Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
A Talent for Mischief
A Springfield alderman slanders us eastside boys
July 7, 1988
A lumpy mashup of commentary on the events of the days in Springburg and a memoir of my own upbringing. The Irv Smith who figures in it was then the chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Central Committee.
This piece has been slightly edited from the original.
Poor Irv Smith. After the Ward 8 alderman suggested to our Tom Atkins recently that hiring poor kids from the east side to rake and bag leaves would leave both civil order and the possessions of old ladies on the west side in peril, hc must have felt that he was the one who'd got bagged. Resign! cried some. Apologize! demanded others. There is nothing the people like less than a politician who speaks the truth.
You'd think that an old eastside boy like Irv who has spent his life at teaching or patronage jobs would be more circumspect in his remarks about eastsiders ripping off a defenseless public. As someone who was and is a low-income eastsider myself, I was entitled to take his warnings personally, but I heard more carelessness than malice in them. Hell, you don't get to be chairman of the Sangamon County Republicans by being a sociologist.
Besides, I know of at least one eastside kid whom I wouldn't have let in the yard on a leash. I grew up in a white GI Bill subdivision near 25th and Cook, not in a housing project. But while the neighborhood was lower-middle in income it was upper-lower in class. My notions of property rights however were vague. Middle class kids may grow up to be taught to see the world as divided into "mine" and "yours," but I saw the world as either "mine" or "not mine—yet." I used to help myself to apples from H.'s yard and cherries from C.’s yard and as much corn as I could carry from a nearby farm field, and never once suffered a pang because I felt such larceny to be wrong.
My example, fortunately, is widely ignored. When the kids on the block where I live today near 14th and Monroe get a hankering for one of the raspberries or strawberries or plums I grow in my garden, they always ask. Theirs is for me a shaming consideration of the sort I was incapable of being at the same age. The fact that they are African American and I am not makes them my social inferiors according to some, but they stand as my moral superiors.
Which introduces a question: If I am infirm and can't bag my own leaves, will the city pay, say, pre-law students from the west side to do it for me? I hope not, because padlocks are expensive.
It does not come as news to me that not all kids on the east side are poor or sticky-fingered, but then I live there. Neither are they all black, the east side being still substantially, if not predominantly white. (The concentrations of black faces on the streets hereabouts exceeds the comfort level of anxious whites, who believe that a neighborhood which is a little black is like a woman who is a little pregnant.) Crime? Sure, but largely isolated geographically and largely intramural. (The rates of property crime in parts of Irv's Ward 8 are higher than they are in my neighborhood; a car stereo left on the streets around Hay-Edwards School will stay there as long as the last doughnut at a truck stop.) The only disadvantaged youths I know where I live are the ones who haven't been to Disney World like their friends; the gravest risk of harm I run from the twenty or so kids on my blocks is bankruptcy from being sold too much church-trip candy and Girl Scout cookies.
Irv is an old eastside boy himself, a Feitshans Flyer through and through. The fact that he hasn't lived there in twenty-years says something about Irv, of course, but it also says something about the east side. The tidy cottages of the largely ethnic working class are now occupied by the poor, black and white. Parishioners at the old Catholic churches like Sacred Heart and St. Pat's drive in for Mass from other parts of town; more and more of the locals who attend are black. If the eastside neighborhoods are dilapidated it is because the economy which once sustained them and the people who lived in them has changed. Sons of Springfield working men now make their livings, as Irv does, in service industries like government and teaching. The sons of the people who live there now find that the economy has no use for them at all, except to do for the well-to-do.
Unstable neighborhoods make for unstable lives, and the eastside has been abandoned to the scavengers like a junked car left on the street. Irv left the east side for the same reason lots of black people who can afford it are leaving, to find a "decent" place to bring up kids, which usually means a neighborhood which is owned by the people who live in it. That the eastern precincts of Irv's own Ward 8 are today suffering from the same economic erosion that has gutted much of the city east of 9th Street over the last twenty years gives me some satisfaction, but no happiness.
I didn't always feel so generously toward the west side. I still bridle at recalling the insults heaped upon us (after they were safely back on the bus) by the kids from what was then known as Franklin Junior High. They hated to visit our gym at Washington Junior High for basketball games because, they said, it smelled bad. (Our gym smelled? If Jade East cologne were carcinogenic, an entire generation of future Kiwanians attending Franklin in those days would be wiped off the face of the earth.)
Later, as a low-income kid from the east side, I was hired for a weekend to rake leaves. The customer was a psychiatrist who lived in a house just off Chatham Road which seemed to me to have more trees around it than Lincoln's Tomb. I was treated kindly, paid generously in cash, and fed lunch by their black maid (two slices of lunch meat on that sandwich!) In return I condescended to not steal a thing.
I have never shared Irv's solicitude for the old ladies of the west side, you see. They seem to be either the widows of lawyers or the wives of doctors. In principle I regard stealing from the likes of them as less a crime than an obligation of citizenship, a do-it-yourself version of income tax reform. The poor are supposed to steal from the rich, after all, unless they are Republicans, in which case they are happy to let the rich steal from them. As a practical matter, of course, property theft is bad policy if you're poor; the rich have insurance against thieves, but you have no insurance against arrest.
I suspect that Irv intended a class slander, not a racial one. ("I mentioned nothing about folks like this," he reportedly said at a city council meeting later, by which he meant respectable folks.) It was interesting that when Carol Dew and Thomas Jones drafted a letter calling for Irv's resignation as both alderman and Republican chairman—a letter which described his remarks as "drastically unintelligent"—they made that demand mainly on behalf of "disadvantaged youths" in all parts of town, not just black kids. I was happy for that; one can't make sense of the race issue in this country unless one is alert to the dimension of class, and one can't understand the class issue without knowing how it is complicated by race.
Quicker thinkers than Irv have become lost in this swamp, of course. While Irv looks for a way out, we are left with the problem of getting rid of those leaves. I suggest having the aldermen do it. They're going to rob those old ladies anyway, one way or another. And while they're out there bagging it, we can let the low-income kids run the city council. It's one place where a talent for mischief-making would be useful. ●
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