All photos taken live from Chicago properties & environs

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This ain't Daley's Bridgeport

“Are you sure you want to check out these buildings down in Bridgeport?” I nervously asked my client.

“Yeah, of course, why not?”

“Well, that neighborhood is, you know, a bit different than what you're used to. I just hope that's all right.”

“Yeah, I know, don't worry alright, I'll be fine. I can handle it.”

Twenty minutes later we arrived, our bikes secured to the nearest wrought iron fence, a sunny Spring day finally upon us.

“Shit, what's with all the White people?” he said with both surprise and indignation.

“I tried telling you, but you said you were up for it.”

The Buyer lived in North Lawndale, a predominantly black neighborhood enlightened with blocks of historic greystones and the beautiful expanse that is Douglas Park, and he worked with mostly young Latinos. That was what he knew of Chicago. The fact that he himself was White, raised in White exurbia, made no difference. He wasn't a self hater who spent his time caring for his cornrows and rapping nostalgic about the death of Biggie. But he was acclimated to a culture, or cultures, that offered a lot of energetic life that happened outside the living room. He became fond of the strong importance that both Blacks and Latinos put on family and festivals. He assumed most White neighborhoods were full of people who wanted to tell you how to live your life and then retreat behind their towering fences of sustainably harvested raw grain cedar.

I told him he needed to open his mind because in ten years of traveling Chicago by bicycle, I have only been screamed at and nearly attacked in two neighborhoods, Lakeview and Bridgeport, both predominantly Gringo havens. Oh...and last year one guy tried to attack my girlfriend and I on my motorcycle, on the NorthSide, near Irving Park and Sheridan. He was White too. So I told him, “Hey, don't be so hard on our kin, they can be wild and festive too.”

Our first home to inspect sat on one of Bridgeport's crazy diagonal streets, the maze that runs south of 31st Street to the highway. Chicago is a great city for the urban explorer since many small residential streets spread across several communities, like Racine, or Paulina, or Oakley. But others only exist for a single block, never to be found anywhere else. That's our pocket here, a labyrinth of one namers, an alderman's wet patronage dream.

The brick workman's cottage was a testament to Chicago's turn of the century builders. It really was built to house workers at any one of the city's numerous factories. But instead of some tornado bait tract house in Bourbonnais, laborers could walk home from the 'office' to a home with intricately carved ornamentation hollering below the roof line, and enjoy oak moldings throughout the house, and of course, because it's Chicago...hardwood floors.

We were loudly greeted by the sweaty hairy open arms of Foreclosure: several sheets of brightly colored paper hung at obtuse angles along the front door and living room windows. A rotting lockbox dared us from the precipice of a shiny gold kwikset lock, barely retaining it's position in the rotting plywood replacement door.

Inside, thieves resuscitated the home's dignity by absconding with the previous owner's poor taste in bathroom fixtures and kitchen décor. Unfortunately, nobody was willing to steal the stained dentist office grey carpeting that sheathed the hardwood from the blasphemous re-decorating skills of an Owner who 'just needed a change.'

But the expensive things, the things that aren't eye candy, that most Buyers overlook, the wiring and the plumbing, and the HVAC system, well, they were all relatively new. And then begins the inevitable question a Buyer, or visitor asks inside a foreclosed home, “What happened? Why did they leave?”

Like the Mayans or Hair Metal Groupies, we have a fairly accurate report of what might have happened to the former habitants, without actually able to know the whole truth. This home, like many that I come across in foreclosure, if not ALL, seems to be the result not of lost jobs, or Bank malfeasance, or subprime tomfoolery, but what the Right Wing would call a lack of Responsibility. The sales histories of many foreclosures will show a similar pattern. The person either bought their home during the boom years of 2003-2006, or they refinanced during those years. Then shortly after they bought or refinanced the home, they attempted to sell the home for much more than they owed, and rarely dropped the price until it was too late. A two year spiral generally ensued before their greedy sales price turned into a short sale turned into a foreclosure. Sure, we all hear the horror stories of bank errors and the old lady forced out due to one late payment, but the reality is, on the ground here in Chicago, that the majority of the foreclosures are most likely (because just like those fans of Twisted Sister we don't have fully substantiated evidence) the result of irresponsible owners who thought they could cash out while the market was hot, and had loans that were more than their paychecks. Incidentally, many of the income properties I deal with remained habitated by landlords who would collect rent for years before foreclosure while never making a single payment. But, c'mon, who cares, right, that was so yesterday. Let's talk about Murdoch wicked tango moves on Dancing with The Stars.

The home had promise. Good bones and a pretty backside as they taught us in Realtor College (enroll now and receive a free subscription to every infomercial ever made conveniently rolled into a monthly magazine). The Buyer and I took a walk around the block. School had just let out. Grammar school kids laughed and played from one end of the block to the other. Shaved Ice and elotes were being hawked on the corner.

“Hey, it's not so White. Look at that kid. And that one. I think he may actually be Asian. Wow, Asians!” my client clucked with new found enthusiasm for Bridgeport.

“Yeah, well, I should have mentioned that Bridgeport has actually become the nexus of the near South Side where the Chinese, Mexican, and Irish/White populations merge into one giant chop suey taco on sodabread.”

Two large brick buildings on either side of the property had their doors opened as kids funneled inside. What was this?

We followed the children, but not too close, because, this is still America after all, and two grown men seen within inches of a child is reason for a SWAT team beatdown. A cheery young woman told us what was going on: Afterschool programs where the kids can play sports, do crafts, learn computer programming, and even learn how to be sound engineers. Plus they gave food at a no or little cost to the seniors in the area. She recommended we speak to the Director. He was just outside the door.

Another cheery member of this bustling program interrupted his conversation to chat with us. This was Benton House. And yes, he was the director.

“Can you tell us a little about this place?” I asked like a front row nerd on a field trip to City Hall.

So we learned about the 100 year history of the organization, and the various community programs they provided for children, teens, the homeless, and the elderly. But then we found out that maybe foreclosures aren't what we think they are, or for that matter, nothing is what it should be. There was a staff of several people helping run programs for hundreds of people, and of course, a Director, this gentleman, who oversaw everything. Nobody was paid. Not even the Director! Not one person earned a paycheck from Benton House. Some of them got free room in the main building. But these people, these volunteers, had one intention, and that was to help others that could use some assistance. An entire organization, a successful organization, a group serving people throughout the Bridgeport community, regardless of race, was being staffed entirely by volunteers.

For all the negative news we hear, for all the people who only see life through the prism of a Dollar, for all the foreclosures and struggling economy, for all the racial categories we insist on categorizing, there are people who's only motivation is to help another human tolerate, enjoy, and even excel in life.

Bridgeport is getting labeled a “Community of the Future” by many residents of the area, even finding it's way into marketing campaigns for a local organic food supplier. Maybe they are on to something.

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