“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Chicago can be classified in three different ways: by ward, community area, and neighborhood. Wards are political areas, represented by alderman who make up our city council. There are 50 of them, and they are numbered. I live in the 24th Ward, for example. It is a pretty boring name, but efficient. When trash has been piling up or you want to express some concern, you should really know what ward you live in. Some alderman are pretty responsive. Others are not. The borders of the ward system are always in flux—it is gerrymandering at it’s finest, I am sure. Just look at the Ward Map!
The community areas are stable. If you look up demographic data or want to hear the “official” story, you would inevitably be given information about the community areas. There are 77 of them, and they are based on some social science research conducted in the late 1920s at the University of Chicago. In fact, out of the 80 library branches, 77 of them are distributed among the community areas. The City of Chicago has an official map (community areas), although I am sure you can Google it and find a better one.
The neighborhoods, though, are where we live. They are who we are. By some counts there are more than 200 neighborhoods, and they don’t have any official boundaries. We define them. Some maps have been drawn to best estimate where the neighborhood boundaries are, basically by asking residents where they live and attempting to draw in the borders. A pretty neat interactive map was created by Kevin Zolkiewicz and the city has an official map of their 1978 account. If anyone wants to get me a really great gift, you can purchase a map for me here; my eyes have been set on one for years! The neighborhoods are more than places. They are more than communities. They are possibilities. The libraries exemplify these possibilities so clearly.
This library is in Back of the Yards neighborhood, in the New City community area. Back of the Yards is another neighborhood in Chicago with a strong history of community activism and organizing. In the late 1800s this area housed the largest livestock yards and meat packing plants in the country. Nearby, you can still drive by the Union Stock Yard gates, a relic of the working class nature of the city. In his 1906 book, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair narrates the brutal reality of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. It is a story about immigrants making their way through a difficult life of constant struggle among big businesses and con men. The beautiful, though fictitious account, is set here, in would become Back of the Yards. The area continues to be an example of the ebbs and flows of rebuilding, industrial change, and resilience.
This library was quite interesting. It is co-housed in a public high school. I actually walked into the wrong door, and needed to walk all the way around the building to actually get in. The library itself is small. It has a small kids area, a teen area, and a small seating area. There weren’t many people in there, though. I think one girl was reading a book she got from the book stacks, a young guy, who appeared to be in high school, used the computer and sat in a chair to read. An older guy was grading some type of papers. Other than that, mostly it was just a few people in and out to use the computers.
The staff here is incredibly on top of things. As soon as I sat down and opened up my laptop, the “Cyber Navigator” walked up to me and asked if I had any questions about using my computer, cellphone, or tablet. He explained he was there to help me. Actually, very ironically, I saw this guy when I was out for a run a few days later while he waiting for the bus near Western and Cullerton. The Cyber Navigator asked pretty much everyone if they needed help. Two people called to make an appointment to learn about how to use the computer, so apparently the library provides pretty comprehensive help with computers!
One lady came in precisely at her scheduled appointment time. She had an accent which sounded Eastern European. The Cyber Navigator asked her to sit at a desk with a computer, and she asked to be moved because the computer had yellow keys on the keyboard (it was a large print keyboard). She said that she needed help, but wasn’t “handicapped,” and preferred a regular keyboard. So, he moved her to a computer with black keys. He walked her through the steps to create a Google account and a password. She was kind of nervous about creating a password and was coming up with some combination of her kids’ names or birthdates. As time passed, she started to divulge more about why she was here. One of her children, a single mother, was going through some difficult times. Recently she had been in a car accident and lost her ability to work and live on her own with her daughter (the granddaughter), so they were moving in with grandma for a few months. She talked with affection and concern because the daughter would need some help getting things back together. She was excited that they had decided to go to church with her, but was hoping the church could help them out in some way. The Cyber Navigator began to list and give some phone numbers and links to different social aid agencies. I thought this was actually pretty neat. A woman comes in to set up an email to help her daughter, and ends up being connected to a variety of agencies. She also spoke about her granddaughter who speaks both Spanish and English but prefers English. She eventually left, but before she did she set up another appointment to get help checking her email again. When life hits, the library is there.
It was a small, branch, but great things can be done in small spaces.