It was like finding the key to an encrypted message from the distant past. While cleaning out their parents' attic following their deaths, Linda Gartz and her brothers, Paul and Billy, came across what she describes as "gold"—box after box of journals, cards, and letters exchanged between their mother and father for more than 20 years.
"For decades," Gartz writes, "I had puzzled over what had caused the demise of my parents' marriage—Mom's recriminations against Dad, followed by his wounded retreat, their rift reducing me to tears. And what of the downfall of our community, where Dad's parents lived for half a century, raised three sons, and bought property, the apogee of the American dream?" Those boxes in the attic helped answer those questions and many more.
In Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago, Linda Gartz takes on the ambitious task of analyzing a city's social upheaval through the lens of her family's own turmoil. She succeeds, for the most part, though at times it's hard to identify the focus of the book.
Redlining, as Gartz explains, is a catch-22. It stemmed from the federal government's practice, begun in the 1930s, of ranking communities from A (green) to D (red) according to their creditworthiness. If a neighborhood had African American residents, regardless of their number, it was automatically marked red, or "redlined," meaning it was likely to decline. And because homeowners in these redlined areas were unable to get loans to improve their properties, the practice was in effect a self-fulfilling prophesy: once redlined, a neighborhood couldn't help but decline.
The child of immigrants who saw property ownership as the path to economic security, Fred Gartz and his wife, Lil, followed his parents' example, investing first in a modest "two-flat," a signature Chicago style apartment. Typically, owners would live on one floor and rent out the other, using the profit to defray the mortgage. But the Gartz family took that model a step further, not only renting out the first floor, but also allowing the three current tenants living on the second floor to remain. "It never occurred to me that it was odd," Lil Gartz wrote in her journal.
Gartz, on the other hand, found the situation more than a little odd. "The arrangement bemused me," she writes. "[M]y parents, newborn me, three-year old Paul, and off-balance Grandma K would share the intimacies of their already-complicated family life with three people they had never met before." Grandma K—short for Koroschetz—was Lil Gartz's mother, a woman whose presence in the household would become a wedge between Lil and Fred. Plagued by paranoid delusions, Grandma K had moved in with her daughter when she could no longer live alone.
Calling the Gartz family life "complicated" is an understatement indeed. After losing what had seemed like a secure position with Hotpoint, Fred Gartz took a job as a traveling fire inspector. Because his work took him away from home for weeks at a time, Lil was forced to assume even more responsibility at home—caring for the kids and her mentally ill mother, managing the family's finances, overseeing renovations on the two-flat, dealing with the tenants. Her resentment grew.
This situation epitomized the relationship between Lil and Fred Gartz—a good-natured but passive husband who preferred to avoid conflict, and an exceptionally capable wife who accepted challenges with a mixture of anger and guilt. Such was the milieu in which Linda Gartz and her brothers grew up.
It would be hard for a reader to miss the sense of emotional and physical claustrophobia that Gartz's narrative engenders. Add the racial turmoil of the time, and what results is an account that is both instructive and troubling.
More than memoir, Redlined is also a chronicle of evolving attitudes about race. Gartz writes, "With the civil rights movement as backdrop and a crumbling marriage in the foreground, this story tries to make sense of the racial transformation of our Chicago West Side community and its impact on our family dynamic, also formed by love, loss, madness, race, rage, and, ultimately, forgiveness."
Having acquired other properties in their neighborhood, the Gartz family stood firm while others fled from the influx of African Americans. Lil Gartz, in particular, had always assumed the best of her tenants, regardless of color, and treated them with respect; in turn, she expected they would respect her property and take good care of it. Her attitude was definitely not the norm.
Not surprisingly, there is no happy ending in Redlined, at least not where race relations are concerned. There is, however, a reconciliation of sorts in the family, the sense of a hard-won peace. That, it seems, should be the focus of the book; redlining is part of the story, but as Gartz herself points out, it's "backdrop," not the main event. If there's any fault in Redlined, it's that Gartz's compelling story isn't foregrounded enough. She did, indeed, find "gold" in her parents' attic, and that gold deserves to shine brighter.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Linda Gartz is an author, television documentary producer, and curator of the Gartz Family Papers, an extensive collection of letters, diaries, photos, and much more spanning the twentieth century. Born and raised on Chicago's West Side, she studied at both Northwestern University and the University of Munich. Her work has been honored with Emmys and numerous festival awards.
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