Award-winning television documentary producer and author Linda Gartz recently discussed her memoir, “Redlined,” as a featured speaker within the 2020 Levy Lecture Series. “Redlined” is steeped in history, but it is not an academic book. Instead, it is a deeply personal, intergenerational story about the author’s family as they lived and worked on the South side of Chicago for most of the 20th century.
The memoir came about almost by accident. In 1994, after their mother had passed away, Ms. Gartz and her two brothers were getting their family home ready for sale, “separating trash from treasure,” when they reached the attic and were astounded to find a virtual time capsule of diaries, calendars, receipts, photos and other ephemera, all written or collected by their parents and grandparents. Over the course of a week, the siblings sorted through the material and culled “the useless and unsentimental.” The packed the remaining items in to more than two dozen bankers’ boxes. Ms. Gartz took all 25 boxes home to Evanston and stored them in her garage, where they sat for a few more years as she “got on with the business of life and family.”
Her curiosity finally inspired her to open the boxes and start reading. Ms. Gartz was motivated to see if she could finally understand two looming issues from her youth. First, why did her parents’ marriage deteriorate? They had clearly been passionately in love with one another in the early years. Second, what led to the steep decline of the vibrant community where she and her brothers grew up? Racism was part of the story, but what Ms. Gartz uncovered was much more systemic and institutionalized.
The family story started in 1910 with Josef Gartz, her paternal grandfather, recounting his voyage from Transylvania to the United States in journal entries. Also stored were his love letters to his girlfriend, Lisi, back in Europe, trying to convince her to move to Chicago to be with him. She arrived on Oct. 11, 1911, and they were married two days later.
The couple had three sons, and through thrift and hard work, they were able to purchase property in their neighborhood, West Garfield Park, become landlords, and achieve a solid middle class lifestyle.
The diaries, letters, and documents from Ms. Gartz’s maternal grandparents, the Koroschetz family, told a different story. Financial and professional success eluded them. Grandpa K was a machinist who lost his job during the Great Depression as half of all manufacturing businesses closed. Later, he found temporary work, but was injured on the job and lost the use of two fingers. Unable to find steady work, they could not keep up with their mortgage payments and lost their home.
Ms. Gartz gained valuable insights about the relationships her parents, Fred and Lil, had with their respective mothers. Her father’s mother, Grandma G, was cold, critical and harsh toward Fred, but loving and kind to her other two sons. She disliked Fred’s wife, Lil, Ms. Gartz’s mother, right from the start. The disdain Grandma Gartz felt toward her middle son and the animus she felt toward his new wife forever tainted the relationship she would have with them and their future children.
Ms. Gartz’s maternal grandmother, Grandma K, had severe mental health issues and was diagnosed in 1949 as psychotic. There was a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde quality to her moods. On a good day, she was a devoted mother, eager to make beautifully tailored garments for her daughter, yet she would explode in anger at the slightest provocation. Lil lived in fear of her mother, constantly afraid of a screaming, profane outburst which was often accompanied by physical abuse. Despite Grandma K’s horrific mood swings and outbursts, she lived with her daughter and son-in-law off and on for many years until her final hospitalization. The tension caused by Grandma K’s actions and presence negatively affected her parents’ marriage, as Ms. Gartz would learn.
Fred and Lil married in November 1942 after a passionate, whirlwind courtship. Six years later, in December 1948, her parents purchased their first home, a two-flat at 4222 West Washington Boulevard in West Garfield Park, a block away from where the senior Gartz family lived. Home ownership had provided the senior Gartz family a gateway to the American dream. Fred and Lil were following that same path, expecting that if they worked hard, they would be financially successful. But fate had other plans. As Ms. Gartz describes it as, “They were living on the fault line of history.”
What happened was a collision of engrained racist policies in the housing market that effectively enforced segregation, encouraged “white flight,” and prevented Black families from building intergenerational wealth, thus keeping black Chicagoans from getting ahead and ending any hope of building equity through real estate.
In addition to racist policies such as redlining that affected a neighborhood’s creditworthiness, policies promoted by government entities such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration, an influx of Black southerners, escaping from organized lynchings, was moving to Chicago as part of the Great Migration.
As one Black family after another moved into white neighborhoods, unscrupulous realtors took advantage of the situation from both sides: Using race-baiting tactics, they scared white homeowners into selling their homes “fast and cheap,” then retained the titles to the properties and jacked up the prices for Black homeowners who were forced to buy homes on contract. One late payment could result in eviction; few of these families ever actually owned the homes where they resided.
The final spark that lit up cities across the country with violence, rioting, and rage was the assassination the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968.
Ms. Gartz’s parents’ home in West Garfield Park was nearly in the center of the destruction, yet through it all, her parents did not move away. “Redlined” shows how one family’s relationships, obligations, and love were up against powerful forces of real estate and systemic racism against Black Americans.
Ultimately the book is about forgiveness and Fred and Lil’s enduring love in spite of many stresses and hardships. An encore presentation of Ms. Gartz’s Levy Lecture is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.