In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing revisits the 2013 closure of 54 Chicago public schools due to declining rates of enrollment. Ewing focuses on three schools in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side, most notably Dyett High School, where news of the school’s closure sparked a monthlong hunger strike among community members. Two questions permeate this study: “If the schools were so terrible, why did people fight for them so adamantly?” and “What role did race, power, and history play in what was happening in my hometown?” Ewing, a Chicago native and professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, selects her favorite books about Chicago.
Nelson Algren, in his essay Chicago: City on the Make, wrote this widely-quoted gem about the city and the charm of its imperfections: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Less famous is the not-so-often quoted description with which Algren follows that passage. Chicago, he says, “forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares. One for the open-eyed children of the thousand-windowed office buildings. And one for the shuttered hours. One for the sunlit traffic's noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watches when stations swing past like ferris wheels of light, yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears.”
In the tradition of Algren, contemporary commentators—myself included—often characterize Chicago as being not one city, but two. One is glittering and opulent, growing, comfortable, and mostly white. The other is a city of near-constant struggle, rust, hunger and the hustle to abate it. And it’s impossible to understand Chicago without understanding this duality. The rub, though, is that the city’s richest literary histories are strewn in equal measure between its two halves. “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,” wrote Carl Sandburg, illuminating the paradox of our ugly-beautiful bedraggled little city: it is the hungry people, not the satiated ones, who have made its best art and who speak its clearest truths about what it is to live and fight and die in America.
Here are six of my favorite books that about the city of my birth.
1. Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks
This is the essential anthology of poems by Brooks, who was the Illinois Poet Laureate for many years. Aside from the artistic significance of her work as a doyenne of the Black Arts Movement and her craft as a documentarian of everyday people, one of the most important aspects of her legacy lay in her model of what it means to be a writer-in-the-world. Brooks’s mentorship, unassuming demeanor, and personal attention toward younger poets established the groundwork for the city’s contemporary literary landscape.
Much like Brooks, Dybek brilliantly illustrates the quotidian struggles of average people, elevating them to the level of myth or epic even as he writes plainly. The short stories in this collection reflect Dybek’s experience as a member of the Eastern European diasporic wave that found a place in Chicago and shaped so much of its geography, cultural milieu, and politic in the twentieth century.
3. Division Street: America by Studs Terkel
In this collection of personal accounts gathered from diverse Chicagoans across boundaries of race, class, religion, and geography, Terkel paints a moving portrait of the city while cementing his reputation as one of America’s greatest oral historians. His questioning is profound in its simplicity and its empathy, bringing to the fore the honest truths of regular people.
This story about a young girl named Esperanza growing into herself in the cocoon of her neighborhood has been heralded as a coming-of-age story, but truthfully, Cisneros’s text has much to offer for people learning and growing at all phases of life. Cisneros also blurs the lines between prose and poetry, bringing a complexity of craft to the delights and sorrows of this book.
5. Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City by Mary Pattillo
Lauded by some as the birthplace of the sociological discipline, Chicago has been the subject of hyper-study by journalists and academics fascinated with the city and its sorrows. But few have approached the task with the attention and acumen of Pattillo, who approaches this study of a class-diverse Black community on the city’s South Side with nimbleness and care.
In this collection of poems, Olivarez traces the lines between the country of his parents’ birth and the Mexican-American communities that have formed an integral part of Chicago’s identity. With equal measures of playfulness and razor-sharp critique, he writes of “gentefication,” an imagined process in which the city’s neighborhoods are returned unto the hands that wrought them.