Tag Archives: Illinois

When Understanding and Tolerance Trump Assumptions and Stereotypes

CBR_Logo2Living Black:
Social Life in an African American Neighborhood
by Mark S. Fleisher

Mark Fleisher, a balding, middle-aged, white Jewish man, spent six years conducting research in “Little Chicago,” an African-American neighborhood on the north end of Champaign, Illinois, not far from the campus of the University of Illinois. An ethnographer by trade, his assignment was to be a local evaluator for a project designed to study gangs and violence as well as intervention and prevention. Fleisher was tasked with interviewing hundreds of adolescent gang members in the North End.

Fleisher spent six years hanging out in the North End, usually the lone white person in the neighborhood. During those six years, he came to know many of the area’s residents, several of whom feature prominently in his reportage of the area and its people, Living Black.living black

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press within days of the release in Chicago of the Laquan McDonald video, the timing for this book and its topic couldn’t be more relevant.

Living Black takes readers inside a neighborhood most of us likely would never willingly venture into, a neighborhood marked by gangs and violence and poverty and unemployment and drugs. It’s the kind of neighborhood that many people would avoid at all costs, the kind of neighborhood that, if they had to drive through for whatever reason, they would lock the doors, roll up the windows, and floor it through stop signs and red lights. The kind of neighborhood most of us would assume to be dangerous.

That was not, however, the neighborhood that Fleisher found.

Rather, he writes, “the North End was a quiet, low-income residential neighborhood … No homeless folks panhandled by day and slept by night on sidewalks or under bushes. No bag ladies pushed swiped grocery carts packed with heaps of plastic bags. Street corners didn’t harbor drug sellers, and local gang youth didn’t hold court there or in parks.”

What Fleisher found was a community of friends and family with deep connections and a rich social life. What he found were children playing in parks, mothers gossiping with friends, and families holding birthday parties for their children. He found a community where people didn’t chastise, scold, belittle, or judge their peers.

Did he find this community among convicts and felons? Yes. Among unwed teenage mothers whose baby daddies were nowhere to be found? Yes. Among young gang members who sold weed? Yes. But he also found this community among mothers and grandmothers and cousins who stuck together, generations bound by blood and history.

In many ways, Living Black is a book about dichotomies. Fleisher writes, for instance, that “the North End had two faces, one soft and welcoming, the other hardened, portending the area as a dangerous place. The North End I saw in the 1990s was a peaceful, sleepy enclave of black and white neighbors. The North End I heard about was an angry, gang-ridden, segregated community.”

One community, the latter, based on hearsay and assumptions; another community based on experience and reality. Fleisher took the time to get to know the residents of the North End, to move beyond assumptions, to listen to them, and to withhold judgment.

Coming on the heels of a year of protests and violence in Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities and neighborhoods across the country, Living Black opens a window on a world that so many of us make assumptions about, succumbing to stereotyping without actually having any real experiences or relationships on which to base those assumptions and stereotypes.

Where so many of us assume poor, African-American neighborhoods to be ghettos rife with cold, hard violence, Fleisher reveals a community full of residents who care about and take care of each other. Where so many people assume the residents of these neighborhoods to be drug-dealing laze-abouts who cash out on welfare, Fleisher reveals resilient, self-sufficient members of a community doing whatever it takes to earn a living, put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads.

And he does so with little editorializing or commentary. Although it’s not perfect, at times redundant and occasionally too academic, Living Black is thoughtfully observed. It is written with compassion, more objective than not, although not completely impartial: Fleisher himself admits to sticking his nose where it didn’t necessarily belong, having become close with many of his interview subjects. Weighing in on the love lives of his friends/subjects and trying to get jobs for them might be outside the purview of an ethnographer. But it isn’t outside the purview of a human being.

And, above all, Living Black is a human story, not necessarily an account of white vs black or haves vs havenots. This timely study offers a glimpse into a part of society that many of us choose to ignore. At a time when tolerance and understanding seem in short supply, Living Black should be required reading for anyone who could benefit from a look outside their own world into the world of others. Which is most of us.

Three-Star Review

November 2015, University of Wisconsin Press
Sociology/Current Events
$29.95, paperback, 160 pages
ISBN: 978-0-299-30534-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war
that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood
can never become a reality…
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love
will have the final word.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


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Scary Short Stories Hit Close to Home

CBR_Logo2State of Horror: Illinois
Jerry E. Benns, Editor

Ghosts and zombies, abundant nods to real-life, presumed haunted and cursed places in Illinois, serial murder, a flesh-eating toilet, and a phantom Chicago pizza parlor are just some of the elements that come together in State of Horror: Illinois, a spine-tingling, geographically inspired collection of original horror tales.

State of Horror: Illinois was the first in what is now a series of similarly titled, state-based horror anthologies. Recent releases include Jew Jersey, North Carolina, and two volumes set in Louisiana. Upcoming installments in the State of Horror series are set in Tennessee and California.

state_of_horror_ilDrawing on the eerie associations with the number thirteen, there are thirteen short stories in State of Horror: Illinois, ranging from about five to about fifteen pages long.

The storytelling found in these pages is of variable quality, though mostly good to high quality, and are well varied, with stories about teens and adults and skipping around the state, from Chicago, to Springfield, to Alton, to historical Vishnu Springs. The authors take us to haunted train tracks, remote lakes and natural areas, abandoned towns and crumbling houses, and neglected, century-old cemeteries. We go up military watch towers, down inner-city alleyways, and through the tall heights of an upscale, residential, downtown Chicago high rise.

The book does have some problems. Inconsistent proofing and editing, beginning with a garbled table of contents page and continuing with intermittent punctuation and usage errors, sometimes mars the reading experience. Some of the stories start on different pages than listed in the index, and, mid-way through, a succession of pages are all listed as “page 103.”

“Drowning in the Hazel,” by Eli Constant, about a scuba diver who encounters an underwater monster, stands out for its exceptional scene-setting. The author demonstrates an intimate, personal knowledge of scuba diving and the depths of a deep lake, which helps to bring the story to life.

Creativity soars in “In Chicago, the Dish Is So Deep No One Can Hear You Scream,” by Frank J. Edler, set in a phantom pizza parlor, complete with ghoulish waiters and talking, menacing food.

“My Porcelain Monster,” by Eric I. Dean, also follows a wonderfully creative direction, with a flesh-eating toilet in a home’s guest bathroom, which terrorizes a succession of families who live there.

Stories about ghost-ridden haunted houses pepper the book, all well written. Perhaps the strongest such piece is “Ritter House,” by A Lopez, Jr. It is a palpably terrifying tale with a wickedly good conclusion. Readers will feel like they are experiencing a night alone in a haunted house alongside the protagonist, who is a modern-day horror writer researching his genre.

The prize for the most horrifically realistic contribution goes to “Chicago Mike,” by Della West, about a serial killer’s repurposing of his victims’ body parts in a suburban mall costume shop. “The shopping public will, it seems, pay a great deal of money for a costume if the mask is incredibly life-like,” West deliciously pens.

Quality sometimes slips, however. “What’s Eating the Mob,” by P. David Puffinburger, sinks into poor taste as a story about flesh-eating zombies turns to genital mutilation and excessively relies on coarse language and heavy gore.

Many of the anthology’s tales are set in and around Illinois tourist destinations, and/or in places long said, in real-life, to be haunted. That makes State of Horror: Illinois a great road map for curiosity seekers and tourists looking to pad a summer road trip with some creepy side trips. More information about the actual places referenced in the State of Horror: Illinois can be easily found on the Internet.

The short length of each piece, and associated minimal time required to get through each, makes this a great backpack book, readable in quick spurts on a dark night in a tent, cabin, or around a campfire. The series is also available in audiobook, perfect for long car trips.

On a broader level, the series, set largely in the nation’s midsection, is collectively a great, scary, longer road-trip stepping-off point.

Overall, this is a collection that weaves together fun, terror, shivers, and usually just the right amount of gore to make you shudder but not blanch. Some fine authors and fine storytelling elevate State of Horror: Illinois to a well-worthy read.

Three-Star Review

August 2014, Charon Coin Press
Fiction/Short Stories/Horror
$12.99, paperback, 246 pages
ISBN: 978-0692-2737-6-0

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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Suburban Goodfellas and Godfathers

CBR_Logo2The Neighborhood Outfit:
Organized Crime in Chicago Heights
by Louis Corsino

The pairing “Chicago crime” is one so common it rolls off the tongue without hesitation. Not that it’s a cliché entirely without merit: Although today one might think of rampant shootings on the South and West sides, Chicago has been associated with epidemic levels of crime for a century if not longer, thanks in large part to Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.

Of course, crime stretches well beyond the city’s borders, clawing forth in all directions, its twisted fingers reaching into the suburbs and beyond. One of the suburbs perhaps most associated with crime, particularly the type of organized crime usually associated with Capone and Torrio, is Chicago Heights.

corsino outfit 9780252080296North Central College professor Louis Corsino, a product of Chicago Heights himself, looks into the history of organized crime in his hometown in The Neighborhood Outfit, an examination of a small but integral part of the larger Chicago Outfit, the notorious branch of the American Mafia that ran bootlegged booze, drugs, guns, and women.

But beyond a mere history of the Chicago Heights connection to the Outfit, Corsino focuses in on the “boys” who ran the neighborhood, particularly the Italian immigrants who made Chicago Heights their home. Corsino, whose own family history is linked to the Outfit, looks at the connection between Italians and organized crime, using Chicago Heights as the sample for his study and examining the cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social forces that drove the Italian residents of Chicago Heights toward illicit activity. In doing so, he relies on a variety of sources, including first-person interviews, government documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, and family history to explore the connection between community, culture, and crime.

The Neighborhood Outfit is less a history of gang violence in Chicago Heights than it is a study of Italian Americans in that suburb and the perception that they somehow have an inherent predilection to organized crime. As such, the focus in the pages of this study is less on the notion of Chicago Heights as a breeding ground for criminal behavior than it is on the question of whether Italian immigrants in particular have been predisposed to living lives of vice.

In studying these questions, Corsino looks at the evolution of the Italian community in Chicago Heights, focusing primarily on the twentieth century. He provides a historical overview of organized crime in the suburb; an examination of cultural, social, and structural constraints that particularly affected Italian immigrants; and a broader discussion of the interrelationship between ethnicity and organized crime.

Corsino’s treatment of the topic hovers somewhere between an academic thesis and a popular study. At times the text reads like an objective dissertation; at others it feels like a more personal narrative. Various data-filled tables and charts are interspersed with black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s. As such, it’s difficult to tell who the author’s intended audience is: scholars and academics? amateur enthusiasts of organized crime or local history?

In the end, the book leans toward the more serious end of the spectrum: Readers looking for a rollicking history of Chicago Heights’s colorful past will not find it in these pages. Rather, The Neighborhood Outfit is a sociological study peppered with some interesting personal anecdotes. It’s more textbook than theater, which might dissuade fans of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But for those looking for a well-researched social history of a microcosm of organized crime, The Neighborhood Outfit is an informative, nuanced study that raises some interesting questions.

Two-Star Review

December 2014, University of Illinois Press
$25, paperback, 157 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08029-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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