Friday, May 25, 2012

The Tragic Legacy of Segregation in 21st Century Chicago

In the last 30 years Metropolitan Chicago's economic identity has shifted from heavy industry and manufacturing to a knowledge-based center of global business and communications. Patterns of inner city decline and the outward push of wealth that defined the first century of Chicago's existence have reversed. The University of Chicago's famous sociology model of urban migration - where immigrant groups settle in the center and migrate toward the edges - has been turned inside out. A generation ago words like "urban" were typically used as euphemisms for "minority" or "Black." Today "urban" is more likely applied in the service of advertising luxury condominiums and lifestyle products.



Chicago, like New York, Boston and San Francisco, is part a "Great Inversion" of Metropolitan America. As the wealth of central neighborhoods increases dramatically, the poor and working class have been pushed into neighborhoods closer to the edge of the City. While Chicago has gained hundreds of thousands of well-educated young professionals, it continues to loose large numbers of the working class.

The demographics are very clear in much smaller cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, which have become almost completely gentrified. Chicago is so large and diverse that superficial statistics often fail to reveal powerful trends. The 2010 Census, however, indicated that Chicago's population dropped by 200,000 people in the preceding decade. Almost all of this decline can be accounted for by an exodus of African Americans and the increasing suburbanization of Latino immigrants. Thus, even as large parts of the central city gentrify, the middle class continues to leave while huge sections of outlying neighborhoods remain entrenched in poverty and destitution.



Chicago's transformation into a global business center with unparalleled urban amenities and a "world-class" downtown has not significantly changed the fundamental pattern of racial and economic segregation that defines not only our city, but the entire United States. Most cities are better places to live now than they've ever been - but America's urban renaissance has largely been limited to predominantly white or international professional class. Few places illustrate these trends better than Chicago.


Racial and economic segregation isn't unique to Chicago, but it is more tangible here than in most communities. Along with other "Rust-Belt" cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, Chicago regularly ranks among the the most segregated cities in the country. Last year a University of Michigan study suggested that we were the third most segregated city in America (behind Milwaukee and New York). This year a Manhattan Institute study ironically titled "The End of the Segregated Century" gave us the dubious title of number one.

1910 - 2000: African Americans and Hyper-Segregation in Chicago

The story of racial and economic segregation in Chicago is long and deeply tragic. I will do my best to summarize it as succinctly as possible.

Chicago has always been a city of distinct neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves. Typically these enclaves facilitated upward mobility within different ethnic groups even as discrimination characterized society as a whole. For the first 70 years of the City's existence, Chicago's demographic make-up was limited to various European ethnicity's and largely dominated by the Irish, Germans and Polish.

Between World War I and the late 1960's the Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of poor African Americans to work in Chicago's industrial economy. Newly arrived Southern Blacks were forcibly confined to a highly dense "Black Belt" on the near South Side. Despite repression and disinvestment by local and Federal governments and a perpetual struggle against prejudice in the workplace, cities like Chicago offered the greatest opportunity for Black upward mobility until the 1970's.

As more African Americans came to Chicago their vibrant culture became part of the City's identity. Like Harlem, Chicago's "Black Metropolis" (the Bronzeville / Douglas neighborhood) became a vital center of African American culture. In the 1920's Jazz centered around Louis Armstrong and South Side night clubs. Decades later Blues and Soul matured in Bronzeville. The Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper still in publication, became the primary medium for the expression of equality and justice for Black Americans in the 1920's - decades before the growth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite their growing numbers, cultural influence and relative prosperity, African Americans were still systematically denied the same rights as their fellow Chicagoan's. Indeed they were often the direct victims of mob violence - most famously in the 1919 Race Riot that witnessed gangs of ethnic whites attacking African Americans throughout the Black Belt.

Then and now, the primary difference between racial discrimination in the North and South is that Southern Whites were accustomed to geographic proximity with Blacks due to a long history of slavery and a low-density plantation culture. In fact, in most parts of the Deep South Whites were and still are a minority. In this context Southern Whites did not feel threatened by the presence of Blacks so long as a clear system of White oppression was upheld - hence the institution of slavery, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the implementation of sharecropping and Jim Crow. Southern Whites, in other words, have always tolerated the presence of Blacks "so long as they knew their place." This mentality is still clearly evident in the inability of so many Southern conservatives to recognize the legitimacy of Barack Obama's Presidency.

Outside of the South, most ethnic Whites migrating from Europe and the farms of the Midwest had very little if any exposure to African Americans before meeting them in streets and factories of the city. In the absence of a clear de jure system of White oppression, and placed in direct economic competition with each other, poor and working class Whites perceived the Black immigrant population as a threat. Businessmen and factory owners often facilitated racial resentment by using Blacks as union busters or "scabs" during the labor disputes of the early 20th Century.

As the decades passed cultural and economic conflict became deeply ingrained in the geography of Northern cities. After World War II America embarked on its great experiment with mass suburbanization by subsidizing the migration of the White Middle Class away from urban neighborhoods to new suburban enclaves that excluded non-Whites through racial covenants and prejudicial homeowners associations. While the Federal Government subsidized white suburbanization the Housing Administration and associated banks denied cities access to credit for home ownership or basic upkeep by "redlining" non-white or racially integrated neighborhoods. As people of means abandoned urban neighborhoods infrastructure, housing and civic institutions began to deteriorate. Federal "Urban Renewal" initiatives replaced traditional urban neighborhoods, vibrant streets and bustling row-houses with massive highways, convention centers, stadiums and high-rise housing.  Such policies systematically eliminated communities that, despite their poverty, maintained informal social support networks that facilitated upward mobility.

Poverty, disadvantage and desperation dramatically increased as the industrial economy declined, relocated to the suburbs or to non-union territories the South. By the late '60's and '70's cultural tension, inequality and economic decline erupted into a series of high-profile riots across the country. America's greatest cities were almost universally facing a downward spiral of societal disinvestment, unemployment, drug abuse and crime. Between the 1950's and the 1980's older cities of the "Rust Belt" lost as much as half of their population.

The Mid-Century decline of America's Northern industrial cities and the poverty, inequality and violence that ensued has been well documented by many scholars and journalists.




Urban Renewal, societal disinvestment and industrial decline devastated the South and West Sides of Chicago. Instead of providing clean, convenient living conditions for poor and working class families, the Chicago Public Housing isolated the City's poorest African Americans, destroyed the traditional social bonds and support networks of their communities and further entrenched a pattern hyper-segregation. Urban Renewal policies effectively, if not intentionally, confined poor African Americans while fortifying downtown and sections of the North Side for what remained of Chicago's business and cultural elite.

In a climate of cultural and economic insecurity a conservative counter-revolution opportunistically appropriated racial fear and prejudice to alienate lower and working class Whites from their own economic interests by perceptually marrying social programs and government intervention with demonized minorities. A strategy of blaming poor people for their poverty thus convinced much of White America that poverty was exclusively the fault of individuals or minority cultures rather than systematic inequality of education, opportunity and the accumulated advantages of pre-existing wealth. Republicans, in other words, undercut the moral authority of the Left by absolving (White) society from responsibility for the disadvantaged.

As cultural tensions increased in the late '60's, 70's and 80's, social and economic adversity was psychologically locked away in the closet of the inner city so that the suburban majority of Americans could continue their subsidized dream of prosperity. Cities like Detroit and Chicago were marginalized as out-liers, minorities and non-American in order to avoid dealing with the consequences of their contradictions. One can't accept that the desolation of Detroit or the South Side of Chicago is every bit as American as the bucolic suburbs of the North Shore without confronting the embedded inequality of our society. Instead of resolving our structural problems, America retreated. We became, as the Kerner Commission perceived in 1968, a balkanized nation of separate, unequal societies that are hyper-segregated by both race and income.

Chicago, as always, illustrated national socio-economic trends with the utmost clarity. But while most urban neighborhoods continued to decline through the 1980's, Downtown and the Near North Side began to reinventing itself as a hub of the new global economy. By the mid-1990's, younger Whites and a massive migration of Latin Americans revitalized large sections of Chicago. Crime began to drop dramatically. To the surprise of many, and for the first time since the 1940's, Chicago's population increased significantly between 1990 and 2000. All of this occurred during a decade when conservative pundits were more adamant than ever that the City had become irrelevant in an era of digital communication and tele-commuting.

By the beginning of the 21st Century Chicago became one of the most celebrated examples of America's urban renaissance. But despite the City's dramatic turnaround, the vast majority of recent immigration, redevelopment and gentrification occurred in neighborhoods that were never a majority African American. The most impoverished and isolated parts of the South and West sides remain virtually untouched by the revitalization that the City has experienced for the last 20 years.

2000's - Present: Separate, Unequal and Ignored (Steve Bogira, The Reader)

In the first decade of the 21st Century the Chicago Housing Authority aggressively demolished the City's notorious housing projects. Theoretically this was a positive development. "The Projects" had become cauldrons of crime, poverty and social isolation. Many were dominated by gangs and consumed by the drug trade. Optimistically the horrific conditions of public housing and the negative reinforcements of concentrated poverty and violence were finally being addressed by the City and the Federal Government. New initiatives intended to replace failing projects with economically and racially integrated, low-rise urban developments that resembled the neighborhoods that the towers themselves replaced 50 years earlier. Unfortunately the redevelopment of "New-Urbanist" style public housing has lagged far behind the demolition of old units. With Federal vouchers many former residents have moved to the suburbs or even out of state. Many others have migrated to neighborhoods once adjacent to the old projects. In this context housing policies and the closure of the City's worst performing schools (that are often adjacent to the old projects) have only reinforced a perception among many people that Chicago continues to systematically drive it's poorest citizens away from the gentrifying Central City.

Central Chicago and the neighborhoods of the North, Northwest, Near West and Near South Sides are now more beautiful and livable than ever. Most of the heavy polluting industries have moved to edges of the City. Crime continues to decline. The school system continues to show improvement. Green space, public transportation and urban amenities are all increasing in the Central City. But while urban life has become increasingly attractive to a number of demographics (young and old, the well-educated, the wealthy, the international professional class, etc.), it remains a literal living hell for hundreds of thousands of African Americans in Chicago's isolated ghettos. Chicago's transformation, in other words, has only heightened the economic disparity and social anxiety of our City.




Extreme poverty and crime has effectively migrated or been pushed further away from Central Chicago to more isolated neighborhoods on the far South and West Sides. Though violent crime continues to drop almost every year and the murder rate is now less than half of what it was in the early 1990's, isolated and impoverished parts of Chicago remain the most desperate, self-destructive and dangerous neighborhoods in America. The violence itself has increasingly shifted from 18-24 year olds to a much younger middle and high school age demographic. Incidents of young children brutalized and murdered have only reinforced a consensus that the far South and West Sides are intolerable places for people to live and raise families. It goes without saying that most people who have the means to escape such neighborhoods do so without hesitation.



To be fair, Chicago alone cannot be blamed for racism, de-industrialization or the continuous decline of the American middle class since the early 1970's. These issues are national and global in scale. What has transpired in Chicago is only a more acute example of what has happened across the country.

Despite the City's notorious history of segregation, neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown are among the most racially and economically integrated districts in the world. There is no doubt that the Chicago "El" and the New York City Subway are by far the most integrated places in the United States. Chicago's downtown streets are more socially and economically diverse than perhaps any city in the world outside of New York.

African Americans have shaped the history and culture of our City perhaps more than any ethnic group - from Louis Armstrong to Willie Dixon to the Nation of Islam, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers to Michael Jackson, Oprah, Kanye West and President Obama. With its central place in the story of Black Music, Literature and Civil Rights, Chicago contends with New York as the most important city in African American History.

Yet legacy of segregation continues to haunt our city. Chicago's inability or unwillingness to integrate Black communities or to facilitate economic opportunity for African Americans since the 1970's is the single most self-destructive and tragic aspect of our history. For a hundred years prejudice, abandonment and disinvestment have devastated a third of our population and vast swaths of our built environment.

The Suburbanization of Inequality

Chicago was once synonymous with Black opportunity. Sadly, this is no longer the case. The "Great Migration" has reversed. In the last 20 years upwardly mobile African Americans have consistently fled older cities of the North for the sprawling suburbs of Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston and Washington D.C. According to the 2010 Census, Metropolitan Atlanta has now surpassed Chicago as the second largest concentration of Black Americans (after New York).

60 years after America's experiment with mass suburbanization began, the suburbs have come to embody the same complex problems and conflicts as central cities. Sprawl can no longer be considered wholly different from the central city. It is simply a low-density extension of metropolitan patterns. For the most part the suburbanization of African Americans and other minorities has resulted in nothing more than a lower density version of inner city segregation.

Metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Houston are the some of the most dispersed, auto-dependent and economically and socially segregated settlements in history. They aren't even cities by same definition as their much older northern counterparts. By eliminating public space suburbanization and auto-dependency implicitly filter poor people from the every-day experience of the well-to-do. Race and class disparity is tangible in traditional urban environments because one actually encounters poor people on the streets every day. Sprawling conglomerations like Atlanta and Houston are hyper-privatized environments. Without streets, public transportation or accessible plazas and parks suburban cities like Atlanta limit personal experience to shopping and planned activities that inevitably take place in private enclaves. The primary purpose of such sprawling landscapes is to facilitate an escape from the public realm into privately controlled, homogeneous utopias. 

Segregation in Atlanta (White=Red, Black = Blue, Latino = Orange)
Segregation in Houston (White=Red, Black = Blue, Latino = Orange)
Atlanta is now, ironically, percieved as a Black cultural oasis. Since the Civil Rights movement the business and cultural establishment of the Southern Metropolis has done an incredible job of marketing itself as a "City too busy to hate." But the claim that Atlanta and the "New South" have moved beyond its entrenched history of racism is extremely naive. From Virginia to Texas, a coalition of Republican Governors and growth-oriented business interests have consistently attempted to white-wash history in order to make the South more appealing in the Global Economy. As the 2012 election draws near a half-dozen states of the old Confederacy are attempting to disenfranchise poor minority voters through various voter identification initiatives that are ostensibly being justified as efforts to make the voting process "more efficient."

I can say from personal experience that Metropolitan Atlanta is a deeply racist and highly segregated place. 60 years after Middle class whites began fleeing Northern cities "White Flight" continues in the sprawling outskirts 40 miles outside the city. Time and again concerns about declining schools and property values provide a thin vail of rationality over deeply seeded fears of multi-culturalism. Neighborhood decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as those with means disinvest in their community and escape to more exclusive enclaves.

Despite all of the economic turmoil that they have experienced since the 1960's, the older cities of the Northeast and Great Lakes are almost certainly more sustainable than the newer boom-towns of the Sunbelt. Older central cities that were built before the apotheosis of the automobile are more deeply tied to natural resources and vital transportation networks. Older cities are, for example, deeply wed to large bodies of water. In the last 40 years sprawling suburbs of Sunbelt have ballooned around highway interchanges more than natural resources. The rivers, rail networks and resource base of cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas are pathetic and incredibly fragile compared to the wealth of natural advantages that older, largely abandoned cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit possess. This, of course, is a large reason why the massive cities of the Sunbelt were little more than small towns or regional trading posts before 1970.

Southern boomtowns that are comprised almost entirely of low-density, auto-dependent development will not age well in a future of relative water, resource and energy scarcity. Most of these sprawling metropolitan areas will likely undergo a significant period of contraction and crisis as they struggle to re-invent themselves into more efficient and mature cities. Since 2008 more densely settled, walkable neighborhoods have retained far more value than isolated, sprawling enclaves. There is already a great deal of evidence that Atlanta has reached the limit of its infrastructure's carrying capacity. Perpetual water shortages, extreme isolation and complete auto-dependency threaten to paralyze the entire metropolitan area.

The suburbs, especially those built in the last 20 years, are in decline. The continued suburbanization of African Americans and other minorities will not facilitate upward mobility or integration. The last wave of the Great Migration brought Southern Blacks to cities like Chicago and Detroit just as the factories were closing. Since 2008 evidence has shown that the sub-prime mortgage scandal and real-estate crash have disproportionately affected minority home-owners. As Thomas Sugrue has argued, the tragedy of the Black experience is “…that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately born the impact of the inequality.” Moving to sprawling exurbs is no more advantageous now than moving to industrial cities was in the 1970's.

Like New York, Boston and San Francisco Chicago embodies a "Great Inversion" of American cities toward a European model of economic and racial segregation. The center looks increasingly wealthy, white, and globally connected. The edges are growing more diverse, impoverished and isolated. The continued tragedy of racial and economic segregation in Chicago and America is that upwardly mobile minorities will once again find themselves trapped - this time in the suburbs - and that cities like Chicago have done so little to make urban living more beneficial to people outside of the wealthy professional class that now dominates its center.

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