Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The Gapers Block book club is dedicated to reading both fiction by Chicago area authors and non-fiction works about our city. This month the book club is reading Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood by Carolyn Eastwood. And, as the book club begins its second year, I am pleased to announce that author Carolyn Eastwood is scheduled to join us to talk about her book at our next discussion on Monday, May 8, 2006 at 7:30pm at The Book Cellar bookstore, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.

Gentrification and urban renewal are terms that get tossed around a lot in Chicago. To many people, gentrification is synonymous with rising rents, condo conversions and a gourmet coffee chain on every corner. But no one understands the devastating dark side of urban renewal better than the residents of the Near West Side.

Since the earliest days of Chicago, the Near West Side has been an entry point for major immigrant groups making their first home in the city. First, the Irish began arriving in the first half of the 19th century. They were followed quickly and eventually replaced by Czechs, Germans and Bohemians. At the turn of the twentieth century, those groups, in turn, made way for a wave of Italian immigrants and Russian and Polish Jews. Then, during the mid-twentieth century, the neighborhood gained vital African American and Mexican communities.

Those living on the Near West Side have always had their share of struggles. But, in the past 50 or 60 years, neighborhood residents have been forced to fight for their very lives to save their community from literal demolition.

In the introduction to Near West Side Stories, Eastwood neatly summarizes the disastrous assaults made on the community by the city and other institutions. These include the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which divided the neighborhood in the 1950s, and the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, which literally destroyed a large part of the Italian community and continues to consume businesses and land in the neighborhood.

But, against this backdrop, Near West Side Stories is about the personal histories of four "extraordinary ordinary" people trying to save their homes, their communities and their livelihoods. Eastwood conducted extensive interviews with these four people over a two-year period, and most of the book is dedicated to their stories, told in their own words. Each person represents a different ethnic cross-section of the community, and each interview is preceded by a brief overview of the history of that ethnic group within the neighborhood.

Harold Fox, born in 1910, remembers the once thriving Jewish community and his family's successful tailoring business. Fox also recalls inventing the zoot suit.

Florence Scala discusses the Italian community, her close ties to Hull House and her famous fight against Richard J. Daley to try to prevent the city's land grab for the University of Illinois campus.

Nate Duncan provides insight into the neighborhood's African American community, and remembers the successful delicatessen he owned until it was demolished by UIC in the late 1990s. Nate's Deli was the same deli featured in The Blues Brothers film where Aretha Franklin sings her musical number, "Think."

And, finally, Hilda Portillo discusses the Mexican community and her own fight against the Archdiocese of Chicago to save St. Francis of Assisi Church on Roosevelt Road.

Through their stories, and through the lens of one neighborhood, Eastwood illuminates problems faced by communities throughout the city. Because these residents effectively lacked the economic status to make their voices heard, those who could least afford to lose their homes and businesses, lost them. Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood is thoroughly researched, yet accessible and highly engaging, as the struggles of a neighborhood is viewed through the personal histories of four ordinary people who became leaders in their communities.

So read Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood (Lake Claremont Press, 2002) and join the book club on Monday, May 8 at The Book Cellar at 7:30pm as we welcome author Carolyn Eastwood and talk about her book. And, be sure to sign up for the Gapers Block book club mailing list for news and other announcements.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . She may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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