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Op-Ed Tue Sep 02 2014
By Sarah Adams
"It's just such a relief that people of quality are coming to the neighborhood," a woman sighed to me at my coffee shop. "I never thought I'd see a BMW parking on Howard. My property value must be going up!"
This woman, who I will call Kim, is a neighbor of mine. One of the few actual property owners in my neighborhood, Rogers Park/South Evanston, she owns a condo on the lake at Juneway Terrace, a posh residential development on a block that used to be sneeringly referred to as "The Jungle" by people farther up the North Shore. She is speaking, of course, about two new restaurants on the Evanston side of Howard, Ward 8 and Peckish Pig. Both of these restaurants are a couple blocks from my house. They both advertise "New American" menus with farm-to-table ingredients, cocktails that are barely 6 oz, craft beers, etc. Since they have opened, many people immediately ask me what I think about these restaurants and "how nice it is to finally have some place to go around there." Many of the comments people make about Howard street these days sound a lot like Kim's; it's hard to put a finger on why it makes your stomach wrench. Is it offensive? Kinda racist? Classist? Am I supposed to be agreeing that this is a good thing? Should I print t-shirts that say Saving Howard, One $18 Cheese Plate at a Time?
Initially I didn't know how to respond to her comment. My face flushed and I pressed my lips together and all I could think to say was, "Well, I live around here. And I grew up here, so..."
Instead of reading that I was offended, Kim took this as an open door. "Oh, so then you must know what I mean," she breathed confidentially, leaning in as if to commiserate with a fellow Reasonable White Person in Rogers Park. Not really, I murmured, and winced a smile as I handed her a cappuccino.
First let me say that I have nothing against new businesses opening along Howard. In fact, I welcome them and patronize many of the stores. I know the owners of these two restaurants personally. I went to elementary school with one of their daughters. I make them shots of espresso multiple times a day. I sincerely want them to succeed, because they are good people and I have known them to be solid, ethical business owners. So, why is it that every time I pass their storefront, I feel irritated...almost angry? It wasn't until Kim said this to me that I realized the reason these establishments make me uncomfortable is because, as an actual member of this neighborhood, I feel completely unwelcome in these restaurants because they weren't made for me, or for anyone else who actually lives here.
Imagine my dismay when I took my boyfriend to try out Ward 8 for our monthly dinner date and opened the menu to see a fifteen dollar sandwich. Working an hourly wage, my general rule is if a sandwich costs more than an hour on my feet dealing with other people's shit, then that sandwich is too damn expensive. A fifteen dollar sandwich sends a message in this neighborhood, and that message is we don't want you here. Peckish Pig is slightly more affordable...slightly. All entree dishes and cocktails are over $10. Although I've got to hand it to them, they seem to be taking the temperature of the community and responding. Recently they have started featuring more affordable specials, and have begun hosting community events on Mondays. Ward 8 could definitely take a tip from them.
However, at Ward 8 you don't have to wait until you open the menu to feel unwelcome. Right next to the door of Ward 8, there is a sign that reads: "NO SHOUTING. NO FIGHTING. PLEASE REMOVE ALL BASEBALL CAPS."
Today I posted a photo of this sign on my Facebook and said, "Dear Ward 8, this is racist as hell." The response I got, from people who live in the neighborhood and from people who don't, was varied.
Sorry, I don't see any intentional racism here. I understand how this could be construed as a racist message though.
Wearing baseball caps in a restaurant is pretty much a sign of having no class regardless of race and has traditionally been frowned upon by fancy establishments.
In that neighborhood...you gotta be cautious. How is this racist?
I understand you, but I don't think it is. Its only racist if ALL black people (assuming that you mean racist against black people) shouted, fought, and wore baseball caps. Its more classist, but we know those overlap too. I get it though, pretty much could be seen as implying that much.
In order to understand why this sign is problematic, you need a little lesson on Howard Street, Rogers Park, Evanston, and the literal racial divide on Howard. You also need to know that these restaurants were heavily subsidized by the City of Evanston.
Wait, what? That's right. My taxes are paying for bars that I and other members of this neighborhood can't even afford to patronize. Read on.
This graphic is a "racial dot map" made by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service based at the University of Virginia. They use census information to make a striking visual of the racial makeup of the entire country. Each dot represents one person: blue dots=white people, green dots=African American people, red dots=Asian people, orange dots=Latin@s, and brown dots=other ethnicity. I've zoomed in here on Howard street, which is an east-west street just below the center of the image. It should pop right out to you......because there is an obvious wall of sparse blue dots (white home-owners) bumping up against a dense area of green dots (African American rental tenants). There is a literal racial line in the sand.
Howard Street is the northernmost border of Chicago, and the southernmost border of Evanston. Like most urban borders, Howard is unfortunately blighted with a lot of crime with a sharp increase in homicide this year. And again, like most urban borders, both Evanston and Chicago bicker over who is responsible for Howard Street like divorced parents fling blame at each other over their problem child. Recently, when I was speaking to Alderman Joe Moore at a community event, he kept emphasizing that I lived on the Evanston side of Howard, as if this should answer my questions. Infuriated, I said, "Well that's just it, isn't it? Everyone wishes Howard Street was someone else's problem." When you walk down Howard, it is glaringly obvious which side of the street is the Evanston side and which is the Chicago side. The Evanston side has planters on every corner, decently maintained apartment buildings, a bakery, a police outpost, a laundromat. The Chicago side has a Popeye's Fried Chicken, a Buffalo Joe's, and convenience markets that sell little more than chips and candy. Are you getting the picture here?
It's ironically fitting that I now live on Howard with my partner, because growing up in a joint-custody family with one parent in Evanston and one parent in Rogers Park, I experienced a kind of bizarre dual-citizenship of these neighborhoods. As I've grown older, I've accepted both of these places as my home, but because I moved in with one parent when I was twelve and spent most of my formative years in Rogers Park, I usually identify as a Rogers Parker. But it's kind of funny, because now when people ask me where I live, my response is very similar to when I was a child: I kinda live in Evanston, and Rogers Park, too. I live on the Evanston side of Howard, next to these new sparkling restaurants filled almost exclusively with upper/middle-class white people.
Instead of integrating into the neighborhood and creating a space where people who actually live here could afford to go enjoy a drink, these prohibitively expensive restaurants only put the racial divide along Howard into dramatic relief. When I visited Ward 8, the diners there clearly exuded an air of purpose, an edgy sense of urban adventure. Here were the good kindly people of Evanston, stoically bringing their business to Howard Street.
This is especially put into contrast because right across the street from Ward 8 is Tally-Ho, a bar that caters to a mostly African American middle-aged crowd. They have a sign on the door that says you have to be 30+ to enter, but I am 26 and have never been prohibited from entering the bar. It's a calm, chill hang that occasionally gets rambunctious... with dancing and laughter, that is. This is where we come to the problem of the sign. "NO SHOUTING," when African American voices are often read by white people as "loud" and "hostile." (I'm not making this up; I have observed my African American friends, particularly male friends, be asked to "tone it down" or "calm down" frequently, when they are simply, um, talking. And not to mention the very serious problem among white liberals of tone policing.) The "NO FIGHTING" point seems almost laughably condescending. Like, of course no fighting, assholes. Isn't this a given in polite company? Why are you immediately assuming that someone walking in your door is loud, hostile, and wearing a baseball cap?
When you wrote this sign to this imaginary person who might walk into your establishment, what did that person look like? I think I might have an idea. And I'm pretty sure you were writing to some caricature of the people around you. When you glance at Ward 8, and read that sign, and then scan your eyes across the street to Tally-Ho, the message is pretty clear: This is our side of the street. You stay on yours.
Well, when I was there a patron of Tally-Ho did cross the street to come see if Ward 8 was hiring bar-backs. "Excuse me," he asked multiple Ward 8 patrons in a comfortable, neighborly manner, and was ignored. He sidled up to the bar, and the body language of multiple patrons was very uncomfortable. Finally, he got the bartender's attention and asked his question. Immediately, the bartender's face became a wall. No, we're not hiring right now.
Us people, them people.
During our entire meal I felt uncomfortable, and didn't know why. It wasn't until later that I realized the icky feeling in my stomach was coming from the realization that these people thought they were improving my neighborhood simply by showing up, parking their BMW's, spending their money with their own people (I'm talking about class as well as color), and then leaving. My ire was raised even higher when I learned that Evanston City Council donated thousands of TIF dollars in subsidies for Ward 8 to open on Howard. Peckish Pig also got a nice slice of the TIF pie. If you don't know what TIF money is, TIFs are basically pools of money taken from property taxes that are used for community growth. This kind of money is usually earmarked for projects like renovating neighborhood schools and parks. But in Sweet Home Chicago there has been a huge problem of TIFs being used inappropriately...one huge example being Mayor Rahm Emanuel claiming that there is an education deficit and closing scores of schools while forking over TIF money to DePaul for a new basketball arena. There's a disgusting trend of mayors passing out TIF money to line the pockets of their friends. So, you can imagine how angered I felt to learn that the tax dollars of hard-up South-Evanstonians were donated to open a couple of bars that all but exclude the people who actually live here.
I understand that nobody wants to believe that they're a racist. I'm sure that if anyone who regularly patronizes Ward 8 or Peckish Pig reads this, they will immediately be on the defensive, and my goal isn't to attack anyone. I'm not trying to smear the owners of Ward 8 or Peckish Pig, because this issue is so much broader than that, and bigger than individuals. The racism in Rogers Park is an insidious, systemic breed that is not often participated in by single individuals, but absolutely is experienced on an individual level. Do I believe the owners of these places are racist? No. Do I believe they are participating in a racist dynamic? Yes. I'm trying to present a dynamic that has been here for decades. Paint you a picture. When neighborhood after neighborhood in Chicago is aggressively gentrified, we can no longer view racism outside of shifts in our political economy that fundamentally change how racism is experienced in these neighborhoods. I mean, think about it: why would anyone say there's "finally some place to go here" when Tally-Ho has been on Howard for more than twenty years? When there are numerous ethnic restaurants up and down the street? Think about it: what are they actually saying?
Why does the presence of posh whites who can afford to spend $13 on four ounces of liquor suddenly validate the existence of my block? Even more, why have people decided that the presence of these middle and upper-middle class whites is saving Howard Street? What exactly are these restaurants doing for my community, other than shutting us out? And especially considering that the doors to these establishments were opened with tax money specifically earmarked for community development: what does that tell us about our definition of that? Or what we see as community? I don't know about you, but my definition of "community development" goes a little deeper than opening private businesses to collect profit.
Now that I've had some time to reflect, I can tell you what I wish I had told Kim: I'm sorry that you believe that the people who live here, work here, play here, and grew up here were bogging down the value of your lakefront property. Because let's be real, sweetheart: it's not that you believe that Ward 8 and Peckish Pig are some kind of a solution. What you really believe is that the people around you are a problem that must be dealt with.
Oh, and Ward 8? Get out of here with that racist as hell sign.
This piece was originally appeared on SHINYHELMET PREVAILETH and has been republished with permission of the author.