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The Lost Structures of Civility

from the magazine

The Lost Structures of Civility

Looking back on a Chicago childhood in the 1940s Autumn 2016
The Social Order
Cities

I was at a pro-life meeting in Detroit in the late 1970s, with a biologist debunking the “population problem.” He pointed out that if everyone in the world moved to Texas, there would be 1,500 square feet for every man, woman, and child. That was the size of the footprint of his house in San Francisco. Texas, with that influx of population, would still be less dense than San Francisco; and San Francisco had many open places for parks and tennis courts. When it was my turn to speak, I remarked that in dealing with “life issues,” I kept with the weave of embryology and principled reasoning, and in that style of natural law, I made no appeal to faith or revelation. But this projection brought me to recognize what I simply believed as a matter of faith: if everyone in the world were moved to Texas—if there were no one in Europe, no one in Latin America, no one in Africa, no one in Asia . . . I still believed that there would be 400,000 Democratic votes reported from Chicago.

I told this story in the preface to my book The Philosopher in the City (1981), where I remarked that I’d been transported, in my middle years, to a pastoral setting in Amherst, Massachusetts, but remained a child of the city. And though there was much of late to challenge that faith, I still believed, I said, “in the gods that watch over Chicago.”

I fear that those gods have long departed the scene. The Chicago of Rahm Emanuel and the epidemic of homicides in black neighborhoods mark a dramatic shift in the character of the city as I knew it, as a child growing up there, open to its wonders. I could also be remarkably serene with the civilities, and the protections, that were cast around me—perhaps because I had little awareness of what the structures were that supported those civilities and protections, and kept them in place.

Years later, when doing a book on George Sutherland, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the Supreme Court who resisted the New Deal, I was brought back to the sense of being enveloped by structures unnoticed. The most dramatic analogy came from Dwight Perkins’s design of the Carl Schurz High School in Chicago, where I came to know the woman I married. Our days were framed by this artfully arranged building, with sudden encounters with our friends coming upon us from odd angles, down halls formed as triangles. Yet it was years before we thought of asking: From whose mind did this structure spring? Who was the architect who framed this lovely place in which we lived our teenage lives, with such comparative innocence, in the 1950s? It wasn’t until 1990 that I tracked down Perkins’s picture and learned that his building took its place in books of architecture. In a similar way, it occurred to me that we lived every day within a structure of freedom that Sutherland had helped to preserve for us, by warding off some of the worst statist schemes of the New Deal; and yet we get on with our lives without the least awareness of this architect of the law and his works in preserving our constitutional structure.

But now, the tumults and convulsions in the current scene, the sense of things coming apart in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and other cities may move us to look anew at the things that have gone largely unnoticed. For we are naturally drawn to the question of why things were so different for some of us who grew up in another time or place—in my case, in the cities of the 1940s and 1950s. Reflection brings awareness of those structures that have since come undone, along with the ethic that once sustained a life of civic decency, even among such a diversity of ethnic tribes who peopled the city as we knew it then.

An older colleague in fine arts at Amherst College, Frank Trapp, would drop by the house unannounced in the evening, ring the bell, and settle in for a nightcap. I remarked to him one night that my tendency was to presume in favor of people, of their motives and their hold on the truth. I would wait for the evidence to become systematic on the other side before withdrawing that trust. He twirled the ice cubes in his Scotch and said, “That is the kind of saccharine sentiment that can issue only from someone who had a secure childhood.”

He was right, but the question was: Why should he have been right? I was born at a time of high danger, in 1940, with the war in Europe already raging, with the Nazis occupying France, and even graver danger now portended, especially for Jews. My family was not well off. It was a “working family”; I was the first grandchild and the only child in a wartime household containing nine grownups. It was the apartment of my mother’s parents, my beloved Zayde and Bubbe, Alter and Masha Levin. There were two other married couples, including my parents, and three unmarried children. How did this family, in this setting, impart to a youngster that buoyant sense of security that Frank Trapp would later regard as a telling defect in my upbringing?

They did it, as it turned out, in the simplest way, with reflexes that were elementary in their common sense. Consider the scene: a two-year-old, still in his pajamas, wanders into a kitchen filled with grownups who are trying to have a quick breakfast and get off to work. He says, faintly, “Good morning.” And gets a standing ovation. “Look who’s up! Where is he going today?” My Aunt Bea: “He’s coming to the park with Harry [her boyfriend and my future uncle] and me for tennis. And we’re going for milkshakes at Zaub’s [drugstore].” My mother: “Don’t make him overly tired; we’re going to the Yiddish movies tonight.”

The point was: there was always someone there. I was given the sense that the grownups could simply be counted on to do what grownups were supposed to do. No, children were not there to render therapy to adults, or offer unsolicited advice beyond their experience or wit. They were to be preserved as long as possible in their innocence, and sheltered, as youngsters, from the harsher language and meaner aspects of the world. They would become tutored in the ways of that world all too soon enough. Many years later, in a program on the First Amendment, an interviewer asked if I could remember the first time when I felt free. I really couldn’t. For it struck me that, as a child, I had never felt unfree. There was a vast world in which to move, and those fences, occasionally seen, were not barriers to my freedom but fences for my protection. It seemed to us, as youngsters, that we had a large field for roaming, and yet we had the sense that we were moving in a landscape in which we were instantly recognized and placed: “Levin’s eynikl,” they would say of me, Levin’s grandson. That landscape seemed filled with “catchers in the rye,” with someone always keeping an eye out for me.

That landscape seemed filled with ‘catchers in the rye,’ with someone always keeping an eye out for me.

My grandfather, after some misadventures in business, settled in as a painter working for the city. It was a patronage job, and as part of the package he served as a precinct captain. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to know and love him as much as I did, and that was in part because he was often up in the middle of the night running to the rescue of someone who was sick or in trouble with the law. Just why it fell to him to attend to the ills of others by unsettling his own household, with the phone ringing in the middle of the night, was a question that always made my grandmother grind her teeth in resignation. Yet it was as much his nature to be in motion in that way, as it was his office.

The precinct captains owed their primary allegiance to the Cook County Democratic organization. Life under that regime was touched every day in ways prosaic and grand. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would later write about the way in which the War on Poverty in New York would set off wars among ethnic blocs, vying for place and leverage. In Chicago, the various ethnic groups would fill out the offices, but these were Hispanics and blacks, Irish and Italian, who would come through the Democratic machine, and, through that wondrous engine, develop ties with one another. No one just appeared on the scene, backed by a crowd, and claimed to represent, say, the Latinos in Chicago. As the old line had it, “We don’t want nobody [that] nobody sent.”

It struck me years later that some of the men I knew, nestled with their families in this regime, could easily have spoken Montesquieu’s words from The Spirit of the Laws: “Plato thanked the Gods, that he was born in the same age with Socrates: and for my part, I give thanks to the Almighty, that I was born a subject of that government under which I live; and that it is his pleasure I should obey those, whom he has made me love.” And I did come to love, in a certain way, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

What was produced in Chicago was a politics attuned to the needs of people in the local community—and by “needs,” I mean the things they cared about. That could be simply picking up the garbage on time and keeping the streets clean, but it could also include a respect for the moral sensitivities of people in the neighborhood. It could be a matter simply of stopping unruly bands of teenagers from taking over the streets at night and depriving decent people of their sleep. It could also mean keeping vice confined to certain run-down quarters in the inner city. Vincent Cannato, in his book on the John Lindsay mayoral years in New York, The Ungovernable City, caught the sense of what I’m describing here of life under a party government directed with the right blend of moxie and prudence. But Lindsay’s style of governance was quite removed from that deep involvement with the daily life of ordinary people, the kind of involvement that had been routine in the days when mayors had deep ties to Tammany Hall. Cannato quoted one seasoned observer of the scene:

Anyone around City Hall then knew that Lindsay had no control all the way down the line. He tried to do it all with his top assistants, whom he appointed, who had no followings of their own. And you just can’t run a city that way. [When] Bill O’Dwyer was mayor . . . he knew the city and how it works to a “T.” He knew the first name of the guy you had to call to get a pothole filled on a particular block out in Brooklyn. . . . Wagner always knew the clubhouse pol or the power broker . . . who was responsible for getting that pothole filler his job in the first place. But Lindsay—he only knew his own assistant. And his assistant—he only knew Lindsay. And nobody knew the pothole filler or how to reach him.

In 1944, my parents decided to make a momentous move: they would leave the large apartment that we shared with my grandparents and aunts and uncles. For the first time, they would have a place of their own. They would move . . . around the corner and halfway down the block. We were now on Potomac Avenue. The next year, we would make the next audacious move, one block farther down the same street, where we’d stay for a dozen years. And that is when I encountered Lennie Kaplan. He would rise to become a preeminent figure in leading accounting firms, and he would finish his career as the CFO and executive vice president of the Delta General Agency in Houston. He was notably less established on the day I met him—we were both five years old. From then on, into our teenage years, he was a presence I could count on as we moved together in that vast, familiar terrain set before us in the neighborhood of Humboldt Park.

The terrain was familiar, as I say, because my parents had grown up on these same streets. My aunts and uncles had gone to my grammar school, the James Russell Lowell School, and every day on the street they met people they had known since childhood. In those years, when our ages were still in single digits, a world quite as large as we had the time or the wit to manage was amply contained in that perimeter marked off by the Grand Theater on North Avenue and Iskowitz’s Delicatessen on Division Street. Still, we apparently felt the need, by age eight, to go on an adventure to a larger, more exotic world—which is to say, downtown Chicago. We each took about 12 cents for carfare on the bus and El, round-trip, and we packed lunches in paper bags. We would stop at a Walgreen’s later and order water to go with our sandwiches. And the fellow behind the counter would happily supply two kids with cups, as though there was nothing out of line. He, too, was one of those catchers in the rye, willing to look out for a few kids out on their own, downtown.

Looking back now, the reflexes of our parents seem almost impossible to fathom. How could they have permitted Lennie and me, at such a tender age, to leave Humboldt Park and make our way downtown? As city-bred kids, we had a keen sense of the neighborhoods that were “rough” or even a bit dangerous. Evidently, our parents didn’t consider downtown Chicago to be dangerous, in part because it seemed so strikingly a civitas—a place where people came to learn the lessons of civility. At the same time, my future wife, the young Judy Sonn, all of eight years old herself, was traveling downtown alone to her ballet lessons on Michigan Avenue at the Fine Arts Building.

The boathouse in Humboldt Park (ALEX GARCIA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT VIA GETTY IMAGES)

In retrospect, the confidence of our parents might seem staggering, but their judgment was not at all eccentric at the time. For they did think that we were going abroad into a civic order, with grownups around. Of course, this was long before the Supreme Court concluded that it was altogether illiberal, inconsistent with the First Amendment, to expect people to restrain themselves, in their expression and demeanor, out of respect for the sensibilities of others in a public place. Justice Harlan, in Cohen v. California (1971), offered the aphorism that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” With his legal learning, he thought that there was “no readily ascertainable general principle” by which one could distinguish the language that is assaulting and vulgar from the language that is innocent or inoffensive. He reduced verbal assaults and public vulgarity to matters essentially of “taste,” with no standard that could form the ground of any moral discriminations. And so, as he said, “the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.” Which is to say, the decision on what is legitimate to say in public would rest in the hands of each of us. The upshot was that those who are offended should simply avert their eyes or ears, cultivate tougher skin, or forgo the public life of being abroad in the city. The urbanists will spin out theories that encourage people to leave their private cars in favor of public transportation—to choose, at every turn, the arrangements in which strangers encounter one another in public spaces, whether in parks or benches or subways. But at the same time, the courts, for the past 40 years, have removed the moral framework that supported the civility of those encounters with strangers in public spaces.

We had been downtown, of course, with our parents, to the museums and theaters. With the city’s grander buildings and its elegant department stores, with its air of things moving to a higher pitch of importance, it was evident even—or especially—to a child that this was life in a different register. Years later, when our vocabularies caught up with our memories, it became clear that our parents had really been showing us that we had been born, as citizens, into a formidable city. Walking up the grand staircase at the Chicago Theater, I imagined that I was attending a diplomatic reception of the kind I had seen on screen. And here, as Carroll William Westfall has taught us, architecture was doing the civic work of the city: it was making manifest in those built structures what was higher and lower in life. In that “natural” sense of things, even an illiterate peasant could tell the difference between a hovel and a palace. Indeed, he had to be able to grasp that difference so that a palace or a court of justice could evoke its proper awe. The grammar of architecture builds on that natural understanding—it uses columns, architraves, and cornices to mark off a building with higher dignity, directed to a civic purpose, as distinct from commercial buildings, with their own gradations of higher and lower ends. As the saying went, the man from Mars, landing in Athens, could tell the difference between the Parthenon and a hotdog stand. But that was before the advent of modernism, after which the architects may no longer think it especially important to make that difference clear—perhaps because they are no longer as confident that there is a moral order that makes some ends higher than others. As Westfall has put it, “a bicycle shed that pretends to be a cathedral or a courthouse can no more be beautiful than can a cathedral or a courthouse that looks like a bicycle shed.” In any case, a great city had been set before us, and drawing on that natural understanding, we could read the lessons that the city was teaching.

Even back in the neighborhood, the boathouse in Humboldt Park shaped our sense of what we expected public buildings to look like. That charming boathouse, I discovered in later years, was built by Schmidt, Garden and Martin, the same firm that designed the Montgomery Ward warehouse and other important city buildings, both commercial and civic. We were never aware of being instructed in the rudiments of architecture, and yet we could spot at once a tacky building; it seems clear now that our sense of things had been formed through the simple device of placing before us the examples of buildings artfully done, with an unpretentious grace. And that kind of grace would be shown to us, in the design even of our public schools.

That boathouse formed the backdrop of our lives in all seasons. My father courted my mother by taking her rowing on the lagoon. In winters, when the lagoon froze, there would be skating. And in the summer evenings, the benches would be filled with grandparents, with meetings of the Workmen’s Circle, or with people reading the Yiddish papers. There was an ongoing buzz of conversation, with children dashing about. It was altogether a subdued, joyous tumult.

We saw the boathouse again in the 1990s on a summer’s day, and it looked more than abandoned. It seemed to sit with a strange quietness, for there was no one about, no conversations, no children’s voices. The benches had been taken out, the bank of the lagoon had been fitted up as an artificial beach, and the lovely brick of the boathouse had been stuccoed over with a yellow pastel, to suggest a more tropical or Spanish setting. The gardens, where lovers walked, had fallen into neglect. The thick bushes and foliage at the entrance to the park on Kedzie Avenue had all been leveled. Too many rapes and assaults; without the bushes, the police could take in the scene with a sweep of surveillance. When my wife told my sister that we had gone to the old boathouse, she admonished us never to do that again: there had been too many drive-by shootings, even of strangers.

A great city had been set before us, and we could read the lessons that the city was teaching.

Somewhat later, we were in the garden of friends in a gentrified section of Lakeview, on the Near North Side, and I wondered aloud: Why couldn’t Humboldt Park come back in the same way that Lakeview has? The handsome apartment buildings adjoining the park could be built anew, the park could be planted again. The money could be found; it was all within reach. And, in fact, the late news was that a local firm had undertaken the work of restoring the lovely old boathouse, and a new café has opened there. The hope is to draw weddings and other celebrations and stir a new vibrancy in this center, for a community much altered since so much swirled around that site. But my wife quickly put things back in scale: “That may all be quite promising,” she said, “but even if the neighborhood came back, it wouldn’t have 1940s people in it.” And she was right, of course. The catchers in the rye would be gone, along with the kibitzers, the con men, and the pious, none of them swollen with the freight of their rights. To take a line from Henry James, they had as many rights as they had time for.

Nineteen-forties people: I’ve had to spend time on the road quite often in driving between Amherst, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., and I’ve had the hours melt away as I’ve listened to recordings of the radio comedies that I grew up on. When we hear the laugh lines, we get a precise, reliable indicator of what the American people, in those years, understood about natural law. There was the classic scene of a mugger confronting Jack Benny: “Your money or your life!” After a long silence, Benny says, “I’m thinking it over!” The laugh showed that the audience “got” the point: that life was more important than property. But one program of Jack Benny’s, in September 1949, rather confirmed, in seconds, the dumbing down that has taken place in the public since that time. Rochester, the gravel-voiced butler, asks Jack if he can get his paycheck, for he wants to go out that night. Jack says, Sure, I have an envelope for you. Rochester opens it, sees the check, and asks, “How come this week in [English] pounds, Boss?” The audience instantly goes “oooh,” along with a big laugh. What was it? There was a Labour government in Britain at that time; Stafford Cripps was Chancellor of the Exchequer—might there have been a devaluation of the currency? Five minutes later, Don Wilson, the announcer, joined the scene and reported: “Good news: I’ve got my weight down to 165.” “How did you do that?” Jack asked. “Used an English scale,” said Don, “and cut the pounds in half.”

I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking that the late-night comedians these days could not readily do jokes on devaluations overseas. What has happened? Are we less urbane as a people? One friend suggests that the shift could be explained in this way: that in the 1940s, we were a people who took in news by the word, whether printed or audible, on radio; but today, a generation has sprung up responding more often to the movement of visuals on a screen. Whatever the cause, we have reached the point, now well documented, when a substantial portion of college students don’t know when the Civil War was fought or whose side we were on in World War II.

My dear wife, who died a little over a year ago, had her office in the George Washington University in Washington, and she remarked one day to a young woman, a recent graduate, that she had been in the Battle of Britain “in utero.” Her parents had fled Vienna, they had been interned for a while in England, and then they made their way across the North Atlantic in a perilous trip, with Judy finally born in the Bronx in March 1941. The young woman asked, “What was the Battle of Britain?” Judy was a bit taken aback. And so she explained, “That’s when Germany was bombing England.” Which moved the young woman, the recent graduate, to ask, “Why were they doing that?”

Judy, who had sprung from a Viennese family, not—shall we say—as emotionally expressive as mine, thought for a long while that I looked back on these scenes from the past through rosy lenses. She found it hard to believe that families were as warm and large-natured as the family described in my memories. But then we heard the story of my Uncle Willy and Aunt Ida. They were married in 1937 but couldn’t afford a honeymoon. They took up residence in their married life by occupying a bedroom in my grandparents’ apartment. It was only six months later that they were able to afford to get away for a honeymoon. They had the loan of a car and the use of a cabin in exotic Aurora, Illinois. And so they set out one day for the first moments truly alone in their married lives, to have a week to themselves. Two days later, they came back. They were missing my Aunt Bea, then 13. And so, with Bea safely tucked in the car, they went back to resume their honeymoon.

Were we really once that kind of people? I’ve heard the question asked earnestly when people recall Singin’ in the Rain: Were we really the kind of people who danced on tabletops? And let eight-year-old kids venture into the city on their own? Yes, we were, and yes again, those people of the 1940s are mainly gone now. Gone, too, are the laws, and the ethic, that sustained them.

Top Photo: Chicago in 1946, when a boy could ride the subway by himself without terrifying his parents (UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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