Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What constitutes “history?”

It is somewhat interesting to know that U.S. officials on Monday cooperated with officials in Montreal have decided to erect a bilingual plaque at an apartment where Jackie Robinson lived during the one year he played minor league baseball – prior to joining the Brookyn Dodgers in 1947 and ending the concept that pro ball was for “white” people only.

Some may have their qualms about U.S. officials designating a historic site in Canada, although that doesn’t bother me so much as the idea that we’re honoring an apartment – one that is at least six decades old – or that they waited until the absolute last day of Black History Month to do this.

WITH THE EXCEPTION of that one summer of 1946 when Robinson was with the Montreal Royals of the International League and lived there with his new wife, Rachel, I doubt there is anything about this particular place that is different from any other apartment building still standing from that era.

Or from any apartment building still standing in Chicago, or any other city in this country or on the North American continent.

The one-time student of history in me fears that by going out of our way to designate every single bit of minutia related to Robinson’s life, we’re taking steps toward trivializing it.

The “great” things that Robinson did were accomplished because of his activity on the ball field (where local officials long ago placed a plaque marking the spot of the old Delorimer Stadium to honor Robinson and the Royals), not after work when he ate and slept. Do we really learn much from a bilingual plaque whose contents can be summarized as “Jackie (once) slept here.”

WHICH IS WHY a part of me was always glad to see that city officials have never tried to turn 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. into anything resembling a historic site.

For those of you too young (or too absent-minded) to remember, that was the address of an apartment building where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., lived for one year of his life – at $90 per month for rent. It was the summer of 1966 (I was not quite one year old back then) that King was going to make the country realize that racial segregation wasn’t just a Southern problem.

While the Northern states never had the blatant “Jim Crow” policies written into the law, the separation of the races and tensions between them could be just as bad. And King chose our very own Chicago as the first place to demonstrate it.

Of course, we lived up (or is it “down”) to King’s expectations by being the city where he got hit in the head with a brick during a local protest march. Places like Marquette Park, Gage Park and Cicero (the suburb, not the avenue) are where King made his presence felt locally.

I’M NOT SAYING we place a plaque on the spot where King stood when that brick came crashing upon him. But it would be more intriguing to know how many of the locals have a clue what once happened in their midst, rather than seeing the place where the reverend ate breakfast,.

Of course, the building is long gone. It wasn’t much to begin with, and after the urban riots that followed King’s assassination in 1968, much of the North Lawndale neighborhood was reduced to vacant lots that no real estate developer would even dream of touching.

Which is why we have had for decades the joke about Dr. King living in a vacant lot. In fact, one website devoted to Chicago tourism goes so far as to include an entry for the empty lot, and telling us that one of the highlights of this particular attraction is “free admission,” while also telling us that we should also check out the church at 3413 W. Douglas Blvd. – where a church at which King once spoke still stands.

That might be a better sight to see than the one-time apartment lot, which actually is finally being “filled in,” instead of being the equivalent of a cavity in the teeth of urban planning.

CONSTRUCTION BEGAN LAST year on a proposal for the “Dr. King Legacy Apartments,” which would include 45 units of housing and some retail space, which is something the neighborhood could use more than just a plaque that way too many tourists would be too scared to come see anyway.

Now in the current economic climate, I’m not sure how quickly the housing will go. While there is a need, there also is a chance that developers could get too greedy and price themselves out of what the market would bear.

It also is what makes me reluctant to think much of the talk in recent years of the MLK Historic District – meant to turn the entire area around 16th and Hamlin into a destination of sorts.

But at least someone is trying to think of the neighborhood’s future. If it were to work, it would do more for its surroundings than that plaque being erected at Jackie Robinson’s old apartment ever would.


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