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West Side Remembered

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It was forty years ago today that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. As news of his assassination spread through African American communities across the country, so did anger and rioting. On Chicago’s South and West sides people took to the streets, breaking into stores and walking off with whatever they could carry. Chicago Public Radio’s Robert Wildeboer recently visited some of the hardest hit neighborhoods and gathered some stories you might not have heard before.

With stores being set on fire and smoke hanging over the west side, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley gave police the now infamous “shoot to kill” order.

DALEY: Shoot arsonists to kill and shoot looters in order that they be detained.

Uniformed police officers were ordered to park at major intersections to project a strong police presence but a black officer moved among the crowds unnoticed in plainclothes. Frank Lee started at the corner of 16th and Kedzie and tried to diffuse tense situations. He looked for groups of young men congregating around stores. He’d approach them and point out the white cops stationed at the corners.

LEE: Say hey, you know, listen. Nothing good going to happen over here man. You guys need to go home.

Lee grew up in this west side neighborhood. He could tell kids he knew to go home and they’d listen because he’d threaten to tell their parents. But he says most of his efforts that day were futile.

LEE: If they’d go down to the alley that would be a long way but normally they’d just kind of start moseying along and then after you’d left they’d turn around come back and they’re on the corner. Now, walking this neighborhood, Lee says it’s a shadow of what it was before the riots.

LEE: There were businesses on all these corners. There used to be a cleaners there. There was another cleaners over here. You know the pontiac dealership was in this triangle right there where it’s vacant. The sidewalk sparkles with broken bits of glass. And vacant, litter strewn lots line the main thoroughfares where the looted stores have been razed. We pass one store that survived the melee though it has since been boarded up. Lee remembers it well.

LEE: You know, the street name for it was, we called it the bucket of blood.
If you think you just heard him say bucket of blood you’d be correct. It was a liquor store that was home to frequent fights. So many in fact that the owners kept the floor covered in sawdust to make a post stabbing cleanup easy. During the looting, the black owned shop was able to hire some of it’s tougher patrons to stand guard.

LEE: They were networked in the neighborhood I mean they knew, they knew the folks they needed to know. So did James Cole. He owned a shoe shine shop a little ways north on Madison street, at the center of the chaos. That week a Chicago Tribune article said quote, “Along a two-mile stretch of Madison street, the destruction was total...buildings were reduced to brick and mortar shells.” Total destruction was an overstatement -- but a very slight one. Amidst all the rubble, Cole’s shop stood thanks to his employees.

COLE: Most of the kids that worked for me was like the kids of the streets, you know, the juveniles and the dropouts and stuff like that. So what we did is, we stood there. They felt that hey, this has got to stay here if I want to work tomorrow.

And work they did. Cole says he reopened as soon as he could and people came by, even more than before the riots.

COLE: They stopped at any store that was still there and my store was one of the stores that was still there. So, those was like little stop off points for people. “Hey this place is still here let’s go in here.”

Cole says business actually picked up especially when the national guard was sent in to restore order. There were a lot of black boots to shine then. Cole says, unlike white merchants, he lived only a block from his shop and he says he had no choice but to try and protect it.

COLE: You know other people just invest and go home everyday. And my little bit was this is home. I gotta survive. I gotta make this work.

PANICE: People over at Fillmore station called us tell us to get the hell out of there cause troubles coming and we left and that was it.

Ray Panice had a hat shop just a few doors down from Cole’s shoe shine store. He’s one of the many white shop owners who commuted into the African American community to conduct business.

PANICE: We figured we’d come back the next day and nothing was there. It was totally destroyed down to the ground. His entire inventory of hats was gone, as were the tools and supplies he used to make custom hats. Panice’s not a big talker. He ends most of his sentences with things like, “and that’s about it,” or, “not much more to say,” clear cues that he’s hoping the conversation is over. About his destroyed shop he says simply he’d seen worse fighting in Belgium during world war two. Soon after the riots he started another hat shop. He’s working there now, forming hats with ancient wood blocks and antique looking contraptions that pour out steam. The store is only a few blocks away from his old location. Starting up again in the african american community is not something all white store owners were interested in doing right after the riots but Panice shies away from any talk about race and says it was no big deal.

PANICE: I’m not the big, I’m a Mickey Mouse operation. It ain’t that big a the deal with me. I told you a dozen times. It’s a job and no matter what you’re doing you keep doing it. Now 85, Panice’s been a hatter for 60 years. He says he’d like to retire but he can’t find anyone to buy the store. He gets back to work. He stands on a tall stool and re-sets an old clock above a door. A customer comes in and Panice takes an order for a custom made had. The man leaves a 50 dollar deposit and panice says he can pick up the hat in a week.

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