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Biking Englewood: An Essay on the White Gaze

Over the Fourth of July weekend of 2014, eighty-two people were shot in Chicago, fourteen of them fatally. That August, for reasons that have nothing to do with this essay, I was in northern Maine’s Rangeley Lakes, walking down a two-rut dirt road where I was stopped by a game warden. His government jeep was the only vehicle I’d seen on the road that morning, and he, who had come down from close to the Canadian border, said I was the first person he’d seen all day.

As a way, perhaps, of justifying his long drive that morning, he asked for my ID, and when he saw my Chicago address, he said “Jeez, you people have had a hell of a summer.” I am, as Gertrude Stein said of Ezra Pound, a village explainer. So there in the shadow of old hemlocks by the northernmost of the Rangeley Lakes, I explained to the game warden that Chicago is vast, a patchwork of neighborhoods, and that it is possible to live in a North Side neighborhood like mine and not be affected by the violence, not even to be aware of it. As is often the case when white people talk about urban violence, we did so in language that excluded words for racial identity, as if the violence were a kind of weather that occurred in some neighborhoods, not others, regardless of who lived there. The warden seemed mystified by my explanation. How, his eyes seemed to ask, could I have spent the Fourth of July in Chicago doing anything besides ducking and covering?

When my family moved to our North Side neighborhood from an affluent suburb, some years before my meeting with the game warden, I had a talk with one of my daughter’s high school teachers that turned up a similar misconception about Chicago. We had come to his classroom on graduation day to say goodbye and to thank him for all his kindness to her. When my daughter, perhaps with some misgiving in her voice, told him we were moving to Chicago, the teacher, who had lived and worked for decades just an hour from the city, said, “Ah, we hear so much about gun violence in the city.”

This vision of the city as permeated by violence from Howard Street to the Calumet River is dismaying because it is so at odds with the truth about Chicago as a segregated city. As with most major American cities, the old stories of white flight and redlining have left us with two Chicagos, disjunct and virtually incommunicable with each other. Historians debate the steps by which the old Black Belt became today’s South Side. Demographers worry about where the South Side’s western boundary lies and whether, west of it, some other community begins. And of course, an elegant black lady in cornrows sits at the table next to mine in the boho North Side coffee shop where I write this. But Chicago is two cities, was made that way on purpose by white people. The line between them is real and is visible from both sides. Crossing it is a psychological event.

I crossed it three times last summer on my bicycle, having conceived the idea to ride a north-south transect down and back across the city, and wishing to see the South Side from closer range, as it were, than I had before in cars. I was particularly curious to see Englewood, the neighborhood where, as white Chicagoans know from media intent on the body count there, much of the South Side violence happens.

Seeing Englewood, then, is my subject here. Exactly that. I do not write about the neighborhood’s history and culture, or the daily lives of the people who live there. I am not qualified for that. I will write about my experience as a white guy seeing Englewood, try to tell what the seeing was like. I will write, in other words, as a practitioner of the white gaze. In the city of Laquan McDonald and in the season when some white Americans are beginning to learn that black lives matter, it would be absurd to set myself up as an apologist for the white gaze. I seek to describe its interiority and to suggest something of what it’s like to live within its limitations.

What drew me across the line between the two Chicagos was another line: the corridor on the Chicago Bike Map running from my North Side neighborhood, through the city’s middle, all the way to the Calumet River. I used to fall asleep at night with the map spread out on the bed, dreaming about the passage. On the map Clark Street is purple, denoting a shared bike lane. Clark takes you to Halsted Street, which as a buffer-protected bike lane, appears on the map in red. Halsted takes you clear across the city, but the bike route shifts at Eighty-seventh Street, a little south of Englewood, to Vincennes Avenue, green on the map because it has a barrier-protected bike lane. From Vincennes you jump across at 104th Street to the Major Taylor Trail (brown on the map because it is an off-road multiuse trail), which takes you out of the city, across the Calumet River, and ends, about thirty-five miles from my neighborhood, in a forest preserve enticingly named Whistler Woods. This ride was a persistent winter daydream until one spring morning when I pumped up the tires and embarked.

Seeing Englewood takes some care and some recalibration of your perceptions because, for a white guy, it involves registering the absence of things so common on the North Side as to be all but invisible. Most of the big national brands, transparent in white neighborhoods by reason of their ubiquity, have all but totally retreated from Englewood. There is an Arby’s on Halsted somewhere in the sixties, and as you ride down Halsted, then Vincennes, you don’t see another national fast food vendor until the Popeye’s somewhere in the hundreds, which arrives with the force of a chord resolved. It is, of course, impossible to imagine a stretch of forty blocks on the North Side with no fast food. All of the businesses along Halsted were mom-and-pop style places, most of them food and liquor, many of them shuttered. Divvy, the bike-share network, has stands all over the city, but the one at Fifty-seventh and Halsted is the southernmost outpost. South of Hyde Park, in other words, Divvy isn’t interested in sharing.

I saw only two national chain stores, Family Dollar and O’Reilly Auto Parts, both of them with concertina razor wire around the perimeter of their roofs. Chase Bank, its ATMs and branches ubiquitous on the North Side, was totally absent from Englewood. Even advertisements seem to have gone into remission. I saw only two billboard ads through the sixty-block heart of the neighborhood, and it was hard to say which was the most cynical: the Sprite “Obey Your Thirst” ads with the giant photos of Nas and Drake and Biggie, or the billboards from a suburban Chrysler dealership promising easy terms on luxury vehicles. No banks, no stores, no fast food, and almost no advertising—all of this, of course, consistent with a logic too simple and brutal to elaborate.

As a middle-class North Side white guy, I live in a world where you can barely hear yourself think amid the clamor of retail and advertising. This is a world where people are likely to tell you that it is pumpkin spice latte season when they mean that it is fall. It would be indulging in a very misguided romanticism to say that there was something freeing about moving through a space in which the clamor had been silenced. Such freedom would be purchased at the price of the neighborhood’s subordination. Better to say that the retreat of the brands from Englewood deepened my sense that I was traveling through a fundamentally alien space.

There was another thing that made these South Side streets strange to my North Sider’s eye, but for blocks and blocks I didn't understand that I was seeing it. I did these rides in high summer, and at that time of year Englewood, it began to dawn on me, is green in a way the North Side is not. Chicago, famously the city in a garden, prides itself on its trees. The Department of Streets and Sanitation, together with the Park District, and a handful of other city agencies planted almost twelve thousand trees in 2015, including several hundred in the historical South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. It’s been a highly enlightened business. Parkway trees are now installed in sunken rain gardens that will detain storm-water runoff and dampen the urban heat island effect that is expected from global climate change. The city is planting trees of southern affinity that will prosper in the warmer weather that is coming. They’re planting quaking aspen, a short-lived and comparatively lightweight tree, on the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated rail line converted to pedestrian path, where the weight of plantings is a concern. But no one is planting trees in Englewood.

Yet the view from my bike was green, all the forty-block length of the neighborhood. It came to me slowly that this was the green of poverty and neglect. Vacant lots are virtually unheard of on the North Side—construction there comes so quickly on the heels of demolition. But much of Englewood is vacant. There are places on nearly every block of Halsted where buildings were taken down with nothing new put in their stead, places that had stood empty, perhaps, for decades. The blocks had a permeable or gap-toothed look as I rode by them. And in each of the gaps was a pattern of green: weeds and unmowed grass, dandelions and burdock, young trees. Across from Kennedy-King College, just off Halsted a few blocks south of Sixty-third Street, stands what’s left of the South Side Masonic Temple, a Gotham City nightmare of a building. Saplings are growing out of its roofline and gutters, reaching green fingers out of its broken windows. Down a little side street south of the Masonic Temple I saw the roofless shell of a burned-out row house that appeared to have been reclaimed by the forest; young trees had grown up and through the building and all but erased the angles and outlines of the house. It seemed like a preview of the planet’s future, when the cities will have abandoned us and achieved a posthuman green.

Most striking in the impression of a green Englewood that gradually dawned on me, were the mature trees—many of them—that stood over these blocks, casting down shade on the buildings beneath. Most of the Englewood giants—rooted in backyards and vacant lots—were hackberries, silver maples, and cottonwoods. These are all true natives—trees adapted to the marshy floodplains that were Chicago before the city was here. These, especially cottonwoods, are species that no one plants on purpose. They’re considered weed trees because of their nuisance airborne cottony seeds. So the big trees that shadowed some of the blocks I rode through had been growing in spaces exempt from economic development and neglected by the city for more than a century.

So green Englewood, wild Englewood, Englewood unbranded. We’ve come to the point where it’s necessary to ask what exactly I was doing there last summer. Why cross the invisible line and find myself pedaling along, the only white person from one vanishing point to another? One answer—a discreditable one that I cannot easily shake off—comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates who asserts in Between the World and Me that “my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” White people, Coates argues, tell the world, black and white, that they individually are not racists, and in doing so not only practice a powerful self-deception, but abet and perpetuate the systemic racism that is the basis of their privilege.

Photography by Thomas Gillapsy © 2016

Photography by Thomas Gillaspy © 2016

I cannot, in strict honesty, deny the consideration that I pedaled through Englewood in order to demonstrate that I am somehow not like all those other white people who harbor ideas, unexamined and atavistic, of black people as gangbangers and welfare queens. Demonstrate to whom, I want to ask. To myself? To the handful of Englewooders who might have taken notice of a goofy looking white guy pedaling down Halsted? Was the point of the exercise really to exonerate myself of personal racism, the better to enjoy the privileges of a racist system? I can honestly affirm here that I do not believe so, but ultimately this is not a judgment you can make about yourself.

A simpler explanation of what I was doing in Englewood, though not necessarily any more flattering to me, is to say that I had come to look at the black people. An earlier generation of Americans might have said that I was “slumming”—visiting a poor neighborhood for the thrill of observing its exotic inhabitants. (see Langston Hughes’s “Visitors to the Black Belt” and elsewhere.) Today we might say that I was exercising the white gaze. There is no way to deflect the charge of slumming or gazing, but I wish to think out loud here about what the white gaze does and does not entail.

At an earlier time of life I read a great deal of British and American travel writing from the nineteenth century. One of the things I learned from these books is that nineteenth-century travelers, the thoughtful ones at least, struggled to separate the aesthetic and political dimensions of their experiences abroad. The problem was examined in the 1840s by John Ruskin, who argued in his Modern Painters that travelers seeking the thrill of the picturesque practiced a certain “heartlessness”:

[In] a certain sense the lower picturesque ideal is an eminently heartless one; the lover of it seems to go forth into the world in a temper as merciless as its rocks. All other men feel some regret at the sight of disorder and ruin. He alone delights in both; it matters not of what. Fallen cottage—desolate villa—blasted heath—mouldering castle—to him, so that they do but show jagged angles of stone and timber, all are sights equally joyful. Poverty, and darkness, and guilt, bring in their several contributions to his treasury of pleasant thoughts.

Ruskin had in mind the association, at least a century old by the time he wrote Modern Painters, between the satisfaction of the picturesque emotion and the ruin and decay that were supposed to give rise to it. To delight in the Oliver Goldsmith-style deserted village was, for Ruskin, to overlook the human dispossession that gave rise to it.

So is it a stretch of the truth to say that I had come to Englewood to enrich my treasury of pleasant thoughts with some good old poverty, darkness, and guilt? I say it to my shame: probably not. My little discoveries of a green Englewood with its ancient floodplain trees and wide-open vacancies are certainly heartless enough. As are the hundred mental souvenirs I’ve carried away with me—little glimpses of an urban picturesque. At Sixty-Fifth Street and Halsted, to look at one of these more closely, there is a 1970s vintage shopping center, its colors faded, windows grated, and the whole thing overtopped by a giant City Sports sign reaching out toward the street. I ride by and think in my heartless way that I have pedaled into a canvas by Sheeler or Demuth.

My voyages to Englewood, then, are a kind of slumming. They involve a heartless aestheticizing impulse that reduces the locals to mere figures in a picturesque composition of my own framing. Surely, sadly, some of the truth is here. There are other ways of looking at it, too, and one of them comes from Toni Morrison, who might say that by traversing Englewood I was really playing in the dark. The phrase is the title of a book Morrison made out of a series of lectures she gave in the 1990s about race in American literature. The American literary imagination (and here I practice an oversimplifying shorthand) finds in the contemplation of black people ways of thinking about whiteness and addressing a series of anxieties about being white. Black people in the imagination of American writers are, according to Morrison, “the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful, not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

I’m not ready to cop to all of that as the explanation for what I was doing in Englewood this summer, but I can’t entirely dodge the accusation of playing in the dark. It must be at least partly true that in passing through Englewood and passing out of it again, I was renewed in the sense of my own agency and freedom as a white guy who, let’s face it, inhabits a wider world than the one I rode through.

Philosopher George Yancy draws on Morrison, as well as on decades of race theory, in his book Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race to present a devastating analysis of the white gaze, practiced by ordinary white people on ordinary black people, as a force that stereotypes, criminalizes, and renders black people invisible. As it reinforces whiteness as normative and casts black bodies as outside that norm and without an independent and reciprocating subjectivity, the white gaze, for Yancy, objectifies and silences black people. And in the last years, as Americans are waking up to the systemic violence against black people practiced by the police in so many of our cities, it is not hard to accept the argument that the white gaze is frequently lethal.

Powerless to refute all of this, I can nevertheless add something to this list: the white gaze is ignorant. This was, resoundingly, the lesson of my travels in Englewood. Everywhere I looked, and everything I saw—aestheticize or sympathize as I would—I beheld things that I did not understand. I can say at least this to my own credit: that even in the moment of seeing I knew that I did not understand the things I saw. I suppose that if you consider the question in the strictest terms, we very rarely know the things we see in any deep way—that is in any way that leads to wisdom or true sympathy. I do not, in this sense, know my own children when I see them, for how many times have they said or done things that revealed a gulf of mystery behind the features and manners I supposed I knew them by since birth. But the North Sider in Englewood, the white guy in general as he practices a gaze of the same color, endures certain special occlusions of vision.

First among the things I didn’t know is the question of my own visibility in Englewood. I sustained through most of my ride the illusion—if it was an illusion—that no one saw me. The only white guy in sight for block after block and the only biker (Halsted in Englewood has miles of freshly laid buffer-protected bike lane, and I never saw anyone else using it), I ought to have drawn attention, and it seemed I did not. Perhaps this was an inverted version of the Ralph Ellison-style invisibility that black people experience when whites look at them. Perhaps it is one of the curiosities of the white gaze that it cannot recognize itself as the object of focus from black people. The point is I didn’t know.

The many churches of Englewood were another occasion of ignorance. Block after block, it seemed churches were the leading industry of the neighborhood. Churches in broken-down row houses, in converted bars and storefronts. Churches with handwritten signs over their doors, on whose walls muralists contended with taggers. Churches with names out of a Protestant fever dream: Saving Remnant, Living Waters, Rock of Gideon. So many churches you would think Englewood was the most pious neighborhood in the city. Perhaps, on some no-atheists-in-foxholes principle, it is. Something else I didn’t know.

A friend of mine thinks he knows. He is a Kalderash gypsy, who grew up in tough neighborhoods on the South and West Sides in a family that made a precarious living telling fortunes. “Those guys, the preachers,” he told me, “they're our competition. They’re looking for lost souls to scam. Just like the fortune tellers do. And, Ben,” he smiles conspiratorially over his pho, “those guys get so much ass.” My Kalderash friend’s assertion seems to have a kind of ecological authority. The fortune teller and the storefront preacher compete for the same niche in the city’s ecology, so the fortune seller’s son knows what’s what. But I don’t know. To believe that each of these scores of churches is solely devoted to fleecing the innocent seems as naive as believing that every last one is solely devoted to magnifying the grace of God. But I don’t know. Thus the white gaze.

One occasion of ignorance stands out with photographic clarity. I’m on my way home, having reached a turnaround point, arbitrarily, at 118th and Vincennes (this is a neighborhood, I now know, that the locals call the Wild 100s). Riding north with the late morning sun at my back, I come at Seventy-First and Halsted to the True Temple of Solomon, a big barn-like building with a modest sign. I now know, from the Internet, that Englewood’s True Temple of Solomon houses members of the Black Coptic Church, an offshoot of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria that began in Chicago in the 1930s under Prophet Cicero Patterson, whose followers remember him now as King Melchizedek. I know that the Black Coptic Church tells the story of Christian salvation through a black Jesus, black Mary, and a tradition of black prophets. I know that the church seeks not only to save the souls of its worshippers from sin but to liberate their consciousness from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and economic oppression. And I know that at least one scholar of American religion, Leonard McKinnis, considers the Black Coptic Church to be an indigenous American manifestation of liberation theology.

I knew none of this at the time, of course. What I saw with my white gaze, as I pedaled toward the temple, were three teenagers: a young woman and two young men. They stood in strong morning sunlight in a little yard by a side entrance to the temple. They wore black robes and Egyptian headdress, and they looked, each of them, intensely, infectiously happy. To my relentlessly aestheticizing imagination they looked like a photograph, a beautifully composed group by Gordon Parks or W. Eugene Smith. And they have stayed with me, those smiling Coptic kids, long past my return to the North Side. They persist in memory as a reference point for my ignorance.

To see them as a photograph—even a Parks or a Smith—is of course not to see them at all, that is not to see them as autonomous people with the ability to step outside of a composing frame. To dwell on their evident happiness invites a whole set of unknowns. Did the smiles belong to eager young communicants newly washed in the blood? Or were these the smiles of restless teenagers escaping the tedium of church to stand in the spring sun? It would be presumptuous of me, and false, to say which. And to emphasize the kids’ happiness—especially here at the end of these reflections—is to indulge in a very old colonialist evasion. To claim that a subject people is happy—Why, just listen to that cheerful singing! —is to deny both their subjection and one’s complicity in it. What I saw at the True Temple of Solomon, finally, was nothing I knew.

But perhaps I saw that I knew nothing, and perhaps that is a start. I write this as winter is breaking up and as bike season is coming around again. I never made it last summer to Whistler Woods where, the papers tell me, the cops are always finding new bodies in shallow graves, but I’m going to try again this spring. I will traverse Englewood again, carrying my ignorance as mindfully as possible, keeping my eyes open. Perhaps that will be the beginning of knowledge.