To and From the Common Brick, 2021

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Right after the Center published this essay on urban flooding, my basement flooded. This was a rare event for my Northwest Side neighborhood, and it took a one-hundred-year storm to send the water up my basement drain. However, for many people—especially those on the South Side of Chicago—every rainfall is a nerve-fraying potential disaster, and flooding is a way of life that happens again and again and again.

Why is this? Through an incredible piece of reporting, Eiren Caffall focuses on a family bungalow in the flood-prone Chatham neighborhood. She looks at the history of the bungalow’s common bricks to unearth Chicago’s geological makeup and industrial makeover. Then she chisels away at the structural neglect and environmental racism that disproportionately harms the health and stability of communities like Chatham—environmental wounds that have existed for generations and are being exacerbated by the climate crisis.

The essay is an eye-opening account of invisible disasters that affect Chicagoans unequally and the slow violence embedded in the city’s infrastructure. But it’s also a story of common citizens rising up to protect the people and places they love against the deluges of indifference and injustice.

–Introduced by Jeremy Ohmes

To begin, imagine a brick.

This one is vintage, sought after by collectors, made of a unique type of clay only found from Lake Michigan to Kankakee, Illinois; from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Gary, Indiana. It is called Chicago common brick. It is pink—not shocking pink or peony pink, but pink like well-grilled salmon, mottled and pocked, idiosyncratic. It is anything but common.

Now imagine a wall.

This one is also vintage. It is one of the four walls of a brick bungalow built in the 1920s, nearly identical to its neighbors. The wall hugs the prairie ground and is covered with light powder—efflorescence—because the bricks are melting from constant exposure to climate change-fueled stormwater and sewage runoff backed up through the sewer pipes into the basement.

It isn’t just happening to this one wall.

This slow-motion, mostly invisible disaster disproportionately affects the residents of Chatham, a majority African American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Once that water backs up into the basements of their homes, it becomes their problem, not the city’s. These floods are exacerbated by decades of systemic infrastructural neglect that has now been passed onto private citizens, nearly all of them low- and middle-income African Americans.

Cheryl Watson—retired Chicago public school science teacher, resident of Chatham, and owner of our brick—is trying to prevent the destruction of her neighbors’ health and economic stability by teaching them the real reasons that their basements are full of sewage and rainwater and their bricks are melting back into the prairie ground.

Next, imagine the lives of the people who live within the shelter of that brick.

Cheryl Watson and her family weren’t the first people it sheltered. “This area was an industrial area, so you had laborers who were living here: German, Irish, Polish. So the wealthier people had no interest in this area, in improving the infrastructure.” Watson has pictures from the early days, the alleys not yet completed, her sturdy bungalow intact, fresh, and brand new, the bricks crisp.

“My parents moved into Chatham in 1957, to a bungalow, an older home even back then. My memories were of the horrible flooding with sewer backup. The damage in the basement was such that they never finished the basement. Every spring we went through a whole gyration to throw away things that were damaged. This went on for years as I moved into adulthood, then I was back in the home helping with my aging parents—this was a family project.”

It is a neighborhood project, too.

In Chicago, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, or MWRD, manages a sewer system that takes on both sanitary (household/human) waste and storm drain runoff. It goes to water reclamation plants. When those plants are at capacity, the water has only a few places to go. One of them is Lake Michigan, the source for the city’s drinking water. Another is the rivers. The last is back into the pipes. In Chatham, due to a quirk of geography, those pipes empty regularly back into private homes.

Cheryl won’t reveal many specifics about what happens when her drains back up, but when they do, the water is storm runoff mixed with sewage; it saturates her lawn and yard and those around her.

Sometimes new families buy onto Cheryl’s street and fix up their basement, only to have it ruined. Drywall sits in Chatham’s alleys, ripped out of refinished basements by people inexperienced in the ways of the sewers there. Some residents report maggots hatching in standing water under their kitchens. Flooding of this kind hits household infrastructure over and over again. It destroys furnaces and water heaters, washing machines and dryers. It ruins carpets and drywall. It breeds molds, all kinds—even dangerous black mold. And with all this flooding comes loss: of property value, possessions, peace, and health.

That brick wall is connected to the vulnerabilities of the larger region.

Chatham gets more emergency flooding reports than any other part of the South Side. Damage reports from urban flooding from 2001 to 2011 rose disproportionately in the 60619 zip code in which Chatham is located.

Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) is a non-profit that trains citizens to deal with the personal effects of climate change on Chicago’s neighborhoods. They also track its costs. CNT estimates that $773 million in damages came from urban flooding in Cook County between 2007 and 2011. The National Academy of Sciences reported in 2019 that, between 2004 and 2015, Chicago and the surrounding cities lost over $1.8 billion in subsidized grants, insurance payments, and loans to people affected by flood losses.

As the Chicago Tribune reported recently, “Only hurricane-ravaged areas of coastal Louisiana, New York, and Texas received more federal flood aid during the decade.”

In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) found that 90 percent of flooding occurred outside of any FEMA-designated flood maps, which means that those floods happened mostly on property not near rivers or lakes—houses are flooding from the inside, and they can’t be insured against that.

Climate collapse changes everything everywhere. But in the Midwest the major effects are grouped into problems of heat and problems of water.

In 1995, a devastating heat wave struck Chicago, resulting in more than eight hundred deaths, mostly in vulnerable Black and brown elderly populations on the South Side. That disaster changed things. The city created contingency plans, added cooling centers, tried remediation through additional tree planting, improved disaster preparedness, and changed first response protocols. But in the case of water, it has prepared for a world outside the accelerant of climate change.

In 1975 the city began work on the so-called Deep Tunnel, a citywide response to lack of capacity for sewer and stormwater overflow. The final phase was completed a few years ago—a $4 billion, 109-mile system of pipes excavated from dolomitic limestone at depths reaching 350 feet below ground, running toward giant reservoirs—cavernous rectangles cut into the landscape, some formed from quarries. Designed to prevent flooding in 1.5 million structures and handle the next hundred years of rain, it may already have reached capacity.

There are nationwide assessments of urban flooding, but the Midwest, not traditionally affected by hurricanes, has been largely overlooked. However, the National Climate Assessment (NCA) has surveyed multiple problems in the region, noting the centrality of its population centers, food, and travel infrastructure.

Flooding is a key issue. This is reflected in the fact that 2019 has been a year of unprecedented rainfall across the Midwest, with the water level in the combined Lake Michigan–Lake Huron watershed thirteen inches higher than it reached in 2018, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The problem of storm sewers comes up in the NCA report, and it further cites an Environmental Protection Agency estimate that “more than 800 billion gallons of untreated combined sewage released into the nation’s waters annually.” In many ways the report describes a return to the infrastructure collapses of the nineteenth century—the ones that gave birth to the brick city on the marshes. The Great Lakes provide drinking water to more than 40 million people, and those lakes are often responsible for taking in the excess stormwater and sewage overflow. That same report quotes a study that estimates that “increased storm events will lead to an increase of up to 120% in combined sewer overflows into Lake Michigan by 2100.”

Watson worries about this, too. The preparations the city has made don’t “really address the problems that are happening now [with climate change]. My sump pump is working overtime.”

“Over time I began to notice an increase,” she says. “I put in a check valve to help with that, but with climate change issues, we were having more frequent problems. I started getting flooding in the yard. My house and my two neighbors’, coming down the basement stairs.”

Cheryl Watson’s losses are like the losses of her neighbors.

Watson’s wall holds up a Chicago institution: the brick bungalow.

The bungalow, a classic design from the turn of the last century, is a staple of Chicago neighborhoods, so plentiful that city planners refer to the areas in which they predominate as the Bungalow Belt—a threading, twisting ring surrounding the city from the South Side to the north, stronger in some places, weaker in others.

In Chatham, the bungalows belong to the rich tradition of the Black working and middle class—the same Black working and middle class that spawned Michelle Obama, for example.

Cheryl’s parents bought the bungalow with its pink brick when they moved up from the South, part of a great wave of the Black diaspora in the United States seeking jobs and land and dignity away from Jim Crow, landing in a community where most of the other owners had the same story and a collective approach to building fresh prevailed, even if they had to return to an unofficially segregated neighborhood to get it.

 Chicago has seventy-seven community areas, from Rogers Park in the north to Hegewisch in the south. Each one’s character is determined by history, racial and ethnic composition, and proximity to manufacturing. Chatham, just ten miles south of Chicago’s downtown Loop, began its life as a marshy area called “Mud Lake” or “Hog’s Lake,” part of the wetland ecosystem surrounding the riverine waterways adjacent to the Great Lake to the east.

Because of the marsh, development was slow. The railroads came first, then a watch factory, but the neighborhood didn’t have much of an industrial life until 1900, when steel plants began going up along the Calumet River and the shores of Lake Michigan. Waves of immigration slowly altered it all through that century—Italian stonemasons, then Irish workers, then Swedes, then Jews—until the 1950s, when everything changed. In 1950, the population of Chatham was 1 percent Black, but by 1960, it was 63.7 percent.

Chatham drew Black residents who were focused on community, neighborhood organizations, and home ownership. Throughout its heyday, it was home to Black-owned businesses, including Johnson Products Company, which made Ultra Sheen Hair Products, and Independence National Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the United States until 1995.

Chatham is still 98 percent Black. Its population is aging, like a lot of the South Side’s residents, but with a steady median income of $38,000 a year. This median income hasn’t shifted much in the last few census counts, although, like much of the South Side, Chatham is also losing population.

Like other parts of the Bungalow Belt, Chatham’s streets are in a regular, orderly grid that stretches across the city limits. Named streets run north to south; because it is the South Side, numbered ones reach east and west. The roads are paved in gray tarmac; there are verges in front of each home, maintained by each homeowner as per city ordinance. Mature trees grow everywhere. But so do board-ups, vacant lots, and the evidence of infrastructural neglect.

To understand the melting of the brick, you have to imagine its birth.

Chicago common brick is a material deeply linked to the geologic and city planning history of Chicago. At the end of the last Ice Age, Glacial Lake Chicago—the result of melting glaciers that remade the hilly Midwest into its current lush, flat greenness—finally began to recede. As it did, there were remnants: eskers, kames, fill, sand, erratic boulders, and lowered earth, damped down by the pressure of ice.

Low ground like that is wonderful at creating wetlands—vibrant and essential ecosystems that breed fish and birds and insects, harbor unique plants, and allow water filtration. They are both the birthplaces and the last resting places of rivers. Wetlands aren’t sexy. They can vacillate between wet and dry land, making them unsuitable for building, better for rice cultivation than dairy and cattle farming. They flood, making planting tricky. Worse, they breed mosquitos, which used to breed malaria.

In the Midwest, malaria was devastating in the early years of white settlement, and it continued to be common until DDT was deployed to destroy the mosquitoes that carried it around the military bases supplying troops for World War II. By 1949, when malaria was declared eradicated in the United States, more than 4,650,000 house spray applications of DDT had been made in just two years. But for the earliest settlers, the connection to mosquitos as the source of the “ague” from which they suffered was obscured. The link wouldn’t be made clear until the late 1800s.

For them, the fevers were associated with the place, and specifically with “miasmatic waters.” Illinois governor John Reynolds, who served from 1830–1834, remarked that malaria was so linked to his state that “the idea prevailed that Illinois was a graveyard.”

Wetlands had to go, and go they did.

Watson remembers the wetlands that used to be part of Chatham. When she tells the story, she adds in the long view of her neighborhood, referring casually to its geologic past, as if for her the story of her home is still intimately connected to the land around it.

“The water [from Glacial Lake Chicago] receded and this was still considered a muddy area, a rural area. Even when my parents bought here . . .. We played with turtles and ponds, and there were even crawdads in the mud. There were even gaslights,” Cheryl Watson tells me in our phone interview. “When I was growing up, this whole area was dirt roads. My parents, their neighbors paid to have the alleys paved. Now you don’t have the open woods feel to have the water absorbed into the ground.”

Between 1780 and 1980 the United States lost sixty acres of wetlands every hour for the entire two-hundred-year span. Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio have lost 36 million acres of wetlands since colonization. Those acres represent nearly one third of all wetlands lost in the history of the United States. 

But the ones surrounding Chatham and the South Side of Chicago gave a last gift as they went—the discovery of the layer of unique, geologically deposited clay that would become Chicago common brick.

It is hard to build a city on the remnants of an old lakebed.

Chicago was founded on the unstable till, silt, and marsh at the mouth of the Chicago River. That slightly malleable foundation worked for a small trading town, even a frontier city on the make, but as it lurched toward the turn of the century, Chicago was finding it to be a less-than-ideal basis for a metropolis. Standing water from poorly drained storms—as well as the sewage from the river contaminating the lake and, therefore, the city’s drinking water—led to an outbreak of cholera in 1854 that killed 6 percent of the population. By 1856, the city fathers decided to raise the city up above the swamp, to create new paved roadways, and to modernize the sewers into the bargain. By 1858, they raised the entire city four to fourteen feet above the soggy water table that was its prior height. In buildings that already existed, giant wooden screws were installed under foundations, and teams of workers twisted them slowly into the air. Older homes in poorer neighborhoods sacrificed their first floors as road levels were raised around them, moving stoops and staircases, the second floor becoming the first, basement apartments springing up like mushrooms.

The building boom that followed the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 resulted in debris that was pushed into the lakefront and became the new downtown. Wooden construction was outlawed within the city limits. Only brick would be allowed. The Chicago River’s flow was reversed, sending contaminated water out toward the wetlands to keep the city’s drinking water safe. But one part of Chicago—which included the area that would become Chatham—was left at the original level and allowed to remain a wetland. That land, at the time, was barely settled, a distant neighbor of the metropolis. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Chicago treated these lower water table portions of its metropolis just like any other neighborhood. North Side water and waste went north, sometimes as far as near-suburban Skokie. South Side water went south into huge filtration and treatment plants run by the MWRD. In most of the city, pipes run under the streets through a stable foundation constructed when the city was raised.

Since Chatham lies in the lower water table, it essentially sits—as early Chicago did—in a bowl of sand and till. It also occupies an unusual midway point of two separate water reclamation plants—one in Cicero, and another in Riverdale.

As the pipes come in from the north, they dip lower to meet the lower neighborhood and begin to run through sand with all the water of the preceding areas now inside them. Leaving the neighborhood, the pipes rise again—the water now straining against gravity—to meet the land on the other side of the bowl and begin their trip to the reclamation plants or the Deep Tunnel.

In a bad storm, the water meeting at Chatham’s center point stalls. There is too much water pressure to take it back up the elevation, so it begins to back up to the only place it can—basements and yards and streets—through those same pipes that were supposed to serve Chatham as equally as the regions of whiter Chicago.

“As a result,” Watson says, “the way the sewer systems were built, wherever the sewer system was built the pipe has to go up, and then get into that pipe, well, anything further north of us, if they are getting a lot of water, we’re the last ones to get into the pipe.”

The clay that made our brick lined the prairie and wetland for thousands of years before Chicago discovered it. Deposits laid down during the Ice Age created a thin band of clay, a distinctive blue color, and a composition that includes limestone, a unique result of its proximity to the glacial lake and all its creatures. The clay was plentiful in the region to the south of the city, including Chatham, Blue Island, East Chicago, and Kankakee.

In the rush to reinvent itself—reversing a river, rebuilding in brick—the clay was discovered during the digging of ship canals and new beds for the river. Soon after, there were so many brick manufacturers that Chicago became one of the largest producers and exporters in the world, setting the stage for its later life as king of steel exports. “By the 1890s the area boasted more than 60 brickyards, clustered near Blue Island; manufacturers pumped out 600 million bricks a year,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Those bricks went all across the country and the world. They are still sought after, collected and reused, with a number of reclamation companies at work in Chicago, inspired by the bricks left over after the uprisings of the 1960s in the city’s African American neighborhoods.

When fired, the blue clay of Illinois takes on that soft pink salmon color. The limestone in the brick is mercurial in heat, breaking and popping, creating its mottled color and texture. Chicago common is better able to breathe than other brick. It takes in moisture and sheds it easily, ideal for a wetland-founded city, but only if that moisture is not trapped by any other substance.

When one makes a brick wall, one cements the bricks together with mortar. The brick in Chicago, however, requires a particular kind of mortar to survive. When a brick structure is repaired, the process is commonly called tuckpointing. Some debate exists about whether what is sold to U.S. consumers is really tuckpointing—a generic term used here to refer to any rebuilding of a brick wall. Repointing—putting new mortar around broken bricks and crumbling mortar uniformly, is not classic tuckpointing, in which the mason mixes colored mortar to repair brick and plain mortar to restore old mortar. But here I’ll use tuckpointing to mean what most homeowners experience in Chicago—making up a standard heavy-duty mortar or concrete mixture to reapply where old mortar is loose and bricks are damaged.

When tuckpointing is completed on a brick building, the wall is shored up. But use modern tuckpointing mortar on Chicago common brick and the thick, non-breathable concrete suffocates the more porous clay. The cement stays solid when exposed to moisture and the brick, with the moisture trapped against its surface, holds the water, cracks and crumbles, disintegrates, and melts, leaving a grid of mortar with nothing inside.

Whether a home gets expert tuckpointing or tuckpointing that ignores the delicacy of common brick depends mostly on class. If homeownership is precarious, every repair must be done on a tight budget, with neither time nor expertise to ensure that special brick gets special treatment.

  Watson’s house had the wrong kind of tuckpointing at some point, and the damage started in earnest, helped along by the constant presence of moisture in her yard, basement, and foundation. “And now the bricks are falling, chipping, showing moisture damages,” Watson says. She was eventually able to call in an expert. “I had a preservation specialist come out that was familiar with my type of brick, a lot of brick replacement that would be needed. Heavy efflorescent materials, totally different than they had been. More moisture banging up against your walls. These Chicago walls were built with Chicago brick, meant to breathe, the special mortar is making it a problem, occurring on the walls, even taller than me and I’m 5’9”, even worse than what is happening from the sewers.”

When a problem disproportionately affects a population by race or class, people begin to believe it is being inflicted on them deliberately. After Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the majority of them African American, voiced a suspicion, sometimes passionately held, that the levees breached by the storm had, in fact, been bombed in an act of ethnic cleansing, a racially targeted eradication of the Black residents.

In Chatham, a similar suspicion sprang up. “There was a myth that there was something going on downtown, that the city was working with the locks downtown, that the city was deliberately flooding the neighborhood, and so the residents didn’t do anything to address the issues,” Watson tells me.

Her neighbors’ suspicions and questions—as well as her own—drove Watson to become a volunteer community flooding educator. She trained with the Civilian Conservation Corps (C3) to become a leader in stormwater management planning. “We had Army Corps of Engineers involved to dispel any mystery and get to the facts [about the conspiracy]. But it is going to take homeowners and business owners to think differently about how to do things differently.”

She spoke to reporters; she partnered with the Rain Ready Program, an organization that is part of the CNT. “I took it upon myself to train my neighbors—to train them about the impact of the sewers. Beyond a certain point in their property line, it is on you.”

This came easily to Watson, her science background and historical knowledge of the community integrating seamlessly with her work in her faith community. She’s “on the green committee for church. My church is going green in every way.”

Watson’s neighbors have responded, attended her meetings. They have acted collectively to solve what the city would like them to think are individual problems. She says, “We’re trying to come up with other intermittent solutions that will help homeowners so that we can keep from getting the water into their house and into their yard. Collecting names of rain gardens, native plants, what impact do trees have, are there different trees that we could use than are already here?”

But the weather may not wait for those collective solutions to come to pass.

It isn’t only brick that makes up a home; there is drywall, wood, and carpet, all of which is susceptible to mold.

Stachybotrys chartarum (also known by its synonym Stachybotrys atra) is a greenish-black mold. It can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Constant moisture is required for its growth,” says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.

They go on to say that black mold exposure can result in coughs, upper respiratory irritation, or the onset of asthma in susceptible people. “Other recent studies have suggested a potential link of early mold exposure to development of asthma in some children, particularly among children who may be genetically susceptible to asthma development.”

Asthma appears at a rate of 13 percent in Black children in the United States, compared with a rate of 8 percent in whites, with Black children much more likely to suffer hospitalization as a result. In Chatham, the overall population gets asthma at 14.4 percent compared to the city’s average of 9.1 percent.

The World Health Organization issued guidelines in 2009 for coping with mold and damp in home environments and specifically with the effects of dampness and mold on health, stating, “The overall evidence shows that house dampness is consistently associated with a wide range of respiratory health effects, most notably asthma, wheeze, cough, respiratory infections and upper respiratory tract symptoms.”

In the aftermath of hurricane damage, black mold crops up on any home that had been underwater for a significant period of time. As soon as spores land on a target rich in fiber, they can begin to grow within twenty-four hours. Mold grows at a rate of one square inch per day. All the big storms of the twenty-first century saw black mold contamination: Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

In Chicago, according to a recent study by the National Resources Defense Council, the South Side is disproportionately affected by all kinds of environmental health problems stemming from pollution, industrial contamination, flooding, and neglect. An interactive map of the city, coded blue for cleaner neighborhoods and red for more endangered, lights up crimson surrounding Chatham. But without a city plan to tackle the health crisis, residents are in the dark about their symptoms.

Watson began having mysterious breathing issues. Doctor after doctor turned her away until she found a specialist who had consulted with the first responder survivors of the September 11th attacks on their own range of mystery lung problems. “They had noticed these specks on my lungs, went in for the biopsy, looking at the MRI. It is common for people who live on the South Side to have this on their lungs because of the dampness and the mold.”

Watson had to go to several doctors before she was able to get this diagnosis, “[He] showed me images and he said, it isn’t life-threatening, people who live on the South Side of Chicago, if you have respiratory problems, or asthma, for me, my lungs were healthy, but in other people it might also be an attendant problem. I ‘ve seen the mold; it is more prevalent. I keep bleach around here. I’m medically minded; I wanted to be a doctor. These things catch my attention, to put my efforts in.” Watson recovered over time. “He gave me medication that knocked it out, but it is a constant environmental thing that depends on exposure.”

But, like the slow effects of the floods themselves, there isn’t a concerted health study for the residents of Chatham to track the crisis. Again, a collective problem is made into a private matter between citizens and their doctors.

The wetlands that were destroyed in the building of the city and the harvesting of brick remain one of the most important potential solutions for flooding nationwide. Restore them and runoff has somewhere to go—a reset valve, a failsafe.

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency began a program to promote wetland restoration. On its website, it lists successful wetland remediation projects. In the Midwest region there is only one, in Kansas. In the Great Lakes there are three. Funds are available through grants to put wetlands back. But those projects are isolated. Wetlands continue to disappear all across the United States, though at a reduced rate. An article in Scientific American quotes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as reporting that during “the 1990s the rate of wetlands loss in the U.S. declined by some 80 percent over previous decades. But the nation is still losing upwards of 50,000 wetland acres per year.”

In 2011, Chicago architect Jeanne Gang published Reverse Effect: Reimagining Chicago’s Waterways. Her bold solution to the problems of the city’s sewage runoff, invasive species, green space access, stormwater flooding, and watershed overcapacity was reintegrating the region’s traditional wetlands and the lake, creating a city in and among its waterways—not controlling them, but rather allowing green space and marsh to co-exist with concrete and sewer systems.

Wetland rebuilding—a slow process of removing artificially added terrain and plants, allowing the watershed and its riverine ecosystem to restore its balance of plants and animals, flood and drought—requires empty land. People still buy in areas where floods occur, especially in places like Chatham, not considered part of any flood map FEMA has ever issued. Off the record, the people issuing flooding prevention plans for the Chicago area refer to Chatham the way that some people talk about the Ninth Ward—as a place that might be better served by a buyout plan, rather than the millions of dollars that remediation requires. But there is no buyback plan for Chatham, and the residents don’t want one.

Watson wants to understand the question, to know what’s happening at the level of the water. “The big push is to get FEMA doing a study on urban flooding that is not related to the rivers. Everything has been designed around river flooding.” She says, “Whatever studies they did were on the North Side. Studies take time. But in the meantime, this weather is taking a toll on our properties. The bureaucratic world isn’t connecting with the urgency.”

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, has a plan for coping with the increased pressures of climate change on Chicago, but, like the Deep Tunnel, it might be too little too late. CMAP looks at riverine flooding in the long term—the importance of tackling the increased water in the region at every level, from storm sewers to infrastructural improvement. But as 2019 sets new records for rainfall across the region, their plan looks mostly like hanging on to a world that is disappearing faster than anyone can prepare for.

Watson wants some planning just for Chatham. She wants the city to “provide funds to allow homeowners to get their houses retrofitted, so it is a shared responsibility.” She wants the burden to fall more equally across the city. “There are some neighborhoods up north where people are on board with this, and those neighborhoods look totally different from ours. The North Side was far ahead on getting adapted to the sustainable needs of the community, they are at the table with their representatives.”

Tuckpointing Chicago common brick is tricky. It requires that the worker understand the materials, the history, the limestone. On the North Side, in the bungalows that have housed many of Chicago’s mayors and Illinois’s governors, that tuckpointing comes as part of the responsibility of maintaining the neighborhood. It is an expense that is easily handled in those well-funded areas. Flood prevention, too, is part of the cost of keeping those historic neighborhoods of the white Bungalow Belt intact, preserving what generations of people have protected by raising the roads and turning the rivers.

Cheryl Watson just wants the same thing for her home and her neighbors. “In this day and age all of it falls under the issue of social justice. It is required that we have to have a healthy environment. We have to get away from being siloed anymore. This is an old neighborhood, so no one is going to be tearing down and building new houses anytime soon. There is value in these homes but we need help in preserving them.”

What is the common brick of a city? 

You could say it is the buildings—the physical places that make up the experiment of living together. But events like the uprisings of Chicago’s African American community in the 1960s, the razing of the Chicago Housing Authority’s planned high-rise communities, and even the 1871 fire demonstrate that buildings come and go.

You could say it is the real estate itself—the incorporated areas that a municipal government declares as its own, everything within the city limits. But as the history of Chicago shows, those borders morph and change over the life of a metropolis.

You could say it is the infrastructure that binds neighborhoods together—the sewers and roads, the schools and public transit, the parks and city services. But not everyone owns those equally; neglect is easy to enact in poor neighborhoods where the political clout, and even the will to fight, is gone.

You could say that it is the land itself—the geology, the riverine ecosystems, the weather and its consequences shared together, especially for a place of extremes like Chicago, where heat and cold—and, increasingly, rain—make common sufferers of people with little else in common.

But the common brick is really the people that make a place their home. Even as the demographics of cities change decade by decade, even as neighborhoods within cities change, the common brick of a city is the histories of those people—how they protect and inhabit the land and create stewardship of each other and all those other elements, just by staying put.

It isn’t too much to ask that the common brick of Chatham be protected before it melts back into the wetland ecosystem and is gone.

This essay originally appeared in Minding Nature, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 2019). 

  • Eiren Caffall

    Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Her work on loss and nature, oceans and extinction has appeared in The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Punk Planet, the short film Becoming Ocean, and three record albums.

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