In the Heat of the City: Remembering Eugene Williams

2,117 total words    

8 minutes of reading

“It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself. Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.” — James Baldwin

We tend to think ecology only has to do with plant and animal communities, but cities, communities and regions dominated by humans, operate by the same rules as all life forms—simple or complex. The health of one community can and will affect the health of those surrounding and dependent on it.

In July, Chicago quietly and somberly remembered those who died twenty years ago in one of the worst urban disasters in U.S. history—the heat wave in the summer of 1995 that contributed to the deaths of over 700 people. For a bit of perspective, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed large swaths of the city, killed just over 300 people.

Many would argue that every year Chicago experiences something of an urban disaster, as gun violence rips through the bodies of young people and the hearts of their families, friends, and communities. Like gun deaths in Chicago, the Heat Wave of 1995 inordinately affected people of color in poorer neighborhoods, mostly in African American communities on the South and West Sides. Whereas largely young black and Hispanic men dominate the morgues of Chicago due to gun violence, those who died in Chicago’s ten days of 100-plus-degree heat were older, mostly men and mostly black. Many of the dead were found alone in bedrooms with no working fans and sealed windows, because they were fearful of intruders and the violence in their surrounding neighborhoods.

In Eric Klinenberg’s thoroughly researched sociological study, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, he makes clear that not only did the city fail to mobilize public services in these historically isolated areas, but, even more damning, he describes what most African Americans have known for decades: that systemic poverty and racial segregation have so deteriorated the social fabric of these neighborhoods that they’ve become environmentally unlivable and rife with public health problems for young and old alike.

For someone who has lived in Chicago for over thirty years, I thought I understood something of the history of how racial injustice had crippled the lives of so many people of color and contributed to Chicago’s chronic social problems. I’d heard the stories from friends and students I’d taught; I’d read many of the classic literary and scholarly books, saw the documentaries, seen the historical exhibits. But as my friend, the writer and long-time African American political activist Nelson Peery has often reminded me, there is a difference between the facts of history and their truths. One can study statistics and theories, see photographs, and read accounts, but it is another matter to feel the effects of actions and events that have directly shaped your life and that of your family and your community.

*     *     *     *

A few years ago, I took a 63-mile walk along the southern shore of Lake Michigan from my apartment in the city’s far northern lakefront neighborhood of Rogers Park to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In my two day pilgrimage, I’d wanted to make the case for the benefits of urban walking and to advocate for more urban trails like that of Chicago’s eighteen-mile grand lakefront trail.


By walking and writing about it, I had hoped to invite more people to consider the importance of creating a greenway from the Lakefront to one of the few urban national parks in America—the ecologically diverse wilderness of dunes, woodlands, and vast marshlands of the Indiana Dunes, which thrives within one of most industrialized areas of North America and is visible from the shores of Chicago. But it didn’t take long for me to feel some truth about the two separate and unequal worlds of Chicago and its industrial satellites, those once great hubs of labor that produced the steel to build Chicago and defeat Nazi Germany.

When you walk, as opposed to fly over or drive on an elevated expressway at 70 mph, it’s obvious why people in areas of the South Side and in Gary, Indiana, suffer from more chronic illnesses, high unemployment, high crime rates, unsafe streets, polluted air and water, and poorly funded schools and public facilities. It is also apparent that local and affordable food sources are more scarce and that residents have the farthest to travel to enjoy safe places for recreation, even though they live near Lake Michigan.

I realized how important the lakefront is to the health of Chicago, providing free, accessible, communal space for all to play, exercise, socialize, learn, and appreciate the natural and human history that defines our past and offers such promise for our future.  There are also monuments, museums, fountains, bronzed busts to the city’s so-called heroes, and any number of personal memorials etched into the limestone revetment walls that hold back the great lake, which itself is an enduring source of life for creatures, such as us, who first came here centuries ago.

After passing through the grand memorials to learning and culture that are located in the Loop, I found myself in the shadows of the gargantuan monument to commerce and industry known as McCormick Place. Near here—though I could find no memorial or historical marker—is the site of another of the city’s social disasters, an eruption of racial unrest and rioting that rocked the city during the summer of 1919. The Chicago race riots, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, killed 25 blacks and 18 whites, and wounded hundreds more people, most of whom were African American. For several days, in anticipation of further violence, the El was shut down as well as many of the major packing houses and factories. Fires claimed black-owned businesses and left hundreds of black Chicagoans homeless. In the end, federal troops had to be called in since both fire and police departments, largely run by Irish-Americans, couldn’t be counted upon to remain unbiased.

I’d ridden my bike past this spot many times over the years, but I’d never really slowly scanned the landscape and the cityscape around me, nor considered the history of the city from the ground up. As I pondered the ground around me, stories seemed to rise up from the land itself. Before this man-made lakefront became home to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 and eventually a harbor for yachts and speedboats, it was an unofficial beach for South Side workers and their families.

Unlike the beaches on the North Side with sand and amenities, here the lakefront was essentially piles of debris pushed out to clear the city of refuse after the Great Fire. For black families not allowed to swim in any official park or beach, it was their only access to the water, and, for the immigrant workers of the South Side, this was their closest access to the pleasures of swimming and bathing.

Looking out at the lake, what’s hardest to imagine for me, as someone who has lived on both the South and North Sides and has come to appreciate the lakefront as the city’s sacred ground, is that the terror that swept over the city began on a crowded beach with a boy swimming, in the colorless cool waters of Lake Michigan on a hot summer afternoon.

The riots of that summer had many causes but what ultimately sparked the days of violence to come was the drowning—or, really, the stoning—of a sixteen-year-old black youth by the name of Eugene Williams. Williams had swum to a floating rail road tie, which drifted close or over the invisible “color line,” bringing volleys of rocks from white youths. Williams either was hit as he desperately tried to swim back or as he held on for life, details are unclear, but he drowned. When blacks pulled his body out of the water, they demanded that nearby police arrest the white youths. But the officers refused. Rocks then flew from both groups and fights broke out. In the end, instead of arresting any whites, the police arrested a black man for inciting violence.


The events of that day and those that followed are unaccounted for along the lakefront, though we have Ferris Wheels, silver beans, romantic statues of naked Indians, and Roman statuary in honor of Mussolini’s general of the Air Force, Italo Balbo.

*   *     *     *

It’s not easy to look at, even in your imagination. But the death of this teenage boy is a reflection of our collective past and a harbinger of our future, if we cannot confront why episodes like those in Charleston, Baltimore, and elsewhere continue to shatter our common faith in justice, civil society, and the health and welfare of our children and communities.

As the heat rises in the city and across small and large cities in America, recreational access to swimming pools, to parks, to even the cool comfort of a porch or backyard remains elusive for those in neighborhoods where gun violence can strike anyone at any time. Systemic injustice and racism comes in many forms—policing practices, incarceration, poorly funded local schools, food deserts, inadequate and unsafe sidewalks and public transport, poor air quality, illegal toxic dumping, and a lack of safe and accessible parks.

Racism and injustice are real social poisons, as James Baldwin alerted us to a half a century before, that sicken not only the poor and the marginalized but the body politic as a whole. Over time, it’s easy to think we are immune from these poisonous practices that inflict people in parts of cities that have been virtually cut off by both collective fear and actual public policy—until a dramatic social disaster occurs like Chicago’s Heat Wave of 1995 or Hurricane Katrina or this summer’s wave of shootings of unarmed youth, mostly young men of color. These are all forms of violence, according to environmental activist and scholar Rob Nixon, who coined the term “slow violence” to describe the incremental effects of economic and environmental injustice on vulnerable communities both here and around the world.

I walked on from McCormick Place and made my way south along the lakefront as far as I could go and then on into industrial Indiana, where the following day I finally reached my goal, the Indiana Dunes. I saw more that disturbed me—degraded lands and neglected cities and parks, slag mountains and polluted waterways, casinos and global giants of industry that dominate the shore for thirty miles. But I also saw and felt that there was no separation in the land, from the Loop to the empty blocks in Gary, from the brownfields next to BP’s refinery to the miraculous biodiversity of plants and animals at the Indiana Dunes. It was all one shore, all one landscape, all one metropolis, all with one history, all with one future.

And I wouldn’t have seen this—both what saddened and inspired me—if I had not been on my feet walking, mile after mile, absorbing the complex story written in this land where humans have lived for thousands of years. To redress the historical wounds that continue to divide and degrade the health of the land and this metropolis, it seems to me that first we must see it as one, and see it from the ground, slowly, so we can understand what has happened here and witness first-hand what thrives and survives so that we can learn to appreciate what we have. A trail that knows no boundaries and connects us to our collective past, with public art that recognizes the remarkable diversity of the land and the people, might be a pathway toward a more healthy future.


PostScript: In researching this essay for the book I’ve been writing on my walk from Chicago to the Indiana Dunes, I did in fact discover that there is a plaque on the lakefront near where Eugene Williams’s body was pulled out of the water and the fighting erupted that led to the Chicago Riots. Thanks to the Elmhurst High School students who took it upon themselves after learning about the riots in their classes to raise money and ask the Park District to install their plaque, which you can see below. However, it is still a shame that the city of Chicago has not erected a visible reminder in the form of a monument or piece of public art so that students, residents, and visitors can reflect on the events of that summer and their effects on this city and America. The quote the students chose of Martin Luther King’s for their plaque should be writ large for all to read as they walk by.


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  • Michael McColly

    Michael is the author of The After-Death Room (Soft Skull Press), for which he won a Lambda Award in 2007 for best spiritual memoir, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Ascent, In These Times, Salon, The Sun, and other literary journals. He writes a blog about walking and its public health benefits foot patterns.blogpsot.com.

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