I will eventually keep Linnea’s gift on a shelf in my workroom, a hunk of concrete and cracked enamel, the shape and weight of a brick, a broken artifact I cherish for all it carries. I do, in fact, call this object my brick. If I tossed it through a window this object would behave like any other brick, but it’s not a brick exactly. One side, covered with ceramic tile, looks like it came from a kitchen or bath-room wall, memory’s powder room, or that’s what I think.
Who brings Chicago demolition garbage home to the wife? People like us who keep changing the names of things? The city shifts, and so do our bodies, like the way the two of us have been trying out new pronouns for Linnea that hold both the she and the they, the now and the then. Shey/Shem/Sheir. Like Lake/Landfill/Landing. I know who shey is. Shey knows I like old broken things, history things, as much as I like things that are new.
A brick-shaped piece of architectural rubbish. A brick of someone’s missing place. My brick, but only because I’ve taken it as my own, to collect, among my menageries, set alongside small shoes made of mottled glass and rusted railway spikes and silver-clad icons sold to me by aging nuns in old-world churches I’ve visited. I have shelves full of this stuff, little artifacts of the beautiful/not beautiful city. I collect glass and tarnished things. I collect memories too, all kinds, some that might fall into the category of demolition garbage, what might be too sharp and embarrassing to keep out in the light.
I learned in AA to call these kinds of inmost collections my inventory. I haven’t been to AA recently, but when I used to go every week I loved the inventory step meetings. Step Four is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Step Ten is to continue “to take personal inventory” and when we are wrong to promptly admit. My inventory/my me-ventory/our we-ventory, one might say—an everyday assessment of the invisible collections residing beneath and within.
I don’t believe in the Christian version of God but I do believe in the spiritual wonder located in material presence. Like my brick. Any cubic space in the world is a brick of multiple histories. I interrogate all of what feels like mine.
ME-VENTORY: You imagine the brick in its proper place, part of a structure that’s not yet been broken, here before you came, a story still taking up space. Your intersection with the story of your brick is happenstance; you’re not certain if your residence makes it yours.
I collect favorite songs too, an enthusiasm I picked up from my dad, who had recordings of every known cover of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”—ironic, I suppose, a lush life the one I decided to no longer pursue. One of the top songs on my own list is the one sometimes called “Oh, What a Beautiful City,” sometimes called “Twelve Gates to the City.” I listen to the Pete Seeger version often, one of my favorites along with the soaring Kathleen Battle operatic performance I fell in love with first. The oldest iterations of the song that I’ve found so far are gospel renditions from the Black church, but Pete Seeger recorded many of the radical folk versions, and in his rendering the words sound like a peaceful protest march, the measured progression from the outskirts to the center, human hordes, hands linked. I love the Jane Jacobs downtown-rally feel of Seeger’s interpretation, the lyrics rewritten as if for a city anti-gentrification march. Seeger’s beautiful city is not so much heaven as central square, a quotidian patio, open bricks, a clear destination. I know there’s no such thing, but the song knows this too.
ME-VENTORY: Before you bring the brick back to your room you place it in the middle of the kitchen island, where to you it glows, pink and blue like the Lake Michigan lakefront trail at dusk, or like the mid-twentieth-century city, lit like old celluloid, like the lives this brick used to belong to. Linnea agrees to you keeping the brick on the kitchen island for a few months. It’s molecular time, you say, the possibility and grief of change, the ground stone of the city’s, and your own, beautiful/not beautiful story. You believe all this when you say it, but maybe you romanticize. Even your own mother, who collects everything she ever owned, would ask why you put city garbage on display. Perhaps what you really love is this evidence of what’s ruined.
BRICKSCAPE: Protection and heft. Defense and threat. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a brick, but there have been times I’ve wanted to. I’ve stolen bricks from under street level when my block was dug up for repaving. I bought stacks of bricks at the garden center, loaded them into the trunk of a car, when I still owned a car, and took them home to edge the rose garden, when we still lived in a house with a yard, or for ballast in the bottom of a flowerpot when I lived in an apartment with a roof garden. Once my friend Peter brought me a brick from a building demolition in the middle of the city, apartments where we’d both lived, a long hive of studios and one-bedrooms where most tenants lived for just a year or two, between lives. I carried this souvenir from one home to another, one city to another, until I lost the brick during my last relocation. Now I’m sad it’s gone; another missing piece of who I used to be. Longer than a usual brick, dark burgundy in hue, it had four holes down the center instead of the usual three, and a ridged interior where I rubbed my finger, as if to stop time.
When Linnea and I had that yard we made brick patios, wherever our dogs dug a new hole, first a central square, then a winding path with yard statuary—short brick roads that end-stopped at a rake refashioned as a heron, or a bowling ball we decorated with pieces of broken plates glued on with liquid nails, from the summer we made mosaics with our nieces. Linnea spread sand across each patio excavation, then set down bricks in repeating patterns. Russet. Gray. Sandy pink. Completing the work on hands and knees, then smoking a cigar in a lawn chair. I used to say it a different way but now I try out saying this: shey’s never been sexier.
Our house then was made of wood and painted aluminum siding, but if I include my college dorms, I’ve lived in nine or ten brick buildings, including where Linnea and I live now. The first, when I was in grade school, was on the corner of Emerald Ave. and 142nd Street, a full block of square brick bungalows, one a slight variation on the next. Front steps. Picture windows. White people from Croatian, Polish, Italian, and Irish families. White ethnics we called ourselves then, words that came of class and immigrant history pride colliding into the racist ideologies that broke the city into enclaves. The men worked in the mills or for the police department, and the women, except for my mom, stayed home and kept house, some of those neighbor ladies watching my brothers and me when my mother was working. Our corner house was a little bit different from the rest, with doors on either side and a textured brick front, and on the far western edge of the neighborhood, our kitchen facing the city’s southern border, so I guess we stood out. But this was not the reason the neighbors didn’t trust our father. They just always assumed my dad would be the first one on the block to toss a brick into the all-white community trust by selling to a Black family, or as they said then, “the Blacks.” I know this because the neighbors used to stop me on the sidewalk when I was walking home, demanding I tell them what my father would do.
This was years before we left that block, no talk yet of moving, so I don’t know what set them off. Maybe that my parents went to college and both worked as teachers. Maybe that my dad taught high-school English and journalism and laughed from the back of his throat when he argued with people he thought were wrong. Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, about redlining and race-based housing discrimination in Chicago, was first produced the year I was born. By the time I walked by my neighbors’ front lawns my dad would have read it, or seen the film. He wasn’t the brick-throwing radical sort, but he was the book-reading liberal sort. The neighbors were the brick-throwing racist sort, as were most of the people we knew or were related to then. I knew there was something wrong with the neighbors’ question, but I don’t remember if I responded. I never thought to ask Dad what he and the neighbors said to one another when the kids were not around. He probably just bristled. I was a preteen girl with plenty of weird ideas but I was no radical, too tall for grade school, too bookish for the neighborhood run-and-tackle games, feeling different in ways I couldn’t yet describe. I just backed away from what the adults were doing.
We didn’t need an explanation for what we heard. Those spitting bricks. But the memory is far worse now that I know what was underneath. Thirty years before my neighbors grilled me on Emerald Ave., our part of the neighborhood was already tinted yellow on the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining maps, the 1939 federal markings that standardized discriminatory real estate practices. Yellow meant “definitely declining,” one step above the red, “hazardous,” don’t-invest demarcation, one below the blue, “still desirable,” areas, two steps below green, the rare markers denoting neighborhoods where the banks were encouraged to invest. The maps I’ve seen cover most of Chicago, and there is more yellow than blue, more blue than red, but on the north side of Chicago where I live now, twenty-five miles from 142nd and Emerald, the yellow was attributed to the conversion of single-family homes to rooming houses. On the south side, where we lived then, the yellow is industry—the railroad tracks and the disintegrating industrial mill smoke still visible then from our kitchen door. The red parts of the map refer to another kind of designation, what the map key lists as the “low class of foreign born,” in some areas referring to the Poles, like my mother’s family. More frequently the “hazardous” rankings were based on the so-called “colored element.”
I doubt anyone on Emerald Ave., not even my dad, had examined the real estate grids, but we all knew the invisible dividing lines. Everyone still knows those lines. Pavement or dirt. Invite or divide. The sound of a brick breaking glass.
In the version of “Oh, What a Beautiful City” Pete Seeger recorded with the Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert’s big belter voice takes the lead. There are so many ways to get to the city, Ronnie sings out. You can walk right in and be welcome, she shouts. We will be all together in the middle of the city. This is the built environment I like to imagine could be: gates open; everyone in the center; one big, happy AA meeting—like the raucous mixed queer and straight meeting I used to attend in Minneapolis—people waving their arms, beckoning us all into the city of sobriety. In Minneapolis I knew enough longtime sober people to populate a whole zip code, which is why I am able to imagine such things, that city known in part for its addiction treatment centers while my hometown Chicago is better known for its corner bars. Linnea’s and my wedding reception, in our old backyard in Minneapolis, was a lot like the beautiful city song, but my own Chicago father almost didn’t come when I told him it wasn’t a drinking party. I lose most of the people I know in Chicago the minute I mention my rave won’t be a bacchanal, and I don’t go to the ones that are. The beautiful city narrative swells and dies in me every time I listen again to that song, which might be exactly why I love it.
Today in Chicago, I walk my dogs, two standard poodles—the Poodlings, we call them, because we are that kind of family, queers with funny collections, dramatic dogs, big windows that look out on the street. The Poodlings and I cross a swath of land just east of our apartment, near Lake Michigan’s water edge, through the park where Linnea found my brick. I used to at least think I knew what I looked like—blonde, tall, tattoos, a boho kind of feminine-presenting white woman, what my generation of queers called high femme. After these years of pandemic time I’m not as self-aware, more gray blond, my body less supple. I walk now to pull myself back into history, into this city made of damage and desire. I walk to get to that spiritual awakening feeling I used to find at my favorite AA meetings, the feeling I was looking for when I drank. It’s a kind of dissolving I’m talking about here, by which I mean who I am and where I am becoming one.
If land and water are opposite, then that part of the park where the Poodlings and I go isn’t really land. This urban earth, a dirt, grass, and pavement surface, wasn’t always solid ground, an edge of the city that used to be where the lake surged against a hotel boardwalk. Ruffled skirts and parasols here once. A tribal wild-rice farm here once, if we believe the neighborhood newsletters. A marshy prairie once. That the shoreline of this Great Lakes city, all the way from the southside to north, is made of landfill is common knowledge in Chicago, though when I tell my students, they are shocked to learn the city shoreline is not really a natural space. Here, on my block, I particularly love the intimacy of my residence, which comes of knowing what the ground contains.
ME-VENTORY: Here you walk on water, but through no power of your own. Light and wind. Skin and touch. Promise and secret. Here you step over what used to be, but that could change. Just because you pay on a mortgage of twenty-two hundred square feet here, two stories up into the air of this neighborhood, doesn’t mean you belong.
RUBBLESCAPE: On the south side of the city, eighteen miles down the beach from here, the landfill is made from detritus of what used to be steel mills, and in the middle the landfill is composed, in part, of debris from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Workers refurbishing Lake Shore Drive in 2016 dug up ash, timber, and bricks from the infamous fire, two centuries prior. A city above a city, above an inferno. But in my neighborhood now, on the far northside, the lakefront wasn’t filled in until the 1950s, not long before I was born, and by then the rubble had changed. A corridor of the dense West Side—Italian, Jewish, Greek, Mexican, and Black neighborhoods dating back to the nineteenth century—was dug up for a new expressway in the 1950s, shoveled into trucks, and carried to the lakefront. Later such neighborhood demolitions were delayed, or even stopped, by organized community protest, but this was a time before people had begun to challenge terms like “blight,” “slum clearance,” and “urban renewal.”
The far northside shoreline where I walk today is made up of old West Side rubble and debris: broken brick walls, library gutters, apartment balustrades, lobby tiles, storefront doorways, warehouse roofing, staircase railings, synagogue steps, transom frames, chairs and toys and drapery rods that thirteen thousand displaced people left behind when they moved. To other city neighborhoods. To the suburbs.
Some say these were slums that needed clearing. Some say people lost their beautiful community ties. Some say white flight began when superhighways severed the cities. Some say the car lovers are to blame. Some blame urban planners. More blame the real estate bankers. Many blame Big Steel moving overseas. Some blame guns. Some blame gay men and artists who make the streets too pretty. Some blame developers who build cheap brick fourplexes with identical open-concept kitchens to replace the old stone homes. Some blame hipsters with their twisty mustaches and artisan blue jeans. Some blame white people who lower their voices when they speak of that “other element” moving in. Some blame the evil blue-voting city itself.
WE-VENTORY: Street. Home. Pavement. Brick. Dirt. Demolition. Debris. Concrete. Embankment. Revetment. Waves. Edge. Step. Step. Step again. You blame everyone, including yourself. History opens one space, then bricks in another. Your beloved and you, and the Poodlings too, stand on so many cities.
This is an excerpt from “The Everyday Invisible,” which appears in full in our fall 2022 issue, Conjunctions:79, Onword.