Tuesday, February 14, 2006

6. Division Street: America

by Studs Terkel

Being something of a sociology geek (okay, major…I’m a sociology major) and being a self-proclaimed Chicagoan, you’d think I’d have read loads of Studs Terkel by now. Nope. I’ve owned Division Street: America for some time, but it wasn’t until we selected it for the Gapers Block Book Club that I finally sat down and read it. And my opinion on it? Well…

Here’s the thing. The entire book is a collection of interviews Terkel did with a number of Chicago residents. It’s a pretty ambitious project and I can only imagine how many reels of untranscribed tape didn’t make it into the book. Division Street stands as a benchmark of oral history, putting forth the belief that you can learn a lot about a society by listening to the people who live in it. It’s simple, without prejudice or interpretation, and successfully captures the voice of a diverse community in its place and time. “It is simply the adventure of one man, equipped with a tape-recorder and badgered by the imp of curiosity, making unaccustomed rounds for a years, trying to search out the thoughts of noncelebrated people.” And there’s some really surprising and telling information contained in this adventure, too.

Maybe I’m remiss on my Chicago history, but I never realized that the Jane Addams Hull House was torn down to make UIC. That was a surprise to me. Terkel begins and ends his book with interviews from influential Hull House figures, framing the contents of the book with an event that created significant social, racial, and neighborhood unrest. It was sad to read how these women fought to keep the house alive, but ultimately failed. In fact, one of the most shocking elements of the book was reading about all the racism that was prevalent then…and realizing that there are still people who think that way. Racism is no longer taboo and we see it on TV and nominate movies like Crash for awards, but in the end they’re just stories. Reading these words, actually spoken by people, was more shocking and powerful than I expected. It felt that much more real. Even though I know I’ve been the subject of racist comments myself, it’s always been more along the lines of stupid ignorance. I read things like, “The colored don’t worry me…I’ve heard tell of one colored family moved on this block. It doesn’t both me as long as they stay on their side of the street and I stay on my side of the street,” and “I have seen Negroes cry…I know they have feelings. I know that they love just as deeply as we love, if not more so.” And it hurt to know this wasn’t fiction.

It was amazing to see the range of people Terkel included in his interviews. Although the races aren’t too widely varied – there are few Hispanics or Asians, if any – we do get a nice mix of ages, economic status, and mindset. Where a young woman discloses her apathy with the world in the beginning, we near the end of the book with an interview of a woman of the same age who teaches in an integrated school and really believes in the value of he work. We have worldly travelers and people who have lived in the city their entire lives and have never seen Marshall Field’s. Stay at home mothers, working women, bar owners, celebrities…it’s as close as you could come to a cross-section of the city in a single book.

But here’s the thing. I really wish – and I really wish that sociological lightning does not come down and strike me as I state my wish – that Terkel had drawn some kind of conclusions in the end. I think the work he did is amazing and it stands as the first great oral history project and maybe the point is for the author to distance himself from his subject and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the first person narratives, but I really would have liked to know what Terkel thought of all that he collected. While I can’t help but think how great it is that things have progressed as far as they have, but how sad it is that these sentiments we think of as outdated still exist in society, what did Terkel think? Maybe he put some of that in his other books. That’s something I’ll have to find out.

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