Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Apologies to Dracula, Werewolf, Frankenstein": White Homeowners and Blockbusters in Postwars Chicago

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Apologies to Dracula, Werewolf, Frankenstein": White Homeowners and Blockbusters in Postwars Chicago

Article excerpt

In July 1962, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article with the intriguing title, "Confessions of a Block-Buster." The author, "Norris Vitchek as told to Alfred Balk," freely described himself as a "blockbuster," but shielded his identity behind a pseudonym. He rationalized this subterfuge in the article, explaining that the "perhaps slightly less odious name for my craft is real-estate speculator." The recently-coined term "blockbusting," in wide use in American cities during the 1960s, referred to the decades-old practice of upsetting the racial homogeneity of all-white residential blocks for the purpose of profiting from the difference between what African American and white urbanites paid for housing.2 "Confessions" detailed Vitchek's tactics for convincing white homeowners in Chicago to sell their homes to him, so that he could resell them to African American buyers at inflated rates. Vitchek described blockbusters' profits as "abnormal" and offered the claim that, "If anybody who is well established in this business in Chicago doesn't earn $100,000 a year, he is loafing."3

The appearance of Vitchek's "Confessions" outraged many of the Post's readers around the nation. A San Antonio resident asked, "If Vitchek felt so justified in his greedy crusade for money at the expense of his fellow white man, why did he bother to use a nom de plume?" A Realtor from San Francisco wrote, "Your deliberate aim at generating hate and misery and increased racial tension is nauseating." Edwin Berry, the Executive Director of the Chicago Urban League, however, recognized the article's real purpose: the author intended "Confessions" to be an expose of blockbusting, not a justification for it. Berry's letter to the Saturday Evening Post congratulated the magazine for publishing "an accurate picture of what goes on in racially transitional areas." He continued, "it is this kind of realestate operation that has made the word 'integration' a bad one."4

Chicago's daily newspapers offered minimal coverage of the controversial article. The conservative Tribune did not mention it. The Daily News and Defender, which were less averse to nuanced coverage of race relations in the city, described the Post article at greater length. The Daily News reported that, "Alfred Balk, the Evanston writer who located the block buster by telephoning speculators until he found one who would talk, said Vitchek was paid for his time and guaranteed anonymity by the magazine."5 The Garfieldian, however, a weekly local paper that served a community on Chicago's West Side, where the selling practices and steady racial change described in the Post article had recently become common, gave "Confessions" extensive coverage.

The Garfieldian and its white audience did not waste any energy exploring the reasons for the article's publication; instead, West Garfield Park anti-blockbusting activists focused on finding out who "Norris Vitchek" really was. Their suspicions quickly settled on Mark J. Satter, a white attorney from the city's South Shore neighborhood. Satter had been waging a one-man educational campaign about the consequences of the shortage of housing available to black Chicagoans. He also represented African American clients in lawsuits over foreclosures on their properties in formerly-white neighborhoods. Both of these activities suggested to white West Siders that Satter aimed to place African Americans in their neighborhoods and homes.6 After a few weeks of hedging, Satter admitted that he had indeed provided the information for the story to the article's author, but adamantly denied being a blockbuster.7

Angry white activists lured Satter onto a local television program to defend the Post article. There they ambushed him with the accusation that he had filled the West Side apartment buildings he owned with black tenants in order to drive whites out of the neighborhood; they were, effectively, charging that Satter's actions proved he was a blockbuster. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.