South Sider looks back on life before 100K tulips: 'There's always music in the house'

Before the tulips covered the grounds of 53rd and Prairie Avenue, before they became vacant lots, there were six flats that stood there, home to a barbershop, an underground lottery, and a number of residents, including Vivian Johnson, who was born there in 1935.

The building was one of several standing near intersections in Washington Park and across the South Side that have been demolished and left vacant.

Today, the grounds are in bloom with 100,000 red tulips planted in the shape of the house that stands there as part of artist Amanda Williams' artwork.

The work entitled “Redefining Redlining” aims to highlight the discriminatory practices that led to their destruction as well as that of many others in the Black Chicago neighborhood.

Williams and a team of graduate students are researching what caused the destruction of the building where the tulips are now and who lives there, but Johnson, 88, remembers firsthand.

“There's always music in the house,” Johnson says of the apartment at 5258 S. Prairie Ave. where his family lived until he was 6 years old.

The family lived on the ground floor in a two-bedroom apartment where he shared a bed with his two younger sisters, Johnson recalled.

“We were both at the head and one at the feet” was how they used to sleep, he said.

Their mother, Virgie, was a housewife and playing pianist at the local Baptist church, while their father, Jesse, was a plasterer for a construction company. Virgie would play Gospel music on the piano at home.

The couple met in Chicago, after both had moved to the city from the South as part of the Great Migration, married in 1934 and eventually had six children.

They left their Prairie Avenue apartment in the late summer of 1941 after giving birth to their fourth child, when Johnson was 6 years old.

They moved to a larger apartment about a mile north on 49th and Vincennes Avenues, but Johnson always liked the Prairie apartment best.

He remembered the beautiful girl upstairs whose dimples the Johnsons had envied; the red and white barbershop's pole indicating the operating barbershop in the basement; and the gorgeous French doors that separate the dining area from the living area within the apartment, where she first developed a love for learning.

Neighbors visit to try their luck in an underground lottery running out of barbershops, but the biggest joy is outside. Children gathered together for baseball and dutch doubles, a house down the road would occasionally be quarantined for dengue fever and, from time to time, nightmares would come to haunt the street.

“There was this guy who used to come through the neighborhood on stage, dressed in red and white and blue, and holding a sign that said ‘Uncle Sam wants you,'” says Johnson, remembering the fright the figure inspired.

“Of course, us as little kids, we would break our necks running back into the house.”

This was before Pearl Harbor drew the US into the war in 1941.

Even at his young age, Johnson can already read signs after learning to read while playing at home.

“We're just going to play school,” he said. “We'd spell bees and everything, so when we went to school we knew most of it.”

He attended Burke Elementary, about a quarter mile from home.

Once, he played truant, though by accident.

“Master took us out to rest, and I immediately walked home. I thought school was done,” said Johnson. “When I got home, my mother had to explain what recess was.”

After the family moved, Johnson never returned to the neighborhood and only realized the houses had been torn down while driving through the area about a decade ago.

“I remember liking it even more than where we moved,” he says.

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa non-profit journalism program that aims to increase newspaper coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.