Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Never Had a Bad Day 2017 Ugly-Sweater Fund Raiser

The holidays are a time for family, friends and reflection and sometimes you can wrap all three together in a lovely bow.  Saturday, December 9th, was the Second Annual Ugly-Sweater Holiday fundraising event for the Never Had a Bad Day Foundation. Inspired by Erik Baylis and his personal fight with cancer, the charity seeks to support pediatric cancer patients and their families as they navigate the costly and often lengthy process associated with cancer treatment.

Here are some rather startling statistics about childhood cancer from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation for childhood cancer.

Behind every case of pediatric cancer are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, extended family and friends who help to bear the load of the child in need.  The cost for travel, hotels, meals and even something as forgettable as parking add up quickly, sapping finances and increasing worries.

Imagine a nine-year-old child undergoing treatment for leukemia here in Chicago. Her parents, both of whom work, want to spend as much time with her as possible. As treatment drags on for weeks or months, the parents’ vacation and family days are quickly consumed. Soon the parents are forced into the decision of taking unpaid leave to be with their child. 

In the meantime the cost for gas, meals and lodging to travel back and forth to the hospital pile up.  No family budgets for an extended illness of their child, and within a few months their savings dwindle. The mental and emotional stress from travel, tight finances and uncertainly begin to wear on the husband and wife, making it increasingly difficult for them to stay positive and upbeat in front of their little girl fighting for her life.

This story is retold hundreds of times in pediatric cancer centers here in Chicago and it’s the mission of Never Had a Bad Day to help reduce the stresses these families endure, allowing them to focus their time and positive energy on healing the child.

Through events like the ugly-sweater holiday party we’re able to generate funds to help families with gas cards, groceries, lodging and more. While reducing the financial burden of the family is always welcomed, the Never Had a Bad Day foundation strives to make a personal, lasting connection with the entire family, forging a bond that helps to keep their attitude positive, and spirits high.

As we come close to celebrating our first year, the foundation has begun helping families and their children undergoing cancer treatment at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.  Your generous financial donations lessens the family’s financial worries, and your love and time provide a source of continuing support that money alone cannot provide.

We look forward to sharing the stories of the families whom have let us into their lives.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Lincoln Statue, West Englewood And A Look Beyond the Politics and Headlines

If your regularly consume the news, whether online or across the airwaves, you couldn’t be faulted for believing that Americans are so divided that there are times when we can barely speak with one another.  It’s tragic, really.  As someone whose family emigrated from the Soviet Union in the late 1970’s, I not only understand and embrace both the desire to become an American, but also hold a deep appreciation of those things that should bind us together as Americans.

Recently, in the midst of the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia, a news story caught my eye. The headlines suggested that an Abraham Lincoln statue, located at the corner of 69th and Wolcott, had been defaced in response to the angst in Charlottesville and President Trump’s response. The Chicago Tribune and Sun Times stories quoted the Alderman for the neighborhood suggesting that it was President Trump’s tepid response to Charlottesville that incited violence against the Lincoln bust. In response, pundits on the right claimed that the defacing of the Lincoln bust was evidence that those on the far left wouldn’t stop with the removal of Civil War statues, that even icons like Lincoln would be brought down.

From outside of Chicago I’m sure the sniping on the left and right made for great theater as the fate of the Lincoln bust was twisted to suit everyone’s political agenda.  But, for those of us who love Chicago and its history, it was maddening to watch this small, hidden, Chicago icon exploited into a symbol of something wrong with America.

Indeed, after researching the Lincoln statue, I see the worn, discolored and chipped – but still standing – concrete edifice as a testament to the history and struggles of the neighborhood in the past and hope for what might be in the future.

Phil Bloomquist and his Lincoln Street Gas Station

According to City of Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, the Lincoln bust was commissioned in 1926 by Phil Bloomquist, a local resident who owned the Lincoln Gas Station on the corner of 69th and Wolcott. (Prior to the 1930’s, today’s Wolcott was known as Lincoln Street, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the larger Lincoln Avenue.)

Most research suggests that Bloomquist commissioned the Lincoln statue as a marketing tool designed to catch motorists’ attention as they drove down Lincoln Street. It wasn’t uncommon in the 1920’s for gas stations to have icons reflecting their corporate brands out front. Examples include Dino the dinosaur at Sinclair gas stations and White Eagle statues that stood in front of gas stations of the same name. While we don’t have an actual photo of the Lincoln Gas Station back in the day, we can imagine what it must have looked like. (Photo)

When Bloomquist built his gas station in the 1920’s, West Englewood was a neighborhood in transition.  After World War I, the earliest German, Swedish and Irish immigrants, who had often worked in the stock yards, became neighbors with a new wave of Italian immigrants who settled in the relatively open spaces of West Englewood. Not surprisingly, the influx of Italians, many of whom were from Salerno, encouraged businesses to open that could cater to both their native language, culinary and cultural desires.  By 1930, West Englewood had nearly 64,000 residents, with fully 23% of them foreign born, most of Italian descent.  The racial mix of the community was 97% white and 3% African-American.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, West Englewood prospered, participating in the economic boom that followed the war and the men who returned from the military looking towards civilian life and growing families. The neighborhood was anchored by St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church located two blocks North and East of the Lincoln Gas Station and its unique, little statue. 

Tidy brick bungalows and two and three story wooden structures, often shared by multiple generations, made West Englewood an attractive place to live. Wonderfully memorable mom-and-pop businesses thrived along 69th Street, with legendary names like Sarli’s Meat Market, Ambrosino’s, Casio’s, Naples Bakery and the restaurant Louis Georges attracting a generation of devoted clientele.

One especially beloved West Englewood resident, Rudy (Valentino Anthony) Sarli, who passed away in 2010, is fondly remembered for being a loving family man, devoted father and a master at making Italian sausage!

Rudy and Vincenza Sarli, Owners of Sarli's Meat Market
His son, Vincenza Sarli, commented that his dad’s Italian butcher shop would make over a thousand pounds of sausage on any given holiday and that it was customary for Rudy to give a shot of Crown Royal to his best customers when they visited. The Sarli family and their business moved from West Englewood in the 1970’s to 61st and Kedzie, at a time when the neighborhood is colloquially described as having, “changed”.

The Great Migration and Turbulent Times

As with the German, Swedish, Irish and Italian immigrants before them, African-American families who sought leave the poverty, segregation and racial hostility of the 1940’s and 1950’s South turned their eyes towards Chicago. Mirroring the path of European immigrants, Black men would often precede their families, gladly accepting the lowest jobs in the Stock Yards, railroads, or any other opportunity that would help to sustain life.

Even in its earliest days neighboring Englewood had a tiny African-American population and perhaps because of the small numbers, racial tensions were subdued. However, the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to Chicago, racism, fear-mongering and the worst impulses of fallible men bubbled to the surface.

Integrated Englewood High School Football Team of 1908
The influx of African-Americans working families increased the West Englewood non-white population to nearly 12% by 1960. Like immigrants from Europe before them, they congregated in small, tight-knit enclaves, self-segregated as the Irish had done before them on the south side of the tracks at 75th, or the southern Italians who huddled around 69th. It was a natural inclination to be with people who understood who you were and where you came from.

Much has been written about the racial tensions in Chicago during the 1960’s, the racism and red-lining that kept Black families from buying homes, the block-busting and white flight that took hold, and the decimation of communities like West Englewood that have never recovered. Some of the research seems substantive and well-reasoned.  Much of it, however, is poorly researched and with only the thinnest veneer of fairness and objective inquisitiveness.

It’s well beyond the scope of this blog post to delve into the turbulent times that witnessed the flight of long-time white residents from West Englewood to the suburbs, the decline of the population by nearly 40%, and the resulting change in racial composition to 98% Black and 2% White by the 1990 Census.  What is clear, however, is that a once vibrant neighborhood is on life support and what remains has been neglected by all Chicagoan’s for nearly 50 years.

Fifty Years of Neglect and Exploitation

On the corner of 69th and Wolcott, where the Lincoln bust has stood for over 90 years, empty lots, boarded structures and the smell of despair hangs heavy in the air.  Unless you live in the neighborhood, there is little reason to venture down 69th and to be pleasantly surprised by Phil Bloomquist’s statue.

69th and Emerald Avenue, 2014 J. R. Schmidt Photo
And yet, despite the troubled conditions in West Englewood, those who live in the area remember the care that was often afforded the Lincoln statue. As reported by Wendell Hutson writing for DNAInfo in 2013, 
Horace Williams, a resident of the block for 30 years, said … “I am not sure why that stopped, but people around here would wash the statue and paint it. They took care of it as if it was their property."
Fortunately for those who love Chicago, photographer and artist, Camilo Jose Vergara, “found” the Lincoln bust in 1999 and was drawn to the ironically placed statue standing sentinel in West Englewood. 

Photo Taken By Camilo Jose Vergara – By Night in Chicagoland
In a 2009 Slate article, Vergara chronicles the decaying state and changing patina of the Lincoln Bust. 
When I first encountered the bust in 1997, I was surprised to see it had been painted black. Perhaps someone had decided to make Lincoln symbolically part of the community in the same way churches with black congregations sometimes repaint white statues of Jesus Christ. I asked one young man how he felt about the black Lincoln, and he told me, "They should clean it up. White, that was his real color." 
When I visited the corner a year later, the Lincoln statue was white. I asked another local what he thought of the change. "I liked him black," he replied. Over the years, Lincoln was worn by the weather. By 2004, he was no longer black or white, but dappled like a Dalmatian.
Fast forward to August of this year when the Lincoln statue, largely ignored for decades, was thrust into the news. The local Alderman accused President Trump of “emboldening vandals to set fire to a bust of Abraham Lincoln…”

Locals, as reported in the Sun Times, suggested that the burn marks and general disrepair of the statue predated recent events. Indeed, the general abuse deterioration of the statue over the course of a decade, chronicled by Vergara in his photos, suggest that the Alderman’s claims of damage might have been more about encouraging press coverage than heart-felt concern. 

In a similarly exploitative fashion, right-leaning pundits grabbed hold of the Alderman’s headlines and twisted the story in the other direction. Characterizing the Lincoln bust on the abandoned corner as an artistic masterpiece and cultural icon, pundits used the inflammatory photos of the forlorn bust to incite outrage at Chicago and the residents of West Englewood. 

What is particularly galling is the notion that in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden areas in the country, where unemployment is well over 50% and three generations of families have been lost to an endless cycle of poverty, that these fellow Chicagoans would somehow channel their anger at a gas station bust of Lincoln that has stood in their neighborhood for 90 years. It’s absurd.

In good times and bad, with the arrival of each new ethnic and racial group in search of a better life, Bloomquist’s Lincoln statue endured. Through the influx of Italian immigrants in the 20’s and 30’s, race riots and white flight in the 60’s, and bitter poverty for the past three decades, Bloomquist’s Lincoln remained an enduring fixture in West Englewood.

With the drive-by reporters and pundits now gone, the Lincoln statue has been removed by the City at the Alderman's behest who for two years prior to his news conference, showed little interest in the concrete bust. The corner where Lincoln stood firmly for 90 years is now empty. There’s talk of rehabilitating the bust and putting it next to a nearby library where it will be “safe”.

If that’s what residents in the area want, God bless them.  I wonder, however, if it wouldn’t be a more fitting testament to return Lincoln to its rightful spot at the corner of 69th and Wolcott.  Tens of thousands have fled West Englewood, moving to the suburbs and beyond. Thousands more live there because they can’t find a way out.  

Let the Lincoln statue serve as a touchstone between West Englewood’s vibrant past and its hopeful future. Let this one thing in the neighborhood endure, standing tall and unyielding.  Let the Lincoln statue remind us that West Englewood is not a throwaway neighborhood, that if its safe for people, it's safe for a concrete statue.  Let Lincoln remind us that the place and people deserve attention and respect, and that politicians and pundits shouldn’t be allowed to exploit what little the neighborhood has for personal gain.

Let Bloomquist’s statue stand for something good and unifying for all Chicagoans.