Gerhard Schutte

Transcript of Gerhard Schutte
Interviewee: Gerhard Schutte
Interviewer: Mark Lecker
Date: January 23, 2014
Place: Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N Ashland Ave., Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Mark Lecker
Total Time: 18:07 minutes

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

ML: So, what brought you to the U.S. in particular, from South Africa?

GS: In 1985, ’86, politically, things were going pretty wrong in South Africa…and I thought, that there would be a racial conflagration because of the intransigencies of the government they had at that time. Very oppressive. So I decided to leave the country and I was looking for alternative employment. I was invited to become a visiting professor at the University of Santa Cruz in California.

ML: So you left South Africa after you were grown, then?

GS: Yes, yes. I left South Africa…you know…I had had an established position in South Africa. But that was…I was in my 40s when I left South Africa.

ML: What was it like growing up there? Did you grow up in a city? Was it a smaller town, or…?

GS: Yes, I was born in Victoria which is a city. I lived most of my life in Johannesburg, which is the largest city in the country. So I’m more of an urban fellow than, than rural. So I like big cities.

ML: Me, too. When you left South Africa, did you come to Chicago immediately?

GS: I first got an offer at a temporary position at Santa Cruz in California. And then after about eight months I had another job here in Chicago. That is how I came here in 1987.


ML: So you spent just a little bit of time in California, then.

GS: Yeah, yes. Just enough to whet my appetite.

ML: Weather-wise, do you like Chicago or California more?

GS: Of course California is much closer to where I come from. Weather-wise Chicago is pretty harsh for somebody who grew up in Africa. It is still so, because even now, you know, outside is almost minus two degrees and I don’t get used to that.

ML: So you still haven’t gotten used to the harsh winters here?

GS: What is that?

ML: So you still haven’t gotten used to the harsh winters here?

GS: No, no, no. I think I’ll never get used to it.

ML: When you moved to Chicago, did you immediately move to Edgewater or did you live in another part of the city first?

GS: I lived in, I stayed first in Evanston, partly because I had my son with me, and I wanted to be in a good school district. I taught at Loyola University at that time, and after my contract of a year ran out at Loyola I taught at Northwestern University. I stayed in Evanston for the reason of, of the good schools [unintelligible].


ML: How would you describe your experience as being an immigrant into not only this country but this city as well?

GS: As I mentioned before, I left my home country more because of push factors than pull factors. So I had to get used to this society. First of all you know you have a sense of alienation and strangeness. You could operate here because, professionally, you’re used to the environment but in the daily, everyday basis, you still had this notion of being a stranger and being made to feel a stranger. So, it was quite a matter of role-playing, trying to learn the culture [unintelligible] but not actually identifying, you know, with what you’re doing. And so in the back of your mind you’re still with one foot in Africa and one foot over here, and sometimes your weight shifted to Africa, and sometimes you wanted to feel more at home here. So it’s a constantly moving to and fro between your country of origin and your new country.


ML: Would you say that your identity has changed since you moved here? Do you identify as something else now?

GS: I always somehow saw myself as a world citizen with roots in Africa. It thus became very strange to me that when I arrived here I heard the people are African-American. I felt more African than African-Americans because I was very familiar with the culture. I could speak two African languages, which African-Americans don’t. And I was born in Africa. There I was in the process of becoming an American. It was very difficult to communicate to people that that is how I felt; African and American. But of course if you combine those two they immediately think you’re Black. In order to fit into standard categories…racial [unintelligible] which somehow there was [unintelligible] strange to me because I thought that I could actually bring much more from Africa and contribute to people’s knowledge of Africa here by assuming that label of African-American. But it was not appreciated, of course.


ML: Did you ever find yourself in conflict with people who identified as African-American that conflicted with your identity as African?

GS: Actually, I made a lot of friends, with African-Americans, because they were very inquisitive of Africa and South Africa. At that time of course South Africa went through a very difficult phase of conflict and racial oppression. They wanted to know more about South Africa. So I, you know, associated with African-Americans, I think much more than I associated with other citizens of the country.


ML: And by building those associations and friendships, did you start to form more of a sense of community where you were living?

GS: That is very interesting. A community, you know, implies to me, that you feel at home, and that you have a face-to-face relationship with people in the community. I made very few personal friends; maybe I could count on one hand. But I had a lot of colleagues with whom I associated. But it didn’t really develop into friendship and into a sense of, of belonging to a community with a wider network of friends. So it was a pretty much sense of isolation that I felt in the beginning. You had, you know, contacts and communications with colleagues and so on, but at home you were still very much on your own, and pretty, pretty isolated. If not lonely.

ML: You said lonely…

GS: Yeah


ML: And has that loneliness been pervasive since or have you seen a shift in the level of loneliness or isolation the longer that you’ve lived here?

GS: Yes. One thing that America communicates to your popular culture is that of individuality, rather than community. And I had to get used to that. But one of the effects is [unintelligible] feeling you’re on your own more than you’d like to be, and you are somehow vulnerable. And you have very little social capital to build on. Which had to be worked on. But, as the years moved on, I later became…. I later moved into the Chicago area because my son went back to South Africa and I didn’t need to stay in Evanston anymore. I met an American woman I fell in love with. We got married, and we moved into Andersonville. It was then that I built up my circle of friends because she had her network, and I extended mine. So we together became more and more immersed in the community and had a sense of community.


ML: Did you feel that Edgewater was more accepting of you than other parts of the city? I know you said you lived in Evanston. Was it easier to meet people in Edgewater and become friends with them?

GS: Not really, it was very much the same because our friendships were across the city, not necessarily confined here in Edgewater. We built up a few friends here, and then later on got introduced to the neighborhood organization called West Andersonville Neighborhood Organization (W.A.N.T.), and that we became active in it and so extended our network and became more and more rooted, so to speak.

ML: Do you feel that the neighborhood organization helped you to feel more at home?

GS: I think because we shared an environment here, if it’s artificially geographical here bounded by four streets. But you are concerned about your neighborhood. You’re concerned about safety. You’re concerned about preserving its character. You share with neighbors on some occasions, like Labor Day. There would be street fairs and so on that you get together. So there was some great sense of belonging to this place more and more. You wanted to plow your own energy back into it, and so both my wife and I became members of the Board of this West Andersonville Neighborhood Association.


ML: How did your perception change when you became a member of the Board rather than just a member of the community organization?

GS: I became much more familiar with issues that faced the neighborhood. And to me there was one thing that really stood out. That was to promote a sense of community and a sense of responsibility for each other. I tried to start a website in which people could communicate, in which they could sell things that they wanted to make available. But also, very importantly, it was a sense of being responsible for each other. Because I thought, “There are a number of elderly people here who are, during a winter such as this, absolutely helpless with snow removal. Or in the case of having to go to the doctor, there are resources in the community [unintelligible] that could help to transport them to whatever facility.” But this was not successful. I had…there was very little enthusiasm for it, and eventually this whole website idea didn’t work out. What happened, in the end, is we started meet-up groups. Go to restaurants in the area here, and that was fairly successful and is still an ongoing activity in which we are engaged in.


ML: Do having these meet-up groups, and going out for lunch, regularly meeting people solidify the bonds between members of this, even just the community of the organization?

GS: There again, you know, the community is much larger than the number of people who attend the meet-ups, so there are very small numbers…they range between twelve and twenty five. And usually it’s the same people that come to these events again and again. So it’s not really a big community activity. What I do see in the neighborhood organization is that they become more and more confined to a limited number of activities such as they look at code adherence of new buildings and so on, keep the character of the area. And then they have the community activities - Halloween when children gather in the garden. Then [one of] the very important activities here is the community garden, which I think is a signature of this West Andersonville community. So, apart from that there’s very little that binds them together, I would say.


ML: So you said you’ve lived in Andersonville for twenty something years now, right?

GS: Yes, 1996 till now. Twenty eight years?

ML: Eighteen years?

GS: Eighteen years, yeah.

ML: And being a member of the community organization board, have you seen a change in the community?

GS: What I did notice is, when I came here first, there were more children, in the area. There were apartment buildings which had a lot of children and children played on the streets, you know. Climbed the trees in front of the houses. So that certainly disappeared because these buildings became condos, private property, and much younger and more professional populations moved in. And it also became much more individualistic. You didn’t see people out on the street [unintelligible] and so on. More recently I see there are more families moving in, with children, but still they’re isolated. My wife grew up in this vicinity. There were no fences and they played in alleys and across the yard and so on. Nowadays people take their children and move them to the school, to activities and drive them back.


ML: So you said that you’re seeing a lot of people who are leaving the area to do activities?

GS: Yeah

ML: Do you see yourself staying in this area? Of the city, or even of the country?

GS: Well, I decided that I am going to stay in this country, and settle into the city.

ML: So do you feel that you’re going to stay in Andersonville, or do you think you’re going to move to another city at some point?

GS: I don’t know at this state, but probably will stay in this city. So we’ve made arrangements at our house to organize it in such a way that it becomes an all season setup.