner of CWA’s 2018 Book of the Year Award for Indie Nonfiction

By Linda Gartz

Excerpt from “Prologue”

 

Nearly thirty years after race riots had wracked our family’s West Garfield Park neighborhood of half a century, Mom had died, just five years after Dad’s death in 1989. Readying our former home for sale, my two brothers and I scoured the house, separating trash from treasure.

In the attic, we found our gold.

Standing under naked beams in the dim light, we discovered a large box labeled in my mother’s neat printing: “Lil and Fred’s Letters and Diaries.” I ripped off the packing tape and folded back four cardboard flaps. A misty spray of dust and the odor of old paper wafted up. Peering in, I dug out several small books, the oldest dating to 1927—a diary Mom had started at age ten. Flipping through the pages, I recognized in her youthful handwriting the fledgling swoops and curves of the adult script I knew so well.

Intermixed with Mom’s diaries were ten years’ worth of Dad’s journals. We pulled out bundles of letters, neatly secured with string, each with a label: “Fred’s and Lil’s Letters, 1949,” then “Fred’s and Lil’s Letters, 1950,” and so on throughout Dad’s thirteen years of travel. Digging deeper, we found a parchment-wrapped package, bound with pink ribbon tied into a bow, like a present across the decades. On the wrapping, Mom had written: “Greeting Cards Between Fred and Lil, 1942–1949,” then another, “1950–1953,” and several more multiyear packets. Farther down were Dad’s annotated daily calendars from the sixties through the eighties, and Mom’s seventeen spiral notebooks, with detailed entries of increasing chaos on the West Side and her rising fury at my father.

We moved on to Grandma Gartz’s cedar chest, which had come to be stored in our attic after she and Grandpa had died. It was filled with letters, diaries, documents, and photos spanning the twentieth century. “Listen to this,” one of us would call out in astonishment. Then all paused as a line from a letter or journal entry was read. Our ancestors’ pack-rat traits, once an object of our head-shaking bemusement, infused our attic labors with amazement and joy. For a solid week we tossed, culled, and pondered what to keep. After filling a Dumpster with the useless and unsentimental, we stored twenty-five bankers’ boxes of our treasures in my garage, where their secrets lay silent, like the contents of an ancient, unopened tomb, as I got on with the business of life and family.

For decades, I had puzzled over what had caused the demise of my parents’ marriage—Mom’s hurtful recriminations against Dad, followed by his wounded retreat, their rift reducing me to tears. And what of the downfall of our community, where Dad’s parents had lived for half a century, raised three sons, and bought property, the apogee of the American dream?

At the time of increasing turmoil between my parents, coinciding with the racial upheavals on Chicago’s West Side, I had been a teen and a young adult, with no context for the strife in my home or on the streets. 

But now, a nagging inner voice echoed in my head, luring me like a siren song: the archives might hold clues, answers.

 

From Chapter 38: “Up in Flames”

 

It was after nine thirty when Mom, Dad, and Billy approached the intersection of West End, a block north of Washington, where police cars blocked Pulaski. An officer directed Dad to turn west. Turning slowly, Dad peered south. Dozens of flashing blue lights scattered the darkness. In the distance rose tongues of flame and billows of smoke.

He drove down our alley, backed the station wagon into the garage, then started east on foot, calling over his shoulder, “I’m going to find out what’s happening.”

“Fred, please. Don’t go. This is not your business. With all those cop cars, it must be dangerous,” Mom pleaded.

“I’m going!” he shouted, and walked toward the whirling lights.

When Paul heard the back door open, he dashed from his bedroom into the kitchen. He looked to Mom and Billy. “Where’s Dad?” he demanded.

“A slew of police cars were blocking Pulaski,” Mom said, gesturing east. “I begged him not to go, but, as usual, he wouldn’t listen!”

“What? The radio said there’s a race riot going on. I’ve got to find him before he gets killed!”

Mom grasped Paul’s arm. Her voice cracked. “Paul, don’t go. Please. He’ll come back. If you go, then you’ll both be out there. I don’t want to lose my husband and my son!”

Paul pulled free of her grip and ran to the front. The door slammed. He leaped down the steps and strode east, half running, half walking. He knew Dad would have gone straight to the action. Dad’s years in the business of fire protection and underwriting had made him a junkie for conflagrations and firefighting tactics. Paul ran south to Madison Street, then turned toward Pulaski on deserted sidewalks. The eastern sky glowed a lurid, smoky red. Slowing his pace as he approached Pulaski, he couldn’t absorb what was happening on the streets where he had grown up, shopped, and played with friends. All hell is breaking loose, he thought. Fear clutched his throat tighter with each crash and whoosh in the distance. As he approached Madison and Pulaski, a scrum of young black men rounded the corner ahead and blocked his path.

“Hey, white boy?” one guy said to him. “You don’t wanna go down there.” He gestured at the red sky. “Don’t you know they killin’ your kind?”

 

Chapter 33: “Riots Redux” (Vietnam era)

 

Nightly news programs beamed the Vietnam War right into America’s homes and college dorms across the nation. War was a vague concept I had studied in history class. . . . Now TV gave all Americans an eyewitness view. I saw scared, mud-splattered boys about my own age hunkered down in swamps. Many of these soldiers confessed to interviewers they didn’t know why they were in Southeast Asia.

I watched CBS news reporter Morley Safer broadcasting from a small Vietnamese hamlet that had been burned to the ground by American troops. Children and elderly women, stunned and blank-eyed, wandered like ghosts among the charred ruins. I felt sick at the images—at the thought of my brothers, friends, or Bill moldering in those swamps; killed, blown apart, or tortured in a POW camp.

Day after day, television showed us body bags being unloaded at airports; I tried to comprehend the young men dead and rotting in gray zippered plastic. We saw footage of helicopters—the “whop-whop-whop,” a soundtrack to countless scenes—spraying Agent Orange, defoliating thousands of acres of farmland. We learned only later it had poisoned our own troops.

Meanwhile, our nation’s generals and President Johnson assured us that all was well—we had the enemy on the run and were winning this war. But after the Tet Offensive, well-coordinated North Vietnamese attacks against more than a hundred towns and cities in January of 1968, Americans realized the Communist Viet Cong were far from defeated. We’d been lied to, and a longer war was inevitable. . . .

I watched tens of thousands of young Americans march and demonstrate in antiwar protests across the nation, denouncing the war as immoral. I was not politically astute, and read the conflicting opinions of the “Hawks” and the “Doves,” unsure of what to believe. But the lies and dissembling, the scenes of innocent children and farmers killed, their livelihoods destroyed, drove me into the antiwar camp.

The mood of NU’s campus had flipped since I’d enrolled. When I was a freshman, in the fall of 1966, Greek life was all-powerful. The mostly wealthy population of coeds had dressed for class in expensive skirts and sweaters, even tying color-coordinated bows into their hair. By 1968, dressing up was becoming passé, replaced by a uniform of jeans and T-shirts, better suited to the spreading mood of defiance. Students focused on the war and the civil rights movement instead of sororities and fraternities, a transition still in flux when I pledged.

We questioned everything. In the spring of 1968, women protested the paternalistic curfews governing female students. Northwestern men could come and go from student housing as they pleased, but women had to be in their rooms by eleven o’clock on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Just a couple months after I moved onto campus, NU introduced more gender-equal hours, but only with parental approval for the females. Mom felt the more lenient dorm rules were an “invitation to temptation.”

Since my childhood, Mom had lectured me against premarital sex, adding admonitions like, “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?” I know her intention was good—to protect me from an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion was illegal, and use of birth-control pills (FDA-approved in 1961) was severely restricted. As recently as 1967, had been a felony in Massachusetts to provide birth control to any unmarried woman.