OCTOBER 2, 2019
CARLO ROTELLA’S NEW BOOK, The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood, is an evocative and engaging mix of the minutely personal, the more broadly ethnographic, and the sociological in its description and analysis of a complex and interesting slice of Chicago.
Rotella, who also works in long-form journalism, brings his gifts as a writer to bear on his experience of place and the terms of place itself. He draws on the work of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, in which a group of scholars in the early 20th century decided to take their study of social relations out “to the streets” in order to view actual people interacting and defining urban context. Sociologists like Robert Park and Ernest Burgess based their research on interactions among those in the targeted area, dwelling on the facts of everyday life in order to show the “natural” environment of a particular place. Beyond the sociological, this is a personal story.
The author’s family lived in modest Bryn Mawr East from 1967 to 1973, and then moved to the more lavish area of Jackson Park Highlands, where he lived until he went to college in 1982. What had formerly been a substantially white and middle-class — Jewish and Irish — neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s became a substantially middle-class mixed-race neighborhood and then a primarily African-American neighborhood in the 1990s. South Shore since the 1990s has increasingly suffered from gang violence, drug use, disinvestment, and social atomization, even as the threat and hope of gentrification has loomed over the neighborhood in more recent times.
Rotella tells the story of this neighborhood in its various incarnations both through a kind of macro-statistical and historical perspective, and then through micro-ethnographic, anecdotal analysis and reflection. His goal is to give his readers both the sweep of history and sociology, as well as the implications of that movement through the lives of those who have experienced it, including himself. Indeed, the presence of the writer is what makes the book highly distinctive, since his self-accounting has the impact of making this a resonant meditation on the meaning of place and its role in the creation of the self.
In the introduction, Rotella acquaints us with the physical proportions of his study, much like Alfred Kazin does in his own engaging memoir, A Walker in the City. His method also recalls young Ernest Hemingway’s method in writing the story cycle In Our Time, which, said Hemingway, was like looking at the coastline first with the naked eye, and then with 15X binoculars and thus alternating between micro- and macro-observation. Rotella explains:
I will alternate between two kinds of chapters. There are shorter, more first-person chapters that give you a feel for South Shore in the 1970s and the equipment for living I assembled and began to put to use there in understanding the neighborhood and my place it. They frame longer, more journalistic chapters that return to South Shore in recent years to examine how current residents are living the consequences of what’s happened to the neighborhood since then.
But the actual book is not so easily expressed by this schematic.
It is true that the chapters alternate between more subjective and less subjective inquiries into the condition of this place, and the broader meaning of place in his younger incarnation. But even the less subjective chapters include much subjective material. Indeed, this is more like a three-pronged mode of investigation into place and self. Since he knows many people in this region, including any number of community leaders, his points of entry within the longer chapters yield a number of insights into the state of the community and how those leaders attempt to address that condition. Here we find out that the loss of the retail anchor to the business district on 71st and Jeffery, the Dominick’s supermarket, was both a symbol of decline and a cause. This empty retail space becomes a recurring element of his urban landscape, as it leaves the block in front of it a space for gang members and drug dealers to congregate.
Rotella’s interviews are always revealing, and he judiciously employs them as snapshots into the world of South Shore. But in these longer chapters, there is still a lot of subjective memory. They are not as focused and delving, some might say Joycean, as that which occurs in the shorter chapters, but we do get to see the interplay between the young Carlo and the arc of social change being described. As such, this ultimately reads like a meditation on the relationship between place and self, about how a particular time and place is formative for an individual, and particularly for this presentation of an individual.
Rotella moved to South Shore from Hyde Park just at the moment of white flight in the late 1960s. His parents were educated, ambitious, and upwardly mobile European immigrants, from Eritrea via Sicily on his father’s side, and Barcelona on his mother’s. Both were subject to the disruptions of fascism and war that upset their worlds, and the world more generally, in the later 1930s, so perhaps a little urban flux was less momentous for them than for those who had not experienced war. That the neighborhood was “changing” as he and his family were moving in provided him an experience of class and race. This distinctive perspective pervades the book, as Rotella catalogs empathetically the frustrations of many of those middle-class African Americans who have sought to stabilize the neighborhood.
As I read this book, I thought of the relationship between time and space that is never schematized but always at the center of Rotella’s profile. In his longer chapters, associations with place have the power to show us how the regions that were formative always remain at least partially lodged in that moment of his youth: the physical act of encountering them in the present has the power to summon the past in powerful ways. And those memories form the core of narratives that we tell about ourselves and how we have come to occupy a particular place in the world. These places and the conditions they present are to some degree a matter of circumstance, a matter of where we grew up and how that environment shaped us. That almost arbitrary convergence of factors leaves them and us forever stamped. In the end, this book powerfully evokes that process.
We see the adolescent Rotella skulking through Jackson Park on his way from Hyde Park, traversing this corner of his urban world, trying to affirm his direction while remaining unnoticed by those who might interrupt his journey and perhaps cause him harm:
I’d pick my way through murky groves, navigating by keeping the lights of Stony Island on my right and those of Cornell Drive on my left. Occasionally a late-night crew, up to something mysterious, would pass nearby, and I’d go to ground or hurry away in the shadows.
Such memories evoke both the mystery and precarity that defines a type of adolescence and provides us with images that show us the power of place and of history. As Rotella encounters Jackson Park, we see its existence in multiple geological and historical epochs, forever imprinted by its multiple incarnations. And like the land he traverses, so too has a range of occurrences and places imprinted the author. Such moments of convergence clearly illustrate the degree to which the author has done justice to both his native locale and his coming-of-age story.
Stanley Corkin is the Charles Phelps Taft and Niehoff Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He the author of Connecting the Wire: Space, Race, and Post-Industrial Baltimore.