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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meet the Immigrant Neighbors Circa '50s

I was raised with immigrants, first, second and third generations in Chicago in the mid-50s.

They were many shades of white: German, Polish, Irish, Swedish, Italian, Jewish, and Greek. Our parents spoke more than one language; but as their children, we were Americans and English was our common language with each other.

There was Johnny whose living room displayed a treasured Lionel train set and whose Irish Catholic mother cooked cabbage we could smell a block before we got home from school to the three-story apartment building with an alley on the side where we played “kick the can” and threw balls against the brick wall.

The alley between the two old apartment buildings was where deliveries were made by the ice man (a block of ice placed in a refrigerator box to keep food fresh for a couple days); the Fuller Brush man selling hardware goods door to door; and the fascinating “ragman,” a tinker with a cart of bartered trinkets, pots and pans, a mobile tradesman who carried everything from thread to bracelets, whatever he picked up along the way.

Carol of Swedish descent lived in the apartment above ours. Her mother was a maid and brought home clothing discards from the affluent family she cleaned for. The oversized dresses became great make-believe garments for Carol and me to play “grown-up” ladies as we giggled at how we looked in them. Her mom made great Swedish meatballs.

In the apartment across from Carol lived Sandy, an aloof, beautiful German blonde girl whose dad loved watching wrestling on TV while drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Sometimes I would sit in their living room and watch along with them though I knew nothing about professional wrestling.

Allan who lived in the apartment beneath us kept to himself. People whispered that he was adopted but never spoke of it in front of him as if it were something shameful to not know who you came from.

Ronald, one of the Polish kids, was the leader of the rest of us. He was mean and often caused trouble. He intimidated the others and used the basement “catacombs” as the hideout for his followers.

From the back of the apartments we could see a house’s yard with grass and trees. It was Nancy’s house. I thought she was rich because she lived in a house and had her own bedroom. I always felt like she was “looking down” on the children who lived in the apartments. We played together for awhile but ultimately went our separate ways after an argument about the famous cowboy star of the time, Roy Rogers.

The neighborhood started to shift as a new ethnic group moved in, and everything changed. The new neighbor Belinda was a mulatto, a colored girl with braided pigtails all over her head. Much to my mother’s chagrin, we played together.

Cadillacs replaced Chevies in front of the apartments, and the cooking smells were from foreign southern foods (collards and gizzards).

The white immigrants quickly sought other residences and fled to new suburbs in homes funded by GI bills from soldiers like my dad who served in WWII.

Though our parents told us not to play with the Wops, Polacks, Potato Heads, and worse ethnic slurs, we were children and we only had each other, so we ignored our parents’ prejudices and made the best of living in a true “melting” pot of mid-century Americans.

Looking back it was a rich experience about diversity, food, culture, language; and I appreciate having lived it and how it shaped my acceptance of what we now label cultural diversity.

Today I marvel at diversity again in my college classes of minorities, some becoming a majority, including Hispanics, Native Americans, African Americans, Middle Easterners, and fewer Caucasians than before.

Once again I see the fear of the people who migrated ahead of them and the struggles for the new Americans to win their place and make better lives for their families as the immigrants of Chicago did so many years ago.

The cycle repeats itself.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

See more "Growing Up in Chicago" posts in "Erana's stories."

Chicago sign photo by Nick Pepito
Cadillac photo by Andrew Beierle


  1. Erana, I also grew up in & still have lived in the Chicago area more then I've lived away...but it's getting closer! =D I think the diversity of people I met because of living in the Chicago area helped me to be more open in my life & not judge people by what they "look" like. Thanks for sharing.



  2. Yes, I feel fortunate to have had that rich experience of many nationalities living there. As a child, I didn't know how special that was.

  3. Erana, would you consider submitting this to the Raleigh News & Observer Point of View of View Column,
    Wake County NC has an diversity policy that other states want to emulate. However, recently three new board members who were voted onto the board by 4% of the county voters, have pushed to end the policy. The change is going to happen, still readers need to here the need for diversity.
    I'll step down off my soapbox now. I love you post. Keep writing.

  4. I'm flattered, Sharon. I'm not sure they would listen to an outsider.

    Though I grew up with prejudice, I chose not to raise my children that way. It took another generation and moving away to make that possible. My view is not's a cultural reflection.

  5. I guess that's exactly prejudices that make conflicts happen. Everyone needs to prove they are better than anyone else. And then we forget that in the end we all are human and that the only thing that should bother us is whether or not we are acting like humans are supposed to.

  6. Erana- growing up in the deep south in the 50' and 60's I was a part of a cultural conflict that to this day I still don't understand. I remember my grandfather lifting me up by the scruff of my neck because I was drinking from the "wrong" water fountain. The same man who shared his clothes and money and southern liquor with 'those' who had to drink from the other water fountain. Humans are odd ducks. Thankfully we have lights like yours to help us see through the dark.

  7. Thank you, Beth. The "contradictions" seem to be part of being human no matter when we experienced them. Thanks for sharing your experience.