Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood 40 years ago: recollections of a canvasser

Rick Rozoff remembers:

To return in imagination to the Uptown neighborhood of forty years ago entails not only visiting another year, decade and century but exploring another era. In the late 1970s and early 1980s much of Uptown was the magnet for what could be deemed internal migration: it was home to several hundreds if not thousands of Appalachians from Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee and Native American Indians, largely Ojibwa, from Wisconsin and Minnesota. There was even an obscure and intriguing colony of African-Americans who were descendants of people who had left Jim Crow Tennessee in the early 1900s.

At the same time Uptown was beginning to assume the nature of what could be described as the Ellis Island of the airplane age. Immigrants began arriving from Southeast Asia, primarily from Vietnam, from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Entire courtyard apartment buildings housed Assyrians from Iraq and, simultaneously or in succession, Cambodians, Bosnians of Muslim background and Jews from the Soviet Union. Ethnic restaurants and grocery stores in the quadrant — roughly formed by Irving Park to the South, Foster to the north, Clark to the west and Lake Michigan to the east — could be counted in the dozens, representing as many nations. Visiting most of them was like entering the family kitchen and dining room of a family of Lebanese, Colombians, Somalis, Greeks, Iranians, Swedes, or Nigerians.

The word diversity is often employed to describe neighborhoods far less varied and colorful than Uptown was at the time. Conducting voter registration and canvassing work throughout the area for several years in the 1980s, I never knew what fascinating ethnographic and cultural encounter awaited me when I rang the next doorbell. One person I met right around the corner from my own apartment was Khachatur Khachaturyan (“My name is KhachaTUR KhachaturYAN!”) He had been born in Jerusalem when it was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Working for decades on the night shift in a box factory in the suburbs, he had never had the opportunity to register to vote. When I completed the form for doing so in his presence, for him it was almost the equivalent of becoming a citizen again. Although an ethnic Armenian, he was proud to lend me cassettes of music by Umm Kulthum and other Arabic-language singers.

Memory revives images like the above in the manner of a kaleidoscope. Hues and shades and shapes merge into each other, gently blending into a mythical world that none but its residents knew, and that now exists only in the mind’s eye. And in the heart.

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