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Guest post: The 52nd St. Divide

Larry Baas of Valparaiso University and local Valparaiso radio station WVLP shares reflections about his childhood home, Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Petrifying Springs Park in Kenosha, Wisconsin, further north from the setting of today's guest post from Larry Baas, PhD.

Editor’s note: I hope to host guest blogs from a number of people from Backwater areas as we move forward. I am humbled and grateful to present you with the first guest post this week, from Larry Baas, PhD., former Chair of the Political Science Department at Valparaiso University. He shares reflections on his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. When I asked Larry if I could share this piece on my blog, he was willing, and also told me that this is a very personal reflection for him; I believe that many of us are undergoing very personal reflections as we white people take in our hometowns and home country with new eyes lately. I am grateful that Larry has shared his reflections, and I challenge myself and you, dear reader, to look around your town for the visible and invisible lines that might exist where you live.

On to Larry’s thoughts:

Notes on Kenosha: I write this as part of an ongoing reflection on my personal role in the current racial situation in this country. It is a continuing struggle for me for self-awareness of my status as a privileged white male. It was originally read as an editorial on WVLP.LP (Valparaiso, Indiana, local radio station) on the ABC at Noon program on August 3,2020. These are the conditions that I remember as I reflect back after almost 60 years.

I’m from Kenosha, Wisconsin. It’s my hometown, and I still consider it home despite my 40+ years in Indiana. I was born there. I went to school there and much of my family still lives there. Someone once said, you could take Baas out of Kenosha, but you couldn’t take Kenosha out of Baas. I took that as a compliment.

I spent my entire Kenosha life living in a several block area on the west side of town. Starting in the mid 1940’s we lived on 33rd avenue, then on 32nd avenue – where my dad was born, and finally beginning in the early 1950’s we bought our first house on 31st avenue, almost 2 blocks south from where I was born. These locations would generously be called part of a working-class neighborhood. My mother’s parents lived on 37th avenue in a somewhat “better” part of the neighborhood, but we were all west siders at heart.

Google Maps aerial photo of the area discussed here: you can see the large space dedicated to auto production, stretching from 60th street on the south end to 52nd street on the north. 31st Avenue can be seen to the left of this. North of 52nd is the now empty lot that was Bonnie Hame (it stretches further to the north). The elementary and Jr. high schools referred to (below) can be seen where the tag for KTEC West is located).

Our house on 31st was just west of a factory that was variously called Nash motors, Nash Kelvinator, and when I left it was American Motors (AMC). Since that time, it has been bought out or merged with Chrysler and is now all but defunct except the last time I looked, which was some time ago, they were still making jeep engines across the street from our house. The consequence of living on 31st avenue and 56th street, was when I looked out the back window of our house, I saw the parking lot for AMC employees and then the AMC plant which I was told as a child was the largest plant under one roof in the world, and I believed that. The plant extended from 60th street 8 blocks north to 52nd street. It didn’t stop there. An over-the-road walkway led to a much “newer building” which we referred to as the “aircraft building” because they built aircraft engines there during the Korean war. That building went on for several more blocks.

Directly west of the aircraft building and north of 52 street -- and another impact of war-- was Bonnie Hame. These buildings were constructed primarily to house migrants from the South who came to work in the factories and support the war effort. Bonnie Hame consisted of rows of green apartments -- variously called barracks and shacks by the locals – and looked like what you would expect to find on a military base with rows of buildings going on for several blocks along 30th avenue, and then west for a few blocks along 52nd street. The residents of these buildings were largely “colored people” which is what African Americans were called back then by folks in the neighborhood. To the best of my memory now – which I was unaware at the time, there were no people of color living south of 52nd street towards our house – or in other words – none lived in our neighborhood. I once recall a conversation between neighbors saying they just would never sell their houses because you never know who might buy it. They wouldn’t do that to the neighbors. I didn’t understand what that was all about then -- but we all certainly do now.

I never thought much of this when I was growing up that just four blocks north of our house – that is, north of 52nd street — were the largest contingent of people of color in the city and they lived in what people in our neighborhood considered places they wouldn’t be caught dead in.

When I went to school, my elementary school and Jr. high school were connected and ran along 32nd avenue from 54th street -- note two blocks south of 52nd street -- to 57th street. I should have noticed something – and probably did at one level -- because during elementary school I can remember only one person of color and I can’t remember what ever happened to her. In Jr. high kids where drawn from a larger geographic area, I recall three students of color. I knew all three because we played sports together. Except for one, who became the starting guard on the high school basketball team, after Jr. high I don’t ever recall seeing the other two again. Apparently, school districts were very cognizant of the 52nd street line and there was only minimal leakage across that line.

So right before my eyes there existed a line – invisible to me at the time – that kept people of color in their place. Here we were. We needed help and we called on people of color to come north and help us with the war effort and work in our factories, only to treat them at best, as second-class citizens, giving them marginal housing and keeping them corralled in their defined territory. As time went by and Bonnie Hame was torn down, when I occasionally came back to the neighborhood, I noticed that people of color stayed in and around that area. None, --the best that I could tell -- seemed to have crossed into our neighborhood. Other areas of black concentration also emerged. The story was they liked to stay together, but the reality was there existed similar invisible lines -- and often very visible lines – that continued to discriminate around housing, jobs, education, access to finances, and the list goes on.

This story is familiar probably to most and has repeated itself over and over again in city after city. These are the situations that continue to affect generations of persons who bear the brunt of these conditions. Invisible people behind invisible lines. And what do we expect the inevitable consequences of this “long train of abuses” to be? After years of segregation and discrimination like this, how long can we expect nothing to happen? To use Oliver Wendall Holmes’ famous metaphor, at what point would we expect a little breath to come along that would be enough to kindle a fire? In the case of Kenosha, the killing of Jacob Blake was that breath.

Don’t get me wrong, I grieve for what happened to my home in the aftermath of that killing. As I looked through the images of damages, I saw places I had regularly frequented, business that were now owned by the children of people I went to school with, and most hard to accept was the burning down of the Danish Brotherhood Hall, a place my grandparents were instrumental in founding and supporting and where we had many weddings and parties and many fond memories. I not only grieve but am angry for these losses.

Yet the prevention of these tragedies was in our hands. We created these invisible and visible barriers that led to what should have been seen as intolerable conditions.

The solutions were also in our hands. We had the opportunities and resources to do something, but in most situations, we responded with patronizing rhetoric and laws that while often well-intentioned were unevenly applied or have been partially nullified.

The response from many now is to respond with law and order, rather than a focus on the environments that breed these incidents. No one is against law and order. But to frame this solely as a law and order issue is to ignore the history of Kenosha and other cities like it across the country -- and to ignore our responsibility for creating the intolerable conditions that preceded this violence.

It is also to fail to recognize our responsibility for helping to solve these problems and create a more equitable society for all. And, in addition, to fail to recognize that we do have the resources to deal with these issues.

To continue to treat this solely as a law and order issue is to admit we learn nothing from history and to set the stage for the next violent confrontation.

I learned from my experience at Kent State, and we have all learned from watching the murder of black persons -- that they will shoot you. And someday people will shoot back and where will we be then? Better to try to focus on a better life for all and to dismantle lines, both visible and invisible.

Larry Bass earned his PhD at Kent State University, and taught there for three years before arriving at Valparaiso University in 1974, where he is currently Senior Research Professor in the Political Science Department. Professor Baas is the Director of the Community Research and Service Center at Valparaiso University, and co-hosts two shows on the Valparaiso local radio station, WVLP (Conversations, and a new show called ABC at Noon).

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