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Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz


Rating: (Recommended)


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In his new book, Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz finds a way to describe a place through stories about some of the people who live there. In a few hundred pages, he captures Chicago in ways that will resonate for those who know the place. By way of disclaimer, I was inclined toward recommending Kotlowitz’ book for several reasons. Both of us are New Yorkers who fell in love with Chicago by accident. We live in the same village on the western border of the city. We’ve eaten at many of the same places, and have observed many of the same people.  With that said, sample for yourself how well he writes about the people in this place. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Give Them What They Want,” pp. 68-79:


Milton Reed is a lanky, long-legged man, and so I need to walk briskly to keep up with him. He carries a large sketch pad under one arm, and he has stashed his sketch pencils in the pockets of his beige cargo pants, along with a box opener, which he uses as a sharpener—and which also affords him some protection. He is not slowed down by his footwear: Nike running shoes from which he’s cut away the heels. They resemble slippers more than sneakers. “Bought ‘em too small’ he explains.


We’re scooting past weed-choked vacant lots and aging wood-framed homes that lean in the wind like prairie grass. We pass a group of young African-American men, one of whom halfheartedly attempts to conceal the mari­juana blunt they’re sharing. They turn away from us. Reed, who is also African-American, says to me, “You don’t have to worry out here. They look at you, and think one thing: There goes a cop.” He lets go with his signature laugh—an uninhibited cackle that comes in small, staccato bursts, and often in response to his own observations. This is less a sign of immodesty than an acknowledgment that it’s okay to laugh at his stories and perceptions, some of which can be discomfiting in their bluntness. The young men, who up to this point have been trying to deflect our notice, now turn to see what’s so funny.


Reed had invited me to join him at the Bud Billiken Day Parade. Each summer, this parade winds its way through the heart of Chicago’s South Side, a ribbon of predominately black neighborhoods, which runs from the Loop to Ed Sadlowski’s South Chicago. (Blacks and whites still live very separate lives here, as evidenced by the El platform in the Loop at the end of the business day: Those waiting for the northbound trains are virtually all white, those on the platform awaiting the southbound trains virtu­ally all black.) Billiken, as far as I can make out, is the coun­try’s largest parade. It lasts six hours and has fifty thousand participants. (By comparison, New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade lasts three hours and has roughly five thousand participants.) Another million people line Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard, ten to twenty deep in places, and some spend the night in sleeping bags to secure a good viewing spot. Virtually everyone who attends the parade is African-American. In fact, an out-of-towner stumbling upon this hopping celebration might think that it was one of black Chicago’s best—kept secrets, except that it’s tele­vised on two local stations. The truth is that the city’s imaginary borders can be as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall had been. A visiting friend once arrived at O’Hare airport and received a city map from a rental car agency; the map didn’t include the South Side.


The parade, which is held the second Saturday in Au­gust, originated in 1928 as a salute by the Chicago Defender to its paperboys. The Defender is one of the country’s old­est African—American newspapers, and though it’s lost much of its vigor, in the 1930s and 1940s it was considered es­sential reading in the black community. Pullman porters would distribute the paper in southern towns, where it helped lure victims of segregation northward. The parade’s name derived from a small statue—a “Billiken”—which sat on the editor’s desk and which parade organizers claim was a Chinese god who watched over children. But Billiken, it turns out, was neither a deity nor Chinese. Around 1910, a small Chicago firm, the Billiken company, produced small figurines—sometimes in the form of penny banks—of a bullet-headed creature with pixie ears, a grinning mouth, and a rotund belly. It was the Cabbage Patch Doll of its day, a passing craze, and undoubtedly one of these figurines made its way to the desk of the Defender’s editor, Lucius Harper, whose nickname was “Buddy.”


The parade’s path winds through a part of the South Side long known as Bronzeville, a neighborhood whose ups and downs have inversely reflected the nation’s mood on race. It was a thriving hub of black-owned businesses through the 1940s, the destination for blacks who fled the South in what has been hailed as one of the largest inter­nal migrations in history Bronzeville, where such writers as Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks settled, was also home to Liberty Life Insurance, the first black-owned insurance company in the North, and Overton Hygienic Company, one of the foremost suppliers of African-American cosmetics. The nation’s first black-commanded regiment, the 8th, was stationed at the Armory on Giles Avenue, which was named after the regiment’s highest ranking officer, Lieutenant George L. Giles, who was killed in World War I. (The regiment’s members held off white hoodlums during the race riots of 1919, station­ing themselves on the fire escape of a nearby YMCA with their weapons.)


There’s much history here. The Pilgrim Baptist Church, formerly a synagogue (in this city of ever-changing neigh­borhoods, churches adorned with stars of David are a com­mon sight), was designed by Dankmar Adler, whose father was the synagogue’s rabbi, and Louis Sullivan, with a help­ing hand from a young Frank Lloyd Wright (who worked for Adler and Sullivan’s firm at the time). Some consider it one of the most beautiful Sullivan interiors. The peaked­ ceiling structure boasts exquisite ornamentation, organic forms juxtaposed with geometric designs. It’s also here at this church where the blues musician Thomas Dorsey pio­neered modern-day black gospel music. (Dorsey authored “Precious Lord,” which has been recorded by a divergent cast, from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash.) A mile south was the old Chess Records’ storefront where the Chess Broth­ers, Leonard and Phil, played a Little Walter recording, “Juke,” and conducted an early version of test marketing, placing a speaker in the corner doorway to see if people at the adjacent bus stop responded. And there’s Meyers Ace Hardware, once the site of the Sunset Café (which later became the Grand Terrace), a hotbed of jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. Earl Hines and Cab Calloway performed here regularly as did Louis Armstrong, who titled one song “Sunset Stop.” Musicians still come by the hardware store often, since, as one once said, “This place is as sacred to jazz musicians as the Wailing Wall is to Jews.” The store’s owner was once offered ten thousand dollars for a mural in one of the back offices, past the screwdrivers and furnace filters; it depicts a trio of musicians and a sultry singer whose head is cut off by wood paneling. Another time, twelve German trumpet players came here; each pur­chased plungers, and had the store’s owner sign them.


In the 1960s, when white establishments opened their doors to blacks, many of the businesses in Bronzeville suf­fered, and most eventually went under. The community is undergoing a revival, in large part because of a thriving black middle class committed to staying in the city and re­building this historic neighborhood.


Milton Reed has come to the parade in the hope of earning some money by drawing profiles. The previous summer, he told me, he made more than three hundred dollars, charging seven dollars a portrait. A line had formed in the morning, and it never let up. Reed and I reach the corner of King Drive and Muddy Waters Drive (the city has so many honorary streets, many named after obscure personages like Daniel D. “Moose” Brindisi and the Reverend Frenchie Smith, that it’s lost count), and Reed has me purchase two milk crates at a dollar apiece, so he can have a place for him and his subjects to sit while he sketches. “Let me get to work,” he announces, although there doesn’t seem to be much work to be had. No one has approached him. I use one of the crates as a platform so that I can see the parade over the crowd. From a nearby vendor, Reed orders himself a small container of rib tips, then worries it might get his hands too messy, so instead asks for a Polish sausage. I holler for him to get me some of the jerk chicken. The food is plentiful, as are renegade vendors whom the city, on this occasion, traditionally chooses to ignore.




I first met Reed in 1999, while visiting a woman in the Stateway Gardens Public Housing complex, which was then a collection of eight seventeen-story high-rises. He was in the living room of my hostess, where he was paint­ing a gold-trimmed black panther on the cinderblock wall. He had a forty-ounce bottle of Colt 45 beside him, and he was so completely engaged in his work that he didn’t say a word. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the rendering, though it was clear that Reed had taken great care with it. He had first sketched the outlines of the pan­ther in pencil, using a ruler and right angle, and then had gone to work with oil-based house paint. Because of its permanence, there was little room for error. I assumed at the time that the panther was meant to conjure up more radical days. I later learned, however, that a number of years before a woman had asked Reed to paint a black panther with gold trim on her kitchen wall to match her black and gold furniture, a common color pairing among public-housing residents. (“They all follow that same tra­dition’ Reed told me.) Word quickly spread, and soon Reed had a reputation. Public-housing residents came to know him as “Mr. Artist”—as in “Mr. Artist, how much you charge for one of them murals?”


Reed, who’s now in his late forties, has salt-and-pepper hair and a trimmed beard and mustache. He likes to talk, and he unabashedly offers his opinions to just about any­one, including to the cadre of young drug dealers outside his building. “They tell me they’re in business,” he says. “I tell ‘em they need to get a real job.” Reed’s full-time job is as a maintenance worker at the Dearborn Homes, the public-housing complex where he lives. Since the early 1990s, however, Reed has been kind of a Diego Rivera of the projects, painting the imaginings and realities of the dispossessed, of the men and women who live in America’s poorest neighborhood, an area beset with the kinds of problems one might expect in a place where ninety percent of the families are headed by a single parent and where violence has become such a way of life that a ban­ner on a local church calls for a “Peace Truce” and a local tombstone maker, Elmo’s, advertises, “While U Wait. Be­fore You Go, See Elmo.”


Reed himself grew up in public housing, in the Robert Taylor Homes, a complex of twenty-eight buildings adja­cent to Stateway. The Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens stretched over two miles, the longest contiguous alignment of public housing in the world. Reed liked to draw as a kid, and after dropping out of high school, he earned his GED and went on to a junior college, where he took commercial art classes. He then worked for eight years at a graphic arts firm, and while he didn’t particularly like the job—it stifled his creativity, he says—the company did send him to more art classes, where he learned about perspective and composition.


He began his part-time career as a professional artist by painting fairly mundane likenesses: apples, oranges, and peaches in people’s kitchens; cartoon characters like Betty Boop, the Flintstones, and Pikachu on the walls of chil­dren’s rooms; fish and dolphins in bathrooms. Also, early on, he was often asked to sketch likenesses of Jesus Christ, but it irked him that virtually everyone wanted Jesus to be white. It was as if people had been beaten down for so long that they no longer believed that anyone who resem­bled themselves could amount to much. “They’ll say, ‘Why you draw him so dark?’ “he told me. “I’ll say, ‘Jesus wasn’t really white and they’ll say, ‘Look, I’m paying you, do it the way I say. I know how Jesus look.’ I mean, they probably met Jesus in person, so I can’t argue with them. I give ‘em what they want.”


Soon, people began to make personalized requests. First, there were the panthers. Then, of all things, it was landscapes. He remembers the first time it happened. A young woman told Reed she wanted a sky with clouds over water and trees. She said she wanted the sunlight coming off the water. “I said, ‘I understand,’” Reed re­calls. “‘Let me try to make you feel good.’” The land­scapes caught on. Drab cinderblock walls became lakes surrounded by oak trees. Beaches with palm trees. People so treasured these soothing natural scenes that they’d throw parties where friends could get their pictures taken in front of them. It was as close as many of them would get to finding a refuge from the dankness of their neighborhood.


Women asked Reed to paint them lounging by the water, a vicarious escape. Soon, one asked Reed to paint her by her lake naked, and that, too, caught on. Reed, though, refused to have women model in the buff out of fear that their boyfriends might not approve, and so he’d undress them in his head. One client told Reed, “Oooh, that look just like me. That’s how my breasts look. It’s just like you was looking at me. You got a good imagination.”


Disapproval in this neighborhood can get ugly, and Reed quickly discovered that people didn’t take kindly if he painted the same mural in one apartment that he’d done in another. Reed told me that once, in an elevator, a client threatened to beat him up if he didn’t change a neighbor’s landscape, and so now he always makes sure to choose dif­ferent hues for the water, or rearrange the placement of the trees, or choose different kinds of trees. “I’m giving them something,” he told me, “that they can never have in their life unless they was rich.” And so, he goes on to say, they want something that reflects their own sensibili­ties. They want something unique because there’s not much they can call their own.


Reed keeps a record of all his murals, but he never signs his work, out of fear that the housing authority might come after him for defacing their property, though truthfully they should have been compensating him for beautification—_and, on occasion, for keeping people out of trouble. Once, a woman who lived on the tenth floor asked Reed to paint the city’s downtown skyline on her living room wall so that it would be as if you were looking right through the cinderblock at the John Hancock Build­ing and Sears Tower lit up at night. Reed charged her one hundred fifty dollars. “It’s just like you were looking right outside’ he said. He came back the following week to put some finishing touches on the mural, and the woman asked him for one other thing, to draw a rendering of her, off to the side, with one arm pushing forward, as if she were reaching for the clouds. “It looked as if she was danc­ing,” he said. Then she made one final request, that he draw her boyfriend, away from her, upside down. “Make sure you put his face in there, so I know it’s him,” she told Reed. So, he drew him upside down just as she’d asked, his feet straight up in the air. When he stepped back, he real­ized that he’d drawn this woman pushing her boyfriend out the window. “Instead of murdering that guy’ Reed said laughing, “she can take her fantasy out like that.”


Not all of it makes sense to him. “I hate to tell you,” he said. “Some people got some weird imaginations.” One woman asked him to paint on one wall a rendering of Jesus (Caucasian, of course), and on another wall a man, standing, his pants unzipped, urinating on a tree. “I can’t know what goes on in these people’s heads,” he said. “I would think that that’s wrong, just to have a person on the wall, taking a leak. And then she said, ‘I don’t like that penis, make it bigger.’ So I says, ‘Wanda, they don’t come that size.’ She says, ‘Maybe yours don’t.’ So I did it. Just like she asked.”


Some of Reed’s work reflects the fact that death is very much a part of this neighborhood. Drug dealers, with their deep pockets, are his modern-day Medicis. One asked Reed to paint scenes of a young man injuring a police­man, an officer getting shot as he exited his squad car, and an officer getting run over. He obliges such requests be­cause the money can be quite good, and they treat him to free beers, but he despises the work. He can only hope that maybe his renderings will be cathartic and thus help fore­stall future confrontations between the drug dealers and the police. (Once, he heard that the police were looking for the artist who had done these murals, and he made sure to disappear for a while.) More often, though, his cus­tomers request tombstones that read REST IN PEACE and in­clude the name of the deceased friend or relative. In one apartment, a gentleman asked him to draw ten of them in his bedroom. “You know what?” Reed says. “I think it really helped a lot of people, kind of calmed them down.”

The people Kotlowitz selects to profile in Never a City So Real provide detailed pictures of life in Chicago. These people lack pretense and present themselves to the world as they are. Thanks to Kotlowitz, they represent all of us in this special place.

Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: a City So Real.htm


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