Time was, if you told me your address in Chicago, I could tell your ethnic origins, make a reasonably accurate guess at your family’s household income, know whether your parents ate in the kitchen or in the dining room and whether your father came to table in his undershirt. So balkanized was the Chicago of my youth—the 1940s and 50s—that each Chicago neighborhood (and there are by current count some 237 of them) was a village unto itself, with its fairly intensive ethnic ethos, its own mores and folkways. And one didn’t often, except to go to work, and not always then, leave the neighborhood; no great need to, for churches, parks, restaurants, movie theaters, taverns, and everything was there, close at hand.
Chicago was then filled with European immigrants—Poles, Greeks, Czechs, Irish, Italians—and very Catholic. Priests in dog collars and nuns in full habit were part of the urban landscape of my boyhood, so much so that, until perhaps the age of 10 or 11, I thought Catholicism and Christianity coterminous. Blacks were chiefly locked away in their own neighborhoods, on the city’s South Side, though soon to take over west-side neighborhoods, and were, in Ralph Ellison’s sense, largely invisible, encountered only doing servile jobs. No homeless people walked the streets panhandling. We had only bums, in those days confined to one of Chicago’s two skid rows, one just south, the other west of the Loop.
About the Author
Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.