Judith Cosin Roothaan

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Speaking with Mrs. Roothaan was incredibly informative and really fun (too much fun?). While I obviously had an agenda of things I wanted to talk about, as many of us have learned, the interview began to lead its own path. I mentioned urban renewal, and immediately we began a conversation that would last three and a half hours (though, at one point we phased out of interview mode). As someone with a background in sociology (She arrived at the International House on New Years Day from New York City in 1947 for a masters degree), she was eager to discuss the changes in Hyde Park and the South Side from a lived critical experience (She said her hindsight allows her to get a better grasp of what was actually going on.) She didn't take a stance on urban renewal being good or bad. Though she understood well and acknowledged objections to it, it seemed to her hard to denounce the fact that at the time it seemed almost necessary, not only in Chicago but as part of a larger national trend. Her memories were especially interesting because as someone that actively worked on race relations in Chicago, she was well informed and aware about the changes that were happening within the community.

We spent a good deal of time talking about the "discourse," of urban renewal. While she explained what some of the phrases were (I've included two in this report) I think they speak for themselves. First, the concept of the "marching black community," that was finally allowed to break out of the class squishing ghettos created by restrictive covenants. For those who don't know (I didn't), restrictive covenants were statements weaved into the deeds of houses restricting who could live there--mainly no blacks, no Jews, no Catholics, etc.

Hyde Park urban renewal (known by another interesting descriptor: "selective surgery") saw itself as striving for a sort of "stable integrated community," with a high standard of living. However, during this period, Judy said, a lot of people were leaving Hyde Park. The three grievances that were often brought up were:

The coal smoke (this is where some of her early activism in Hyde Park began. Apparently the city was actively in denial about the dirty air created by coal emissions but at the same time the soot was thick enough to coat a window.)
The stench from the slaughterhouses
The opportunity to leave (she noted that during the war no cars were made and there was no where to go. The baby boom led people out of the city.)

We moved on to talking about post urban renewal Hyde Park. Judy described part of the Hyde Park renewal plan was to make the area an "anti-destination" with "affordable housing." I never thought that Hyde Park's isolation was intentional but as she noted, 55th street only allows one to leave Hyde Park. What was also interesting is today there seems to be push to increase density in Hyde Park and make it more retail friendly. Judy was very aware of this change, pointing to the transformations being attempted at the areas surrounding Yale and U Penn.

-As restrictive covenants were dropped in '48 by a landmark court case, there were other tangential but interesting things were:
-A mixed race coop that was lost to restrictive covenants legislation on 48th and Woodlawn. Apparently the cooperative existed for so long because its members insisted on the fact that although they were multiracial, they identified as a family. She gave me the name of someone involved. I might have to conduct a second interview, because this seems unreal.

-The role of the Southeast Chicago Commission, or the "enforcer." (1952) Funded by the University, this agency (which apparently still exists, "check the phonebook," http://oca.uchicago.edu/safety/secc.shtml) worked to basically enforce the standards that accompanied urban renewal, such as no debris in the street.
-Of course, I had to ask about the art cooperative, which apparently wasn't so glamorous. Judy remembered a candle shop that was later moved to Harper Court, but aside from that she thought of them as shacks left over from the World's Fair. However, she did mourn the loss of a lot of historical structures such as the Rosenwald Mansion, where she often worked.

Her role in the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference was of interest and an important part of her community involvement. She actively participated in schooling practices, integration, and other aspects related to education in Hyde Park as a member of the PTA. Perhaps one of the most insightful things we talked (I say talked because we discussed this, she nor I were really professing) about was the pitfalls of one-sided integration and the kind of blind white liberal view of the surrounding black community. I think she called Hyde Park "a mixed island in a black sea." She often thought that efforts toward integration were careless and sort of failed because they were inconsiderate and poorly planned.

Her insights to the racial tension and transformations in Hyde Park vis a vis urban renewal and changes in the community were really fascinating. We talked a bit about '68 (she met people at the local Mr. G's who accidentally found themselves in Hyde Park at the time of the convention "looking for action.") but her memories were so cogent and informative that aspect kind of fell out for me. Hyde Park in the 1950s, it seems, was progressive in a way that seemed so informed and active from her perspective.

We (Judy, myself, and her daughter made a cameo) discussed how it is easy to point the racist finger at the University as a heartless destroyer, which it seems it sometimes was when wrapped up in "land grabs," but at the same time we thought about the complexities of the issue. This interview unfolded into the late afternoon, as we discussed Hyde Park now and then, from a woman who really loves this community and actually does something about it. ("Gown and town," I think she called it, where one can enjoy the urban but feel the town.)

Obviously, we talked about a lot more than what I am recounting. I made a recording of the interview, but I decided to reflect and report on things that struck me the most at the time I was doing it, plus I'm laughing a lot during it. I think the interview was also really productive because I hope it acted as a catalyst for Judy to write her history down, something she has always wanted to do. We also talked about the value of local records, and how she has to make sure they don't disappear, because like her history they could be invaluable.

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