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“Redlined” by Evanston author Linda Gartz is the story of an immigrant family who remained in Chicago’s West Garfield Park in the 1950s and ’60s as it changed from a middle-class white neighborhood to a poverty- and crime-ridden area, largely ignored by City services.
Ms. Gartz grew up on Chicago’s west side in those years of turmoil, inno-cent for the most part of American prejudices but immersed in the Old World ethos of self-sufficiency, obedience to authority, and family loyalty. She sang in the choir of her parents’ church, attended the local grade school, and shopped with her mother at the thriving stores on West Madison Street. She heard her neighbors, and sometimes her parents, talking of what might happen should the neighborhood “turn.”
Unscrupulous real estate dealers cashed in on the prejudices of the times by “panic-peddling” – telling concerned homeowners that if Black families moved into the neighborhood, the value of their homes would plummet. Many homeowners sold quickly, and these dealers then flipped the houses to Black families through contract sales. Discriminatory lending practices not only by banks and loan companies but by the federal government itself prevented Black families from obtaining either conventional mortgages or those insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Areas that were predominantly Black or soon to be so were “redlined” – that is, marked as unsafe for companies to lend money for mortgages or insure homes being purchased by Black persons.
Taking advantage of this institutional discrimination, the real estate dealers then sold the homes on contracts with onerous terms; missing one payment could cause the family to lose the house and forfeit all payments made. White families, most of whom fled the area, also felt victimized, because their principal, sometimes only, investment, their home, had been devalued by the panic peddlers.
Most White families did not consider the economic burden of racism that made only contract purchasing available to Black families and strained their incomes to the point that few repairs could be made to the older, sometimes dilapidating homes they purchased. Ms. Gartz writes, “White families like ours didn’t consider the rampant employment discrimination that reduced Blacks’ income … White homeowners judged what they observed, placing blame for rundown homes and lowered property values in racially changing neighborhoods squarely on the new residents.”
As the schools became more integrated, then more crowded, her parents, Fred and Lillian, sent Linda to a Lutheran high school. When she was 16, she met Bill Lasko at a party in Park Ridge. The two dated, fell in love and married after 10 years. In between times, he graduated from law school, and she attended Northwestern University, earning a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Arts in teaching. When students took over the University Bursar’s office in 1968, she was at first mystified that students would defy the administration.
“Raised to respect property, I was furious at the audacity of any group occupying a private building and viewed the takeover as blatantly illegal. … After passionate debates in my dorm room, I saw beyond what at first struck me as criminal behavior. I came to view the occupation as a ‘civil disobedience’ mode of dissent.”
On the home front, things continued to unravel. When Linda was young, her father’s job took him away from home for weeks at a time, leaving her mother to care for three children and see to all the maintenance, taxes, and other work on the property. Even after her father landed a job in Chicago, both of Linda’s parents worked at overseeing their new home on Keeler Avenue as well as three other apartment buildings they eventually owned.
“Grandma and Grandpa Gartz had routinely worked 16-hour days, so the extra labor my parents took over seemed normal to Dad. But he had scant experience managing all the moving parts, which Mom did. The increasingly complicated paperwork and income-tax preparation, the coordination of repairmen and the management of tenants, as well as her own household and children, boosted her stress – and her ire against Dad, whom she blamed for her predicament.”
Hardworking as both sets of grandparents – particularly the women – were, they came with equally hard emotions. Ms. Gartz’s paternal grandmother, who had always marginalized and belittled her son Fred, did not hold back on her antipathy toward Lillian. The maternal grandmother, Grandma K, was plagued with a mental illness, which rendered her hostile and sometimes violent to both Fred and Lillian.
The overload of work and worry over parents and property led to resentment and silence between Fred and Lillian. Living through these times, Linda sensed the disaffection, but it was not until the death of both of her parents, when she and her brothers were readying the home and apartments to be sold that she learned of the depth of feelings – both love and animosity – the parents held for each other. Before their deaths, though, her parents apparently reconciled after her father suffered a debilitating stroke.
In the attic of their former home in West Garfield Park, she discovered a box labeled “Fred and Lil’s Letters and Diaries,” which “blazed light onto long-hidden family secrets.”
Things changed, some for the better.
Ms. Gartz left teaching to become an award- winning television producer, her work having received six Emmys, multiple film festival awards and other honors. She and Mr. Lasko, both Northwestern graduates, have made Evanston their home for many years. The stigma of mental illness is becoming less vicious, and treatment for mental illnesses has become more humane.
The Contract Buyers’ League cases helped bring to light the discriminatory practices of the panic peddlers of Chicago’s west and south sides. Although the lawsuits brought as class actions on behalf of thousands of Black plaintiffs who purchased homes on contract were not successful at trial, several thousand of the plaintiffs entered into out-of-court settlements with the real estate dealers or with the now-defunct Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, which had assumed title to the properties. But the long-term harm of institutional racism remains a plague across the nation.
The red lines of the title are those that served to prevent Black families from obtaining mortgage financing in certain areas and the ability to purchase homes at fair prices and on reasonable terms, depriving them of decent housing and the opportunity to invest in their future. But Ms. Gartz has also written a love story to her family and the community they cherished for nearly a century. Those “red lines” can also be seen as a metaphor for the blood lines that bind them irrevocably– through lean times, separations, mental illness, economic loss, neighborhood and nationwide turmoil – to each other and to Chicago’s West Garfield Park.
“Redlined” will be published in April by She Writes Press. The book launch, at which Ms. Gartz will read from and sign copies of the book, will be at 6:30 p.m. on April 10 at The Book Stall in Winnetka.