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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Looking Out, And In
By DAVID BROOKS
September 20, 2003
If you had opened the newspapers and magazines 50 years ago this week, you would have found the rapturous reviews that greeted Saul Bellow's first great book, "The Adventures of Augie March." Virtually unknown, Bellow had set out to write the Great American Novel, which was audacious because the character he chose to typify the mainstream American spirit was a Jewish kid living in the Jewish neighborhood of Humboldt Park in Chicago.
The second thing he did was to redefine American heroism. What was epic about America, he wrote, was not pioneers settling the West: it was city kids rising from poverty.
Bellow's character, Augie March, grew up in a single-parent household but never settled for the near at hand. America to him meant the "universal eligibility to be noble." So he was always venturing out among con men, rich girls, nut cases, patrons and aspiring moguls. He describes his adventures comically, but underneath there is his unshakable idealism. Inspired by America, Augie doesn't settle for a life that is unworthy of himself. "I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor," he concedes. "Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America."
The Jews left in the 60's, Puerto Ricans moved in, and at first the neighborhood tumbled into chaos. There were riots, fires and welfare dependency, and sidewalks crumbled so badly the kids used the upheaved chunks of concrete as caves.
But then came the stirrings of Puerto Rican pride and ethnic nationalism. A man named José E. Lopez, who grew up in Puerto Rico without water or electricity, began battling the stereotype, which many in the neighborhood had internalized, that Puerto Ricans were lazy. He began teaching Puerto Rican culture and history. Lopez was and is a radical, and amid posters celebrating socialism and anticolonialist struggle, dozens of institutions were formed: cultural centers, day care centers, a multicultural alternative high school. You talk with people in the neighborhood today, and they seem to be always rushing to or from some meeting at some council.
In the 1980's, gentrification threatened to push Puerto Ricans out of Humboldt Park. Lopez and his friends created a buffer zone, starting at Division Street and Western Avenue, that would remain permanently Puerto Rican. Two metal Puerto Rican flags now stake out that intersection. There is a Puerto Rican walk of fame, Puerto Rican symbols on lampposts, and a "No Yuppies" sign at the coffeehouse.
Amid those socialist posters, small businesses were hatched. Xavier Nogueras was a community organizer who founded an advertising agency and is now opening an upscale restaurant on Division Street. The street is now clean and safe, with bustling locally owned stores, which no longer need grilles over the windows. The nearby park is immaculate, with the grand old boathouse cleaned and restored. In many ways, Humboldt Park is nicer than it ever was.
But stubborn problems remain. Eighty-five percent of the students who come to the area's Roberto Clemente High School are unprepared for high school work, and most will drop out. There is not a single male student, or a single black or Hispanic boy or girl, who tests above grade level. The school is stocked with computers and energized teachers, but most students don't even think about their long-term futures. Instead, many join gangs and go to jail, and once they have felony convictions on their records, they find it very hard ever after to find jobs.
The biggest difference between the neighborhood in Bellow's day and now is that then, the path to success was through assimilation, whereas now it is through ethnic self-determination. Augie ventured out, and shed some community bonds. Now, few venture out. Downtown Chicago the Loop and the lakefront is a 10-minute drive away, but is also a foreign country. Few go there.
To be honest, I much prefer the assimilationist model. Instead of encouraging people to spend their lives around the same few streets, it opens up the wide possibilities of America. But nobody in the neighborhood believes in that model anymore, and the more immediate problem is that so many kids in the neighborhood are raised without any model, either Saul Bellow's or José Lopez's. They live without any idealism, and hence without any sense of the universal eligibility to be noble.