The South Side in ’62
Kevin D. Williamson’s recent cover story about Chicago’s South Side (“Gangsterville,” February 25) made me sad and brought back memories.
I spent the summer of 1962 working at Beacon Neighborhood House, a Presbyterian outreach at 1444 South Ashland Avenue, where I taught nine- and ten-year-old children from the “projects” (not Cabrini-Green), row houses, and apartments.
At age 19 I was one of 13 college students to live cloistered behind locked iron gates at night and teach children from the ghetto during the day. While most of the college kids ran two-week day-camp Bible-school sessions, a colleague and I, both elementary-education majors, spent the entire six weeks with a group of 20 at-risk fourth- and fifth-graders from the Jirka and Medill schools. We visited each child’s home and met his or her parent(s), often taking the elevators up in high-rise projects or entering dark hallways in once-stately homes that had been converted into run-down apartments. We were invited to come back for lunch by two different mothers, and those were special occasions.
Mornings were spent helping the children with reading and math. In the afternoons we walked with them to nearby parks or public swimming pools. I remember feeling safe holding their hands as we walked through the neighborhood because “Beacon Teachers” were respected. We took the children by public bus on field trips all over Chicago — to the Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos, the Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Historical Society, the Thatcher Woods Forest Preserve, and the 12th Street Beach. They could be a handful out in public.
Those children would be 60 years old now. I kept a list of their names and still have faded black-and-white snapshots of them. They probably don’t remember the girl from Kansas, but I have never forgotten them. I’m sure some of them ended up in jail or dead, but hopefully many more were able to get ahead and be successful.
The following year, 1963, race riots broke out on Chicago’s South Side, and the Beacon House college students were sent home for their own safety. Two years later I moved to a suburb of Chicago to work as a TWA airline hostess out of O’Hare, but I never felt brave enough to go back to Beacon House.
Louanne Theilmann Isernhagen
St. Francis, Kansas