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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Oh, for the '50s, When We Had Rules : THE LOST CITY: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s by Alan Ehrenhalt ; BasicBooks $24, 310 pages

October 13, 1995|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two symbols of life in the 1950s as Alan Ehrenhalt imagines it to have been open his strange but arresting book. One is a Chicago tavern owner and politico named John G. Fary. Ehrenhalt approvingly records that Fary never ever disobeyed his orders from Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine. His reward was a seat in Congress.

The other is the Chicago Cubs player Ernie Banks. He never left the Cubs. He couldn't. In the baseball rules of the day, he wasn't a free agent. The Cubs owned him.

Ehrenhalt yearns for what he calls "the limited life" of the 1950s. He yearns for the return of "authority." He makes his case at the outset:

The baby-boomer generation, now in its 30s and 40s, believes that choice "is a good thing in life, and the more we have of it, the happier we are.

Authority is inherently suspect; nobody should have the right to tell others what to think or how to behave. Sin isn't personal, it's social; individual human beings are the creatures of the society they live in. . . ."

He believes that these ideas, which have "the ring of truth," have been taken to excess in the last 25 years--he is especially hard on the 1960s, which he loathes--and "have caused a great deal of trouble."

"The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections--in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. . . .

"We have grown fond of saying that there is no free lunch, but we forget that it applies in moral as well as economic terms. Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets--the ingredients of what we call community--all come at a price. The price is limits on the choices we can make as individuals, rules and authorities who can enforce them, and the willingness to accept the fact that there are bad people in the world and that sin exists in even the best of us. The price is not low, but the life it makes possible is no small achievement."

Ehrenhalt believes that in the 1950s, most Americans were willing to pay that price. The bulk of his book is a close look at three communities in '50s Chicago: the Roman Catholic parish of St. Nicholas Tolentine in southwest Chicago; Bronzeville, the black section, and Elmhurst, a new suburb 10 miles west of the city.

Each was a community, he argues. The parish was cemented by the church and its pastor in his black cassock, Msgr. Fennessy. Bronzeville was a community because Jim Crow forced the African Americans to live jammed together in a small space.

Elmhurst was a community because all the families were about the same age and all the children were young.

Ehrenhalt paints a beguiling picture of our country then.

In a chapter named "Midsummer in America," he described the year 1957, when he was 10 and living, evidently, in Elmhurst.

There were, yes, anxieties. He says a lot of people worried about not worrying enough.

The blacks in Bronzeville worried about not being able to break out. The whites of St. Nick's worried about the disorder that crime brings.

He accurately recalls the changes already afoot in many aspects of American life: the spread of family vacations, the beginnings of consumerism, the rise of tranquilizers, television. But the picture is overwhelmingly one of contentment and satisfaction.

The recession of the late '50s had not yet appeared; the mighty industries of the Middle West had not yet rusted.

Vatican II had not yet shaken the Roman Catholic Church. The civil rights revolution was just beginning. Women mostly stayed home. Network censors kept television prudish. Market economics did not yet command everyone to do its bidding; companies were still loyal to their employees and to their communities. Vietnam was as yet unnoticed.

Ehrenhalt concedes that the '50s are not coming back. He takes it for granted that the civil rights revolution was a good thing, though he does say as much for Vatican II. But the tone of the book is of powerful, emotional nostalgia, and that is what makes it both peculiar and engaging.

Never mind that life in those days was a good deal more complicated and a lot less settled than Ehrenhalt portrays it. He is on to something. People do hanker for community. The intense individualism of American life makes community the more prized because it is not easy to achieve.

But how to bring it about? Must it be achieved only at the cost of, somehow, increasing authority and restricting personal choices? How could such things be done? One person's notion of authority is his neighbor's idea of tyranny.

Ehrenhalt's brief conclusion is his book's weakest part. He merely suggests that the children of the baby boomers might rebel against their parents, as their parents rebelled against theirs, and somehow reimpose order and stability.

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