MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. We've been hearing a lot of references these days to the Great Depression. We have family members who lived through it. We may be hearing their stories today at the Thanksgiving table.
Chicago was especially hard-hit back in the 1930s. Unemployment climbed as high as 40 percent in some parts of the city. It was a period of protests and hunger marches. But many people suffered quietly. They were ashamed of their poverty. The Great Depression changed the generation that survived it. Independent producer Neenah Ellis went to Chicago to hear their stories.
Ms. WANDA BRIDGEFORTH: The city was more segregated then.
NEENAH ELLIS: Wanda Bridgeforth has rich memories of Bronzeville, known as the Black Metropolis. Louis Armstrong lived there. So did Ida B. Wells. It was fairly affluent until hard times came.
Ms. BRIDGEFORTH: In the Depression, the men could not get jobs and the especially the black men. Here was my father with a degree in chemistry, and he could not get a job.
ELLIS: And he was humiliated, she says. He just fell apart. And so her mother took what work she could find, as a live-in domestic. And Wanda, just in grade school, was boarded out.
Ms. BRIDGEFORTH: And she told me that this is the way it has to be. So we either do it and survive or don't do it and don't survive.
ELLIS: Wanda Bridgeforth was sent to live with relatives and sometimes with strangers.
Ms. BRIDGEFORTH: One house we lived in, there were 19 of us in a six-room house.
ELLIS: She did learn to share and cooperate, she says, but so many years doing without left a mark on her.
Ms. BRIDGEFORTH: The kids do say that I'm a pack rat. 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.
Mr. HENRY MARTINEZ: The winter was so cold. We huddled around the potbelly stove.
ELLIS: Henry Martinez grew up near the lake in South Chicago, the city's oldest Mexican neighborhood. His parents had 13 children. They lived hand-to-mouth in a flat with shared bathrooms.
Mr. MARTINEZ: You had to take a bath, you'd heat up the water in these big cans. It was always a challenge to keep warm. When I think about it, it was horrible. 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. Sometimes I'd like to block that out and say, you know, thank God you're here.
ELLIS: He thanks God, but says the Catholic Church didn't do much to help his family back then. Today, at 76, he works as a community organizer trying to help his old neighborhood, which is still poor.
(Soundbite of passing railway train)
ELLIS: In a downtown office right next to the El tracks, Les Orear remembers an easier childhood. His father was a newspaperman in the 20s, and Les was in college when the stock market crashed.
Mr. LES OREAR: Pretty soon, I got a phone call that I'd have to come back to Chicago and find a job and try to help support my family. Hm.
ELLIS: And so he got a job at the stockyard making 37.5 cents a day. Chicago was a hotbed of union organizing in the 1930s, and Orear dedicated himself to beinging in the union, and he felt useful.
Mr. OREAR: It was a wonderful time for me because here I was, this young fellow with a - radical ideas are coming nowadays, and it's going on all over the country. I'm not a lone warrior. I'm a part of a vast machine.
ELLIS: Do you happen to have any memory of Thanksgiving during those times?
Mr. OREAR: I have no memory whatsoever, nor Christmas either. We in the yards, we had Christmas off, but it was a day with no pay.
ELLIS: What about Thanksgiving?
Mr. OREAR: No, you didn't work. You had Thanksgiving off. The company was kind enough to give you the day off. But you didn't get any pay. That's the way the world worked in those days before unions. That is the difference, kiddos.
ELLIS: Les Orear is 97 years old now, president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society.
(Soundbite of bell chiming)
ELLIS: 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 the Croatians of St. Jerome's Parish.
(Soundbite of simultaneous conversations)
ELLIS: Many of them born during the 1920s to immigrant parents.
Ms. GIGGI BESIC CORTESE: My mother had boarders living upstairs.
ELLIS: Giggi Besic Cortese has lived in this neighborhood all her life. I met her and some of her friends at her home. She's 81 now.
Ms. CORTESE: And we had a man that lived upstairs, we called him John Vuk, and every Sunday, he took us to this show. Do you know how I survived those days? It was going to the show every Sunday to see Shirley Temple. I'm telling you, she was my inspiration to go on living. Honest to goodness, I couldn't wait till Sundays. And we would just sit and wait for John Vuk to say come on, ve go to the show. Ve go to the show today.
Mr. DUSKO CONDIC: You certainly could say that people had heart for each other, and if they were able to help, more often than not, they did.
ELLIS: Dusko Condic is 77. He's from the neighborhood, too.
Mr. CONDIC: In my own situation, my father died a relatively young man in his early 40s. He left eight of us. Unfortunately, we lost the house. I can remember to this day, and I'll become emotional when I think of it - literally being placed on the sidewalk. Every last possession that my poor mother had because she wasn't able to supposedly pay for the mortgage. And an incredible number of people came to my mother's aid, literally wheeling wheelbarrows of coal to help warm the house.
ELLIS: Condic and his friends have lots of good memories, too. They were children back then, after all, glued to the radio.
Ms. CORTESE: Every Sunday at four o'clock, The Shadow Knows.
Ms. CONDIC: Right, right, right.
ELLIS: There's nothing they like better than gathering around the table and telling stories from the old days. 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.
Mr. CONDIC: My brother Mark has 10 kids. And somewhere along the line, you know, they tend to disregard the value of money. Oh, dad, it's only money, you know. So what? I could earn some more. And on one or more occasion, he tells them, hey kids, God forbid if the Depression comes around again. He says, I won't be opening the window and jumping out, but I could see you guys doing it. And I think that's probably true.
Ms. CORTESE: Yeah.
ELLIS: There's a 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.
Mr. CONDIC: Tomorrow, I could lose everything, you know. But somehow, I'm not afraid. I really am not.
(Soundbite of archived radio music)
ELLIS: For NPR News, I'm Neenah Ellis.