Chicago, 1959: This Old House It’s Not

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Clybourne Park
Walter Kerr Theater
219 W. 48th Street
New York, NY

A typical Chicago bungalow

It's a bright summer day in 1959 Chicago, and housewife Bev is humming a happy tune (and arguing with her cantankerous husband Russ) as she packs the belongings of her small, well-kept home in the Clybourne Park neighborhood for the move to the suburbs. But there's a problem the whole neighborhood's talking about about: the people the couple has sold their home to are black.

Dear God!

Panic ensues. How could Bev and Russ, their outraged neighbors demand, allow blacks to break up our historically white enclave? What will happen to the neighborhood?

That's only the first act -- act two takes place fifty long years later. 2009 African Americans homeowners, who have lived in Clybourne Park since 1959, start screaming that white people are trying to move in as part of the nation-wide wave of gentrification, in which young, well-to-do whites buy low-priced homes in inner-city neighborhoods.

Dear God! There goes the neighborhood.

Bruce Norris's searing new play Clybourne Park, which covers fifty years of racial and real estate history in Chicago, shines the racial spotlight on everybody, no matter where they live. The power of Norris’s scorching play, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year and just opened in New York last week, is that the villains are not bizarre-looking monsters from the depths of Lake Michigan, but ordinary people. It's a lesson in America's racial demons.

Why are Bev and Russ moving out of their Clybourne Park abode? (Clybourne Park is fictitious neighborhood created by Lorraine Hansberry in her 1959 play Raisin in the Sun, to which Clybourne Park is both an homage and a deconstruction)? Bev and Russ's son, always belittled by his neighbors, committed suicide in the house after returning from Korea; his grief-stricken parents can no longer bear to stay in the same house.

Then Karl arrives. That's Mr. Karl Linder, who was also a character in A Raisin in the Sun. In Hansberry's play, Karl tried to bribe the black Younger family into calling off the move. In Norris's play, we're presented with the flip side of the coin: Karl's trying to convince the white Bev and Russ from selling to a black family. He's not a racist. Oh, no. He just opposes the sale because one black family will lead to more and that will cause the values of all the white-owned homes to plunge. The falling values racial line was spoken throughout America in those years. Karl then proposes a common real estate scheme in which phantom buyers prevent blacks from buying homes in the neighborhood.

Fifty years of history later, a hip, young prosperous couple, Steve and Lindsey (who is pregnant), buy the house in Clybourne Park -- they plan to knock it down and build a bigger one. They're at the home with a realtor the neighbors and members of the home owners association show up. A black woman asks if “certain economic interests are being served” in the sale; Steve jumps on the comment as racism. Everybody in the home, now a battered old dwelling with dreadful graffiti on the walls, then plunges into a torrent of carefully-disguised racial charges (as they always are). Lindsey, appalled at implications that the couple are racists, defends herself by saying she has black friends -- in fact she actually once went out on a date with a black man. Of course she's not a racist. Awful, crude racial barbs ensue.

Clybourne Park is not a racial volcano. It is a tea kettle where the water gets hotter and hotter until the whistles start to blow. Norris has written a groundbreaking and just plain terrific play about racism and urban real estate chicanery throughout twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) history.

Director Pam MacKinnon gets brilliant performances from Christina Kirk and Frank Wood as Bev and Russ, Jeremy Shamos and Anna Parisse as Steve and Lindsey, Crystal Dickinson as Lena, and Brendan Griffin and Damon Cupton in other roles.

The play explores the sleazy side of urban integration, real estate racism, ethnic hatred and urban growth. The phantom buyers ploy was one of many used by realtors in the ‘50s and ‘60s to preserve white neighborhoods. Blockbusting was another. That practice was used to get one black family to buy a home in a white enclave in order to spread the rumor that many more were waiting to do so, causing whites to flee. Redlining was a practice in which realtors drew a red line around a neighborhood and targeted it for wealthy ethnic buyers and drew another neighborhood outline for others. Banks refused to give mortgages to black couples. In contract buying, blacks were forced to purchase homes with large cash down payments, but the prices were much higher than they were for whites with mortgages. These practices were later outlawed in the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Community Reinvestment Act.

Gentrification, of course, is ever-present today and has transformed many urban areas throughout the country. African Americans are forced out of neighborhoods by white buyers who pay moderate prices on houses and condos and then spend considerable amounts of money to fix them up, often selling them at higher prices later. Hundreds of urban areas throughout America have been gentrified. The ultimate effect of this remains to be seen.

There were a couple of historical points that the play didn't address that are worth knowing: what went on in Chicago went on every major (and not-so-major) American city, and Chicago is according to a recent study the fifth-most segregated city in the United States (leading the pack are Detroit and Milwaukee, followed by New York and Newark). Chicago's racial wars began much earlier than the 1950s; the worst race riot in the city's history occurred in 1919. Something should have been said about the current economic crisis in which housing prices in most cities have dropped dramatically (New York City has ... escaped that trend).

Clybourne Park is a history play and proud of it -- theatergoers can purchase a marvelous booklet on Chicago housing and real estate discrimination in the lobby of the theater for a mere dollar. All history plays ought to have booklets like this to provide historical backgrounds for the story.

PRODUCTION: Produced by Jujamcyn Theaters, Center Theater Group, Jane Bergere, Roger Berlind/Quintet Productions, Eric Falkenstein, Dan Frishwasser, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizon, others. Sets: Dan Stalking; Costumes: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting: Allen Lee Highes; Sound: John Gromada. The play is directed by Pam MacKinnon.

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