Carlo Rotella

by Begum Cital

by Begum Cital


Carlo Rotella is a journalist and professor of English at Boston College. His latest collection of long-form pieces, “Playing in Time,” was published in September by the University of Chicago Press. Both as a journalist and an academic, Rotella explores the narratives we use to understand cities. He grew up in South Shore in the 70s.

Where did you go to high school?

I went to the Lab School K through 12. I lived on 71st and Oglesby and 69th and Euclid. But I have not lived in South Shore since I went away to college.

Where did you hang out growing up?

I had two separate lives. I had a neighborhood life in South Shore where there was a network of driveway basketball courts. We’d just hang out by the Jackson Park golf course. There were a bunch of neighborhood people that I hung out with. I spent a lot of time on my neighbor’s stoop. They had six kids and we hung out around there.

I had a separate life hanging out with kids from school, which was more in Hyde Park. There was the regular late night trip across Jackson Park home to South Shore, which I made on foot or by bike late at night. It’s a strange landscape. It’s so alive with all these ghosts from the Columbian Expedition. The gold lady is there, the replica of the one from before. People think of Jackson Park as a dangerous park, but there was only one parking lot where stuff may go on, but really it was this long contemplative walk or run through this desolate space.

Where do you visit when you come back now?

I always make a point of going to South Shore, and I’m always struck by how physically nicer it is now. The big thing in the 70s was that the neighborhood had changed so fast that the networks, all the people knowing other people, had been swept away, so that it was kind of wilder and harder to tell who everybody was. Adults couldn’t tell if the kids hanging around the block were somebody’s kids from around the corner or from some other place.

It’s been awhile since the neighborhood turned over, so those networks have reformed, even though other things have come along to cause trouble. Crack came along when it did and there was upheaval associated with the tearing down of projects. I get the sense that today the networks are much stronger and denser than they were in the 70s and early 80s.

I always make a point of visiting in South Shore, but I also have people to see in Hyde Park. But, as is sort of predictable, I go to Chicago on business, which means I go downtown a lot and I seem to end up in Wicker Park a lot, which never happened to me when I was growing up. The book party for “Playing in Time” was in Wicker Park at some old burlesque dive turned hipster bar. You just go out in the city in different ways as a visitor.

In “Playing in Time,” you reference being hit in the head by stranger who was trying to steal your baseball glove. Can you tell that story?

The getting hit in the head part I don’t remember being particularly traumatic. I think kids get hit in the head one way or another. But what I do remember is that the kid who hit me over the head hit me with a broomstick that broke. And he was wearing pajamas with a horse head motif on them and he was trying to get my baseball glove from me, which is the part I remember much more vividly.

I wasn’t much of a fighter when I was a kid, so I kind of went with the curl up in the fetal position and don’t let go strategy. Because there was a kind of pack of kids on my block I knew that if I hung on to the glove and didn’t give it up, they would arrive and drive this kid off. So the memory is being in my driveway and seeing this kid in pajamas with horses’ heads coming at me with a broomstick and a big explosion inside my head.

There was a certain amount of chaos on the street and as any parent will tell you now, kids spent all day out in the street, which is no longer the case. In the summer, I would go inside for meals and that was basically it.

You’ve written a lot about boxing. Where does that interest come from? 

Not really through Chicago…. When it came to sports, basketball was the game that mattered in the neighborhood. There was an extensive network of pickup games and teams you could play on and that’s where all my athletic energy went. I played only on the pickup side. My younger brother was a really good player. He played for the high school team. That’s another thing that’s changed–there was a ton of pick up basketball, there were players who were much, much better than I was who never had to play on teams to play in really good games. There was just a world of pickup ball.

You teach a course called the City in American Literature and Culture. What do you teach from Chicago?

I always teach something from Chicago. I teach Sister Carrie, a big canonical urban novel. I always teach that one in a unit on urbanization, on becoming a city person. I certainly have taught Stuart Dybek’s work which teaches fabulously well. I teach a unit on Buddy Guy and blues, and we think about how you hear the history of the city in music. How do you hear the changing nature of Chicago, not just in the lyrics, but in the mix of guitar and voice? Things like that have really changed over the years in Chicago blues.

So we always do some Chicago stuff. I’ve lectured on cities and culture all over the place, including China and Bosnia, and I always do a Chicago thing. Usually I play a clip of Buddy Guy’s music, and that stuff travels well all over the world. People know what you’re talking about and recognize Chicago blues.

In your book “October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature,” you focus on the narrative of decline within urban literature. Do you see a new narrative today, one that focuses on redevelopment and gentrification as two perspectives on the same force? 

“October Cities” is about the urban crisis of the 60s and its aftermath. When cities change, when anything as big and complicated as a city changes, it’s a lot easier to see what’s going away rather than what’s developing in its place. In the 60s and 70s, you get these really powerful narratives of decline. Someone like Nelson Algren, who is looking at the white ethnic industrial neighborhood, the urban village, sees it as doomed and declining. It’s a lot harder to see what’s coming and what’s forming in its place.

October Cities is about the story of decline and all the ways that it got told. My next book, “Good With Your Hands,” has stories of revitalization or gentrification and historification–the taking of the history of a city and making it a reason to attract tourists or homeowners and repurposing the industrial city, having factories turned into homes and condos. That’s the story of the 80s and 90s and coming toward the present. I’ve written much more about that in later books.

One thing I’m really fascinated by is that it’s always October and cities are always in decline some way, but that it’s also always spring and something is always forming. It’s just that it’s easier to see the thing declining, since we’re used to it and recognize it, than it is to see the thing that’s forming. Nelson Algren in some ways was laying the groundwork for what happened to that neighborhood that was becoming Wicker Park and Bucktown but he would never have seen it or been able to recognize it.

Would you ever want to move back to Chicago?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say. My more immediate personal ambitions are writing about Chicago, especially the South Side in the 70s. I think that has a really powerful hold on me. I’m constantly seeking out wherever I can find bits and pieces of it.

There’s actually a pretty big literature of South Shore, which you wouldn’t think at first. But there’s a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. I’m always reading that stuff and I’m thinking about how to tell that story of the transformation of that neighborhood and how things were. I’m always on the lookout for people who are doing that. For instance, David Mammoth’s play “The Old Neighborhood.” The play is about nostalgia for South Shore, the people who white-flighted out of there.

So if by live in Chicago you mean live imaginatively in Chicago, then yes I have lots of ambition.

So South Shore in the 70s is the next Chicago story you want to tell?

It’s a Chicago story I’d like to write. I don’t know if I have the equipment to write it yet. And there’s a question of genre. Is this a story best told as non-fiction, is it a story best told as fiction? Who are the characters in the foreground living the consequences of these big transformations? Should they be historical characters or do I want to invent a family? In some ways that’d be easier, in other ways that’d be harder.

I feel like it’s a really powerful moment. It has a great soundtrack, it has large forces pulling at people in interesting directions and all kinds of people making very difficult decisions that are forced on them by these larger forces. Do we sell the house? Do we stay here? Where do my kids go to school? Am I all in this together with my neighbors or are we all secretly planning our own escape? And with all of these people coming in, what does this neighborhood hold for me? What are my ambitions for myself and my family?

South Shore is a first house neighborhood. And it has been for a long time. People buy their first house there. And sometimes it’s their only and last house. If you go back in its history, its always played that role, and that’s a very high stakes role for a neighborhood to play. It’s where you take a foothold in the middle class. But then you start worrying, is this foothold secure enough? Is this going to be enough for me to pass on to my kids? Is it precarious? Am I connected to my neighbors or am I just bidding my time until I can move to another neighborhood?

I’ll give you an example, Ron Grzywinski, a guy who founded ShoreBank, I interviewed him years ago and he was telling me he grew up further down on the east side, and he’d go to South Shore to look at the houses when he was a kid and to imagine what it would be like to buy a house there. That’s always the function South Shore has played, and I think that makes it a really powerful place to tell stories about people. Buying house and owning a house is so caught up with all these other things like class and life trajectory and your ambitions and fears for your family.

If you were to pick someone to interview for this interview issue, who would you want to talk to?

When I started years ago thinking about writing about my neighborhood, in addition to interviewing neighbors and people who now live in the houses I used to live in, I also interviewed a police commander, the parish priest, the people who had institutional oversight of the neighborhood. I was interested in correlating their vision of how the neighborhood had changed with what my neighbors had. I like that official perspective and less official one.

Also, there’s still a couple of blues places on the South Side, there’s Lee’s Unleaded and a couple of others. I don’t know who runs them but I’d be interested in hearing from them. My focus if I go back is to talk to my old neighbors and the people who have lived where I lived and my friends lived. I’ve done some of that. I went back to my house at 71st and Oglesby and talked to the people who own it now. That kind of thing can be really rich.

Do you know if the Amber Bakery is still there? The thing that always got me about the Amber Bakery was that it was a German bakery that tried to pass itself off as Dutch. I felt like going in there and breaking it to someone, saying, there’s nobody left who can draw any distinction between German and Dutch. Its ok to drop the pretenses, WWI is over. It’s just funny they maintained the distinction for reasons that had to do with the earliest part of the 20th century that could not possibly have been more irrelevant when I was kid.