“That’s the real deal, right here,” Rafiq said. “People from outside our community making money off us and showing our brothers and sisters disrespect. Basically what you got here is Koreans and Arabs running the stores, the Jews still owning most of the buildings. Now, in the short term, we’re here to make sure that the interests of black people are looked after, you understand. When we hear one of them Koreans is mistreating a customer, we gonna be on the case. We gonna insist that they respect us and make a contribution back to the community-fund our programs, what have you.
“That’s the short term. This”-Rafiq pointed to a map of Roseland that hung on the wall, with certain areas marked off in red ink-“is the long term. It’s all about ownership. A comprehensive plan for the area.
Black businesses, community centers-the whole nine yards. Some of the properties, we’ve already started negotiating with the white owners to sell them to us at a fair price. So if y’all are interested in jobs, then you can help by spreading the message about this here plan. The problem we got right now is not enough support from the folks in Roseland. Instead of taking a stand, they’d rather follow white folks out into the suburbs. But see, white folks ain’t stupid. They just waiting for us to move out of the city so they can come back, ’cause they know that the value of the property we sitting on right now is worth a mint.”
One of the burly men reentered Rafiq’s office, and Rafiq stood up. “I gotta get going,” he said abruptly.
“But hey, we’ll talk again.” He shook all our hands before his assistant led us to the door.
“Sounds like you knew him, Shirley,” I said once we were out of the building.
“Yeah, before he got that fancy name of his, he was plain old Wally Thompson. He can change his name but he can’t hide them ears he’s got. He grew up in Altgeld-in fact, I think him and Will used to be in school together. Wally was a big-time gang-banger before he became a Muslim.” “Once a thug, always a thug,” Angela said.
Our next stop was the local Chamber of Commerce, located on the second floor of what looked like a pawnshop. Inside, we found a plump black man who was busy packing boxes.
“We’re looking for Mr. Foster,” I said to the man.
“I’m Foster,” he said, not looking up.
“We were told that you were the president of the Chamber-”
“Well, you right about that. I was the president. Just resigned last week.”
He offered us three chairs and talked as he worked. He explained that he had owned the stationery store down the street for fifteen years now, had been the president of the Chamber for the last five. He had done his best to organize the local merchants, but lack of support had finally left him discouraged.
“You won’t hear me complaining about the Koreans,” he said, stacking a few boxes by the door. “They’re the only ones that pay their dues into the Chamber. They understand business, what it means to cooperate. They pool their money. Make each other loans. We don’t do that, see. The black merchants around here, we’re all like crabs in a bucket.” He straightened up and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. “I don’t know. Maybe you can’t blame us for being the way we are. All those years without opportunity, you have to figure it took something out of us. And it’s tougher now than it was for the Italian or the Jew thirty years ago. These days, a small store like mine has to compete against the big chains. It’s a losing battle unless you do like these Koreans-work your family sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. As a people, we’re not willing to do that anymore. I guess we worked so long for nothing, we feel like we shouldn’t have to break our backs just to survive. That’s what we tell our children anyway. I can’t say I’m any different. I tell my sons I don’t want them taking over the business. I want them to go work for some big company where they can be comfortable….”
Before we left, Angela asked about the possibility of part-time work for the youth in Altgeld. Mr. Foster looked up at her like she was crazy.
“Every merchant around here turns down thirty applications a day,” he said. “Adults. Senior citizens.
Experienced workers willing to take whatever they can get. I’m sorry.”
As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her. The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.
I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Rose-land, Rafiq and Mr. Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.
It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?
Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.
We drove in silence to our final meeting, with the administrator of a local branch of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, or MET, which helped refer the unemployed to training programs throughout the city. We had trouble finding the place-it turned out to be a forty-five-minute drive from Altgeld, on a back street in Vrdolyak’s ward-and by the time we arrived the administrator was gone. Her assistant didn’t know when she would be back but handed us a pile of glossy brochures.
“This ain’t no help at all,” Shirley said as she started for the door. “We might as well have stayed home.”
Mona noticed I was lingering in the office. “What’s he looking at?” she asked Angela.
I showed them the back of one of the brochures. It contained a list of all the MET programs in the city. None of them were south of Ninety-fifth.
“This is it,” I said.
“We just found ourselves an issue.”
As soon as we got back to the Gardens, we drafted a letter to Ms. Cynthia Alvarez, the city-wide director of MET. Two weeks later, she agreed to meet with us out in the Gardens. Determined not to repeat my mistakes, I drove both myself and the leadership to exhaustion: preparing a script for the meeting, pushing hard for the other churches to send their people, developing a clear demand-a job intake and training center in the Far South Side-that we thought MET could deliver.
Two weeks of preparation and yet, the night of the meeting, my stomach was tied up in knots. At six forty-five only three people had shown up: a young woman with a baby who was drooling onto her tiny jumper, an older woman who carefully folded a stack of cookies into a napkin that she then stuffed into her purse, and a drunken man who immediately slouched into a light slumber in a back-row seat. As the minutes ticked away, I imagined once again the empty chairs, the official’s change of mind at the last minute, the look of disappointment on the leadership’s faces-the deathly smell of failure.
Then, at two minutes before seven, people began to trickle in. Will and Mary brought a group from West Pullman; then Shirley’s children and grandchildren walked in, filling up an entire row of seats; then other Altgeld residents who owed Angela or Shirley or Mona a favor. There were close to a hundred people in the room by the time Ms. Alvarez showed up-a large imperious, Mexican-American woman with two young white men in suits trailing behind her.
“I didn’t even know this was out here,” I heard one of the aides whisper to the other as they walked through the door. I asked him if I could take his coat, and he shook his head nervously.
“No, no…I’ll, uh…I’ll just hang on to mine, thanks.”
The leadership acquitted themselves well that night. Angela laid out the issue for the crowd and explained to Ms. Alvarez what we expected from her. When Ms. Alvarez avoided giving a definite response, Mona jumped in and pushed for a yes-or-no answer. And when Ms. Alvarez finally promised to have a MET intake center in the area within six months, the crowd broke into hearty applause. The only glitch came about halfway through the meeting, when the drunk in the back stood up and began shouting that he needed a job. Immediately, Shirley walked over to the man and whispered something in his ear that caused him to drop back into his seat.
“What did you tell him?” I asked Shirley later. “You’re too young to know.”
The meeting was over in an hour-Ms. Alvarez and her aides sped off in a big blue car, and people went up to shake Mona’s and Angela’s hands. In the evaluation, the women were all smiles. “You did a terrific job, Barack,” Angela said, giving me a big hug. “Hey, didn’t I promise we were gonna make something happen?” “He sure enough did,” Mona said with a wink.
I told them that I’d leave them alone for at least a couple of days, and went out to my car feeling slightly light-headed. I can do this job, I said to myself. Have this whole damn town organized by the time we’re through. I lit a cigarette and, in my self-congratulatory mood, imagined taking the leadership downtown to sit down with Harold and discuss the fate of the city. Then, under a streetlight a few feet away, I saw the drunk from the meeting spinning around in slow circles, looking down at his elongated shadow. I got out of my car and asked him if he needed some help getting home.
“I don’t need no help!” he shouted, trying to steady himself “Not from nobody, you understand me!
Punk-ass motherfucker…try to tell me shit…”
His voice trailed off. Before I could say anything more, he turned and began to wobble down the center of the road, disappearing into the darkness.