Ode to the Season: When Your Landord is a Precinct Captain

Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2008

I came to Chicago from Kansas in 1966 to do community service work in Gage Park, near where Martin Luther King and Al Raby were trying to organize for open housing and social justice. It was a turbulent time in the city, but during my summer on the South Side, I developed a passion for Chicago.

I came back in 1968 and found work as a secretary at the University of Chicago. When Emma Pitcher, my boss, offered me a fellowship to study U.S. history, I took it, hoping to understand the roots of the violence and misery playing out not just in Chicago, but throughout America.

In 1968, the late great Mayor Daley ran the city. The Shakman decree was a thing of the future, and my first lesson in U.S. history was the most important: Politics are local.

Graduate school offers its own misery, and in Hyde Park, that includes housing. I found an apartment in a three-flat on 51st Street, which I shared with three other women. One of the bedrooms was so full of mold no one could sleep in it, so two of us doubled up in the dining room; the other two got the usable bedrooms. For $165 a month ($990 in today’s money), we not only had mold, we had all the cockroaches we could catch. One night we sprayed the oven, where the roaches were nesting, and stomped on them as they ran out. We killed two hundred fifty. (I guess you’d have to be 21 to want to count the bodies.)

The worst part of that apartment was the cold.

The winter of 1969 was bitter, with heavy snows and temperatures that stayed below freezing until the middle of March. Our building was barely heated. We had steam radiators fed by an old hand-stoked coal furnace. The building super, who lived next door, put in his last load at five, when he quit for the day, and the first load when he came in at eight the next morning. By the middle of the night, the temperature in our rooms dropped to forty. Even during the day, it never got much above fifty.

We found the super’s unlisted home phone and called him, but he never responded. We offered to shovel coal ourselves, but he refused to give us a basement key.

We called the city. The building department sent out a jolly inspector. Like us, he kept his hat and coat on inside, but he had an amazing thermometer that registered seventy-two degrees — ten above the city code. What was our complaint?

‘No one cares’

We called again. And again. On the third go-round, the inspector had pity on us. “Girls,” he said, because we were clearly children, not adults, “Girls, the building is owned by a precinct captain. She gets ninety-two percent voter turnout in this precinct. No one cares how cold your building is.”

We tried to find out who owned the building, but we couldn’t figure out how to break through the layers of holding companies that shielded her from her tenants. We called Royko, but he didn’t call us back. We called our alderman, a useless Machine tool. We wrote essays for the Sun-Times and the Daily News, which didn’t run them. The building inspector was right: No one cared.

We spent the winter bundled in coats, staying as late as we could at the library, reading around the open oven door at night, sleeping in our gloves and hats. Space heaters just blew the fuses in the building’s antiquated wiring — which meant waiting until morning for the super to show up before we had lights again.

The two families above us suffered, too. In fact, the woman on the second floor died that winter. She’d been ill for some time, but the cold must surely have hastened her end. With that much grief to endure, the family couldn’t be bothered with the rent strike my roommates and I proposed.

The dead woman left three young children in the care of her husband and her own mother. All winter long, as we shivered over Knappen on “Puritanism” and Franklin on “Slavery,” we could hear the children above us making a noise as if they were bowling, or hurling ball bearings at snare drums.

Spring comes, even in a Chicago slum. The children emerged from the second floor, and we learned they’d been riding their bikes up and down the halls as an antidote to grief and cabin fever. We began doing things together, going to museums, or to hear Jesse Jackson at Operation Breadbasket.

Futile beautification effort

When the snow melted down to the hard-packed glass and dirt in front of the building, the children and I dug it up. We put in fertilizer, we planted grass and flowers. In June, the grass was green, the flowers started to bloom.

I went to New York one weekend and came home to a desolate scene: the super had dug up our plants and restored the front yard to bare soil. The children were beside themselves. When confronted, the super said, “Mowing that grass, you were just trying to make extra work for me.” I called Royko, I called the alderman, but I didn’t know what department of the city looked after ruined gardens, and it didn’t matter, because what would they have done for us, anyway? We needed V.I. Warshawski, I guess, but her birth lay some fifteen years in the future.

I found a different apartment with different roommates that fall. For a time, the kids from the second floor came around, and we hung out, but our lives drifted apart, as they do in the city. It makes me sad that I don’t remember their names: If I did, V.I. could track them down for me, let me see them with their own children, let me see their own adult lives as urban survivors.