“The Lost Structures of Civility” -Prof. Arkes in the City Journal

In a personal account of growing up in 1940-50′s Chicago, Prof. Arkes reflects on the changes that the city has undergone–aesthetically, structurally, and morally–in his piece, “The Lost Structures of Civility,” published in City Journal. Some excerpts:

“An older colleague in fine arts at Amherst College, Frank Trapp, would drop by the house unannounced in the evening, ring the bell, and settle in for a nightcap. I remarked to him one night that my tendency was to presume in favor of people, of their motives and their hold on the truth. I would wait for the evidence to become systematic on the other side before withdrawing that trust. He twirled the ice cubes in his Scotch and said, ‘That is the kind of saccharine sentiment that can issue only from someone who had a secure childhood.’

“He was right, but the question was: Why should he have been right? I was born at a time of high danger, in 1940, with the war in Europe already raging, with the Nazis occupying France, and even graver danger now portended, especially for Jews. My family was not well off. It was a ‘working family’; I was the first grandchild and the only child in a wartime household containing nine grownups. It was the apartment of my mother’s parents, my beloved Zayde and Bubbe, Alter and Masha Levin. There were two other married couples, including my parents, and three unmarried children. How did this family, in this setting, impart to a youngster that buoyant sense of security that Frank Trapp would later regard as a telling defect in my upbringing?

“There was always someone there. I was given the sense that the grownups could simply be counted on to do what grownups were supposed to do. No, children were not there to render therapy to adults, or offer unsolicited advice beyond their experience or wit. They were to be preserved as long as possible in their innocence, and sheltered, as youngsters, from the harsher language and meaner aspects of the world. They would become tutored in the ways of that world all too soon enough. Many years later, in a program on the First Amendment, an interviewer asked if I could remember the first time when I felt free. I really couldn’t. For it struck me that, as a child, I had never felt unfree. There was a vast world in which to move, and those fences, occasionally seen, were not barriers to my freedom but fences for my protection. It seemed to us, as youngsters, that we had a large field for roaming, and yet we had the sense that we were moving in a landscape in which we were instantly recognized and placed: ‘Levin’s eynikl,’ they would say of me, Levin’s grandson. That landscape seemed filled with ‘catchers in the rye,’ with someone always keeping an eye out for me.”

“Somewhat later, we were in the garden of friends in a gentrified section of Lakeview, on the Near North Side, and I wondered aloud: Why couldn’t Humboldt Park come back in the same way that Lakeview has? The handsome apartment buildings adjoining the park could be built anew, the park could be planted again. The money could be found; it was all within reach. And, in fact, the late news was that a local firm had undertaken the work of restoring the lovely old boathouse, and a new café has opened there. The hope is to draw weddings and other celebrations and stir a new vibrancy in this center, for a community much altered since so much swirled around that site. But my wife quickly put things back in scale: ‘That may all be quite promising,’ she said, ‘but even if the neighborhood came back, it wouldn’t have 1940s people in it.’ And she was right, of course. The catchers in the rye would be gone, along with the kibitzers, the con men, and the pious, none of them swollen with the freight of their rights.”

Read the whole piece here.