After my first encounter with actual Chicago Seed staffers on a stifling hot early summer evening in 1968 on an assignment from radical historian Staughton Lynn to seek out the Yippies, the summer rolled along to its inevitable epic climax—the protests associated with Democratic National Convention and the resultant police riots and armed National Guard intervention—all of it written about and participated in by Seed staffers. I have chronicled my own misadventures that summer in a memoir series called Chicago Summer of ’68 that ran successively in 11 posts in this blog beginning with Chicago Summer of ’68 Memoir—I Go to a Party on August 1, 2015.
After it was all over I returned to Shimer College in Mt. Carroll, Illinois for what turned out to be unexpectedly my last semester there. For various reasons I dropped out to transfer to the very different Columbia College in Chicago, a communications and arts school then located on the upper floors of a commercial building fronting the Inner Drive between Grand Avenue and Ohio Streets just across from Navy Pier. I enrolled in the Story Workshop creative writing program run by John Schultz, who wrote one of the best accounts of Convention week, No One Was Killed. I had delusions of becoming the next Great American Novelist.
I moved into my first Chicago place—a six room garden apartment a/k/a basement—in a seedy three flat on Howe Street west of Old Town and about a long block north of Armitage. It was a tough neighborhood of mixed Appalachian Whites and Puerto Ricans with whom they had a tense and testy relationship. I split the $78 a month rent with a black street kid who I connected with in a personal ad in the Seed and a 56 year old Mexican who I had worked with at a Skokie air conditioning factory and who had lost everything when his adult son was shot while waiting in line at a Kentucky Fried Chicken store and took a long, expensive time to die.
I was too stupid to realize what a red flag my roommates were to the neighborhood street gang, the Howe Street Boys. And I represented yet another threat—the gentrification represented by Old Town pushing west.
It turned out the Seed staff were experiencing somewhat similar problems at their offices which were then located on Sedgewick just south of North Avenue which was on the western fringes of Old Town but also in the literal shadow of the massive virtually all Black Cabrini Green housing complex. It was also just a few short blocks south of my new place. It turned out that Black gang members from the Projects did not look on the hippie newspaper staff as friends and allies but as White interlopers and the nose-of-the-camel under the tent for White gentrification and eventual displacement of Blacks. It was no secret that the developers of Old Town’s Carl Sandburg Village high rise apartments and others hoped to take over Cabrini Green for middle class condos and had support form powerful Democrats.
So the local gangs literally besieged the office, pelting it with bricks and rocks and threatening staffers as they came and went. The editors issued a tone deaf and defiant statement in the paper which denounced the attackers as “Black storm troopers” vowed not to “leave Old Town until we are ready.” It turned out that they were immediately ready and fled the offices locating them further north and an insulating distance from Cabrini.
A Chicago Police sharp shooter takes aim at an upper window in the Cabrini Green housing complex during the riots on the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. That evening just blocks away a mini-riot broke out in front of my Howe Street apartment.
I stupidly planned a huge party inviting all of my old Shimer pals, folks I knew from High School at Niles West and new acquaintances at Columbia. Word spread and scores showed up despite the fact that I had forgotten that the date corresponded to the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Cabrini Green and much of Black Chicago was rioting just blocks away. You could hear gunfire and see Chicago Police cars screaming to the scene with their windows taped up for protection from rocks and bottles.
The Howe Street Boys realized that the cops had bigger fish to fry and gathered in front of my rowdy party. Pretty soon guests were assaulted and I was pretty badly roughed up when I went out to try to rescue them. I had my own personal mini-riot. We were besieged all night. I recounted the whole evening in some detail in a post called April 1969—Now That Was A Party.
Like the Seed, I soon fled for digs further north in the first of many moves over the next few years. It is clear that neither I or the Hippie/Yippies at the Seed yet had a clear understanding of the class and racial dynamics of the city.
That summer I joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who I had first encountered during the Democratic Convention. In the time since that contact the Chicago Branch had sprung to new life with scores of active young members. I was astonished to find more than 50 in attendance at my first Branch Meeting. I plunged right in to activity.
My first project would bring me back to the issues of urban renewal/urban removal that had been at the heart of the troubles on Howe Street. City demolition under the guise of slum removal was gobbling up block after block of slightly rundown but serviceable working class housing, much of it in classic brick and gray stone two and three flat buildings. The razing of Larabee Street from Armitage to North Avenues just east of Howe Street had been completed while I was still there. Middle class town homes were slated to replace a once stable immigrant Italian and German neighborhood.
Then, leapfrogging a few blocks west, most of a block on Halsted north of Armitage was leveled. When the City announced that the land was not going to be developed as affordable housing as originally promised but as a private tennis club a mini-riot broke out at a community meeting held at nearby Waller High School. The next day organized by the Young Comancheros, a radicalized Chicano and multi-ethnic gang and the more well known and established Puerto Rican Young Lords hundreds of community members descended on the vacant property and began removing rubble. Inspired by events in Berkley, California they declared that the land had been seized by the People and a People’s Park would be built.
I had been at the Waller meeting and had a passing acquaintance with the leaders of both the Comancheros and the Lords. The Chicago Branch conveniently met the first night of the occupation. I reported what I had experienced at the scene that day and they voted overwhelmingly to lend the union’s full support to the project. I was credentialed as official IWW liaison. I threw myself into the project with enthusiasm. After consulting with the nightly people’s council held on the site, I was asked to try and arrange some trucks and heavy equipment to help with clearing the rubble which was being done by hand. They perhaps had an exaggerated idea of who the members of our union actually were—at this point mostly now retired veterans and young radicals, none of whom to my knowledge were construction workers.
None-the-less I started working the phone cold calling places out of the phone book. I quickly discovered that there were companies glad to haul away the rubble for construction landfill and were not particularly choosey about the perfect legality of taking it. I was told later they were probably mob connected and had a certain impunity that did not come from us. Then I got a guy on the line in a paving company yard after the office staff had left for the day. He was thrilled about the project because family members had lost their homes to urban removal. He said, “I don’t care what the company says, I’ll be there.” The next evening after his shift he arrived on a road grader and made short work of leveling the ground.
Needless to say the folks at the park were impressed and my Fellow Workers were astonished. I was too clueless to realize that I had done anything unusual at all. After spending a few nights quasi-camping at the park to keep the Police from seizing it when the hundreds of community volunteers were gone, I was interviewed by reporters. They felt safer talking to me than to scary Young Comancheros and Young Lords. It was agreed that I would act as a press liaison for the Park. One night Studs Terkel hauled his huge, heavy powered tape recorder and sat with several Comancheros and me around a fire as quarts of Meisterbrau were passed around and the young dudes huffed typewriter solvent from brown paper bags. We talked for two or more hours and established a relationship that would last for years.
For the Seed the connection to the iconic Berkley People’s Park project made our local effort especially interesting. It was my first encounter with staffers since stumbling in on a lay-out session on LaSalle Street. From then on I would encounter them at all sorts of community events, at demonstrations, at social occasions, and at cheap saloons like Johnny Weiss’s on Lincoln Avenue.
Most of August of ’69 was taken up by the People’ Park project. To our astonishment the city never tried to deploy the Police to remove us. Plans for the tennis club were publicly scrapped. The community managed to put up some makeshift playground equipment, install a few benches, and even plant some shrubs. The land was left undeveloped for more than a decade, long after the Park had deteriorated by not being maintained. But at that moment, it was a stunning victory.
A poster promoting the protest on the first night of the Chicago 8 trial. The march from Lincoln Park to the Federal Building turned into a running battle.