Where Lake Shore Drive meets North Avenue there’s an underpass that takes you to the North Avenue Beach. That intersection was the scene of my first dawning awareness of class and race privilege. I grew up on Lake Shore Drive; our building with its canopy and liveried doorman was maybe fifty steps from the entrance to that underpass. When we stepped out into the heat on a weekend day in summer we would see people streaming down those stairs. To our left as we approached the underpass, a long thick line of people stretched down North Avenue, many of them parents with small children, lugging coolers and beach toys, walking babies in strollers. They had come from the neighborhoods west of Wells—or so I assumed because they were mostly not white—and had had to carry their belongings for many blocks. I was maybe five years old when this first impressed itself on me: that I could set foot outside my door and be moments away from what these families had to travel long distances to enjoy. Where and how I lived, I understood at that intersection, was infinitely enviable.
Guilt was a natural outcome of this realization—what had I done to deserve such privilege?—guilt that would take decades to work off. It also took decades, and moving to the Northeast, to discover that growing up on a narrow strip of wealth and whiteness, though it had undeniable advantages, also sealed me off from some of the best sources of nourishment this city had to offer. That the “bad neighborhoods” we were told to stay away from, including those neighborhoods west of Wells, were home to a rich culture of blues, jazz and gospel that was in many ways the lifeblood of the city, if not the whole nation. At some point during those years it would occur to me that proximity to the lake was not everyone’s idea of happiness. And that the little girl—in assuming she was the envy of those families who had come such a long way down North Avenue as she joined the stream of people descending those stairs, hand-in-hand with her sisters in matching swimsuits and beach robes, shepherded by their nurse—may have been very sadly mistaken.
Story by Lise Weil
Video Production by Dan Ahn