The Levy Lecture topic on May 25 centered around Chicago’s block clubs, presented by a former Evanston resident Amanda Seligman, a historian and expert in the subject. Dr. Seligman earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 1999 and is currently a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She focuses her academic interests on the intersection of urban neighborhoods and public policy, in particular the neighborhoods of Chicago and Milwaukee.
Dr. Seligman describes block clubs as “the smallest form of community-based organization.” Her book, “Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City,” stemmed from information she gathered and wrote about while she was working on her dissertation. (That became her first book, “Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side.”) Chicago did not originate the concept of block clubs, but it is considered ‘home base’ because of more than a century’s worth of data, ephemera, and news articles about block clubs individually and collectively.
Block clubs are groups of neighbors focused on solving local problems. As organizations go, they are voluntary, without legal standing, primarily self-defining in terms of geography and membership, and broad in scope.
In Chicago, block clubs arose from the Chicago Urban League as early as the late 1910s as a way of “helping Black southern migrants acclimate to the city.” Membership was, and is, usually restricted to homeowners in the block or blocks that define the club, but could include renters, business owners, and leaders of churches if those people lived or worked on the block. Anyone interested in joining was usually welcomed.
Block clubs differ from groups such as homeowners associations (HOAs) in several fundamental ways despite the geographic similarities: Homeowners associations are not voluntary; membership fees are dictated as a condition of ownership; and changes to the rules of the association are designed to be difficult to change. If residents are unhappy with a block club’s efforts, they ignore them. If residents of an HOA are truly unhappy with the policies mandated, the only option is to move.
Community and neighborhood organizations also differ from block clubs. Community and neighborhood organizations are usually larger and better at fundraising, are recognized as nonprofits by registering as 501 (c) 3s to avoid paying state or federal taxes on funds raised, and are frequently staffed with paid employees. Block clubs are smaller, do not raise much money, are not registered anywhere except perhaps with a police department, and are run by volunteers.
Block clubs are an important entity within the city because they address urban problems that are too big for one individual to tackle alone and too small for city government to focus on consistently. Dr. Seligman describes them as “pragmatic, collective extensions of individual citizens’ efforts to draw on municipal resources.” In other words, they work with various city departments to fulfill their existing obligations to the community, such as regular garbage collection and law enforcement assistance.
As such, residents join block clubs for two reasons: improving one’s quality of life and protecting the financial investment of one’s home. Block clubs communicate their goals through signage, meetings, and personal conversations. Block clubs are a presence in many Black neighborhoods, yet they may be found in neighborhoods of all racial and ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, they are primarily located in working class and middle-class neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods and individual homeowners can pay to correct what they deem to be insufficient without having to rely on their neighbors, Dr. Seligman said.
Once established and organized, block clubs promote standards of behavior using large posters and flyers dropped off at residences, urging those living within the block club’s geography to follow the (unenforceable) rules.
Block beautification and maintenance mixed with safety are typical goals for Chicago’s block clubs. These posters typically follow one of two formats: positive (“Help Us Keep It Safe, Clean & Green!”) or negative (RULES: NO Loitering, Car Washing or Repairing, Speeding, Drug Trafficing (sic), Loud Music). It’s no surprise that the positive guidelines are more effective than the negative ones.
Crime prevention is another goal for many block clubs. In Chicago, the Chicago Police Department’s CAPS Division (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy), was established to help neighborhoods organize block clubs. It is staffed by civilians who provide organizational assistance; CAPS works with the block clubs to establish a dialogue and foster better relationships between the community and the police officers who protect it.
CAPS encourages block clubs that are dealing with crime or gang issues to adopt what they call “positive loitering” as a way of asserting control over public spaces like street corners. Examples of positive loitering include establishing set days and times for every home on the block to turn on front yard water sprinklers or designating an evening for grilling or barbequing on the street in front of one’s residence. The hope is that by “showing up” in public as a group, gang members or potential criminals will be dissuaded from occupying those same spaces.
Information available to Dr. Seligman from 2017 showed more than 1,500 individual block clubs have registered with CAPS. Despite this large number, most block clubs do not last more than a few years. It is unclear why, but reasons could include resolved issues, lack of energy or time, or a desire to focus on other issues.
Block clubs rely on neighbors behaving positively. “Neighbor” is a distinctly human but temporary relationship. Dr. Seligman summarizes, “Residential proximity makes strangers into neighbors.” Neighbors do not always behave in ways that are good and kind. Neighbors may resent being told what to do or how to act.
Dr. Seligman says she hopes that by shifting the conversation to the act of neighboring, i.e., looking in on one’s neighbors, particularly the elderly, during times of crisis such as heat waves, pandemics, and blizzards, people can break down barriers and help one another.
Dr. Seligman’s lecture is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.