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My World Was My City

By Robert O’Connor


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The previous post looked at Studs’ first book, Giants of Jazz.]

Studs credited his career as a book writer to the English actress Eleanor Bron. In Tony Parker’s biography of Studs, Studs Terkel: A Life In Words, Bron told of how she formed her friendship with Studs. In 1962, she was in Chicago on tour with the other members of The Establishment Club, which included John Fortune and John Bird. They exchanged players with Chicago’s Second City and they were interviewed by Studs for WFMT. Bron suggested after the interview that Studs write books.

When the troupe was in New York, she called André Schiffrin, a friend of hers from Cambridge, who had taken a job at Random House in their imprint Pantheon Books. Schiffrin had just published an English translation of Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, where he examined village life in a northern Chinese village. Schiffrin said he wanted to commission similar books about America. Bron put the two in touch and Schiffrin asked Studs to write a similar book about Chicago.

Studs accepted Schiffrin’s challenge and the result is Division Street. Studs set up a few rules: no extraordinary people, no outlandish people and no intellectuals or writers. Studs wanted ordinary people whose preoccupation was about their own lives, not the deeper questions of humanity.

Studs had originally wanted to focus on the residents of one particular street, where all races, income levels, every division in America could be found. But Chicago didn’t have one, so while there is a real Division Street in Chicago on the Near North Side, the street in the title is metaphorical.

The book is a collection of interviews like his later books. In the prefatory notes, Studs describes his frustration with the tape recorder as one way he warms up to the subjects. His ability to warm up to subjects, his genuine curiosity and his ability to listen would make the interviews he did so memorable. One of the first interviews in the book is with Lucy Jefferson, an African-American nurse. Towards the end of the interview, she talks about people needing a “feeling tone” – one is friendly, one is hostile. “If you don’t have it, you might as well give up. You’re dead.”

Studs summed up his mysterious ability to allow people to open up to him as him possessing that “feeling tone,” and its one interview that is mentioned and explored in future books.

Jefferson was a resident of the famous Hull House. The complex was facing demolition in the mid 1960s in a wave of redevelopment of Chicago’s near west side. The University of Illinois at Chicago campus was being expanded and some things would be bulldozed over. A group of activists, including Florence Scala, saved the Hull House from being demolished. In February 2012 it closed due to financial difficulties and it is now a museum maintained by UIC. Scala is interviewed in the book about the changing face of the Near West side and her fight to preserve it.

Kid Pharaoh, another character who reappears in subsequent works, makes his first appearance in the book as well. He doesn’t have a feeling tone and disparages most other people in cruel terms. He is inspired by the cruel rat race that is capitalism and praises those who exercise power.

Other sections interview two people on opposite ends of larger debates. One section features two people who are opponents of one another: A Students for a Democratic Society organizer and a Young Americans for Freedom organizer. One opposes Vietnam and thinks the YAF are a tool of the powerful against the masses. The other supports Vietnam and thinks the SDS are brainwashed communist naifs.

Many of the questions and themes raised in Division Street are inspired by Nelson Algren’s essay Chicago: City on the Make. Studs championed his friend Algren’s work when it was being ignored by the establishment. Life being a rigged game and loving despite the pitfalls of life are reoccurring things in both the essay and in the book.

Mike Royko said that Algren’s essay “captured Chicago.” Studs captured Chicago with Division Street using his gifts as an interviewer. Later on, he would turn his sites to the recent past, and popularize a new form of history.

[Next: A book of memories of the Great Depression from both the rich and poor in Hard Times.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 24th, 2012.