"It's All About Access" | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

"It's All About Access" 

Integration did its job well, says open housing advocate Aurie Pennick. Now she's got to figure out what to do about gentrification.

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Back in 1968 Aurie Pennick was a married teenage mom living in her mother's south-side apartment. Today she's finishing her tenth year as head of the largest and most influential open-housing organization in the metropolitan area. "My own life experience is testimony to the need to have access to opportunity," says Pennick, president and CEO of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. "It's all about access. Just give someone a chance."

Though a child of the 60s, Pennick wasn't a civil rights activist until relatively late in life. "I was a quiet kid," she says. "I was good in school but never into politics." She lived with her mother in a two-flat at 59th and Peoria, in the heart of Englewood. "My father was a Pullman porter who died when I was young," she says. "My mother was a domestic worker. We were probably poor, but I never knew that. I wore hand-me-downs, but they were really nice hand-me-downs--I wore cashmere sweaters, because the people my mother worked for gave them to her."

Back then the city was undergoing cataclysmic racial change as several south-side neighborhoods, including Englewood, went from white to black almost overnight. "You know how it went," Pennick says. "Black families moved in, and white families moved out."

In retrospect, the change was inevitable, because thousands of blacks were moving into Chicago from the south while the expanding suburbs were opening up housing markets for middle-class whites. But the trends were clearly hastened by panic and fear.

"We were the second black family to move to that block," Pennick says. "Inside a year there were probably less than two white families left. But as hard as it may be to imagine, I wasn't really paying attention to all of this. Here I was living in the heart of one of the most segregated cities in the country, and I didn't even think about it. It just wasn't part of my consciousness. The struggle for civil rights to me seemed like a southern phenomenon. We had relatives in the south, and when we visited them I'd hear stories about lynchings. But it didn't seem a part of my life. I didn't take it personally."

Pennick went to an all-black grammar school (Beale) and an all-black high school (Englewood). The whites who lived closest to her house were north of the 59th Street viaduct. "Sometimes we would cross that viaduct and go into the white neighborhood," she says. "There would be catcalls, but nothing serious. The white kids would chase us, but I don't think they wanted to do anything to us. I remember one little black boy fell once, and the white kids stopped running. It was like, 'What do we do now?' They obviously didn't want to catch him.

"There was this nice little old white woman--old? Hmm, she's probably as old as I am now. She lived just beyond that viaduct. She would come out of her house in the summer and give us lemonade. She never made an issue about black or white. She'd say, 'Why are you children running? You're going to get tired.' And we'd all drink her lemonade, black and white kids."

One of the first eye-opening moments in Pennick's life came in 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. brought his movement to Chicago and began leading open-housing marches through all-white neighborhoods on the city's southwest side. In some cases, he was greeted with stones and bottles and mobs of angry white residents. "That's when I really saw the racial hatred that existed in Chicago--that's when it became personal," she says. "Before that it didn't seem as though it was meant for me. But when they threw rocks at Dr. King, that's when it became clear--this was meant for me. It was a rude awakening."

In an attempt to get King to call off his marches, Mayor Richard J. Daley convened a summit conference with some of the city's most prominent religious, civil rights, business, and civic leaders. The Leadership Council, headed by Kale Williams, was an outgrowth of that summit, charged with the seemingly overwhelming task of bringing open housing to the entire metropolitan region.

Pennick remembers reading about the conference in the papers, though she was still a long way from joining the movement. After graduating from Englewood in 1966, she got married. Two years later her first daughter was born, and her husband went off to fight in Vietnam. "My husband was like a lot of other black boys of his time--he was really eager to go off to war," she says. "That was a day when being John Wayne was all a lot of young black men could think of. He joined the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne. He loved wearing the uniform. He wrote me letters telling me how much he believed in the war effort. All of his army friends were African-American boys just like him--18- or 19-year-olds from Detroit or Cleveland. Inner-city kids. They thought they would fight the war and then come home and the government would take care of them."

But her husband came home disillusioned. Eventually they divorced, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 30.

Pennick moved on with her life. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago and eventually became a lawyer. She remarried, had a second daughter, and bought a house on the far south side. "This time," she says, "my mother lived with me."

In 1992 Pennick was working as a lawyer for the CTA when Kale Williams retired from the Leadership Council. "I had some experience in civil rights law, and I got a call from a headhunter asking if I was interested in the job," she says. "I said, 'I can't see doing that job like Kale.' The headhunter called again and said, 'At least give us the benefit of a doubt and come in for an interview.' I wound up taking the job."

By then the council had become a major force for integration in the suburbs and the city. It had trained thousands of real estate brokers in the intricacies of fair-housing law and had sent teams of black and white "testers" into communities throughout the region to see if real estate agents were steering prospective home buyers and renters to all-white or all-black communities. According to council records, the organization has trained "more than 26,000 real estate and lending professionals" and "conducted more than 20,000 tests for discrimination." It has also assisted "more than 75,000 low- and moderate-income minority home seekers," and it oversaw the court-ordered Gautreaux housing program, which grew out of a lawsuit filed by CHA residents back in 1967. That program helped integrate city neighborhoods and settle almost 8,000 low-income African-American families in predominantly white suburbs.

Under Pennick, the council has expanded many of its training and testing programs. Most blacks and whites in the region still live in separate communities; according to a recent study by the council, "eighty percent of African-Americans would have to move in order to create an even distribution of the African-American and white populations."

Nevertheless, says Pennick, many myths about race and housing have been shattered in the three decades since King came to town. Upwardly mobile black professionals have moved into previously all-white suburbs--even Du Page County, which vociferously resisted integration throughout the 60s and 70s--without generating the sort of white flight Englewood experienced.

For better or worse, white home owners have even reversed the trend, uprooting working-class blacks from communities such as Old Town on the near north side. Pennick says gentrification is one of the great challenges of the next few years. She and other council leaders are concerned that rapidly rising real estate prices will force the city's poor--black, Hispanic, and white--into a handful of inner-city neighborhoods or inner-ring suburbs.

"I feel we've been more successful than anyone expected," says Pennick. "The Gautreaux program really broke myths. I remember people said there would be no demand, and yet there were literally thousands of people who lined up for applications. In general, I think integration has a bad rap. I think there's this fictitious notion that it didn't work. It can work, and it has worked--we just don't have enough of it."

She acknowledges that few activists even talk about integration anymore. "What we [at the council] promote is that all people have the right to live in communities of opportunity," she says. "When that's denied, it leads to the disparity both in income and education that we see. That's why I keep saying you have to give people access to opportunity. My own life experience shows that. Prior to my generation, no one in my family had gotten past high school. But my mother was able to move to a better area in the 1950s. I wound up becoming a lawyer, and my two daughters have master's degrees. It's all about getting people an opportunity."

On June 3 the council will hold a luncheon to celebrate, among other things, Pennick's ten years with the organization. The featured speaker will be Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia. "John Lewis is the only surviving member of the Big Six," says Pennick. "You remember the Big Six, don't you? They were the leaders of the major civil rights groups in the 1960s who met with President Johnson. I make my staff take the test: name all the members of the Big Six and their organizations. Everyone should know this history. It's more than trivia, you know." She pauses. "For all of our progress, we aren't where we ought to be."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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