“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia[a] and put in the treasure house of his god.

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.[b] The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.” – Daniel 1:1- 6

My elderly neighbors moved to North Lawndale in the 1950’s and 1960’s, largely to escape the Jim Crow south in what is known as “the Great Migration”.  This is my mother’s story as she came to Chicago to escape sharecropping and the exploitation that family lived through in rural Tennessee.  Those who could move, headed to the North, and eventually bought homes, as whites fled the community.  Many were victims of new forms of exploitation that were almost as bad as what they escaped; contract sales, redlining and absentee landlords who price gouged for rent, while not fixing apartments.  This is well documented in books like “Family Properties” by Beryl Satter.

The folks that were fortunate enough, bought homes.  Not because they were thinking about “an investment”, but because they wanted to buy a decent home that they could afford. They sent their kids to local schools, and played in local parks and community facilities, and near where they worked.  They could not choose to live in any community, because of blatant and often dangerous racism and segregation, so people of different economic means lived together in community.  Doctors and nurses lived next to plumbers, and cafeteria workers. In 1960, over 120,000 people lived in North Lawndale and while it was a crowded neighborhood, a lot of things worked well.  Our neighborhood elders report that we didn’t really have to go downtown to shop and could get anything you needed or wanted on Roosevelt Road.  Ogden Avenue was a major place to buy cars.  Sears was the world’s largest store and factory jobs were plentiful at places like Western Electric and Ryerson Steel.   It was not a panacea but compared to what many people left in the brutal South, it was a much better life.  

After the assassination of America’s greatest prophet, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., things radically changed.  We tend to focus on the riots and industry leaving, but I want to focus on something else, something deeper.  After Dr. King’s death, President Lyndon Baine Johnson pressured Congress to pass additional civil rights legislation before Dr. King’s funeral.  According to the Bullock Museum of Texas’ website; “Missing LBJ’s desired deadline of King’s funeral by just one day, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 10—the final, great legislative achievement of the civil rights era. An expansion of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, popularly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination concerning the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex.” Now, black folks could live in any neighborhood and we decided that leaving was an act of upward mobility.  

Like the theme song of the 1970’s sitcom “The Jeffersons”, we were “moving on up to a DE-LUXE apartment in the sky!”  I remember watching the show and singing along every time.  Without realizing it, we were internalizing a value system that would prove to be destructive for our communities.  A value system that prizes property over people.  Very ironic for a people who were considered property a century earlier.

When people living in public housing had a high turnout for the mayoral election of Harold Washington, the media decided to change the narrative.  Public housing, which was essential housing for working people, became recategorized as dark and dangerous.  We bought into the well-crafted myth of mixed income communities and cheered when “the projects” were torn down. They were later rebuilt, allowing only a few of the most “well behaved” and lease compliant people to come back. The residents of public housing were described in cities by Democratic mayors in coded language, but when it was Donald Trump, we would be up in arms.    

When this mixed income bait and switch was sold to the communities, of course people wanted to live in the shiny new developments.  After years of neglect, in terms fixing and lack of maintaining the properties, coupled with the daily onslaught of the press describing the violence (like today’s fabricated narratives about violent crime which has decreased), you’d be crazy not to want change.  We wanted what the Jeffersons had, but just like our First Nation brothers and sisters who had their land stolen and saw every single treaty broken, public housing residents were also betrayed and discarded.  The worst part of the betrayal was that middle class and elite Black people watched it unfold and didn’t say a mumbling word.  They were too busy feeding at the trough of unfettered capitalism, greed, and social status.  Like Daniel in the passage above, they were trained in a metaphorical Babylon and ate the food and drank the wine.

My real point is this. In the past year, I have read several articles in Crain’s Chicago that talk about Black developers banding together to “Buy the Block”.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of buying vacant and distressed properties and rehabbing them to make a profit.  Our organization does that. My issue is with the high price points and the intention behind it.  Are you at all concerned about the less fortunate in the community or only the almighty dollar?  

Every week Crain’s Chicago highlights real estate stories that romanticize and fetishize outlandish sales transactions.  The problem as I see it, is treating real estate as a tradeable commodity and maximizing profit without any consideration for the long-term harm that is being done by this practice.  One story talked about new homes selling in Bronzeville, on the south side of Chicago, for $750,000 and up and Crain’s was celebrating this as progress.  HGTV shows like “Flip or Flop” and others have become a welcomed addition to the extractive and exploitative nature of the commodification of real estate.   How do we reconcile what our elders understood about buying a home, and this new reality of treating property as an investment?  Hopefully, Daniel gives us some insight:

“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your[c] food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.

11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

15 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.” – Daniel 1:8 – 17

Daniel decided not to “drink the Kool-Aid” or eat at the table of a system that was foreign to him and ultimately not going to benefit him or his people.  We need to challenge this paradigm and work toward the collective good and not mimic the dominant culture which puts dollars above everything and everyone.  I don’t expect everyone to agree or even understand.  The focus on building individual wealth needs to be tempered and guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us see that the demonic concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, will crush the many.  It’s unjust and in contrast to our culture as people concerned about all of us and not just the few.  We need collective responses to predatory capitalism.  Such as the Bring Chicago Home proposal, organized largely by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (and supported by LCDC).  They propose that the transfer tax from buyers of city properties at $1 million or more, pay more to fund homeless housing, which is approximately $158 MM per year.  Or United Power’s Reclaiming Chicago Campaign, in North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, Chicago Lawn and Roseland. Through this effort we are collectively pushing to build and rehab 1000’s of homes and apartments for working people who the market has forgotten about.  We can’t sit on our hands any longer, as silence can be seen as consent.  From where I sit, the time for talking is over.

2 Comments

John willson, Jul 28, 2022

Excellent history and analysis of a real human tragedy and a plan of action. Well done thou good and faithful servant. I’ll send a donation to the cause.

wayne gordon, Jul 29, 2022

Excellent Article. Rings so true. Let’s all get behind, Richard, LCDC and United Power fun this effort.

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