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JOHN CHUCKMAN

RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY GIDEON RACHMAN IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES

As far as the Hyde Park-Kenwood area you toured, Gideon, I spent about half my childhood there.

The area has many beautiful old homes and elegant apartments from the early 1900s when it was a high-end neighborhood with an ambiance not unlike West End London.

But by my day, it had fallen into a pretty sad state.

The Great Black Migrations out of the South in the 1940-50s had landed tens of thousands of non-urban, uneducated people there, and much of it had become a ghetto with the added phenomenon known as “white flight,” middle-class white people leaving quickly for other neighborhoods or suburbs.

Crime was tremendously on the upswing. People were mugged in the streets, and graffiti for gangs like the Blackstone Rangers were ominous on buildings and sidewalks. Where once – before my time – people slept on the porch or in the park on hot summer nights, no one in their right mind continued the practice, and people avoided walking in many areas alone or at night.

Few of your readers will know it, but at one point, I believe in the early 1960s, the University of Chicago seriously considered picking up and leaving its beautiful old campus and heading for the suburbs.

But it decided to stay, and the city gave it a lot of encouragement and special help to keep it there.

Women students who had to walk for evening classes were accompanied. I don’t know whether this practice still exists.

I don’t know whether it is still true, but whole side streets were fenced off with very tall fences to make movement from the worst ghetto – around 47th Street – very difficult. It was a very strange and memorable thing to turn on a side street and see it end with something like a tall drawbridge.

Police patrols too were increased, and lighting was improved.

The new confidence over some time, and a growing black middle class, gave the neighborhoods a boost over the decades. Many of the old mansions have been restored.

But despite the likes of the Obamas, there remains a heavy population of very poor and uneducated people, making it still not the kind of neighborhood you would sensibly walk around in late at night. Its beautiful parks – the work of the great landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, are still places to exercise caution in if alone or at night.

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