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The Lost City:
Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Neighborhood Life in the Chicago of the 1950s
By Alan Ehrenhalt 
Basic Books, 299 pages, $23

You have to give Alan Ehrenhalt, the editor of Governing magazine, credit for a lot of nerve. It’s one thing to take on the job of sympathetically interpreting the 1950s, but Chicago of the 1950s? Virtue in the stormy, husky, brawling city of big shoulders and big payoffs? Come to think of it, Basic Books is pretty adventurous, too. Many a publisher might have passed on a book extoling the virtues of urban life under the reign of Richard the First (Daley, of course). There just aren’t that many potential readers like Andrew Greeley, who once told an interviewer he imagined heaven as being something like Chicago in the time of “The Mayor.”

To avoid misunderstanding, I must make clear that The Lost City does not portray the fifties as a golden age. But it does provide a wholesome corrective to accounts that dwell exclusively on the defects of that decade, with its lack of opportunities for women and minorities, and its cult of bourgeois domesticity. Ehrenhalt wisely observes:

In drawing up our balance sheet for 1950s America, assessing the values and the costs, we do need to examine the holes in its assumptions of contentment. But that the contentment was real-and widespread-is a truth that needs to be remembered as well . . . . It is not the place of the historian and the critic to mock the comforts of ordinary people.

Critics have done yeoman work in exposing the ways in which elements of the fifties ethos fostered future adolescent rebellion. What they did not understand, Ehrenhalt claims, were “the small but hard-won satisfactions of the grownups who were grateful for a modicum of physical comfort after two rough decades.” He seems right on the mark in his analysis of what the fifties meant to the generation that struggled through the Depression and survived World War II. For them, the period was one “when life as it was seemed so much better than life as it might have been.”

Though Ehrenhalt greatly adds to the understanding of a much-maligned city and decade, that is not his main aim. His voyage in time was undertaken primarily in quest of political knowledge. He returned to the fifties in search of insight regarding some urgent contemporary questions about how human beings order their lives together: What conditions are necessary in order to have such minimum elements of dignified living as safe streets, classrooms conducive to learning, and a reasonable degree of social stability? How are social cohesion (community) and legitimate leadership (authority) gained and lost?

Since Aristotle, those who ponder such questions have often looked to the past, or to the experience of other cities and states, for clues to what works, what fails, and what side-effects are associated with this or that arrangement. History and comparison are the laboratories of the social scientist. Faulty as that equipment is, we haven’t got much else. Ehrenhalt, in that tradition, takes as his theater of observation three communities in the Chicago area as they were forty years ago, and as they are today. The result is a deeply challenging work of social criticism that, with the help of several well-chosen photographs, vividly evokes a time and place.

If you’ve ever entered Chicago at Midway Airport, chances are your taxi took you through the first of these neighborhoods-St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish. St. Nick’s lies in the “bungalow belt” on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a vast expanse of low, solid, bay-windowed, five-or six-room brick dwellings in shades of beige and ochre. In the fifties, these were the dream houses of a diverse mixture of working-class Bohemian, German, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Slovak families. Outwardly, the bungalows look much the same today as they did forty years ago, even to the ornamental lamps and plants in the front windows. What has vanished is the neighborhood-centered life that once buzzed around them-the shops where merchants and customers knew one another; the comings and goings between adjacent back yards; the activity in the streets that was “monitored during all the waking hours of the day by the informal law enforcement system of the neighborhood, the at-home mothers.” The mothers had an important ally in watchful Monsignor Fennessy, who, for decades, “walked the neighborhood day and night, dressed in a black cassock that reached down to his shoe-tops . . . greet[ing] people on their front stoops, and hand[ing] out dimes to children.” St. Nick’s Church itself was mother to a host of associations and activities for men, women, and children. Its pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy was richly ceremonial; its masses well-attended; its parish school staffed with a full complement of nuns.

As it happens, I knew that neighborhood well. During the academic year 1956-57, I was a part-time reporter for its gung-ho weekly paper, the Southwest News-Herald . Five days a week, after class at the University of Chicago, I took the long bus ride to 59th and Kedzie, journeying, as through a space warp, from the Great Books to the great bake-offs. I spent many hours covering events in neighborhood churches, gymnasiums, and schools; and recording the births, weddings, achievements, mishaps, and deaths of Southwest-siders. Across the street from the News-Herald was a union hall where the Mayor himself would sometimes make a brief appearance, flanked by burly men in Robert Hall suits. The engines that kept that way of life humming were the churches, the unions, the locally owned businesses, and the unpaid labor of women. So far as I can tell, there is not a single false note in Ehrenhalt’s recreation of that busy little world.

Today, the Southwest Side is a shell of its former self-with few stay-at-home parents, most of its local businesses bought up by distant corporations, and not one nun left in St. Nick’s struggling parish school. Plant closings took their toll on the economic life of the community; divorce took its toll on families; and women’s increased labor force participation deprived the schools and churches not only of their volunteers, but of interested close observers of their missions. Community seems to have evaporated. As for authority, Ehrenhalt writes, “Outside the province of the individual family, there are no noticeable figures of authority at all.”

Eastward of St. Nick’s, and centered on 47th and South Park Way, was the neighborhood once called Bronzeville. In the fifties, it was the heart of Chicago’s South-Side ghetto, where most of the city’s African-American population was crowded and kept in by de facto segregation. Ehrenhalt does not gloss over the conditions of squalor and limited opportunity that prevailed there. The fact that it was so difficult for blacks to move to other parts of the city, however, meant that middle-class people, “church ladies,” stable families, and skilled and white-collar workers remained in the population mix. Bronzeville was the diverse, vibrant, suffering, struggling world whose gains and joys were portrayed by Lorraine Hansberry in her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun . In Ehrenhalt’s book, as in that memorable play, the Bronzeville of former times is presented as a place where, “however difficult the present might be, the future was worth thinking about and planning for in some detail.”

The churches were Bronzeville’s “most uniformly successful and self-reliant social institutions.” Besides five churches with a seating capacity of two thousand or more, and two with over ten thousand members on their rolls, there were dozens of little store-fronts. The larger churches fostered elaborate networks of social groups and activities, and their ministers were the community’s preeminent leaders. The leading clergymen, because they were beholden to no outside interests, were even more respected than the businessmen, the editor of the Defender, and William Dawson, the machine boss. Says Ehrenhalt, “They were the indispensable coordinators of the community.”

Today, the physical structures of the Bronzeville neighborhood no longer exist. Most of its buildings were levelled-so that some of the country’s worst public housing could be erected on the sites of what had been some of its worst slums. Like many other American cities, Chicago learned the hard way that bulldozed communities could not simply be “renewed.” But even if urban renewal had not taken its toll, other social forces were irrevocably transforming the ghetto. For, as opportunities for better jobs and housing opened up, the black middle class moved away. Hardly anything now remains of the community whose “uniqueness depended on the presence of people from all classes with all sorts of values” living and working side-by-side. Only the churches survive in anything close to recognizable form, “struggling heroically against the social disorganization that is all around them.” But, without the middle-class families and other community pillars, the churches have lost much of their authority. Their songs still ring out on Sunday, but their teaching voices have become fainter.

On the western outskirts of Chicago stands Elmhurst, the third and last stop in Ehrenhalt’s quest. In the 1950s, many white middle-class families succumbed to the allure of the new, affordable homes that were sprouting in pastel profusion in places like Elmhurst. Returning veterans, salesmen, engineers, office managers-many of them the first in their families to attend college or to have white-collar jobs-liked the idea of raising their children outside the city. They and their wives were attracted by the airy open spaces and the novel “picture windows” that distinguished the modern split-level and ranch-style construction. As Ehrenhalt puts it, they moved “into houses and lives that seemed, even to them, almost too good to be true.”

With hindsight, however, the dreams of those hopeful, mobile men and women of the fifties were constructed on exceptionally shaky foundations. The new arrivals, having left their roots and extended families behind, naively believed “that community was something they could simply recreate in the place they were moving to.” The Lost City recounts the frenetic efforts they made to jump-start social life, and to foster neighborliness among people who happened to have bought houses next door to one another. One large group gave a high priority to founding a church that, like Baby Bear’s bed, was not too hard, not too soft, but just right for the lifestyles suburbanites were in the process of inventing. The new church was long on social life, short on doctrine, and, for a time, it flourished.

Community, however, is as hard to create as it is to renew. The newcomers to Elmhurst had no shared memories. Indeed, their chief common characteristic was being a newcomer. In the beginning, they were aided by the presence in their midst of many men who had served in World War II. That experience made the veterans “almost a fraternal group,” and gave them “confidence and authority as community leaders.” But, as the country is now discovering, that kind of authority expires with the generation that earned it. Today, Elmhurst’s busy two-job families have little time to nurture the structures and institutions of community. The church that figured so importantly in their lives forty years ago has suffered a massive membership decline.

As for authority in the family and the schools, Ehrenhalt makes a convincing case that it was already on the wane in the middle-class enclaves of the fifties. Popular magazines like McCall’s and Parents were exhorting fathers to be friends and companions to their kids, not just distant breadwinners. Parents’ lives revolved around children to an unprecedented degree. The ideal of “family togetherness” was symbolized by the architecture of the new homes with their large living rooms. Fathers still imposed rules and exercised discipline, but, Ehrenhalt perceptively observes, “they were beginning to doubt their own legitimacy in doing it, and they betrayed those doubts, and that made their efforts at authority seem all the more arbitrary and capricious.” In that light, the generation that came of age in the sixties was not rebelling against domestic tyranny (as they claimed), so much as exploiting the vulnerability of a soft regime. Their parents undermined their own governments with good intentions.

Ehrenhalt’s analysis of authority in the schools is similar. The Elmhurst teachers he interviewed remember feeling that their authority over what they saw as pampered kids was becoming precarious. Former students, for their part, recall the school atmosphere as intimidating. No contradiction, says Ehrenhalt. Insecurity will often cause a teacher, or a parent, to step up the volume. Today, he reports, the high school has abandoned the discipline that its students once resented, but it has also abandoned the belief in character-building that once gave educators their sense of purpose. Teachers, like many other authority figures in the 1990s, “not only have lost the ability to enforce standards of conduct, but any clear sense of what standards to enforce.”

Even the yellow, pink, and aqua dream houses had a drawback. They were small structures whose vaunted living spaces were achieved at the price of cramped, thin-walled bedrooms. Suburban baby boomers thus had little privacy at home, were crowded together in schoolrooms, yet were treated as “special” by their earnest parents. Ehrenhalt sees in that state of affairs some of the “physical roots of hyper-individualism in the age that followed.”

What does Ehrenhalt make of all this? His conclusions, like his descriptions, deserve to be read and pondered carefully. In brief, the main lesson he draws from his visits to St. Nick’s, Bronzeville, and Elmhurst is this: In the moral, as in the economic, realm, there’s no free lunch. The gains of the past forty years have been real, in terms of personal freedom, choice, and job opportunities, especially for women and minorities. But the losses have been real, too. In developing this theme, Ehrenhalt makes an important contribution to the understanding, not only of the fifties, but of the conditions for community and authority.

He recognizes that many readers will balk at his emphasis on the importance of “authority”-a word that, to his generation (he was born in 1947), has sinister connotations of arbitrariness and oppression. Nevertheless, he insists, “there is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about recreating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end.”

A major reason authority is currently in such bad odor, of course, is that the distinction between authority and authoritarianism was lost in the sixties. Since many readers will not appreciate that distinction, and because authority is such a key concept in Ehrenhalt’s analysis, I wish that he had devoted some attention to the subject of how power earns and maintains its claim to acceptance and legitimacy. On the other hand, the strength of the book is in its detailed observations. The author was probably wise in his decision to keep explicit theorizing to a minimum.

The Lost City does, moreover, make a significant contribution to the understanding of one of the most perplexing problems of contemporary political theory: can liberal democratic experiments sustain a shared culture that will restrain human appetites without using oppressive force? His answer, though he does not put it quite this way, is affirmative-provided that liberalism does not attempt to transform every institution of civil society in its own image. As he sees it, the adults of the fifties-a critical mass of them-lived by an implicit bargain by whose terms lasting relationships were given priority over unfettered personal freedom and choice. “People stayed married to their spouses, to their political machines, to their baseball teams. Corporations also stayed married-to the communities they grew up with.” That bargain gave us “communities that were, for the most part, familiar and secure; stable jobs and relationships whose survival we did not need to worry about in bed at night; rules that we could live by, or, when we were old enough, rebel against; and people known as leaders who were trusted with the task of seeing that the rules were enforced.”

The price of that bargain was substantial-”a whole network of restrictions on our ability to do whatever we liked.” But in repudiating the deal, we sacrificed many things that Americans still rightly regard as essential to the good life. We need to realize, he writes, that “privacy, individualism, and choice are not free goods and that the society that places no restrictions on them will pay a high price for that decision.”

Ehrenhalt neither wishes, nor believes it is possible, to restore the families, neighborhoods, patterns of work and investment, schools, politics, and religion of a generation ago. The key question for him is whether we can “rebuild some anchors of stability” to help us through times of turbulence. Can we, he asks, “develop a majority culture strong enough to tell its children there are inappropriate ways to behave in a high school corridor? Is there a way to relearn the simple truth that there is sin in the world, and that part of our job in life is to resist its temptations?” To do so would require us to correct for the excesses of “a generation determined to keep permissiveness and unfettered self-expression at the top of its list of values-long after they [have] turned into corrosive forces for the society as a whole.”

That’s a tall order, but Ehrenhalt is cautiously sanguine about the answers to the questions he poses. He draws comfort from two other historical moments when community and authority were in crisis. The 1920s, he points out, were characterized by a vivid sense of lost community and authority, yet were followed by the extraordinary social cohesion and common effort of the Depression and war years. An even more interesting case, he argues, is England in the 1820s, a time of notorious disrespect for authority, with manners and beliefs profoundly unsettled by revolutionary ideas from France. Who could have foreseen, he asks, the Victorian era of reform and the revitalization of religion that followed?

But as Ehrenhalt surely knows, English and American civil society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was thick with the sorts of communities of memory and mutual aid whose current decline he has so well documented. The social networks that sustained earlier generations are now hanging in shreds. The fact is that our current situation is historically unprecedented in ways that make it fanciful to look for a swing of the historical pendulum to restore conditions of orderly, dignified living. No solution is on the horizon, to take the most troubling example, for the socialization of what is very likely a critical mass of children, rich and poor alike, being raised in transient neighborhoods, with little parental supervision, in broken and reconstituted families where no arrangements or commitments seem permanent or reliable.

Ehrenhalt thus seems to be resisting his own data when he pins his hopes on “what the next generation grows up believing-the generation being raised by the creators of the deluge.” The generation now coming of age faces a future in which their material prospects-as a group-are worse than those of their parents and grandparents. Ehrenhalt insists that to dismiss the idea that they will restore community and authority is to show “too little respect for the natural desire of any generation to correct the errors and excesses of the generation before.” Desire, however, is one thing; ability another. And if the generation that has known so little order should move, as Ehrenhalt hopes, to reimpose it, there is another question to be asked. What sort of authority will they be able to imagine? What rough beast slouches toward the windy city to be born?

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and a member of the Advisory Board of First Things.

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