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New Book Tackles Violence In Old Edgewater

The Old Neighborhood: A Novel (About Edgewater)

Written by Bill Hillman

Review by Betty Tsamis

There is no doubt that Bill Hillman delivered a hard-hitting, get-in-your-face novel with exquisite detail and overall highly crafted storytelling. “The Old Neighborhood” is not a memoir but “a novel” and the book clearly says so on the front cover. The distinction is important because although it reads like a memoir narrated by the main character, Joey, Hillman has insulated himself from being accused of pulling a James Frey (the Oprah Book Club selected “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, marketed as a memoir and which took on its own title in real life by breaking down into a million little pieces when it was discovered that Frey had fabricated some of the storytelling).

The Old Neighborhood unfolds during 1970’s-1990’s Edgewater.  The book starts off with a terrible murder  witnessed by Joey but then sets a delicate background with the story of his thirteen year old “ma” and fourteen year old “pa” who found themselves pregnant and had to make off to Tennessee to get married since it was illegal for them to get married in Illinois at their age. Joey tells the reader how, during this period, when his parents were young teenagers in trouble, Uptown and Edgewater were full of hillbillies from West Virginia who brought with them family vendettas. It’s hard to picture Edgewater as a hillbilly haven today.

theoldneighborhoodYoung Joey’s story is painful and is the story of a young boy who is haunted by murder and the memories of which he is never able to shake from his soul. Joey’s story is also that of a young man struggling to establish an identity and to survive the gang-infested neighborhoods of Chicago’s north side. He participates in heinous acts of brutality and witnesses stabbings, beatings, and shootings. Front and center in Joey’s story is the power of love.  Love for and from his first steady girl, Hyacinth to whom he loses his virginity and a raging, angry kind of love from his heavy-fisted father who is determined to get Joey away from the clutches of the gangs.

Hillman says he “wanted to write a book which showed that inner city violence isn’t a black and brown thing, it started as a white thing and many whites don’t realize that and that is a problem in my opinion. It makes it easy to ignore inner city violence or to sum it up as “well they’re just a bunch of animals”.

Parts of the book are really tough to read. The depictions of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities is expressed in a way that was Joey’s experience, but it is a way that offends educated company. This should not take away from the value of the book as a whole which serves as an enormous primer on better understanding to root of the gang wars in Edgewater. Hillman says that he credits the LGBT community with making Andersonville and Edgewater a safer place.  LGTBT people “are well educated career minded people who are a tremendous boon to the local economy, they commit few crimes and for the most part are friendly and jovial.” The Old Neighborhood is classic Chicago storytelling. It serves an important piece of anthropological history. It is a must-read.


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