Book shines light on redlining on West Side

Linda Gartz's 'Redlining' is both memoir and social history

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Television producer and author Linda Gartz was there when West Garfield Park turned from a majority-white to a majority-black community. She saw the racial tensions, the white flight and the struggles over school integration. Her family witnessed the riots that rocked the West Side, accelerating the decline of the area's commercial corridors. 

If there is any message she wanted readers to get out of her book, it's that it didn't have to be that way.

In Redlined, a 2018 memoir which weaves a history of her family with the history of West Garfield Park neighborhood, Gartz places the lion's share of the blame on the federal government policy of redlining the neighborhoods with black residents. 

Not only did it fuel white flight, but it made it harder for black households to buy and maintain their properties, hurt their ability to build wealth and affected business development. And until this country fully comes to grips with the true causes of the current state of black neighborhoods, Gartz argues, it would be doomed to repeat its mistakes.

When Gartz's mother passed away in 1994, she and her brothers cleaned out their parents' house. While looking through the attic, they discovered a treasure trove of letters, diaries and other documents not only from their parents, but from their grandparents. Gartz wound up taking much of that archive and storing it in her garage.  

For a few years, other concerns took priority, and the boxes sat untouched. But their presence kept nagging at Gartz. She eventually she started to delve into their contents. That's when she discovered that those boxes held more than just first-hand accounts of family history — they also chronicled of a community in transition. 

Like many families in West Garfield Park, Gartz's family leased out as much of their building as possible. So they felt the impact not just as residents and homeowners, but as landlords.  Her father's job required frequent travel, so it fell to her mother to handle much of the day-to-day responsibilities of taking care of the building and the tenants.

"My mom kept a diary since [she was young], almost until she died," she said. "And she kept track of racial changes, and she wrote about taking care of building."

As time went on and West Garfield Park shifted from virtually all-white to majority-black, Gartz said her mother overcame her initial prejudices and "became attuned to injustices [against] black people."

Gartz said she knew there was a book in this archive. Originally, she wanted to write "a sprawling family saga," but she realized that readers may be more interested in racial change. Gartz said that, while she was vaguely aware of the redlining, it wasn't until she decided to research the subject for the book that she realized just how much of a role it played in preventing integration.

As she explained in her book, while white families in West Garfield Park knew that African-Americans moving into white communities led to declining property values, they didn't realize that it was a product of redlining. And they didn't realize that deteriorating conditions they observed while passing through majority-black neighborhoods were consequences of redlining, too. Other racist practices compounded the issue

"Because of the federal government policy, and because they wouldn't give homeowners [in redlined areas] loans, there wasn't money for African-American families to fix their houses," she said. "Their salaries were less when white people. They couldn't fix it, which gave whole neighborhood a more decrepit look."

Knowing that gave Gartz a whole new perspective of what happened. So was talking to African-American residents who moved into the neighborhood around the time.

As she wrote in her book, she and her family had misconceptions and prejudices, but as they got to know their new black neighbors (Gartz herself befriended a black girl at her local elementary school), their fears started to dissipate.

When asked whether she thought integration might have worked if redlining didn't exist, Gartz said she hesitated to even speculate, given how fundamentally that would change history.

"I think there would have been less chance [for white people] to be frightened of their property values," she said after some though." And, of course, there was basic racism."

Gartz also noted that redlining wasn't the only issue. She also referenced employment discrimination and Chicago Public Schools' effort to maintain de facto segregation.

In Redlined, Gartz goes into detail about the many West Garfield Park businesses and entertainment venues she remembered from when she was growing up. Her brother witnessed the 1968 riots that swept through the West Side in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Gartz said that, while she mourned the once-thriving commercial corridors, she could see where the rioters were coming from.

"I think there was just so much rage that was building up over the years, that it all came out," she said. "And the thing is, not everybody rioted. My parents' tenants weren't rioting; in fact, they got shot coming home [from work]."

And Gartz noted that even the aftermath of the riots could have been handled differently.

"There was no Marshal Plan for the West Side," she said. "They just figured, 'Screw them.' It's a shame. It's such a beautiful neighborhood. There's no economic base [now]. There are no grocery stores here. We used to be able to walk to a grocery store."

Her family stayed longer than some of their white neighbors, but they wound up moving to the Northwest Side's Portage Park neighborhood in the late 1960s. But her parents still maintained ownership of the buildings they owned. They sold two of the buildings in the 1980s. Gartz said that her mother hung on to the house where the family used to live at 4222 W. Washington Blvd., until her death.

Gartz currently lives in Evanston. While she said she doesn't visit the neighborhood where she grew up regularly, she has been back many times. She still has a connection to Bethel Lutheran Church, where she and her family were involved in. Nowadays, the church is better known for launching the Bethel New Life community development non-profit.

"I've gone to church services in Bethel and written essays about that, going to church services in Bethel maybe 10 years ago," Gartz recalled. "It was really a very fun experience and people couldn't be more gracious. They said, 'Welcome home, Linda.'"

Even if redlining is no longer the federal policy, Gartz said, the consequences of it and other racist policies continue to reverberate. And she argued that a lot of white people simply don't see that many of the issues facing African-American neighborhoods today — high crime, unemployment, lower-than-average life expectancy and health issues — can be traced to policies and practices that are still in place. 

"The most important thing to understand is that there is structural racism, and by that I mean racism built in our society," Gartz said.  "And if we understand that neighborhoods were created, maybe we can encourage government to do something more. But it's not politically expedient."

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com    

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