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Camponovo: ‘Shady’ is a term more racist than you might think

Dan Camponovo

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I went to the Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday night. The Orioles won, 3-2, which is largely unimportant – the real distress came afterwards.

Waiting for the El after the game, I overheard a fellow Sox fan explain to his friend that they took the train to the game because the man “never feels safe parking around here; it’s a shady neighborhood.” Yes, this is going to be one of those columns.

I’ve never been a fan of using the word “shady” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “of questionable merit” and “disreputable.”

A lot of people don’t seem to know the word has strong racial ties to it. “Shade” used to be a slang term for black people, with considerable usage in Chicago. “Shady” used to be a derogatory term used to describe black neighborhoods, the same way that “haunts” has a pejorative connotation to it compared to “hangouts.” You see it in newspapers from the turn of the 20th century all the time.

I understand “shady” as an adjective does not always have a racial component to it. Calling a court ruling “shady” meaning “fixed” may be an unfortunate adjective choice, but it is, for the most part, innocuous and inoffensive. Calling a historically black part of the city “shady” is neither of those things.

The Sox fan’s comments disturbed me for a number of reasons. I want to just write it off as ignorance, but it was his ignorance about many different things – about the etymology of his word, about the history of the neighborhood, about race relations in the city – that truly upset me.

The fan (who was white) said he doesn’t drive to Sox games because he doesn’t feel safe parking his car in such a “shady” (and, extrapolating from that, dangerous, and a further step, black) neighborhood. His fear is a classic xenophobia, a misplaced fear of the “other,” of one who is not like myself.

I say “misplaced” here because most Sox fans who drive to games find street parking in Bridgeport or Canaryville. These neighborhoods, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, have white populations of 41.2 percent and 68.3 percent, making them majority-white neighborhoods.

The “shady” neighborhoods, to use both the fan’s definition of “perceived xenophobic danger” and the outdated newspaper usage of “black,” are really one and the same. And they all are on the other side of the Dan Ryan expressway.

Bronzeville, named after the skin color of its population, is 98.1 percent black. Oakland, Washington Park, Woodlawn and Jackson Park all have black populations of about 94 percent, and only in Hyde Park has the white population reclaimed a plurality with 43.7 percent. This is largely attributed to the University of Chicago, a well-documented “educational effect” in race demographics.

The Sox fan was also apparently ignorant of the history of the Dan Ryan itself, which was built either to facilitate traffic from the suburbs to downtown or to quarantine the black population to the eastern part of the city, depending on who you talk to and how angry they are.

Look at a map sometime. It’s fascinating: The Dan Ryan runs south to north, roughly originating at Roseland in the south and branching around Armour Square in the north which, along with the east-to-west Stevenson Expressway and Lake Michigan to the east, creates a rectangle 10 miles long of overwhelmingly black Chicago. I hesitate, as should we all, to say “African-American,” since many who live here have immigrated and are proudly not American at all.

The “quarantine,” as it has been called, is effective largely as a result of the Dan Ryan. Fourteen-lane highways, opened in 1962 by the first Mayor Daley, will do a pretty good job of keeping people from crossing over. The Robert Taylor Homes, now mentioned in the same breath as Cabrini-Green and the Henry Horner Homes as staples of failed public housing theory, used to reside right along the Dan Ryan across from Canaryville until they were torn down in 2007.

This is not to diminish the contributions of these historically black neighborhoods, however; Nat King Cole, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and Sam Cooke all lived in Bronzeville, and Lorraine Hansberry lived in (and wrote “A Raisin In The Sun” about) Washington Park. This is just to say that such American heroes and icons could not have even crossed the Dan Ryan superhighway to get to our Sox fan’s car parked “safely” on Halsted.

Readers, think twice about using a racially charged word like “shady,” and please think twice about how to view your role in our city. The Cell is not a dangerous ballpark, nor are the surrounding neighborhoods.

We’ve just been led to think so due to 50 years of forced segregation and willing ignorance.

Dan Camponovo is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]