Redlined tells story of one of the last white families in West Garfield Park | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Redlined tells story of one of the last white families in West Garfield Park 

Linda Gartz's memoir also offers some insight into the blindness of neighborhood residents to racial discrimination and disinvestment.

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click to enlarge Linda Gartz, second from left, with her grandmother, parents, and siblings in 1953

Linda Gartz, second from left, with her grandmother, parents, and siblings in 1953

Courtesy of author

Redlining is still alive and well, continuing to haunt communities that decades ago were denied access to home loan financing. A March report from the Neighborhood Community Reinvestment Coalition found that areas denied credit in the postwar period remain heavily disinvested in today.

One community emblematic of the ravages of redlining is West Garfield Park, one of the city's poorest, most neglected neighborhoods. The city of Chicago has transferred millions of TIF dollars and is now planning to build a new police academy in the community for $95 million—money that many argue could be better spent on other services.

Before World War II, the community looked quite different: it was home to recently settled German immigrants. But that wouldn't be the case for long, as documented in Linda Gartz's new memoir Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago. Gartz, a longtime Chicago TV producer, describes a far different West Garfield Park than the one that exists today: "At the time of Dad's birth, in 1914, West Garfield Park was a neighborhood of wooden sidewalks, dirt streets, and butterflies fluttering above open prairies."

In 1940, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, the organization tasked by the federal government with determining the financial viability of neighborhoods, would mark the area in yellow to signal "definitely declining." Just blocks away, it drew a red line, designating the area as "threatened with Negro encroachment" and therefore an undesirable place for banks to offer home-loan financing. Although these government-backed policies encouraged massive economic disinvestment in changing neighborhoods, their eventual impact was hardly clear to the white families already living there; instead the whites directed their anger and violence at the black families trying to settle on their blocks.

The Gartz family lived in the neighborhood in the midst of these chaotic changes, similarly confused about what was happening. But unlike most white families, who sold their homes and fled the neighborhood, Linda's parents remained, rooted by the reluctance of her father, Fred, to leave the place where he grew up and Fred's parents' decision to give the family their house—a six-flat—after they fled, compelling them to become landlords for more than 40 years. The decision to remain would create an incredible strain on their marriage as Fred traveled for work while his wife, Lillian, became a full-time property manager in a community that grew increasingly unstable and violent each year. Redlined offers insight into the ways white families failed to grasp their own role in how government officials reshaped the city, and how those failures further solidified the racial divisions that continue to plague Chicago today.

click to enlarge SHE WRITES PRESS
  • She Writes Press

Tracing these consequences is in part what drove Gartz to write the book. After their mother's death in 1994, Gartz and her two brothers discovered in the attic of their former home their parents' and grandparents' letters, diaries, and business records in the attic of her childhood home. In 2002, Gartz began working to compile, sort, and analyze the massive trove of documents. (All the papers will be donated to the Newberry Library.) Sensing that her family's experience provided a distinct perspective on one of the city's most fraught eras, Gartz struggled for years to find a story within the thousands of pages of documents. The historical importance of redlining ultimately helped her find a focus.

"I knew that this story about my parents staying in this neighborhood was significant, because no other whites did that," Gartz says. "I wanted to explore what happened to my neighborhood, what happened to my parent's marriage, and the two sort of coincided."

In the book, Gartz documents the ways in which she grew into political consciousness amid the tumultuous changes brought on by the civil rights movement. While she remembers feeling confused and unsettled as a teenager watching southern police officers attack black protesters, those changes would soon be felt much closer to home.

Gartz writes about her eighth-grade graduation at Tilton Elementary School, where only four of 74 students in her 1962 graduating class were black. She was friends with one of those four, she remembers, but even in second grade, she "knew that because of the way things were in the neighborhood, I wasn't allowed to have her over to my house." But with redrawn school maps and the profiteering efforts of blockbusting real estate speculators to drive white families out and resell their houses to black families at a markup, the school would have a graduating class of 58 percent black students just a year later. This was the moment, Gartz sees now, when redlining "turned the flow of whites out of our community into a flood."

click to enlarge Gartz's parents, Lillian and Fred, on their 10th wedding anniversary in 1952 - COURTESY OF AUTHOR
  • Gartz's parents, Lillian and Fred, on their 10th wedding anniversary in 1952
  • Courtesy of author

As Gartz and her parents became familiar with their new neighbors, their racist assumptions were quickly challenged. While Lillian initially describes feeling "squeamish" at the arrival of the first black family on her street, she soon declares to the rest of the family, "You know, I'm not the least bit unhappy in this changing neighborhood." Though a sense of neighborhood stability quickly fell apart after the sudden change in demographics, there's still a sense in the book that Lillian and Fred are transformed by their deepened relationships with black families, which quietly reshape the reflexively racist attitudes they'd once held. Gartz shares a moment at their dinner table, when her mother recounts the experiences that their local butcher, Eddie, experienced growing up in the Jim Crow south. Telling her family how he was used as a shooting target by his white boss, she breaks down crying, while Fred comments, "Man's inhumanity to man."

For that reason, Redlined is an important reminder that white people's racist attitudes are harder to maintain after sustained contact with people of color. Since the 1950s, psychologists have developed the contact hypothesis, which argues that, under the right conditions, meaningful interracial contact is one of the best methods of reducing hostile attitudes between people. That's clear in small moments in Redlined, as when Linda's brother Paul and their neighbor Mr. Lewis repair a car together while the 1965 riots rage just blocks away.

click to enlarge Gartz and Bill, early date, summer 1965 - COURTESY OF AUTHOR
  • Gartz and Bill, early date, summer 1965
  • Courtesy of author

Living through the aftermath was a formative childhood experience for Gartz, and as she grew older and came to realize that its consequences were even more far-reaching than she'd realized, she was compelled to explore the topic further.

"I would have never done this search if I hadn't lived through this," she says. "I had heard of redlining, but I didn't realize how pervasive and insidious it was to our present situation."

Though she's lived in Evanston for the past several decades, Gartz still considers herself a "dual citizen of sorts," forever changed by her first 26 years as a Chicagoan—although the family did leave West Garfield Park in 1965 for Old Irving Park. With Redlined, she hopes that her family story will help readers understand how consequential redlining remains across our country today and how similar injustices are still being perpetrated against poor black communities today.

"Redlined is a personal story, into which is interwoven the history of redlining and its impact on one family in one Chicago neighborhood," Gartz says, adding that she believes a memoir might be less intimidating to casual readers than an academic book on the subject. "[I hope] it may provide a path for the nation to move forward and remedy these unconstitutional injustices of the past that are still having an impact on race relations today." v


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