When Joe English walks into a room, you cannot ignore him. He’s a difficult man to avoid — a hulking, talkative, ebullient, wise-cracking guy who could make a party, not to mention transform a neighborhood. And with his neighbors, he did transform a neglected, decaying, once elegant part of Chicago’s Austin community area into one of its finest neighborhoods — preserving both its architecturally significant housing and its neighborliness. He did so without taking the easy course of gentrification. Called Austin Village, it has been for half a century a polyglot place, economically, racially, and culturally diverse.
Joe English did well while doing good. He left his tenured position as an English professor at Triton College in River Grove to become a successful full-time developer, community leader, realtor and landlord — one who provided more decent low-cost housing on the West Side than the Chicago Housing Authority.
Now Joe has written a fascinating novel, a rollicking, larger-than-life tale that is as difficult to ignore as Joe himself. A Place Called Schugara is now in print — and we are better because of it. Like all memorable fiction, Schugara takes us places and teaches us lessons we’ve never imagined. We experience the suicidal heartbreak of a young man preyed upon by a pedophile priest; we understand the Midwestern small factory owner whose business is tyrannized by the government’s “Reinvestment Development and Partnerships Effort.” There is The Yellow Harp, a bookstore inadvertently set fire by a group of well-meaning but careless devotees of the “Sisters of the Sisterhood.” And we meet very real and ruthless “cops and robbers” on Chicago’s West Side. Most important, the book introduces us to a mythical Caribbean island that is more than a generic vacation retreat — it becomes a modern-day Eden.
Full disclosure: I am a friend of Joe, a reporter for the Reader who met him on assignment in the 1980s, writing about his efforts to preserve Austin Village. As a reporter, I have met and interviewed hundreds of people, and lost touch with most of them. I have not, will not, lose Joe English. If you don’t know him, at least read his book. It is that rarest of good reads: a page-turner with something to say, that causes us to laugh, to cry, to question, to think.
This is a novel about something much bigger than the interior of the writer’s mind. It is an ambitious exploration of the modern world, at times cynical and at other times hopeful — our hopes — chief among them being our desire to find our way back to Eden. This book, like Joe English himself, helps to show us how.
Hank De Zutter is a retired reporter/columnist for the Chicago Daily News and the Reader, and a founder of the Community Media Workshop — now Public Narrative. Joe English will read from, discuss, and sign copies his novel, “A Place Called Schugara,” at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., at 7 p.m., May 31.