The Sticking Place

Uptown: The Promised Land

by Clarus Backes

Living was coal-dust poor in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, so they come to Chicago, to Wilson avenue, looking for a better life. They find, many of them, more money than ever before. But they also find a crowded, dirty and indifferent place that does not know – or care – about fried pies, sweet hickory-smoked pork, or catfish big enough to feed a family. They come here for a better life, and they find a city that calls them hillbillies.

At 6.30 a.m. the rain is still falling in cold brown puddles on the sidewalk outside and the men pushing thru the door of Manpower’s work-by-the-day employment agency at 4524 N. Broadway are coming on the run, shoulders hunched, water dripping from the ends of their noses. They mark their names in a book at the dispatch counter and then go off to wait in the bright plastic shell chairs lined across half the room. It is cheerful inside, all pastel blue and white, with the television chattering brightly against one wall and free coffee in styrofoam cups.

Behind the counter Ray Holbrook, the man in charge, greets each familiar face, matching them with work orders in his hand. “Well, if it isn’t the poison twins! You want to go to work?”

Two brothers in their early twenties, wearing army boots, climb to their feet and shuffle toward the counter.

“Where have you been? I’ve missed your smiling faces,” Holbrook says. He is a tall man, slim, with the fringed head and clipped white mustache of an old line British artillery officer. It is strange to hear such tired jokes from him, delivered with such obvious good cheer.

Grunt, mumble. Tennessee, one of the brothers says. Back home in Tennessee.

“Well, all right. I’ve got a man here needs some 50-pound boxes carried up two flights of stairs. Good for all day. Think you can handle it?”

At the far end of the counter a man is talking to his buddy in the soil accent of the southern mountains. The buddy is in very bad shape. He is a short, red-faced man in baggy pants, and he is leaning on his elbows against the counter and staring down at the floor, his fingers twitching faintly, his eyes pained. He looks badly in need of a little more sleep. “Ah don’ know,” he says, shaking his head slowly. “Ah don’ know.”

“Well y’all made it heah,” the man urges him. “Didn’ you make it heah?”

“Bus is leaving,” Holbrook calls out. “Who’s on the bus?” Half the men climb to their feet and walk toward the door, toward a boxy blue bus standing at the curb in the rain. The little man in the baggy pants pushes himself away from the counter and walks unsteadily off in search of the men’s room. The other, after a moment, lets him go.

“Hillbillies!” Holbrook says cheerfully, with his back to them. “Most of my problem here is with the hillbillies. You can’t rely on them. You send them out on a good three-week job, and for the first week they go great. They’re good workers, most of them. But the second week they’re gone, and there you are. Back to Tennessee to see if the fish are biting, or wherever else they go. They just don’t care.”

The short man in the baggy pants is suddenly gone. He has come quickly out of the men’s room and has walked straight toward the front door, his lace ashen, his back rigid, and has disappeared down the street. His friend leans against the counter and stares at the falling rain.

“I mean you and I, if we had a wife and 9 or 10 kids to feed like most of these hillbillies have, we’d be damned sure to take what work we could get,” Holbrook says cheerfully. He is so good-natured about it that the words don’t fit, don’t quite match the cheerful smile on his face. “They don’t care. That’s the way it seems to me. They just don’t care.”

Outside, the bus door hisses shut and the windshield wipers jerk on. It is time to go. The little man’s friend watches without expression. He might come back. He made one pretty good try at it. Sometimes, after a little more sleep, they come back. And the bus moves slowly away from the curb, making splashes in the puddles of fallen rain.

Nobody knows how many white southern migrants… hillbillies, as they defiantly, even proudly, call themselves… have come to Chicago so far. There are figures, of course. There are always figures, but the southern migrants themselves have a way of making them meaningless as soon as you examine them and try to pull them apart. They simply won’t stay put, for one thing. They are constantly moving, not only from their southern homes to Chicago and back again, perhaps two or three times in a single year, never quite able to make a decision stick, but even from place to place, furnished apartment to furnished apartment within Chicago itself. The city says there are 65,000 southern migrants living in Uptown, in an area bounded roughly by Lawrence, Irving Park, Clark, and the lake, but there is no way to know this for sure. It is like trying to make a head count of the fish in a large lagoon. Since they are never still, how can you be sure you haven’t counted some of them more than once, or that some haven’t slipped in and out so quickly that you didn’t count them at all?

Nor does the figure take into account the migrants who have settled in areas other than Uptown, regarded as the primary port of entry, in south Rogers Park, for example, or Ravenswood. Or even in some of the western and northwestern suburbs, Nor, in fact, does it define very precisely just what a southern migrant is. Is a downstate Illinois farm boy a southern migrant? If he carries a guitar and spends his Saturday nights making the rounds of the Rockabilly bars, does that make him one? How about a graduate mining engineer transferred to Chicago by his company in Chattanooga? Or a Chicago-horn coal miner who has spent half a lifetime in the southern hills? Nobody knows. It isn’t anything anybody can tell you for sure.

The only thing anybody knows for sure is that white families have been leaving the south in large numbers – two million have left the southern Appalachian mountains alone since the start of World War II, about a quarter of the population – and that a good many of them are settling in Chicago. They come, typically, at night, bouncing up the Dan Ryan in worn and road-weary automobiles with all their earthly possessions flapping precariously from the top, hoping the tires or the transmission or whatever will hold out just long enough to get them here. They spend that first night, typically, in the car, parked unknowingly in some lake front no-parking zone, and the next morning early they look up friends.

They all have friends here, relatives, lifelong acquaintances. Entire blocks in Uptown are inhabited by the former residents of a single Alabama or West Virginia county. Apartment buildings are filled with members of a single mountain clan, and the same names keep popping up everywhere. This – along with the prospect of jobs – is what brought them here.

Then they begin looking for a place to live, and after their early-morning hope the first sense of disenchantment sets in. Rents in Uptown are exorbitant by southern standards. You can rent a whole house in eastern Kentucky for $20 a month. Here an apartment costs that much and more for just one week – and it is never quite large enough at that, four or five rooms for nine or ten people, and not even a patch of ground out back for the kids to roam in. But they take it anyway because they have no money, and therefore no choice. At least in Uptown the apartments contain furniture of sorts, they don’t require a lease or a security deposit, and you can pay the landlord by the week.

And the jobs are here, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, the kind an unemployed coal miner or ex-farm boy can do. They go to work in factories, most of them, lured by the higher pay and by friends who are already on the payroll. Bell & Howell hires a good many of them, as does the Teletype corporation, and Crane Packing company, and Bell & Gossett. Chicago is famous for its jobs. If you can’t find work in Chicago, the saying goes, you can’t find work anywhere. Gas station attendants in eastern Kentucky question people with Illinois license plates, and the word gets around. Is Bell & Howell hiring this week? It usually is. Detroit used to be pretty good too, but it’s all automated now. Cincinnati is still fair, and so are Cleveland and Indianapolis. But with Chicago, you never have to worry. If everything else fails, there’s always more day labor here than there are men to handle it, at a minimum of $1.60 an hour.

So they work, most of them, in the daytime, at night, on overtime, on the week-ends, sometimes even holding down two full time jobs, piling up as much of it as they can to drive the specter of poverty from their minds. Even their women often go to work. They have probably never labored for a salary before in their lives – in the rural south, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and any ideas she may have to the contrary are quickly set right. But here there is social approval, and there is, above all, the opportunity. A woman can take her pick from a wide variety of jobs – as a waitress, a sales clerk, a hospital attendant, even a factory worker – at more money than her husband ever earned before in his life. Why not make a little hay while the sun is bright? She works.

And often, all too often, slowly, insidiously, the family begins to fall apart.

There is no simple explanation for it. Or rather there are too many simple explanations, some of them contradictory. It is often almost impossible to isolate any single one and say this was the primary cause of this particular family’s failure. The hillbilly family in a large metropolitan area is battered by a staggering number of forces.

The family itself – or at least the parents – generally don’t want to live in the city for one thing. They are here because they were driven here, by economic necessity, and almost without exception they regard their stay in the city as a sort of necessary but temporary evil, a brief period of exile from their beloved south, lasting only until things down there can improve enough for them to return again. They rarely regard themselves as permanent Chicago or Uptown residents, and therefore they show little or no interest in improving their lot here, making their apartments more habitable, becoming involved in political or social pressure groups. “If you stop any one of them on the street and ask them where they live, they never give you an address on Kenznore or Racine,” says Bill Meyers, a vice president of Combined Insurance Company of America and board member of the Chicago Southern center, who has done a good deal of work among the southern migrants. “They will always tell you Hazard, Kentucky, or Mingo county, West Virginia, just as if they were only visiting here and hadn’t moved in at all.”

For this reason you have the constant traveling back and forth, the constant returning to the south to see if things haven’t improved, some jobs haven’t opened up, and the long trip back to Chicago once more when the search proves a failure, the constant disappearance and absenteeism from Chicago jobs. “One of our primary projects,” says Meyers, “is to raise the tolerance level of personnel directors so they won’t automatically fire these people as soon as they miss a few days’ work.” For this reason you also have a gradually mounting sense of frustration, of imprisonment, as the years begin to slip by and it becomes ever more evident that for most southern migrants there is no escape, they will never go back. This kind of frustration, a deep longing without hope of fulfilment, can eventually do violent things to a man.

But more than that, the city way of life itself holds subtle entrapments that the hillbilly often doesn’t recognize and rarely has the experience to cope with. Credit sharks abound in the big city, offering overpriced merchandise for a smile and a watertight, fine-print contract, and many a migrant family has signed itself hopelessly, irretrievably in debt. In the small southern communities they came from, credit was a highly personal affair, carefully limited by the merchandiser’s knowledge of the buyer and his faith in human nature, and any bad debts were considered at least partly his own responsibility.

The women, after that first taste of a personal pay check and all the independence it brings, often rebel at the subservient role their husbands expect of them and decide to become individuals on their own. The divorce and desertion rate among migrant couples is exceedingly high – some studies have estimated it as high as 73 per cent. The young people, after a lifetime of nothing to do and no place to go, suddenly find themselves with an embarrassment of riches, but still without the essential street wisdom that would tell them where to stop. Juvenile arrests for the use of marijuana and illegal pep pills have been common in the migrant communities for some years, but only recently, within the last nine months, has there been any significant record of hard core narcotics arrests; heroin, the old saying used to go, has never been a hillbilly problem.

Even the father, the family head, often falls victim to the glitter of the city – but with the father, disaster is almost always pronounced liquor.

Says Chuck Dagnan, a native of the eastern Kentucky hills and an organizer among Uptown’s southern migrants for the Montrose Outpost of the McCormick Boys club: “Most people don’t realize that a lot of the Appalachian counties are dry, The only liquor you can get is bootlegged, and the prices are just too high for most people – 50 cents for a can of beer, maybe $5 for a pint of good whisky. The law is pretty tough, too. If you get caught just walking unsteady on the street, you can get thrown in jail and hit with a $50 fine. Some men who come here have never had a drink before in their lives, and very few are what you consider heavy drinkers.

“Then they get to the city and they see it everywhere, and for the first time they’ve got the money to pay for it. They can stand right up at the bar like men and order with their friends. If they have too much that doesn’t matter either; the police won’t bother them as long as they can make it home. It’s quite a feeling for a mountain boy.”

Dagnan himself admits that when he first arrived in Chicago as a young man he found the lure of this liquid manhood all but irresistible. He remembers dropping in at the neighborhood bars every evening after work, often remaining in them until closing time. He remembers going everywhere with a half-pint bottle always in his back pocket, and another bottle resting beside his bed at night for one final drink before falling asleep and another before arising. He remembers awakening to the fact one day that some months had passed since he had drawn a completely sober breath, and deciding that it was time to quit.

But Dagnan was lucky. He recognized the danger. Some, unhappily, never do.

She is waiting in the doorway of the apartment when Patrolman Ray Drygalski gets there – a woman of uncertain age in a pair of light blue pajamas open deeply at the neck, revealing dry collarbones and a gaunt rib cage and hard cheekbones and hollow eyes and the look of sharp, meatless bones protruding everywhere. She has been crying: the front of her pajamas is stained darkly with the recent spilling of her own blood. There is a shattered Coke bottle in the hall at her feet, and thru the doorway, beneath a single bare light bulb, the kitchen is a mess. A cockroach skitters across the wall, followed by another, and another, and soon it becomes evident that the place is crawling with cockroaches, darting about the empty bread wrappers on the floor and across the heavy brown grease stains above the stove. Drygalski studies them with suspicion. He has never been comfortable in the presence of cockroaches.

“Look what he done to me,” the woman says to Drygalski. She has been crying and her nose is red and swollen from the blows it has absorbed, but there is no indignation in her voice and very little passion, only a kind of defensive plea for understanding. “He got no right to do this to me, has he?

“Where is he?” Drygalski’ says, keeping one eye on the cockroaches. “Is he still here?”

“He went out again when I called. He was drinkin’ some. I expect he gone back to the tavern where he came from.”

And Drygalski puts the notebook back in his shirt pocket and buttons the flap button. He is an understanding man despite his fear of cockroaches, a bulky, sober-minded Pole who has seen a good many things in his eleven years on the police force, but he knows there is a limit to what he can do. He has never been able to find the perfect answer for this kind of thing. It happens just this way all the time, a dozen times a night, and nobody has found a perfect answer for it.

“How long you been married?” Drygalski finally says. And this part, now, is a formula that all the beat men in the Town Hall district use. It is not perfect either but it is something, it says something, and what are you going to do?

“Five year,” she says.

“And how long has he been doing this to you?

“About two year.”

“Well then it’s not going to get any better, is it? It’s only going to get worse. You go down to Domestic Relations court Monday and get a warrant for him. We can’t help you unless you want to help yourself. You got to go and get the warrant.”

It is done then and Drygalski gets set to leave, making sure first that she knows where the Domestic Relations court is and what happens there, giving her a short lesson in the legal system. She will not go there, of course. She has not gone in two years, so why should she go now? She will remain where she is and think about it, and in an hour her husband will return again, and beat her again, and disappear again before the police have time to answer the call, and she will remain where she is thinking about it in her pajamas amid the bread wrappers and the grease stains and the cockroaches skittering across the wall.

In the squad car Drygalski sits a moment, readying his radio report, then impulsively shrugs his big shoulders, and his back, and in a moment is scratching himself about the legs and the arms and the neck, reacting with embarrassment to the memory of what he has just seen. “Those places give me the creeps,” he says apologetically. “Did you see the cockroaches? Can you imagine sleeping in there? I won’t even sit down. They can get on you, they get in your clothes, and you can bring them home with you. My wife would throw me out of the house.” He stamps his feet against the car floor, driving the cockroaches from them.

And with that, his wife’s peace of mind protected, he shuts the memory off once more and reaches wearily for the radio microphone. It is, after all, just another routine report.

Yet, despite the hillbilly’s personal problems in trying to adjust to the ways of the city, despite his loneliness and bewilderment, he remains aloof from the people around him, largely unknown to them, neither seeking nor inviting outside help of any kind. And this, too, is part of the hillbilly pattern, a code as old as the first man to enter the southern hills. If a man can’t handle his own problems, then he isn’t much of a man. The first right of every citizen is the right to be left alone.

Popular misconception to the contrary, the hillbilly rarely even bothers to do violence to the people he does not know.

There is violence among southern migrants, of course. There are occasional cuttings in the neighborhood bars, occasional brutal fights. But these rarely involve the kind of brutality-for-kicks mentality found in non-migrant communities – even more rarely are they motivated by the possibility of personal gain. Almost invariably they are affairs of passion, conducted between two fellow hillbillies, or groups of hillbillies, who happen to rub each other the wrong way. In such matters tradition demands that the situation be dealt with swiftly and forcefully with a person’s own two hands. Only a coward, when his pride has been trampled upon, will consider calling the police.

Even the wife-beatings, says Cmdr. John P. Fahey of the Town Hall police district, are regarded among the hillbillies as a personal matter and no business of anyone’s except the husband and wife. When they are first reported, it is invariably by alarmed neighbors, who invariably ask to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. A wife who calls herself and agrees to sign a complaint has almost certainly given up on the marriage and is paving the way for a divorce.

The fact is, says Fahey, that with the single exception of in-group assault, hillbilly crimes generally run toward the passive type – public drunkenness, prostitution, occasional auto theft or burglary – rather than toward crimes of personal violence. An extensive study of crime patterns in the district, conducted by sociologist Harry H. Woodward Jr. in 1962, revealed that hillbillies as a whole commit no more crimes than native Chicagoans living next door to them. It only seems that they commit more because, with their unmistakable accents and foreign way of life, they stand out in the minds of the people who arrest them.

If there is a single hillbilly problem that has Uptown officials concerned, it is the problem of truancy among school-age children. And here too, the cause is not so much one of delinquency, of a willful violation of the laws, as it is one of a fundamental difference in the attitude toward education. In the rural south, and particularly in the mountain states, school is often regarded by the parents almost as if it were a kind of constructive hobby, something useful to occupy the time between infancy and productive manhood, between hunting season and spring planting time, but by no means important enough to get in the way of the over-all business of living. In the cities of the north, of course, the attitude is somewhat different. Here education is all-important, the key to the future, the foundation of later success. It is, in many ways, a civic obligation in itself.

“It’s not just a matter of absenteeism, altho that’s bad enough, especially in the spring and the fall when the weather is nice,” says Dr. John Byrne, superintendent of Chicago’s school district 24. “Often it’s a matter of simply finding them, finding out who they are. A great many children in Uptown are not on the books anyplace, they have never attended one day of school here. If you never have them on the rolls, you can’t hunt them down and bring them in.”

And when they do attend and try to do well, they must wade against not only parental indifference, but also what Doctor Byrne terms “the piling-on process,” a stream of obstacles that never quite ends. The schools of the rural south are often far behind Chicago schools, first of all, so that the child may be set back several grades before he even begins. Then there are the constant interruptions for the family’s frequent trips back to the south, and the further interruptions for moves from one school area to another within the city. And there are the obstacles raised by the child’s own difference in cultural background – his way of speaking, his code of behavior, his attitude toward people and toward life itself. Many children struggle against all of this for a while and then, finding themselves falling farther and farther behind, decide finally that education is not really all that it is cracked up to be anyway and slip quietly hack to the streets.

Almost any day of the year, along Wilson or Montrose or Kenmore or a dozen other streets, there are children of school age standing about, talking together, looking for something to do, and nobody knows who they are. Some of them are without families, left behind at their own request, and sometimes without requesting it, by simply disappearing when their parents began packing up the car for the trip back south, already too enamored of the city to leave it. Some of these will turn to child prostitution – both male and female – to support themselves, or become addicted to drugs, or acquire high skills in breaking and entering. These are the unlucky ones.

The surprising thing, really, is that so many southern migrant families manage somehow to survive this critical period of adjustment to the city and go on to make good lives for themselves. “You’ve got to realize that the white southern migrant, unlike the Negro or Puerto Rican, faces what is basically just a one-generation problem,” says Bill Meyers. “All he has to do is lose his southern accent and move out of the migrant community and nobody recognizes him anymore.”

And they do move out of the migrant community eventually, many of them, and they do go largely unnoticed, accent or not. For this is the one virtue of the city that they had not counted on, and it is the one virtue that will save many of them – the city’s amazing ability to absorb large numbers of people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds and to educate them, to transform them, even – if necessary – to protect them from themselves.

And when this happens, the trail finally becomes clouded, diffuse. There is no precise pattern any more. It is a good bet that there are one-time southern migrants living in every part of the city and in many of its suburbs, some of them holding good jobs, with long and faithful employment records and sons away at school. There might very well be one right down the street. It isn’t something you always know for sure.

After all, you don’t stop an honest, hard-working neighbor on the street and ask him if he once was a hillbilly. You wouldn’t be that crude.

The convoy rolls smoothly up Montrose beside the endless gray walls of Graceland cemetery until it comes to Racine, then executes a precise column turn, first the lead squad car, then the six wreckers, one at a time, all pivoting at the exact same spot in the pavement, then the other squad car, like gunships in battle formation. It is an impressive sight. The lights atop the squad cars and all six wreckers are flashing, exploding bursts of colored light against the surrounding windows. Children stop their play and turn around to watch.

Fifty yards up Racine the lead squad car drifts to a stop and a policeman climbs out and walks purposefully toward a car parked at the curb. He studies the car a moment – the dusty windshield, the exposed brake drums, the empty headlight sockets – then motions toward the lead wrecker and steps aside while it slips in ahead of the car and maneuvers for position. The policeman climbs back into the squad car and the rest of the convoy moves on.

More than 1,700 abandoned autos were hauled away last year in Chicago’s 48th ward, Ald. Bob O’Rourke’s ward, which covers a good part of Uptown. This is up considerably from the 1,500 that were hauled away in 1966, and the 1,300 in 1965. Abandoned autos have become a major waste disposal problem.

It used to be that you could sell a worthless auto for $35 or $40 to a scrap metal dealer, and he would even come and pick it up, but those days are gone now, says O’Rourke. Now nobody wants junk cars. Not even – after a certain point – the hillbillies.

They come all the way to Chicago in these cars, managing to get here somehow despite the tender tires and the groaning springs and the weeping motors, struggling into town in them and letting them collapse finally against some quiet curb. Then after a couple of pay checks they buy another car almost as tired as the first and divide the license plates, putting one on each rear bumper. And they begin stripping the vital parts from the first car to prop up the weaknesses in the second. Hillbillies, almost anybody will tell you, are good with motors.

And finally the one remaining license plate comes off the first car and from that point on its ownership is considered relinquished, it is fair game, communal property. The people come and take what they want from it, removing the wheels, sometimes pulling out the motor, picking its bones dry. What is left stands that way sometimes for months before the wreckers come to get it, just a shell of a car and little more.

“Floaters,” the police call them. Like rusting cans left behind at some picnic site. Nobody knows where the owners have gone.

Chicago Tribune, 22 September 1968 (PDF of this article here)

© Clarus Backes/Chicago Tribune
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