An Unlikely Neighbor
Mrs. Farley lived in a neatly kept frame two-flat in the middle of our block on Maplewood Avenue. I remember it was a blue-grey color with white trim. The top floor had a porch. It was a tidy two-flat and I believe I remember a garden. Many of us had gardens in our Chicago city urban neighborhood. Most families grew vegetables. Some had beautiful, immaculately maintained flower gardens. Most of us had 25 foot lots — a small yard in front and a bigger yard in the back. If there was an empty lot with no house built on it, we would refer to it as a prairie.
The neighborhood kids would run around and play in the unkempt prairies. Mrs. Farley was like every other old lady on the block. She wore a house dress and a hair net and had an old lady shopping cart trailing behind her as she walked down the very long city block of Maplewood. Maplewood was an odd block as it was nearly two blocks long from corner to corner. Mrs. Farley lived right in the middle.
The odd thing about Mrs. Farley was she was the only Black person in Brighton Park in the 1970s. She rented to a single Black woman upstairs. A woman I knew was a nurse. I would see the nurse walking the very long block home in her white nurse's uniform and her flat rubber-soled sensible shoes. I never spoke to her and didn't know how I knew she was a nurse. Mrs. Farley's niece and nephew would come to visit. It was then the neighborhood kids went to play with Marcus and Marla. Marcus and Marla were teenagers and I was less than ten. I don't know how I knew they were coming. The kids would run up and down the block, excited when they arrived. They were new kids to play with, and they were teenagers! One day Marla showed up with a newborn. I don't even remember her being pregnant or if I had a concept of what it was to be pregnant. I just remember one day we saw Marcus, Marla and the baby, a welcome new playmate. We squealed with laughter as we passed him around, a baby boy of about six months, and played with the curly hair sprouting from his head.
Mrs. Farley would sit on the porch chatting with the other old ladies. They would watch their properties and make sure we didn't run on their lawns. We would be yelled at fiercely if we did. Keeping an immaculate house was a source of pride in our working-class neighborhood. The Polish ladies would scrub their sidewalks on their hands and knees with steel brushes, many times just wearing a bra and a skirt. We never asked them about it, although we thought it was peculiar. If anyone mentioned it, we were told, "it's hot out and it's just like a bathing suit." The men were often shirtless or wearing a white tank T-shirt while they worked. That never seemed strange. I grew to accept it.
The 70s was a time where racial equity was talked about often. Black TV shows and commercials were touting Black is Beautiful. There were dialogue and debate about how Black people should be addressed. Negro? Black? Colored? African American? One day the old ladies sitting on the porch chatting just asked Mrs. Farley straight out. "What would you like to be called?" We never, ever discussed Mrs. Farley's race. Although she was an oddity living in a White community. It was just there, neither good nor bad. It just was. Perhaps the message of the day brought about the conversation. Mrs. Farley seemed to be pleased. I remember the soft smile on her face as she responded, "I'd like to be called Black."
The other old ladies giggled with relief as they all agreed Black would be the term if there was ever a reason to describe Mrs. Farley's race. As she left the afternoon chat I remember my friend's grandmother in her house dress and hair net chuckling at her bravery in asking the question. "Hey" she proclaimed, "when I want to know something I just ask." This grandmother was kind of rogue. She would let us have a sip of a whiskey drink, eat candy and read steamy romance novels to 'teach us about life". She was fun to be around.
In the 90s now I was a teenager. I was struck by the unusualness of this Black woman living west of Western Avenue in Chicago where no other Black people lived. Unfortunately, I would hear about the line. Halsted was once the line but as I grew up. Western was the line. We were three blocks west of Western. While Bridgeport, the neighborhood we originated from, was an enclave east of Halsted. Bridgeport was a world within itself. Italians, Irish and Lithuanians lived there and in certain sections. Bridgeport was insular. I left when I was three and still remember the community and culture of living there.
I remember moving to our 3-flat frame house in Brighton Park with a lot next door with nine trees. I remember being in a station wagon watching a ketchup bottle bounce, not knowing we were moving but feeling a sense of excitement. I remember we would live on the first floor, not a three-floor walk-up. I remember my mother had big dreams for this house but my father wouldn't have any of it. He pronounced the house would stay the way it was and there would be no changes or upgrades. We lived very simply, not in a tidy house like Mrs. Farley.
In the 90s, I asked my Mom if anyone mentioned an unlikely Black woman who lived in the middle of the block. She said they did. She said that the neighbors remarked that Mrs. Farley was a nice woman and a nurse lived upstairs. My mother said she figured it would be okay because she was nice and she was a woman. My mother would always seek the other mothers and women in the community for solidarity. It was likely a reprieve against their husbands who would make proclamations like 'this house will stay the way it is,' and it just did.
One day the old ladies on the porch asked Mrs. Farley why she lived on our block. Mrs. Farley explained she was one of first residents on Maplewood Avenue, back when the block was all prairie. She replied "I didn't know all White people were going to move in.”
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Alicia Dale is a strategic thinking Creative that understands the power of words to influence, change and build new infrastructures. This Blog is to capture ideas that have no where else to go at this very moment. Who knows how they will be developed? Or where they will go? For now they are sparkles of light easily stored where I can search and find them when they call my name again.