By James Baetke
Colorado State University
Photos by Roger Meissen, Truman State
“We figured the only way we were going to get things done was by doing it ourselves,” West Side resident Gerald “The Slum Buster” Earles told the approximately three dozen journalists who joined community leaders Thursday on the “Nitty Gritty Bus Tour.”
Earles was among the speakers at the Garfield Park Conservatory, the first stop on the tour that highlighted the neighborhood’s checkered past, which is filled with scars from the Civil Rights movement.
In a side room next to the lush exhibits of greenery, community leaders spoke about the history, struggles and more recent revival of a area battered by the trends of a segregated Chicago. “The park was so disgusting to me,” said Lorean Earles who has joined her husband in dedicated much of her time on the West Side to improve Garfield Park and the neighborhood.
The Earles are party responsible for bringing the neighborhood together and cultivating the park into something remarkable since 1962– the year they moved into the economically depressed neighborhood, located three miles from downtown Chicago.
The community leaders said it’s been a decadeslong struggle for North Lawndale, one of the poorest communities in the state. They explained it has lost half of its residents and more than 5,000 homes since riots raged through the area during the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Vacant lots may remain filled with weeds, litter and abandoned vehicles as security cameras on street polls monitor drug traffic, but the Earles and the other community leaders say there are also encouraging signs. They described the conservatory as a “hidden gem” in the city, representing a hope that the West Side will become something more than just a place riddled with drugs and crime.
“There is more to what’s building the community than just what politicians are doing and what press releases say,” said Brad Cummings, associate editor for the Austin Voice.
Cummings, who has worked at the community newspaper the Austin Voice for 20 years, says the West Side is where civic journalists should learn from and take notice.
But major media outlets in Chicago tend to ignore the one million blacks in the city according to Congressman Danny Davis, who represents the 7th District of Illinois. Davis’ offi ce, located in the old world headquarters of Sears, Roebuck and Co., was the second stop on the Nitty Gritty tour.
“If you look at major papers today you would think black people like myself don’t exist,” Davis said, who praised the smaller community newspapers for the attention they give to the area.
Davis said he is trying to revitalize a district that is responsible for two-thirds of Chicago’s public housing, but also home to some of the richest Americans in the country, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
For a finale, the tour stopped at the leveled empty lot once home to King.
“King made us look at our city in an honest way,” said Chicago Sun-Times columnist Tom McNamee, who often writes about community-wide issues.
Many blacks in the area see King as someone who took a stand no matter the consequences and see him as a true icon, according to Davis.
“King was a real inspiration. He helped unleash a recognition in people to say to themselves, ‘you can,’” Davis said.
The tour was time well spent for Kristin Kraemer, a reporter with the Tri-City Herald Washington, in Washington State who said she wanted to experience something outside the busy city.
“The reason I went on the tour was to get out and see the real Chicago, not just downtown Chicago,” Kraemer said.
The tour was sponsored by Community Media Workshop — a local nonprofi t organization bridging the gap between journalists and the small communities around the city — and the Chicago SPJ Headline Club.