Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Everyday Cruelties 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
This morning, I took the #4 bus south to work through Bronzeville. A once-prosperous, primarily African American neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Bronzeville is known for its rich history; unfortunately, like many urban neighborhoods, it's fallen on rather hard times. If I'm not taking the Metra train, I typically get on the bus downtown at Michigan Avenue - and I'm usually the only white person on the #4 by the far-south portion of the trip. After a while, you can tell where a bus is going just by looking at its sideboard advertising.

Magnificent Mile buses have ads for Calvin Klein, Guess?, and Kenneth Cole. South Side rides have ads for "Ug Buys Ugly Houses!" or "Dawn Dish Detergent Even Handles Grandma's Really Blackened Catfish." Sometimes, the sooty bus-rears have public service announcements, like "Man, I'm So Glad I Got That Syphilis Test." Today, I noticed some unusual graffiti written neatly in yellow opaque marker on the blue fiberglass edge of my seat: YOU ARE A SLAVE!

There's a profound sadness to the neighborhoods just South of Bronzeville before Hyde Park, where at least three-fourth of the storefronts are closed or boarded up. Those that remain are primarily liquor stores, fast food joints, pawnshops and "instant loan" locations. There are also churches, schools, and small parks, all scattered symbols of hope and renewal amidst the urban disorganization.

A plywood construction barrier along the route is colorfully decorated in gold, green and orange with smiling, cartoonlike depictions of Chango and other orishas. Nearby, a Baptist church sign (that normally reads SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT PRAYER MAKES ONE WEAK) today perplexingly stated DON'T WAIT FOR SIX STRONG MEN TO TAKE YOU TO CHURCH. I didn't grasp the meaning until I got to work: pallbearers.

What's eerie about this part of Chicago is how few people seem to be around, even in the middle of a business day rush hour. In the middle of the most poverty-stricken part of my ride, I noticed an unusually cruel billboard towering over a dilapidated block around 47th and Cottage Grove. The ad showed a picture of a luxurious, faceted bottle of Chivas Regal reclining against a backdrop of crushed black velvet. Down on the sidewalk, a smattering of ghosts in dusty clothing shuffled along aimlessly; the kind of folks that probably can't afford a painkiller more palatable than an Olde English '40'.

The Chivas ad caption read: OH, STOP IT. ENVY IS SO UNATTRACTIVE.