As part of The Folded Map Project, Tonika Lewis Johnson and sociologist Maria Krysan interviewed 30 people about how they first confronted — and eventually combatted — harmful narratives about Chicago’s South and West sides. Block Club Chicago is publishing five of these stories. We invite you to join us June 30 on YouTube for Making Chicago’s Segregation Personal, a live conversation about neighborhood stereotypes, segregation and how you can better understand your community by getting to know someone else’s.
HUMBOLDT PARK — When Joey Della Vecchia was starting his business fixing pianos, he was eager for any jobs he could get, wherever they were in the city.
So when he got a call from a homeowner in Englewood one day, he didn’t hesitate. As he made the trek down to 73rd Street, he realized he not only was going to a part of the city he’d never seen, but he was going exactly where people had been telling him not to go since his first week in Chicago.
He remembers thinking, “I guess we’re gonna see how this goes. You know. I wanted to work, I didn’t care where the job was really. I just wanted to work.”
As it turns out, Della Vecchia was the only contractor the homeowner could find willing to make the trip.
“She said, ‘I want to thank you for all your hard work today. I didn’t want to tell you this on the phone, but you were about the sixth or seventh technician I called. Because I couldn’t get anyone to come over here,’” Della Vecchia said. “My heart kind of stopped. ‘They won’t service our area…and we’re not the only community that suffers from this, just so you know.’”
In 15 years in the city, Della Vecchia’s social networks expanded his understanding of segregation in Chicago. But it was his experiences as an onsite piano technician that afforded him a window into the harm perpetuated by the pervasive negative perceptions of neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Della Vecchia, now 43, moved to Chicago from Pittsburgh in 2006. Almost immediately, he got advice about “no-go zones” in the city, even from people he hung out with casually at bars and clubs.
“… Whatever you do, just … don’t go south of 18th street … and don’t go west of Central Park.”
“And I took their word for it, at first, because I was the new guy in town,” he said. “And … I didn’t really know what that meant. … I often heard it wasn’t safe for white people. And that’s what I was constantly told.”
He took a full-time job as a warehouse clerk and delivery driver while attending piano tech school at night. As he travelled throughout the city for work, once heading to West Garfield Park for a job, he started to see what those people really meant when they warned him about certain areas.
“Me and my colleague at the time … made a trip near Madison and Cicero. This is a neighborhood I had never been to before, so we’re driving and then I noticed the change in the neighborhood. I was heading west on Division Street and when I hit Cicero, I thought to myself, ‘You gotta be kidding me. This is ridiculous,’” he said, realizing that people were warning him to stay away from areas of the city with majority-Black residents.
“I saw the division, the racial divide, like right there. And then revisited what those people told me. … And the impression I got was, don’t go beyond these points because there are Black people that exist there.”
‘If you want, we can get you out of here’
Being in a relationship with a Black woman with family in the South and West sides meant he spent a lot of time being the only white person in Black spaces. Through talks with his partner and her relatives, he learned the reasons he might be stared at in Black neighborhoods had little to do with him being in danger.
“The thing that needs to be brought to the table is that white people are safer in Black communities than Black people are that live there,” he said. “I’ve had these conversations with her family as well as with a few of my clients, [who’ve said] ‘just keep in mind that they want to make sure no one’s buying drugs on their block and that you’re safe.’”
“… If anything, people of color will look out for you in their communities because they want to make sure that nothing’s gonna go down. The last thing they need is for the cops to show up for a dead white body on their streets. They don’t need that drama in their communities.”
As he was finishing tech school, he decided to stay in Chicago to launch his business. As a white guy, people urged him to limit his forays into the South and West sides. But as a solo entrepreneur, people encouraged him to look to those areas for potential jobs.
“The instructors, they said this multiple times, ‘If you stay in Chicago, there’s a lot of work on the South Side.’ And they didn’t tell me why. They just said there’s a lot of work down there,” he said.
One of his first jobs was for Chicago Public Schools. Then, he started “getting calls from all over the city. And apparently, there had been pianos that were just neglected, collecting dust in gymnasiums, auditoriums, and classrooms for many years. So I was getting work in various parts of the West Side. Various parts of the South Side. All over.”
Then came the call from the Englewood homeowner. When she asked Della Vecchia if he serviced her neighborhood, he remembers responding, “Well, I’m kind of new to the city still. And you know, the business is new. I’ve never been to Englewood, but let’s get something on the books.”
Since he was just getting started, he didn’t have a car. So he hauled his 40-pound bag of tools onto the Western Avenue bus from his apartment in Humboldt Park and took it all the way to 73rd Street.
“And as I’m walking, I noticed a few empty lots. And the homes were just beautiful. They were gorgeous. And this was an area that I was told that if I was white, it was automatic that I was going to be shot, robbed and killed, within minutes. And all these bad things are gonna happen to me. … I didn’t see any of that stuff – gangs or violence. I didn’t feel that my life was endangered,” he said.
Instead, he saw elderly people having coffee on their porch, kids playing in the streets. And he met one of the nicest clients he’s ever had, grateful he didn’t reject her business because of where she lived.
“She took care of me. She put out a plate of cookies. She was just so sweet,” he said. “I was there for a couple hours. I’m wrapping up service, and I remember she got kind of emotional.”
After sharing a hug with his client, Della Vecchia packed up his equipment and walked back to the bus stop. There, he got another stark reminder of the perception that white people are in danger in Black neighborhoods.
“I’m just leaning up against the bus stop pole, and this police car comes up. Two white police officers. They pull up right alongside the curb. … There’s about nine or so other people waiting for the bus. The passenger window goes down and I hear ‘Excuse me.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, what’s up?’”
“And the passenger cop says, ‘if you want, we can get you out of here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘you’re heading to the North Side, right? … We can take you there. We can get you out of here.’”
“I was confused. Did they know something was about to go down? I started asking questions. Was my life in danger? And I look behind me, I see the people. They’re all looking at me, you know. I kind of look back at them and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what’s happening.’”
“The police said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a ride?’ I said, ‘I’m good. Thank you. I’m good here.’ And then they drove off and a bus pulled up shortly after that.”
‘All I wanted to do was do a job for somebody‘
He still remembers that day 14 years later: the kindness of his client, the struggles people like her face when they cannot get service contractors to come to their homes to make repairs and the many supporting actors in this drama — including the police.
“I was offered a ride home from white police officers on the South Side of Chicago because they saw me standing on the corner of a place where I supposedly was not supposed to be… All I wanted to do was do a job for somebody.
“I couldn’t wrap my head [around it] and I didn’t really talk much about that day with my friends. I kind of kept that to myself. And I’m like, you know, maybe someday down the road, I could, you know, share it. But it’ll always be in my memory bank,” he said.
The experience helped Della Vecchia gain a deeper understanding of white privilege. It has solidified his commitment to being a voice that pushes back against these stereotypes to his family, friends and anyone else willing to listen.
In a way, he ends up being a messenger back to “my white suburban land.”
“When I share some of these stories back home, there are a few folks who don’t want to hear it. Sometimes, they’ll even leave the room while the rest will stay. However, I am impressed with the amount of people in my family and circle of friends who are starting to come around finally. And they listen. They don’t interject. They like the stories I tell because they see the news, and then they hear it from my perspective.”
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