East Side Crazy

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

We’d been forgotten so long, we’d become accustomed to feeling secluded. Jeffery Manor felt like living on the kind of suburban cul-de-sac where identical homes seem to pop out of boxes assembled, but it resisted such cold evenness with its homes of varying styles on streets that wrapped around like an embrace—holding itself and its people with snowballs sold at a table on the corner where an ice cream parlor didn’t exist, a library at the center of youth activity where a community center didn’t exist, karate in a school cafeteria where a dojo didn’t exist, Crystal’s where a corner store didn’t exist. Places that felt like they belonged more to the community than to any individual person. Outside of the city we were Chicagoans, but inside its borders we were East Side crazy, Jeffery Manor girls.

We climbed on our Walmart Huffys wearing knock-off jersey dresses and crispy K-Swiss gym shoes bought discounted from the store my brother, Jaxson, worked at in the mall. I rode with my sister Genesis, our friend Lashawna, and a group of girls more their friends than mine. My house—a boxy, brown brick Georgian (according to my mother) with a triangle roof, yellow awnings covering the front-facing windows, and a tiny, matching enclosed porch—was usually our home base. My mother allowed me to be generous with snacks, meals, and anything else that might be clutch for a twelve-year girl, so it only made sense to start there. Nobody else’s mama was going to let you “eat her out of house and home” in the summer months.

On our bikes, even with our wheels picking up speed, we couldn’t catch much air, it was too thick with heat. All but one house on Luella Avenue was a variation of mine—some with red or brown awnings instead of yellow, some that ditched the awnings in favor of shutters, and some with matching enclosed porches, some without. A few lawns were dull where they could be bright, but all of them were cut low to avoid a word with Ms. Vivian, the block club president.

Soon, we entered the large park near the end of my block. As we whipped past on the winding path, younger kids played on whiny swings overlooked by large trees, shielding them from the worst of the sun. Those less fearful of the heat rolled down the large, grassy hill that sat at the park’s center. When their backs hit the concrete path, they brushed their clothes off and laughed without a mention of the scrapes and bruises they’d narrowly missed. In the alley behind the townhomes that pushed up against the south side of the park, I saw a few girls I recognized in denim shorts and tee shirts that read “Baby Girl” on the front in cheap glitter. They were jumping double Dutch with phone cords. We all waved, but I was grateful to pass them quickly without getting coaxed into a few rounds. When I turned, there was “a booty in the rope,” and I didn’t have enough rhythm to ever get the timing right for jumping.

While my mother and stepfather were at work, I knew I would find Jaxson running up and down the concrete court at the edge of the park like it was the last game he would ever play. “J.R.!” I would call out to the court and receive an eye roll or annoyed hand wave in return. I knew he would not stop and talk to me. I just wanted every boy on the court and every girl on the single park bench watching to know that the tall, lanky boy, ten years my senior, crossing over niggas in orange Julian High School shorts was my brother. It was a consolation for everything I thought was underwhelming about me—the flesh growing round and pudgy on my midsection and the thick curly hair my grandmother, Mommy Mae, tamed into cornrows that were fuzzy with frizz because I didn’t care enough to wrap my hair at night.

To my mother, Jeffery Manor sounded like the constant snap of gunshots blocks away or in the alley behind our home. Her fear could not discern distance, each of those mini-missiles felt near enough to make her lie flat on the floor underneath the windows until the air was still again. The rest of our household never lay belly to the ground. We rarely heard the noise. To us, Jeffery Manor sounded like quick shots of melody muffled by bass like it was covered by a thick blanket as cars whisked down the road, sounded like a smile as we heard “hey ya’ll!” called out to the blur of us—all hair and teeth as our feet pedaled quickly on our bikes—from folks clocking hours porch sitting like it paid, sounded like a neighbor’s momma yelling five houses down the street for them to come home.

Out of the park, we turned on to 100th Street—Jeffery Manor’s main street, if you could say it had one. Cars were almost always coming, but there was never any traffic on its two lanes. Not even when the elementary school that took up one of its block released students for the day. The empty concrete lot on the side of a tiny church always caught my eye. I wondered often what used to be there, why was it now just a place for cars to rest while their owners shouted in praise for the Lord.

Farther down, we passed by the library, once located in the small storefront across the street that sat completely empty now. My mother took my younger siblings and me there once looking for history books, but the only librarian told her that most of their holdings were for children. Now, the library was a large, pale brown building with green accents and bank columns that made it feel official. Earlier in the summer, with no one’s permission, I marched my two younger siblings to that new library and signed us up for the inaugural summer reading program so we would have something to do when we were tired of riding bikes, wishing we were the little girl Harlem shaking in a blue shirt cut on the sides and hand tied in Lil Bow Wow’s “Ghetto Girls” music video, and downloading B2K’s “Uh Huh” from LimeWire. We’d kiss posters of Lil Fizz and Bow Wow ripped from Right On! magazine, imagining the warm, crushing feeling of romantic desire and the pride of being from Harlem, Atlanta, or Los Angeles—places with music scenes and people the world dared care about. Maybe one day, some East Side girl in Baby Phat jeans and a crop top could footwork to “Watch Me Work My Feet” on 106 & Park. The world would have to come to her, she wouldn’t have to forsake the land she loved or change for it.

Books would keep us busy after nightfall, when the squeaky swings in Luella Park belonged to gangs. Some nights, Jaxson would remain at the park, slinking into our home just before my eyes grew too heavy to open the door and let him in without our mother knowing.

Soon, we arrived at Crystal’s, a basement with a candy-lined table encased in chicken wire to prevent theft. We stood outside of that brown brick house sucking slimy Flamin’ Hots smothered in nacho cheese and ground beef out of warm chip bags before mounting our bikes again. We smiled at one another as we absorbed the brightness of the people and customs that enlivened the dull homes placed on top of the land we loved so much we almost never left it. Soon, we picked up our bikes again to leave the straighter part of Jeffery Manor to ride around a street shaped like a vintage keyhole or a collection of streets shaped like a baseball diamond. Though we would have to stop spinning around ourselves eventually, we all wondered, silent and satisfied with chip-warmed bellies, why anyone would ever want to.

After the streetlights came on, Genesis and I sat on the floor of the wood-paneled den of my mother’s Georgian watching a true crime documentary. On the sixty-inch television screen, a black-and-white aerial view panned across the wide townhomes at the end of Luella Avenue. I turned to Genesis, searching her face for confirmation that I saw what I thought I saw. She was as expressionless as I was. We listened to the deep-voiced narrator describe how, in 1966, Richard Speck murdered eight nurses sleeping in those townhomes, then functioning as student dormitories.

At the next commercial break, we ran upstairs to my mother’s room and screamed, “Mom! Did you know this white man killed these white ladies at the houses at the end of our block? Mom, did you know?”

Two of the eight nurses killed were Filipino, but we’d yet to understand what existed outside of Black and white.

“Yes,” she said. “Of course I knew. Folks have to make those kinds of disclosures before they sell you a house.”

We deflated like we’d been poked with safety pins.

My knowledge of white people in 2002 was limited. Though I’d never met her, I knew that one of my great-grandmothers was a white woman living in Ohio. People around me said that explained my caramel skin tone and loose curly hair texture, why it was bone straight with only one pass of grandmother’s hot comb per section. Even though my hair puffed up in the humidity until it was thick like an old wig, I should be proud, they said, of that proximity to whiteness.

I learned from comedians on Comic View that white people didn’t beat their children when they were disrespectful, and they spoke like my mother did when she picked up the phone at work.  Even as those comedians attempted to validate the generous shakes of seasoning salt on our food, the extension cord beatings that left bubbly welts on our backs, and the way our words were spoken pinched around white people like we’d swallowed a bit of helium, I knew the world thought that there was something better about whiteness if we required that kind of validation to begin with. Feeling my voice warble like it had been pushed through the blades of a fan, as I cried myself to sleep after a beating I received so I “wouldn’t cut up and act a fool around somebody else,” felt too awful to justify, especially because I knew exactly who “somebody else” was.

I knew we especially weren’t supposed to act a fool around “somebody else” if they were an authority figure, which is how they mostly appeared in my life—as the occasional teacher, police officer, doctor, or priest. I wasn’t one hundred percent clear on what it meant to not act a fool. I just knew that it meant not to say anything or do anything to scare “somebody else” or make them give me a pitying, closed-lip smile. So, I moved as little as I could and said as little as I could when I encountered them.

On TV, white people’s neighborhoods looked as crisp and saturated with color as a fat-back Zenith TV would allow. There were no empty lots and open concrete slabs in the wake of something that didn’t exist anymore. Even though my mother would threaten my brother if our grass ever came above her ankle, not a single “somebody else” would ever want to live in Jeffery Manor.

“If I were a bush, I’d want to be in front of your house. If I were a flower—,” I sang like a lullaby as Mr. Peoples—a Black man we thought was too attractive and who seemed to know way too much about the songs on 106 & Park to be a teacher—struggled to explain fractions in the science lab converted into our eighth-grade classroom. By “converted,” I mean the janitors had removed the long, metal experimentation tables and added desks big enough to only hold one of my thighs.

After Mr. Peoples erased his bad work for the same problem for the third time, I knew he hadn’t multiplied a fraction since he was a student and probably didn’t learn it right whenever that was.

“—Out!” he said, turning away from the board, frustrated, in a puff of white chalk before I could continue.

I rose from my seat as the room erupted in giggles. Making everyone laugh so no student as bored as I was with the wax on, wax off happening at the board could whisper to someone else, “Look at them chicken drumstick legs she got,” felt so good that I walked out of the room and to the main office smirking.

In the main office, Mrs. Neal dropped the envelope she was stuffing onto her desk and sighed. “Go sit in the library.”

“I can’t help you get stuff ready for the end-of-day folders like I always do?”

There was so much power in the ability to shift a whole room with just a few words that I cut up every day. It was safe to act a fool because I knew that when the only eyes were our own, discipline meant allowing the space to read, think, and discover, instead of breaking my body the way our city’s structures were apt to do. 

“I’m tired of looking at you. Go and tell Ms. Lee to check and see if you can go back to class in an hour.” 

At the small desk near the front of the tiny library—about half the size of a classroom—Ms. Lee pushed her glasses up her wrinkly nose. “I heard her,” she said.

The library and the office were next door to one another.

“He ain’t give you no work before you got kicked out?”

I shook my head no.

“Well, you better find a book and sit quietly.”

The four or five bookcases around us held dusty, outdated sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the sun-washed spines of tattered novels nothing like the glossy explosions of color I spent all of my allowance on at the Scholastic Book Fair or the sexy street lit covers I checked out at our neighborhood library. On a bottom shelf, blocked by a table and set of chairs, was a stack of manila envelopes labeled “Class Pictures.” Inside the first envelope lay eight or nine large black-and-white photos from the 1960s in which white students at every grade level bore stiff smiles, while others wore frowns like their feet hurt in hard-bottomed Sunday shoes. I caressed the image of someone’s pleated dress, ran my fingers over light gray hair that must’ve been blonde in color, to make sure it was real. I couldn’t imagine any of them rounding a steep curve on a bike, nearly falling, but never touching the ground. How could this land have ever held white people the way it held us? That was the real question Genesis and I were asking my mother in her bedroom after we learned what Richard Speck did to those nursing students, and the question I held in my legs, my back, my arms—everyplace my body bent—as I flipped through those photographs countless times, turning them over and over, hoping one of the pale faces in the pictures would part their lips and begin to speak. 

The pictures yielded no answers, and neither did our school’s Encyclopedia Britannica, but I later learned that Jeffery Manor was a portion of South Deering intended for industrial waste but converted into its own place with homes for White returning World War II soldiers turned steel mill and factory workers. In this neighborhood, so far southeast it was almost in Indiana, developer James Merrion carved winding, suburban-style streets as a possible oasis away from the Black Belt—a neighborhood on the South Side thirty blocks in length and seven blocks wide tasked with housing three-fourths of Chicago’s Black population.

Shortly after restrictive housing covenants were deemed unconstitutional in 1948, Black families from the Belt began moving into the Trumbull Park Housing Projects, eventually buying homes in Jeffery Manor like the single-family Georgian my mother purchased in 1989. By the late 1960s, the students in the class photos I found in the library had escaped these new residents and moved to the suburbs with their families, taking most of the neighborhood’s resources with them. The Black residents before us combined South Deering and Jeffery Manor, and dubbed those streets from 103rd and Torrance to 103rd and Stony Island simply, The Manor, to assert their intent to take what had been left behind and create something for themselves on that land. With our school cafeteria dojo, we were building on a legacy of ingenuity and survival. As we leaned into the land’s curves on our bikes, we were feeling that legacy across our backs before we knew it.

On a day so hot the air seemed to curdle and wrinkle, Genesis, and I walked to the close of a dead-end street bordered by tall, wild grass, hoping to find Lashawna at her grandmother’s, Ms. Gayle’s, house. Lashawna wasn’t staying with Ms. Gayle that weekend, but since we were there, she’d thrown a gray, wand-curled wig over her close-cut fluorescent pink cottony hair and asked us to accompany her to 95th Street. 

“We going in your car?” I said, more a statement than a question.

Genesis said, “She playing right,” with only her brown eyes and raised eyebrows.

“No, we walking the path along the prairie. Ya’ll need to work them young legs.”

 “Prairie? What prairie?” Genesis and I said nearly in unison as we began to walk.

“That grass and stuff over there with the gate around it,” she said, pointing at the tall grass next to us, “is the prairie. You ought to know cause a few years ago Mayor Daley tried to take this from us. They wanted another airport right there, but it ain’t work out so that’s how we got the library and the new shopping center instead.”

After rounding the bend that began our trail, the walk was flat, but it wasn’t even. The concrete path—an alley, really—cracked underneath our feet, and the quick elevation of the speed humps took us by surprise no matter how far in advance we saw them. We were so captivated by Ms. Gayle we did not miss our shapes.

“Don’t ever let body tell ya’ll you ain’t from nowhere. They tried to take that,” Mrs. Gayle said, pointing at the prairie again. “So that means it’s worth something, means you’re worth something.” 

I turned as we walked and really looked at the prairie then. A tall, wire gate tried to encase it, but blades of grass both green and the color of hay stuck out in all directions from underneath. Discarded chip bags and candy wrappers were stuck in its craw. Behind the gate, the grass was the same save for the places where it seemed to no longer grow. Farther back were tall trees. Between the greenery of the ones closest to us you could make out more prairie, but nothing seemed to lie between the trees farthest away but more trees. I could imagine how Jeffery Manor might’ve once been what lay inside the gate. Weather-washed wooden garages, grassy backyards, and concrete slabs lined the other side of the path, with thick-topped trees and even thicker bushes threatening to overtake it all. Feet striking the road, I could feel the past and my present between those two sides—the Black people before me who would not allow the land they rescued to be overtaken, and the community I loved that learned from their ancestors to speak value and love into each other at every chance. We did not build the homes we lived in, but our souls were more embedded in the concrete, the grass, and the trees each time we turned to each other and provided what the city wouldn’t. We were in the dirt and the dust of that place, too—particles folks clear or sweep away, though they are integral to growth. We were a model for what a place could look like if it replaced structures that didn’t know Black people well enough to care for them thoughtfully and built its own. That’s what Crystal’s was; that’s what all our makeshift businesses were.

By replacing what remained of the prairie with an airport to boost the economy shattered after Tche Manor lost its steel mill industry in the 1980s, Mayor Daley might have hoped to increase his political capital and assert that the Black residents in our long forgotten community were Chicagoans, not just East Siders. We didn’t need anyone to tell us who we were, though.

So many former Our Lady Gate of Heaven students put much needed money in their pockets by bagging groceries at Jewel. Still, as I walked with Ms. Gayle and Genesis, I began to feel like we were worth more than Jewel was willing to give. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I know that the land underneath that grocery store and what remained of the prairie should’ve been ours to create something new next to all that we’d cobbled together from what was left behind. To restore the natural ecosystems if we wanted to. To demolish it all and build a slew of affordable housing and businesses that not just employed Black residents, but were owned and run by the community. Businesses without an eye toward creating Black capitalism, but instead, toward ensuring that living was not a burden. With that burden lifted, maybe my brother wouldn’t have had to stand in the park after dark. Maybe an East Side girl could’ve footworked her way onto 106 & Park.

On weekend trips to Mommy Mae’s house in Roseland—a neighborhood about ten minutes away from The Manor—I’d sit on big velvet floor pillows between her legs as she cornrowed my hair while watching Sister Act 2. The shelves in her movie cabinet were double-stacked with contemporary Black films and the religious movies we had to watch on Saturday—the Seventh Day Adventist Sabbath. I demanded we watch Whoopi Goldberg and company sing a hip-hop–infused “Joyful, Joyful” triumphantly every weekend like it held the answer to briefly soldering my brain and soothing sadness.

“Keep your head straight. I can’t have you looking raggedy by the head,” she said, caressing the side of my face as I leaned my cheek on the thin, soft housecoat covering her thigh.

I lifted my head reluctantly so that she could make neat rows with the pointy end of a rattail comb and massage Blue Magic grease into my scalp before braiding. I could feel the love emanating from her hands like heat when she touched me. Every time I came to her house, I just wanted to be as close to her as I could to feel it radiate.

Mommy Mae would remind me often that she’d barely graduated from eighth grade on the sharecropping plantation where she grew up in Tchula, Mississippi, but I didn’t understand what that came to bare about her knowledge. Maybe she couldn’t help me multiply fractions, but like Ms. Gayle, she held the kind of knowledge I thought was most valuable—lived history.

“Can you tell me about Roseland? Why did ya’ll get this house?” I asked Mommy Mae in the days after walking with Ms. Gayle.

“When we first moved here in the Seventies,” she said,” there were white people on this block and a movie theater across the street. We really thought we were doing a good thing buying this house, it was so much bigger than where we lived in Altgeld. Your granddaddy worked at the steel mill not too far away.”

Like The Manor, that steel mill and movie theater here were no longer. Now, there were corner stores, liquor stores, and boarded-up, abandoned homes with lawns as tall as the prairie.

The history of white flight in Chicago was one I had been living for longer than I realized. As I put all the information and memories together in my head, I knew that if there was ever a reason to brave the fear of Chicago’s bustling grid, it was to gain the tools we needed to project the value of The Manor to the world so our community wouldn’t be under threat of disappearance every time white people had no more use for it. I would exalt Roseland with the same ferocity, so the big, blue house my grandmother worked so hard for would not disappear.

My sophomore year of high school, the gunshots my mother heard more often than the rest of us were louder and more frequent in her mind, her fear more palpable. A few months after she put our house on the market, we moved.

“Ever since we left, everything’s been going wrong in everybody’s life,” we said to her each time somebody got a bad grade or couldn’t find something important to them after the move.

Fifteen years on, I’m still going crazy for the East Side. Mourning it as I move across Chicago’s bustling street grid. Longing for it as a graduate student in Iowa City’s flatlands. Lamenting it on a beige sofa in Cincinnati. There’s not a place I’ve been that didn’t make me want to go back to The Manor, where somehow, even in its twists and tangles, everything made sense. In each place I go, I’m learning to build monuments for The Manor with words, writing to get back to the only place I’ve ever belonged.