Survivors Of The Great Depression Tell Their Stories

Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children. i i

Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children. His mother was a widow. He says growing up in poverty during the Great Depression made him a stronger person. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Neenah Ellis for NPR
Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children.

Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children. His mother was a widow. He says growing up in poverty during the Great Depression made him a stronger person.

Neenah Ellis for NPR
President emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society Les Orear, 97, gives a tour of the museum. i i

Les Orear, president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society, gives a tour of the society's downtown museum. He is 97. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Neenah Ellis for NPR
President emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society Les Orear, 97, gives a tour of the museum.

Les Orear, president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society, gives a tour of the society's downtown museum. He is 97.

Neenah Ellis for NPR
Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life. i i

Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life. Growing up during the Great Depression was hard, she says, but she drew strength from her family, friends and St. Jerome Catholic Church. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Neenah Ellis for NPR
Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life.

Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life. Growing up during the Great Depression was hard, she says, but she drew strength from her family, friends and St. Jerome Catholic Church.

Neenah Ellis for NPR

The Great Depression of the 1930s is on peoples' minds these days. If you have family members who lived through it, you may hear their stories at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.

It was a period of protests and hunger marches — and unionism spread like wildfire — but many people suffered quietly, ashamed of their poverty. No matter what their situation, the Great Depression changed those in the generation that survived it.

During those years, Chicago was especially hard-hit. Unemployment was as high as 40 percent in some neighborhoods. The city was more segregated than it is now.

Wanda Bridgeforth, who is from the Bronzeville area known as the "Black Metropolis," says she has rich memories of those years. It was a fairly affluent neighborhood — jazz great Louis Armstrong lived there, and so did Ida B. Wells — until hard times came.

"In the Depression, the men could not get jobs, and especially the black men," Bridgeforth says. "Here was my father with a degree in chemistry, and he could not get a job."

Bridgeforth's father was humiliated, she says. He fell apart, so her mother took what work she could find as a live-in domestic worker. Bridgeforth, who was in grade school, was boarded out.

"She told me that this is the way it has to be," Bridgeforth says. "So we either do it and survive, or don't do it and don't survive."

Bridgeforth was sent to live with relatives and sometimes with strangers.

"One house we lived in — there were 19 of us in a six-room house," she says.

Bridgeforth did learn to share and cooperate, she says, but so many years going without left a mark on her.

"The kids do say that I'm a pack rat," she says. "And they say, 'Well, what are you going to use this for?' and I say, 'I don't know, but I'm going to use it.' "

Surviving Winters Near Lake Michigan

In Chicago's oldest Mexican neighborhood, near Lake Michigan in South Chicago, Henry Martinez says the winters were so cold, they huddled around the potbelly stove.

Martinez's parents had 13 children, and they lived hand-to-mouth in a flat with shared bathrooms.

"You wanted to take a bath, you heat up the water in these big cans," Martinez says. "It was always a challenge to keep warm — we hugged each other on the floor. We had little beds that open and close. When I think about it, it was horrible. It was horrible. And then the sanitation of the community — garbage was just put in the alley — and did that create a condition? Yes it did: TB [tuberculosis]. I know my sister came down with TB. Sometimes I like to block that out and just say, 'Thanks God you're here.' "

He thanks God but says the Catholic Church didn't do much to help his family back then. At 76, Martinez works as a community organizer trying to help his old neighborhood, which is still poor.

Downtown Chicago Before The Unions

In a downtown Chicago office, right next to the El tracks, Les Orear remembers an easier childhood. Orear, 97, is now president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society.

But in the 1920s, Orear's father was a newspaperman, and Orear was in college when the stock market crashed.

"Pretty soon I got a call that I'd have to come back to Chicago and help support my family," Orear says. "Hm!"

He got a job at the stockyards making 37.5 cents a day. Chicago was a hotbed of union organizing in the 1930s, and Orear dedicated himself to bringing in the union. He says it made him feel useful.

"It was a wonderful time for me because here I was this young fella, and radical ideas are coming nowadays, I feel like I'm in the cusp," Orear says. "I'm one of those that is giving leadership to the working force that's going into the union. ... And it's going on all over the country. I'm not a lone warrior. I'm part of a vast machine."

But Orear has no memories of Thanksgiving or Christmas "whatsoever," he says.

"All of those holidays were so incidental," Orear says. "We in the yards did not have Christmas. We had Christmas off, but it was a day with no pay."

It was the same for Thanksgiving, and Orear says there were no vacations or benefits.

"It's hard now for young people — for anybody — to remember, that's the way the world worked in those days, before unions. That is the difference, kiddos."

Born To Immigrants In Bridgeport

Bridgeport, south of the Loop, is home to the White Sox. Church steeples sprout from this working class neighborhood of the Irish, Italians, Polish, Lithuanians, Chinese and Croatians of St. Jerome's Parish.

Many of them were born during the '20s to immigrant parents.

Giggi Besic Cortese, 81, has lived in the neighborhood all her life. She lives on a block full of two-story brick and frame houses with narrow sidewalks between them. She said boarders stayed upstairs, including a man named John Vuk who took her to the show every Sunday.

"Do you known how I survived those days?" Cortese asks. "[It] was going to the show every Sunday to see Shirley Temple, but [I] tell you, she was my inspiration to go on living. Honest to goodness, I couldn't wait till Sunday, and we would sit and wait for John Vuk to say, 'Come, ve go to the show, ve go to the show today.' You can certainly say that people had heart for one another — and if they were able to help, more often than not they did."

Dusko Condic, 77, who is also from the Bridgeport neighborhood, says his father died "a relatively young man," in his early 40s.

"He left eight of us," Condic says. "Unfortunately, we lost the house. I can remember to this day — and I become emotional when I think of it — literally being placed on the sidewalk [with] every last possession that my poor mother had because she wasn't able to supposedly pay the mortgage. And an incredible number of people came to my mothers' aid, literally wheeling wheelbarrows of coal to help warm the house."

Condic and his friends have a lot of good memories, too. They were children glued to the radio every Sunday.

"There's nothing they like better than gathering around the table and telling stories from the old days," Condic says. "Today, on Thanksgiving, their children and grandchildren might ask about the Great Depression they say, but they're pretty sure the kids don't really understand."

"My brother Mark has 10 kids, and somewhere along the line they tend to disregard the value of money," Condic says. " 'Oh, Dad, it's only money. So what, I can make more.' And on more than one occasion, he tells them, 'Hey kids, God heaven forbid if the Depression comes around again. I won't be opening up the window and jumping out, but I can see you guys doing it.' I think that's probably true."

There's grit in this generation of Chicagoans — and something of a swagger, too. The man who cries about his mother's struggles can boast in the face of today's catastrophe.

Says Condic: "Tomorrow I could lose everything, but somehow I'm not afraid. I really am not."

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