In May I finally made good on my promise to bring my son Paul to 5th City, the place he was born 32 years ago. I knew I would write about it for my next Earthrise reflection, but when it came time to actually sit down and do it, I got serious writer’s block. I spent all week avoiding the task. Why? Well, I suppose I wanted to be profound: to tie the last 37 years into an elegant bow, to make sense of who I was then and now, to define the experience through Paul’s eyes, to tell an inspiring story about 5th City where it all began. But life isn’t so neat, inspiration isn’t always available, and authenticity isn’t necessarily very pretty. So I’ll just tell it the way it happened. And I’ve attached three of Paul’s photos.
Paul was excited about this trip, expecting to see something that would finally explain to him the strange history of his parents, and his own origins. We flew into Chicago a day early, and as an introduction I arranged to host a group of colleagues for dinner at a restaurant in the Loop. It was great to see the old faces - Jim and Karen Troxel, Terry and Pam Bergdall, Frank and Aimee Hilliard, Bruce and Sharon Texley, Rosemary Albright. Ruth Carter also joined us; sadly, Lela was too ill to make it.
I didn’t really plan anything for the dinner - no agenda or intentional conversation, but at the start of the meal Frank Hilliard leaned over and whispered to me that it would be a good idea to ask Ruth to sing. Suddenly, we were swept into a rousing half hour of song, led by Ruth. We covered all the old favorites, the words coming back easily, as Paul gaped. He’d never heard any of those songs. In fact, he has been told all of his life that his mother never sings. But sing she did on this evening. “All the earth belongs to all, that’s the vision and he call, local man shall rise again, to build the earth, the common earth.” (Jim Troxel got a big kick out of describing to Paul a time long ago when his mother danced on tables for the Order Cabaret. Paul just shook his head in disbelief.)
The following day Frank and Aimee Hilliard had arranged to take us on a tour of 5th City, and Ruth joined us. A word about Ruth. I had the great honor of working with her in the early seventies. Although I was never a very good preschool teacher, it was always an inspiration to be around Ruth. Her infectious spirit has changed many lives, and although she is retired now, she is still closely involved in the work of the preschool.
The years since I last saw Ruth have not been easy for her. In 1999, her youngest son was shot in the head in a drive-by (yes, in 5th City), and although he survived, he needs full time care, which she provides. Yet her booming laugh fills the space where heartache lies. Once again, I found myself inspired and humbled in her presence.
Now, about 5th City. It was kind of hard for me to get oriented at first. The old homestead is gone, for one thing. The Institute was the anchoring point in my memory, so I had to find other anchors - the Iron Man, the preschool, the community center, the site of the old shopping center. It was a gray day, and as we walked down block after block I had to fight back the clouds that were forming in my head. Paul whispered to me, “This place looks wasted.” And it did. There were no people on the street, there was no promise in the air.
Only the preschool hinted at the remembered fire, with the children in brilliant red singing along with Ruth. But the Iron Man stood on a thatch of overgrown weeds. Later, Paul observed, “Fifth City doesn’t feel like a community that is coming to life. It feels like a community that is dying.” And on the face of it, that seemed to be true.
It was impossible to ignore the gentrifying press from the east and west, squeezing in on the old territory. What was the vision for this plot of land that had launched a global dream? As we reviewed our experience, Paul kept speaking about 5th City as a thing of the past. “I’m sure it was really something when you were all here,” he said. “But I don’t see it now.” I struggled for a rebuttal, wanting to explain how 5th City was not a story of the past; how it remained a story of the future. But I didn’t know how to say it.
It took Lynda Cock to put it into perspective for me. A week after our visit I wrote to her about the trip, and I guess I was grousing a little about how hope was hard to find. She wrote back, wisely ignoring my complaints, and simply reflected, “What a journey it has been that has inspired so many other communities. How wonderful that we were able to be a part of that experience.” And just like that I saw; 5th City’s true purpose. I was reminded that 5th City is not - and never was - a place. It was a vision. Thanks to 5th City, countless communities across the world have found hope where it didn’t exist before. It was the cocoon, shed by the butterfly, as it took flight.
I am Catherine (Schuler) Whitney. I came to 5th City in 1970 from the Ithaca cadre in Seattle. While there I taught in the preschool, worked in the after school program, and edited the 5th City Voice. I was married in 5th City and our son Paul was born there. The Order/ICA community has been my meditative counsel for my entire adult life, and increasingly it is once again becoming my visible community. I am blessed to be in such fine company during my brief stay on this earth.
-- Catherine (Schuler) Whitney - 21 Jun 2007
- 5th City Community Center: Aimee, Frank, Mica Woods (director), Me, Ruth, and an volunteer:
- 5th City Preschool:
- Ruth Carter and I walking down the street in 5th City: