Chicago Dreams Deferred A new look at inner-city life forsakes the larger view for finer details, with mixed results.

Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago

Laurence Ralph (University of Chicago Press, 2014) 256 pages with notes, bibliography, index, and illustrations

On April 5, 1968, as word spread of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the West Side of Chicago burst into flames. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in an explosion of collective anguish and anger. Black Chicagoans had seen King as one of them; he had lived on the West Side during his failed campaign to desegregate the city, and his death triggered the many years of fury and frustration among poor, black Chicagoans. Mobs moved west along Madison, Division and Roosevelt Road, the main thoroughfares running through the city’s impoverished African-American neighborhoods. Arsonists followed looters, setting fire to scores of buildings. Hundreds of black-owned businesses and apartments were torched.

Two days later, after National Guards and local police halted the protests, much of the West Side lay in ruins. Hundreds were left homeless, 500 people were injured, and nine African Americans were killed. In the riot’s wake, small businesses fled, and the handful of industrial jobs that had supported black families through the ’50s and ’60s quickly disappeared. Boarded-up storefronts, burnt-out buildings and vacant lots defined the West Side for the next 25 years.

Even when gentrification inched west in the late ’80s and ’90s, the hipsters, artists and shrewd investors cherry-picked neighborhoods, booming areas like Wicker Park and Logan Square, and leaving other communities starved for grocery stores and decent housing. In the late ’90s, Humboldt Park, the West Side’s 207-acre run-down site of gang shoot-outs and drug wars was transformed into an elegant, generally safe park. But other areas were not so lucky. Many neighborhoods remained stuck in poverty, plagued by crack and the return of the heroin trade, home to unemployed, disillusioned people.

From 2007 to 2010, Laurence Ralph lived in one of those West Side neighborhoods. “Eastwood,” a pseudonym, was poor, predominantly African American, and deeply scarred by the multiple forces of de-industrialization, mass incarceration, and street violence. An anthropologist trained at the University of Chicago (currently an assistant professor at Harvard), Ralph initially sought to understand gang culture and the impact of constant violence on an urban community. His research, which led him to befriend gang members and political activists (sometimes the same people), grandmothers, ministers, social service providers and school children, produced a book that explores much more than a Chicago street gang. Ralph’s powerful urban ethnography reveals a community, the cross-generational links of family and neighbors, bound together by the common experiences of poverty, bloodshed, institutional racism and, as Laurence writes, “the variegated desires that stem from imagining life anew.” Renegade Dreams, as the title suggests, highlights “the resilience it takes for black Chicagoans to keep dreaming anyway.”

Ralph’s emphasis is on the “voices,” the articulate expressions of the friends and neighbors whose lives he documents. He calls them his “collaborators,” suggesting, in good ethnographic fashion, that his objects of study are subjects, actively shaping their own lives and scholarly accounts of them. The book is dotted with Ralph’s field notes, foregrounding his position as witness, and his self-fashioning as both a scholar and community member. Ralph is a young African American man who was schooled in an elite university. The residents, as he portrays them, are highly aware of Ralph’s identity. A gang leader calls him “Urkel,” (with some fondness) referring to the nerdy black teen in the 1980s sit-com, Family Matters. Ralph allows himself to be a major character in the narrative. He tracks the shifts in his own analysis as he comes, not just to empathize, but also to participate in the residents’ lives.

Central to Ralph’s analysis is the concept of “injury,” as both a metaphor and very real physical experience. In Eastwood, he writes, “injury was everywhere.” Physical injuries are so often left out of stories of street violence. Ralph describes young men who spend their lives in wheel chairs; others leaning on canes. Victims of gun violence, he notes, are more likely to be disabled than killed. In Chicago, 8,000 people were killed “while an estimated 36,000” were “debilitated,” between 1998 and 2013. The “Crippled Footprint Collective,” a group of physically disabled former gang members, represent the honor of the injured. Even as they gave talks in schools urging teens to stay away from gangs, the disabled men were viewed with gratitude, “the military equivalent of an honorable discharge” from the gang. The disability rights movement has improved the medical care and legal rights of disabled people. But, Ralph notes, “scholars have glossed over the ways race operates within disabled communities.”

Ralph is working against the long strain of urban sociology that defined inner city neighborhoods as isolated, and their poor, black residents as an under-class suffering from cultural pathologies.

Ralph explores other forms of injury: dilapidated houses, HIV disease, and drug addiction. He is surprised that, despite the burden of multiple injuries, Eastwood residents continue to dream of better lives. “Slowly I began to realize, if injury immobilizes people, like the fatal bullet that fractures the spine, then dreams keep people moving in spite of paralysis.” It is a banal statement: why assume that poor or injured people do not hope for better lives? Yet, Ralph is working against the long strain of urban sociology that defined inner city neighborhoods as isolated, and their poor, black residents as an under-class suffering from cultural pathologies. Amazing, he writes, that obstacles like HIV and mass incarceration—viewed from the outside as “incapacitating”—seem to motivate residents to dream of better futures. It is not clear whether or how these dreams were realized, but to Ralph, the dreams themselves were signs of resistance. “In Eastwood,” he writes, “injury endows dreams with a renegade quality.”

Ultimately, Ralph argues that “renegade dreams” provide a more apt “frame” for understanding Eastwood, and neighborhoods like it. The frame, whether on video shot from an iPhone or an analytic stance chosen by a scholar, shapes public policy, public outcry and academic norms. As Ralph notes, the daily struggles and dreams of an African American former gang member “imprisoned” in a wheelchair are largely incomprehensible to a disability movement that frames disability around a white middle-class paraplegic injured in a car crash. Or the isolated ghetto, so effectively described by sociologist William Julius Wilson, can, from another angle appear deeply integrated into an urban economy linked to the international drug trade, and to networks of non-profit organizations seeking to ameliorate poverty. “We should not allow the specter of urban violence… to reify the notion of the ‘isolated’ ghetto,” he writes. “Instead, we should embrace the opportunities to reframe seemingly familiar narratives that, because of their familiarity, impede our understanding of how injury is experienced.”

The “frame”—or theory, assumed narrative, or, in more crude terms, racist attitude–that leads scholars and reporters to see black youth as predators and urban neighborhoods as dysfunctional has long mystified the larger political and social forces that destroyed lives and whole communities. But, too often the metaphor becomes the explanation: “blight” rather than a dramatic decline in decent-paying jobs, for example. Ralph too stumbles, at times, into a morass of metaphors. His literary approach to his material—the metaphor of the bullet splitting the spine—undermines the specificity of his research.

Renegade Dreams is a tale of a neighborhood beaten down by the 20th century—the segregation that greeted black migrants from the South, racist hiring practices and the rapid disappearance of factory jobs, federal urban renewal programs that devastated black neighborhoods, and the brutal tactics of the mid-century Richard J. Daley political machine, which treated black voters as pawns easily forgotten between elections. Ralph’s ethnography, so carefully rendered, at times loses sight of these birds-eye views. Ralph tracks community meetings, court appearances, school events, street violence, and, in wonderful detail, stoop-sitting conversations among neighbors. But the method itself leaves the larger structural forces that shaped the neighborhood as mere check marks on a list, mentioned but not fully explored or analyzed. In urban scholarship, both the carefully-detailed local study and the broad structural analysis are needed, though linking the local to the national or trans-national seems crucial. The approach simply depends on the scholar’s chosen lens.

Ralph tracks community meetings, court appearances, school events, street violence, and, in wonderful detail, stoop-sitting conversations among neighbors. But the method itself leaves the larger structural forces that shaped the neighborhood as mere check marks on a list, mentioned but not fully explored or analyzed.

Renegade Dreams ends with two killings. The first is sadly suggestive of contemporary events: an African American teen was shot dead by police who claimed the youth had run down an alley, then holding a gun, faced the officers. The 18-year-old boy’s mother claimed the officers planted a gun near his body. The police department and the youth’s family were waiting for footage from a street video camera to determine whether the shooting was justifiable, or murder. Ralph asserts they may never know precisely what happened in that alley. Video footage, he claims, so often depends on the framing of the event. What is known, however, is the young man was shot in the back. Though Ralph glosses that piece of evidence, it seems crucial: Sometimes forensic evidence outranks the frame.

The other killing, caught on a cell phone video, is the September 2009 death of Derrion Albert, a middle-school student surrounded by black teens swinging fists and railroad ties. The deadly beating on Chicago’s South Side went viral on the Internet and attracted widespread attention from reporters and federal officials. Many dubbed Derrion Albert, who was a law-abiding, A-student, a gang member. Ralph, ever-attentive to multiply-layered metaphors, puts the killing in the context of the cultural history of the railroad tie. To many black Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroad was a symbol of social and economic progress, of the trip north away from the brutal violence and intense rural poverty of the South. Ralph also links the railroad tie to the great Pullman strike of 1894 when thousands of rail workers walked off the job, prompting a bloody riot between striking workers and federal troops on Chicago’s South Side. “In Chicago,” Ralph writes, “these wooden railroad ties symbolize both Derrion’s death and one of the most storied strikes in American history. The two events are grounded in the same material reality.”

This assertion is a clever intellectual move, but the conclusion is slightly off. True, both events happened in Chicago. But the Chicago of 1894 was very different from the city of Derrion’s death. The two events are separated by the 20th century. It was a century split between the hopes of the Great Migration, rising civil rights activism and newly-won manufacturing jobs for black workers on one side and, on the other, late-20th-century mass unemployment and mass incarceration. The mid-20th century showed superhighways replacing railroads, and speeding whites to suburban developments while urban renewal programs annihilated black working-class urban neighborhoods. Those events, driven by failed federal policies and racist local politics, profoundly altered the urban landscape and daily conditions of life for all Chicagoans. Ralph, seduced by the metaphor of the railroad tie, offers an ahistorical account of the murder, confounding the concrete analysis that might explain this new form of urban violence. History transforms material reality and gives new meanings to tragic deaths, and to railroad ties.

The uprising on the West Side in April 1968, in many ways, captures the shifting ground of the 20th century. The riot was an expression of communal grief over the loss of a great leader, a move from a culture of hope to raw anger. But the burning West Side also marked a dramatic shift in Chicago politics. As Gary Rivlin wrote in the Chicago Reader, twenty years later, the West Side riot served “as the community’s declaration of political independence,” clearing a political path for the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Renegade dreams, perhaps.

More than anything, the riot gave voice to mass anger over a white man’s killing of black Americans’ dreams. Renegade Dreams aims to uncover the new dreams of a post-industrial, 21st-century urban black community, and in Ralph’s words, to “reframe” the dreamers, to see them, not as the rioters, gangsters or savage youth so often portrayed in the media, nor as the “enduring trope” of the “socially isolated” ghetto held up by urban sociologists. Ralph aims to access “the political potential of the frame.” He describes a community hard-hit by major political, economic and social forces, and too long buried under academic metaphors.