From Wall Street to Chicago’s South Side: When Global Economics Make Local Progress Nearly Impossible
Nicholas Lemann on the Community Activism of Earl Johnson
Earl Johnson grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, the child of a Mississippi-born single mother who worked as a nursing assistant. When he graduated from high school, in 1991, he persuaded his mother to move the family out of the projects to someplace quieter and less violent. Earl found a rental apartment in Hyde Park, a much better neighborhood not far away, but after a year their landlord raised their rent from $900 to $1,000 a month. For that much money, Earl told his mother, they could buy a house. So he called a realtor and began looking all over the South Side for a place they could afford (which knocked out Hyde Park) and where they could feel safe (which knocked out Englewood).
In 1992 they bought a rundown brick bungalow at 6352 South Rockwell Street, with the standard undersized porch, front lawn, and backyard, in the heart of Chicago Lawn. The Johnsons were the third black family on the block—everybody else was white. Earl got a job in the concessions department at an arena near O’Hare Airport.
Like a lot of the pioneering black families in Chicago Lawn, the Johnsons got a cool reception from their neighbors. As time passed, the white people who stayed on the block got used to their being there. Earl kept an eye on his white neighbor’s house; as the man got older and started drinking more, Earl would help him up the stairs when he came home and get him settled inside. But most of the white people on the block were leaving, and their replacements were a mixed bag—some fine; others, to Earl’s mind, the kind of people he’d thought he was leaving behind when he persuaded his family to move out of the Robert Taylor Homes.
One day a carful of gang members drove down the block looking for members of a rival gang. They found them standing near Earl’s house and started shooting. Earl’s mother was sitting on the porch. One of the bullets went in her direction, missed her by not much, and hit the wall of the porch a few feet above her head. The bullet hole was still there ten years later.
After that, Earl decided he’d better start acting like a homeowner with something to protect. He started going to community meetings. At one, held at the 8th District headquarters, he got up and gave a little speech: crime was rising in the neighborhood, and the police didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. Gang members from Robert Taylor were now in Chicago Lawn. Didn’t the police care? Afterward, an officer pulled Earl aside, out of everyone else’s hearing, and said, Well, Mr. Johnson, you kind of hit the nail on the head. I know, because I just transferred over here from that district, and I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces.
Earl got involved with the Southwest Organizing Project and Neighborhood Housing Services. He went to a lot more meetings. Sometimes he hung out on the street corners with Rafi Peterson, talking to teenage boys about the choices they were making.
Earl is a tall, open, informal man whose laidback manner can make it easy to miss how energetic and determined he is. He didn’t intend to let the neighborhood go down. The parts of the struggle to save Chicago Lawn that were about Chicago as a city—or Washington, D.C., or the global economy—were outside his reach, but by making good unskilled jobs scarcer and housing more speculative, they added a few extra degrees of difficulty to what was always tough in Chicago, even in good times: managing a racial transition. For Earl, what was at hand for him to work on were the closely intertwined issues of housing and crime.
He made himself into the unofficial mayor of the 6300 block of South Rockwell. He’d greet new neighbors and try to disperse knots of teenage boys. When he saw that somebody’s garage door had been pried open, he’d close it. More than once he came home from work and found boys sitting on his porch, as if they owned it. Do you pay rent here? he’d ask them. Do you pay taxes? This is my neighborhood. This is my house. It’s not yours. And they’d leave.During the heyday of the mortgage brokers, Earl himself took out a home equity loan but he couldn’t keep up the payments when the interest rate zoomed upward
Earl kept in close touch with the police. There were times when the 8th District had a commander who struck him as caring about the neighborhood, and there were other times when it didn’t. Once, when crime on the block was ticking upward, he was able to persuade officers he knew and trusted to station a squad car on his corner for days. Another time, he arranged to have a plainclothes officer sit with him, day after day, on his porch, so that he could point out the rhythms of the block—when people were stashing drugs or weapons, who was okay and who wasn’t. (Earl called this “covert operations.”) That helped.
But then there were times when it seemed to Earl as if the attitude of some police officers was, “who cares about another dead nigger?” Or when the police seemed incapable, or not motivated enough to be capable, of distinguishing troublemakers from ordinary black people who lived in fear of crime—presuming that if you were black, you were a criminal. And at those times, Earl would let the police know how he felt.
On one cold winter night Earl was sitting in his car, parked in front of his house, with the engine running in order to warm it up. A police car pulled up next to him, and the officers asked him what he was doing there. They made him get out of the car so they could search it. Earl said it was his car, his home address was on the registration, and they shouldn’t be harassing him like this. The officers pushed him. He pushed back. He shouted at them. They shouted at him. Within a few minutes, the whole block was full of police summoned by the officers who had approached Earl, as well as residents who had come outside to see what was going on.
It was one of those incidents that taps into the deep store of mutual fear and hostility that had built up through years of encounters like this one, which is why the temperature of the block spiked so quickly. Before it all died down, the police had beaten up Earl’s brother.
Earl went to work full-time for Neighborhood Housing Services, doing maintenance at its neighborhood offices around Chicago. That got him even more involved in the struggle to save Chicago Lawn, and for a while he was feeling optimistic. The abandoned houses on his block were being boarded up, rehabilitated, and filled one by one. During the heyday of the mortgage brokers, Earl himself took out a home equity loan—his house always needed repairs that he couldn’t afford—and he couldn’t keep up the payments when the interest rate zoomed upward. Mike Reardon and Katie Van Tiem helped him modify the loan and keep his house, as they had helped other homeowners on the block who had gotten in trouble with the mortgage brokers.
But then came the 2008 financial crisis, a fresh, severe blow to the block. There were more foreclosures, more abandoned houses, and another spike in crime. For Earl it was like tumbling back to the bottom of a steep, hard-won hill and beginning the climb all over again. He couldn’t help thinking that the world didn’t care whether black people lost their homes, just as it didn’t care whether black people robbed and killed other black people—but he cared. He kept working the block, going door-to-door to meet new neighbors, keeping an eye out for the early warning signs of crime, introducing people who needed loan modification to Neighborhood Housing Services, and trying to find sympathetic police officers who would come to the block when there was a need for them and, when they did, do more than beat people up indiscriminately.
Earl’s sister died in 2014. The extended family gathered for a memorial service, and afterward, everyone went back to Earl’s house on South Rockwell. Earl’s father had come up from Memphis. Earl was getting ready to drive him to the Greyhound bus station to go home. He was sitting in his tiny backyard, talking to friends and family, when an aggressive, loud teenage boy walked in and started insulting Earl. Who the fuck are you? Earl said. This is my house. I don’t want you on my property. He grabbed the boy by the arm and took him to the front of the house. The boy, who wasn’t cowed in the least, raised his shirt to show Earl that he had a gun tucked into his waistband. In that situation, what do you do next?
Earl took the boy by both arms and shoved him up against the tall black metal fence he had put up in front of the house as a deterrent to crime. The situation was nowhere near under control, and Earl had to keep the boy pinned to the fence while he figured out what to do about the gun. But then one of the boy’s friends came up, plucked out the gun, and shot Earl in the back. Both boys ran away while Earl lay on the ground in front of his house, gasping for breath and spitting up blood.Earl couldn’t help thinking that the world didn’t care whether black people lost their homes.
The next thing Earl knew, he was lying in a hospital bed, a police detective standing over him. The detective told him that he’d gotten a call from the 8th District commander: this isn’t an ordinary crime victim, and this isn’t an ordinary case. This one has to be solved. So the police and Earl, severely weakened and with the bullet still somewhere inside him, worked together. Earl knew the two boys only by their street names, Tuwon and Shoe, but he used his network of contacts in the neighborhood to find out the real name and the home address of the boy he had seen.
The police went to his house, but he had run away. They put out an all-points bulletin and eventually found him, brought him in to 8th District headquarters, got Earl to come down and identify him, and extracted the name of the boy who had fired the shot: Jonathan Johnson. He had already been in prison. Now he was on parole, so the police arranged for his parole officer to call him in for a routine check-in, and when he came, they were waiting to arrest him.
The state’s attorney asked Earl whether he was ready to do what it would take to put Jonathan Johnson back in jail. Earl said, look, he did this before he did it to me. I survived. He’d do it again. Would that person survive? So he went to a series of court dates and testified, and the boy got a 20-year prison sentence. The next Sunday, Earl went to church and asked the pastor to forgive him.
Two years later, Earl went back into the hospital and had surgery to remove the bullet. By that time you’d see one of the two boys, not the one who’d fired the gun, walking around the neighborhood. He had supposedly reformed, but he was just one person. The crime hadn’t stopped. Once, Earl heard shots in the middle of the night and rushed outside to find that one of his neighbors has been wounded by a stray bullet during a battle between two small gangs. Another time, one block down South Rockwell from Earl’s house, there were two murders within 24 hours, again in connection with a fight between gangs.
The block itself looked a lot better than it had a few years earlier; there weren’t many empty houses left. Earl had had a lot to do with that, but after nearly a quarter century on the block, he was weary. Between the gangs and the police, he just didn’t feel confident that he and his family were safe. There was a lot he could do, but he couldn’t stop a bullet fired by somebody who didn’t care about what happened to him.
Earl decided to look for another place to live and work; as he liked to say, some chapters tend to come to an end. He found a new five-bedroom house in Lowell, Indiana, a farm town fifty miles south of Chicago that was just starting to acquire modest suburban development. The real estate agent asked him how he, a city boy, thought he’d like encountering wildlife in his new home. If the wildlife can’t shoot me, I’m fine, Earl said. He found a new job at a Ford factory at the far southern edge of the Chicago suburbs, with good pay and benefits, where the company built, among other things, police cruisers.
Excerpted from Transaction Man: the Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream. ©Nicholas Lemann 2019. Reprinted with permission from FSG.