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60 Years of West Side History

Karl Brinson is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s west side. His family moved to the Austin area near Columbus Park in the late 1960’s when he was 11 years old, and the area was still overwhelmingly white. Racial tensions were high as more blacks began to move into what had historically been white areas. “We were the 2nd black family on the block when we moved to the 5100 block of West Quincy in 1967.”

A Time of Tension

He grew up in an era where the neighborhood park, Columbus Park, was not a safe place to go because of white mobs who would terrorize blacks. The few blacks who did live in the area were far outnumbered and were often targeted or bullied. “When we went to Columbus Park, we didn’t go individually we went as a group for protection for security and safety. They had a place up there in Columbus Park called ‘devil’s path’ and it used to be a little area where you would ride your bike through… and white guys would jump out of the bushes on you plus they would just bum rush you if you went up to Columbus if you were by yourself and wasn’t grouped up well.”

White Flight As the number of blacks settling in the area steadily increased, the harassment from whites decreased as white flight became the new strategy. Fearing the oncoming wave of black residents, what seemed like entire white communities began moving to the newly developing suburbs. “It was very interesting times back then people don’t understand how… it changed so rapidly. You always hear the phrase white flight but it’s one thing to live white flight. By us being that second [black] house on the block we didn’t even see the people when they were moving out, I’m being candid with you, the next time you wake up they gone. You wouldn’t see them packing up having a party saying hey we’re moving out because you probably wasn’t that neighborly with each other.”

The Plantation Wards During the mid 1970’s the demographic makeup of Austin had clearly changed. By 1980’s it was nearly 75% African-American with black elected officials representing the area, although they were still not in control of the politics in the area. Mr. Brinson added, “They always called the west side of Chicago the plantation wards because even though you had black faces it was

always still ran by whites, the Jews and the Irish were still running the west side of Chicago.”Mr. Brinson grew up in the 29th ward and became active in local politics as a teenager. “I watched it how it changed and who was in control of the politics back then. Our Alderman was Leroy Cross and our Ward Committeeman was Willie Flowers both of them were black, but the person who had the political power was Bernie Neinstein, a white Jewish guy. Neinstein ran the ward, he told them what to do, he was one that got you the jobs.

The Patronage System At that time if you wanted to get a city job, a county job, a government job you had to get a letter from your committeeman because that was a part of the patronage system, that was a part of the democratic party.” It is what helped make Chicago such a powerful city in terms of labor and industry because of the power and influence it had on jobs and putting people to work. “When you went to get that letter, it did not come from Willie Flowers it came from Bernie Neinstein. He [Flowers] was just a figureheadbecause the demographic population had changed so you had to put a black face in place to influence the election turnout.”

Today’s Disconnect Despite the fact that the last two Mayors of the City of Chicago have been Black, Mr. Brinson feels the current political landscape presents challenges. “When you talk about how much haschanged, not too much has changed, and it’s probably even gotten worse because most of our folks don’t even know their history. They think that what they’re doing now is something new and they don’t know what it looked like before, so they havenothing to base success off of, especially when it comes to politics on the west side of Chicago. You’re talking about whole generations; most people don’t know the difference between a regular Democratic party member and the independent democratic party.

He explained the difference.

“When I joined the independent movement, I didn’t get paid a dime to work them polls and go ring doorbells. 

I was fighting against something. I wanted to change the system and break the machine and try to change the way they did business in Chicago.I did it because I believed in something, I wasn’t promised something, I was just trying to change something. Whereas when you with the machine you’re looking for promotions, you looking for jobs you’re looking for job security you’re looking for…just having access to the perks that came with being a part of the Democratic party."

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