Sladjana grew up on the East Side in the mid-to-late 1970s. After a couple years away for school—still in Illinois, though—she eventually moved back to Chicago. She lives in Hyde Park.
At 96th and Avenue M there was a cool little park across the street with swings and everything. At that time it was still a very white neighborhood, blue-collar, working class. When we moved to 110th street—as we moved further south—the houses got a little nicer. Less apartment buildings and more houses.
That was Eddie Vrdolyak’s ward*. He was this corrupt alderman and everybody was really racist. It was a like a white, racist, working class, blue-collar neighborhood. It was right by where all the steel factories were, and those fumes from the factories were always going.
I grew up there, so that was home, but I do remember being offended even as a child. They were building the East Side mall and Eddie Vrdolyak had a petition going around saying, Sign this petition to not build a mall because then black people are going to come here. It bothered me. Kids I think can instantly see inequities and injustice.
I also remember all the black kids getting bussed to my school. I remember in fifth grade I brought my friend Christine Nichols home for lunch and I remember the neighbors—you know, it’s all these little bungalow houses with picture windows—and I remember neighbors looking out at us. We were kids! I could tell they were bothered there was a black person walking down the street.
Now, all those factories have shut down, and it’s really become a pretty neighborhood—prettier than it was back then, because of all the pollution and smog. I’m so happy my family is holding it down. They didn’t leave but all the white people left and it’s all Hispanic now! I’m so proud. The East Side is still my home neighborhood.
It’s still an extremely racist city. Very segregated. I live in Hyde Park now, one of the few areas that is well integrated, and not just racially but class-wise. But even to this day, it’s only white people that ask me, Why do you live in Hyde Park? Black people never ask me why I live in Hyde Park. They know why I live in Hyde Park: it’s a great neighborhood. And then when I go with my friend Bruce, who’s black, to a coffeeshop on the North Side he feels—and I feel, too—that the North Side is so white. There’s pockets, of course, that aren’t. But I don’t think Chicago has changed very much. White kids from college, they would never think, Oh, I’ll live on the South Side. They live in all these white neighborhoods. It bugs me. [Laughs.] Bucktown. Or, Bruce and I were at a coffeeshop—at Fritz’s, where they have vegan donuts. It’s on Southport and Ashland, which isn’t really a totally white neighborhood, but still, he gets looks from people. He’s black and I’m white, like—what are we doing together? I think it’s still an extremely racist city. It’s a racist country.
Maybe aldermen are not so open about it. I think they’re more sensitive to being called racist now, but I don’t think very much has changed. In a way, the whole idea of, “Obama’s going to be great because he’s black.”—I mean, that’s racist. And what is he doing? His policies? I think it’s really set the progressive movement back, because people are thinking everything’s OK because we got a black president, but some of his policies are worse than Bush! It’s really scary.
Obama really knows how to talk the talk, but he doesn’t know how to walk the walk. His rhetoric is good. He’s so charming and so intelligent. And everyone’s just so happy to have that. But it’s insidious.
* “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, so named for his proficiency at back-room deals, was 10th Ward Alderman from 1971 until 1986, and the former head of the Cook County Democratic Party. He led the city council opposition to Mayor Washington during his first term, speaking for a primarily white group of 29 alderpeople against Washington’s supporters—16 black and 5 white councilmembers. After leaving city council and the Cook County Democratic Party, he made an unsuccessful run for mayor as the Solidarity Party nominee against Washington, and then ran against Richard M. Daley as a write-in Republican in 1989. His loss, with only 4% of the vote, ended his political career and he returned to his law practice. In 2008 Vrdolyak was charged with bribery, mail fraud, and wire fraud in a federal grand jury, pled guilty to reduced charges, and was sentenced to probation, community service and a fine the following year. This sentence was overturned in a federal appeals court in January, and Vrdolyak awaits resentencing.