Life in Big Red: Struggles and Accommodations in a Chicago Polyethnic Tenement
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170 Life in Big Red Struggles and Accommodations in a Chicago Polyethnic Tenement I have lived long enough amidst you to know something about your circumstances; I have devoted to their knowledge my most serious attention. I have studied the various official and non-­ official documents as far as I was able to get hold of them—­ I have not been satisfied with this, I wanted more than a mere abstract knowledge of my subject. I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your every-­ day life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. —­Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) At 10:00 A.M. on August 16, 1988, Bao Xiang, a Hmong woman from Laos, stepped out the back door of her top-­ floor Big Red apartment and the rotting porch collapsed beneath her feet. All summer long I had swept away slivers of wood that had fallen from the Xiongs’ decrepit porch onto mine, one floor below. Six households were intimately affected by Bao Xiong’s calamity, because we shared the same front entrance and stairwell, and our respective back porches were structurally interlocked within a shaky wooden framework of open landings and sagging staircases that clung precariously to the red-­ brick exterior of the Chicago tenement. The six households included two Hmong, one Mexican , one Puerto Rican, one Mexican–­ Puerto Rican, and myself, a white male ethnographer from Northwestern University. Ethnically our wing represented much of the rest of Big Red, where other first-­ generation Hmong, Mexican, and Puerto Rican families were joined by refugees and migrants from Cambodia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Poland, as well as an elderly Jew and Appalachians and African Americans who had been displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods of the city, such as Uptown. Big life in big red  171  Red mirrored the global forces of displacement and migration that had grouped such ethnically diverse working-­ class residents in one dilapidated building. Although separated by language, ethnicity, and cultural background, the polyglot residents shared the commonplaces of daily struggle embodied in Big Red. By sharing the same crowded living space, they were forced to interact across ethnic lines and cultural traditions. The distinct smells of several ethnic cuisines wafting from kitchens pungently accented the sounds of many voices and languages in the corridors and public spaces, collectively creating a richly sensuous experience of overlapping difference for anyone climbing up and down the back staircases. After reaching your landing, more often than not, you parted your way through damp clothing hanging from the clotheslines that crisscrossed back porches and extended the laundry of one household onto the threshold of another, your progress punctuated by the robust greetings, cries, and laughter of children. Within minutes of arriving home on the day that the Xiongs’ porch collapsed, I heard versions of the story from most of the neighbors whose back landings were structurally connected with Bao Xiong’s. A Puerto Rican grandmother was relieved that her neighbor had come to no serious harm but worried about the future safety of the children, particularly her grandchildren. A young Mexican mother anxiously pointed out the loose and missing railing on her porch, and how her wash had been ruined by all the dust and falling debris. Then Bao Xiong joined us, uninjured but still shaken. She kept repeating to the small circle of neighbors : “Oh-­ h-­ h, very, very scared. Only me. Happen only to me. Why me? Oh-­ h-­ h, very scared.” For her, the physical mishap was fraught with metaphysical meaning. She was not interested so much in why or how the porch collapsed. It is in the nature of things that they decay and fall. She sought explanation for the meaning-­ laden conjunction between the fall of the porch, and her stepping outside the back door. In her worldview , the precise timing of these two events was no mere coincidence, and she consulted the divination powers of a Hmong shaman who lived in another wing of Big Red. Providing substandard housing to a mix of people from all over the world, Big Red became a highly contested site of convergence and friction between the forces of global resettlement and local redevelopment. More than an inhabited physical space, Big Red itself inhabited discursive space, became a site of cultural production and political struggle. “Inhabited space—­ and above all the house,” argues Pierre...