And that matters because the people who make decisions about transit investments – politicians – look at how many of their constituents benefit from a given service as a major component of whether they benefit politically from supporting it.
And if they’re just looking at commute share, they’re looking at too few people. Even transit-rich metropolitan Boston doesn’t look so great by that metric: only 12% of workers there usually take transit to their jobs. But 29% of households include someone who regularly takes transit to school or work, and fully 56% of households use transit for at least some of their trips. In sprawling Houston, just 2% of workers commute with transit – but more than twice that proportion of households use transit for work or school, and more than one in ten households use transit for some of their trips. That’s still not great, but it’s much more significant than the minuscule commute numbers. It also suggests that even in one of the most transit-hostile regions of the country, a remarkable number of people find public transit useful for certain trips, forming a toehold for better service to produce even more ridership.
It’s a bit weird that Chicago has something called a “pedestrian street designation” – after all, people walk on pretty much literally every single street in the city. But it does! Official “pedestrian streets,” which have existed since 2004, are designed to “promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort” by disallowing certain things, like parking lots facing the sidewalk, and encouraging others, like storefronts and sidewalk cafes. The city’s transit-oriented development ordinance also applies up to two blocks from an L station along pedestrian-designated streets, as opposed to one block on other streets.
Recently, I saw a map of the city’s pedestrian-designated streets for the first time. This is what it looked like:
This is a map that made me say “hmm.” If you have any sense of Chicago’s racial and economic geography, it is probably making you say “hmm,” too. But just to hit the point home:
There is literally one pedestrian street in a majority-black community area: Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, between 88th and 92nd Streets. By contrast, the North Side east of the river is absolutely lousy with them; Milwaukee Ave., the retail backbone of the Northwest Side, has several large districts radiating from six-way intersections; and the Latino section of the Southwest Side, though it has way less than the North Side, at least has pedestrian designations on the busiest portions of 18th, Cermak, and 26th Streets.
To be clear, the people in charge of assigning pedestrian street designations are aldermen, not CDOT. That is, the issue isn’t that the Mayor’s Office is just choosing to give North Side streets “pedestrian” status and not South Side streets. But still, it’s a pretty notable pattern.
How much does this matter? I don’t know. You could observe, of course, that people in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, West Town, and their aldermen, appear to believe that pedestrian street designations matter enough to slap them all over their neighborhoods. Alderman Ameya Pawar, for example, has been quite vocal in his belief that making commercial streets in his ward more pedestrian-friendly will improve his constituents’ quality of life and promote economic development, not to mention reduce injuries from car accidents.
And although people on the South and West Sides may have different concerns and priorities, certainly one of them is economic development and thriving retail districts, which exactly the sort of thing the pedestrian street designation is designed to support. Part of the issue is that a pedestrian street designation – and the somewhat more attractive street that results – is hardly a guarantee of new businesses. Underlying economic factors and the perceptions of business owners matter much more.
But a pedestrian designation is such a low-cost exercise that I’m not sure that explains it. More likely is that there’s a fear that the kind of businesses that have chosen to move into black neighborhoods – disproportionately national chains with auto-oriented cookie-cutter designs – would be deterred by rules that forced them to adopt more pedestrian-friendly formats.
There may be some legitimacy to that. But, for one, there’s more than enough room to place some drive-through restaurants in South Side neighborhoods while preserving and enhancing pedestrian-oriented retail streets. And for two, pedestrian-friendly design is likely best for the long-term economic health of those communities. After all, not only is the property value bonus for walkable neighborhoods well-documented, but there are plenty of South Siders who have noticed that there’s a difference between, say, Clark St. and Cottage Grove – and want to close that gap.
(I’d also note, as an aside, that the way the pedestrian street law is written seems to disadvantage South Side neighborhoods. The ordinance stipulates that pedestrian streets should be designated in places where there are “very few vacant stores,” which excludes many communities with trouble attracting retail – which is to say, most black communities in Chicago. But if the point of the law is to promote economic development, why would you specifically exclude places especially in need of economic development? I don’t think that this clause has actually prevented any given pedestrian street designation – I suspect that, as these things generally work, any alderman who wanted one would get it – but I do think it suggests that the law was designed with the North Side in mind. Which is unfortunate.)
I have a new post at City Observatory:
— Chels (@BEautifully_C) April 30, 2015
In the wake of violent protests against yet another apparent police killing in Baltimore, variations of this meme spread rapidly in certain corners of social media. Their message went something like this: Pundits and politicians may think Baltimore’s crisis began with the first brick that hit a window at CVS, but we – the people who live there – know the crisis goes back much further, and much deeper.
With this in mind, there’s some irony to the spate of columnists warning that the disturbances in Baltimore mark a return to the “bad old days” of the mid-to-late 1960s, when a series of violent protests in America’s black neighborhoods held the nation riveted. Those riots, too, were treated as a crisis by pundits who had not applied the term to decades of housing discrimination, or illegal violence on the part of police officers and white civilians.
But using violent protests as a point of analytic departure – rather than the underlying crises that provoked them – doesn’t just (unintentionally) reveal one of the similarities between 1968 and 2015. It also misses a lot of the major differences.
I’ve written these roughly in descending order of how much sense they seem to make for the city, but I should say that I think context matters an enormous amount in determining what kind of transit service makes the most sense, and this is meant more as an attempt at an outline of the tradeoffs involved for each option rather than a definitive ranking.
UPDATE: I should also have acknowledged that the cost estimates are verrrry rough; the methodology is at the bottom of the post, but several smart people have commented to quibble one way or the other, particularly with the street-running light rail numbers.
Ballpark Cost: $1.1 billion per mile¹
Sometimes, people say: why don’t we just build a subway? They might say this in reference to the Ashland BRT project, or the Belmont Flyover, or some other place where they’d like a rapid transit line but don’t want to disrupt the flow or aesthetics of the city above ground.
Unfortunately, I have bad news: This is extremely unlikely. It’s unlikely because American subways are just ungodly expensive. (Why are they so expensive? Go ask Alon Levy.) Take, for example, the 16-mile Ashland BRT project. If we held an Ashland subway to the average cost of an American subway, it would run about $17 billion. Even the five-mile first phase would set us back $5.5 billion – nearly 12 times more than we spent to deconstruct and then reconstruct the entire 10-mile length of the Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch in 2013. Chicago’s entire annual budget is only about $8 billion, and the federal government hasn’t been handing out checks for transit infrastructure projects on that scale for quite a long time.
And that’s sort of where the discussion ends. Subways have a lot of benefits – they don’t interrupt, and aren’t interrupted, by surface traffic; they’re protected from the elements; they can move lots and lots of people – but I say that in the spirit of someone window-shopping something very pretty but outrageously unaffordable.
Ballpark Cost: $50 million per mile
While subways are potentially useful but logistically impossible, streetcars are logistically simpler but, in most cases, their benefits are much more doubtful.
I should note that I’m using a very particular definition of streetcars here. I have in mind essentially a bus on rails: a relatively short train set designed to travel in the same road lane as cars and other traffic. (Another type of rail transit that some people might call a streetcar, but which I’m calling “street-running light rail,” appears further below.) It looks something like this:
That’s the recently-opened Atlanta streetcar; note the automobiles in the same lane behind it. The problem with this sort of thing, from a Chicago-centric perspective at least, is that it has exactly the same issue that Chicago’s buses have: it gets stuck in traffic, and is therefore extremely slow. Actually, it’s worse than that: buses can move around a stopped cab or double-parked car; a streetcar can’t. In fact, one reporter found the Atlanta streetcar to be slower than walking.
The one advantage streetcars do have over buses is that they can hold more people. But that’s only an advantage if a) you need more capacity and can’t run any more buses, or b) you want to trade higher-capacity vehicles for less frequent service. Since there are virtually no bus lines on which the CTA can’t fit more bus runs – and since I don’t know of any Chicagoans who think that their local bus runs too frequently – those don’t seem super relevant here.
And, for all that, you have to spend $50 million – the cost of one of those super-fancy new L stations – to build each mile before you can even get up and running.
4. Freight right-of-way
Ballpark Cost: $180 million per mile
A cheap way to build a rail line that doesn’t have the traffic problems of a streetcar is to put it where there are already train tracks: in a freight right-of-way. That’s mostly what Chicago did with the Orange Line. There have also been proposals to create a line in a freight right-of-way just east of Cicero Avenue – the “Lime Line” in Transit Future.
The problem with this is that most freight corridors don’t go near major residential or commercial nodes. Here, for example, is the area around the Kedzie Avenue Orange Line station:
Unlike L stations on, say, the Green or Brown Lines, you have to walk a quarter mile or more through some pretty uninviting landscapes to get to the places that most people take transit to get to. That problem can be partly mitigated by integrating the station well with frequent buses that take people for their last mile, and the Orange Line makes an effort to do so – but that can still easy add ten or fifteen minutes to a trip, making it much less attractive. That may have something to do with the findings of a study last year that the Orange Line has not catalyzed development in the way that other transit lines have.
Ballpark Cost: $250 million per mile
Elevated trains have some of the advantages of subways – they don’t have to even think about street traffic – but are missing lots of others. Namely: they’re exposed to the elements, and are considered by most people a bit of an audiovisual disaster. They’re much, much cheaper – enough so that one could imagine the city actually procuring the money to build one – but politically quite difficult to build in places where lots of people already live and have bought homes on the assumption that there would not be a train rumbling past every five to ten minutes all day.
But if you run them far away from where people actually live, then you have the same problem as freight right-of-ways: you’re not actually connecting people to where they want to go, which is usually the entire point of building a transit line.
2. Street-running light rail
Ballpark Cost: $160 million per mile
This is essentially a streetcar with its own travel lanes. Advantages, then, include that it can bypass traffic jams without incurring the expense of building either underground or an elevated structure; it also is much more likely to run near homes and businesses, as it runs in an actual street rather than a freight corridor.
Unfortunately, these kinds of projects can still have problems with speed, since they may have to stop for traffic lights, and being in the middle of a busy street means they can’t reach heavy-rail speeds (the L, for example, can top out at 55 mph – which wouldn’t be allowed if it were running down Western). Still, it’s cheap and user-friendly.
1. Commuter rail conversions
Ballpark Cost: $27 million per mile
It’s a little-known but important fact that there are far more Metra stations on the South Side than there are L stations. Some Metra lines also have freight traffic that limits the number of possible passenger trains, but for the several that don’t – including the Metra Electric District – there’s no reason that these existing passenger rail lines can’t be turned into regular L-type service relatively easily. Make some upgrades, buy some train sets, and run them every ten minutes or so, and boom, you’ve got a new rapid transit line.
Of course, the bigger issue is political. But with Toronto promising 15-minute headways all day on its commuter rail network, it’s a shame there isn’t more momentum for that type of conversion here.
¹ In every case but commuter rail conversions, I’ve come to these cost figures by averaging all similar projects currently under construction in the United States, as listed at The Transport Politic. There are a lot of problems with this: mostly, construction costs are so site- and project-specific that it’s really hard to generalize to a particular development in Chicago from things that are being done elsewhere. But this was, I thought, about as good as I could do – thus the qualification that these are only “ballpark” costs.
In the case of commuter rail conversions, because there is not a single such project under construction in the entire United States (though there is in Toronto!), and because the most likely such project in Chicago – the conversion of the Metra Electric line – has been studied and given a price tag, I just used that.
Over at City Observatory, I have a post riffing on recent posts by Nate Silver and the New York Times’ Upshot on segregation and the reproduction of inequality:
That is, it’s easier to send black children to inferior schools if their schools are all on one side of town, and white schools are on the other. It’s easier to target housing and mortgage discrimination against blacks – one of the most important causes of the wealth gap – if all the black-owned houses are in one area. It’s easier to unleash abusive policing and incarceration practices on black communities without disturbing – or even attracting the attention – of whites for decades if whites and blacks don’t live in the same neighborhoods…. If this is why we care about segregation, then Silver’s measure – which doesn’t care which racial groups are mixing, as long as there is some mixing going on – is less useful. What matters then isn’t just integration: what matters is that privileged groups live in the same places as traditionally oppressed groups, so that place-based discrimination is made more difficult. In the United States, that means whites and people of color living in the same neighborhoods. Where that doesn’t happen – even if an area is integrated with, say, blacks and Latinos – then place-based discrimination is still viable, and it will be much easier to reproduce racial inequality.
Actually, given what’s going on in Baltimore right now – and the narratives it’s being fit into in a lot of places – I think I’ll republish an excerpt of a post I wrote back in 2013, before I really had any readers. I wouldn’t necessarily write this exactly the same way today, but I stand by the general idea.
All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.
During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”
This post was originally supposed to be pegged to the Detroit bankruptcy postmortems, but I’ve been busy, and in any case the phenomenon at hand is hardly that specific.
The following weekend, one hundred and fifty white teens armed with metal rods and bottles rampaged through the park, injuring thirty black picnickers. “Hoodlums” broke the windows of more than twenty-five cars…. Officers refused to escort victims into the park to retrieve their belongings, left several black women and children stranded in a park building as the mob attacked, and again rebuked the picnickers for using the “wrong park.”
But that was a particularly stark moment, since it called on all sorts of people to recount a narrative of northern urban decline. And pretty much every single one I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over two and a half million hits on Google.
This sounds familiar, if you’re a Chicagoan. Chicago Magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of the bankruptcy entitled “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,”‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”
The 1971 school year opened with the bombing of ten Pontiac[, Michigan] school buses, followed by mass protests…. [White] antibusing activists…vandalized school buses, puncturing radiators with sharpened broomsticks, breaking windows with stones and bricks, and forcing the district to create a high-security parking lot, complete with a bulletproof watchtower. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue
This is something like a Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods – their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there – was the catalytic event that actually delivered chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettoes like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. The things I couldn’t explain from the other side of my train window – those are the “scars” (as the preferred metaphor goes) of the riots.
Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter] It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”
Ira Glass On a Catholic church?
Monroe Anderson Yes.
This American Life, Harold, describing events at a campaign stop by Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.
To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in LA), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people, who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:
Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.
A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.
In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.
A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.
When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.
From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.
But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.
And more than that, the white riots – the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings – deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.
Without this context – without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs – none of what we see in the ghetto makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”
We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettoes.
But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.
With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s – years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots – Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.
The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Chicago’s housing system – although, thankfully, it’s becoming more well known – is how radically the city restricts the kinds of housing that can be built in the neighborhoods. Forms of housing that are traditional all over the city, and that provide subsidy-free affordable housing for working class people, are illegal nearly everywhere outside of downtown and the lakefront. In fact, the vast majority of Chicago neighborhoods are zoned so that the only legal form of new housing is the single-family home – which in many places will necessarily be out of reach for moderate-income people. This is true even in neighborhoods, and on streets, where two-flats, three-flats, and other apartment buildings already exist. Essentially, we’ve imposed classic suburban exclusionary zoning in North Center, West Town, and elsewhere.
But it’s hard to visualize these restrictions, because they come in the form of incredibly arcane and detail-laden laws that no one ever reads, and couldn’t understand if they did. One way that I like to get to the bottom line of what the zoning code means for housing is to measure the number of housing units allowed per standard 125′ by 25′ city lot. That strips away all the various design issues and gets down to a basic measure of density: how intensely can this land be used? By (roughly) how many people?
So, in the interest of zoning readability, I’ve made an interactive map that shows how many residential units are allowed by the zoning code in any given place in the city. Look up your block! Look at streets around L stations! They’re mostly zoned very, very tightly.
Now, because this is so simplified, I feel the need to make a few caveats. First, if you’d like to get some more details about what these zones allow, but in a more readable format than the actual city code, go to Second City Zoning. Second, here are some things you should know before you use the map:
1. The Simplified Chicago Residential Zoning Map is residential. That is, it doesn’t show zoning in places that only allow non-residential uses, and it won’t show non-residential uses on lots that allow both. Especially along major streets, many zones allow, say, one residential unit above a storefront. If you see that a lot is zoned with a code that begins with B or C, you can mentally add “stores” to the list of uses allowed, in addition to however many residential units.
2. Zoning in Chicago is extremely ad hoc. In practice, that means that virtually every sizable development involves a zoning variance or planned development process that goes beyond the zoning you’ll see on the map. In one sense, that’s good, because it gives the zoning code some flexibility; on the other, it means that development doesn’t follow any kind of plan, and each new development must relitigate the battle over density with the neighbors. That deters an enormous amount of construction – especially the sort of small-bore densification that should be the bread and butter of a healthy city. A developer working on a 200-unit project is going to make enough money to justify going through several public meetings over the course of months; someone who just wants to build a four-flat on a single-family-home-zoned parcel is probably not.
3. Not all units are created equal. Depending on other regulations in the zoning code – height, floor area ratio, parking – as well as, of course, the market, a new building might be made up mostly of studios or three bedroom units. Unit size, in turn, will obviously determine how many people live in each unit, and thus the whole building. So it may be that a 10-studio building has fewer people than another building with four three-bedroom units.
4. It’s interesting to note which parts of the city aren’t tightly zoned, outside of downtown. Mostly, it’s black neighborhoods on the West and South sides. Of course, with the exception of parts of Bronzeville, there isn’t enough demand to warrant new construction in most of these places anyway – but that, I would like to suggest, is part of the point. It hasn’t come up. Historically, downzoning on the North Side has followed the arrival of denser building.
I think that’s it. Enjoy!
As of last week, I’ve joined City Observatory as a Senior Fellow. For those of you who don’t know it, City Observatory is a new Knight Foundation-funded urban policy think tank run by Joe Cortright. It’s been around for less than a year, but in that time it’s garnered national media coverage with three major reports and regular contributions to the online conversation about cities and opportunity. They’ve already made a name for themselves as an important and smart part of the urban policy world, and I’m really excited to join as CO grows.
I’ve written a sort of introductory post at City Observatory; if you’re a regular reader here, I don’t think there will be anything surprising in it, but it lays out, from something close to first principles, why I care about all this stuff.
Also: I will still be writing here, but probably somewhat less, and probably (even) more Chicago-centric things, since my stuff at CO will mostly be national in scope. I hope you’ll follow me over to City Observatory not only to read my stuff, but also that of my new colleagues.
And finally: Thanks to everyone who’s been reading me here. Like many of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do over the last year or so, I got my position at City Observatory largely because of this blog, and that’s pretty awesome. Looking forward to more.
Edit: Some people have asked for the RSS feed for City Observatory’s blog, which is here: http://cityobservatory.org/feed/
A letter published last summer in the Chicago Tribune asked for a second look: “When you see us coming, you might hurry and get in your car and lock your door. Then speed through these streets at 60 mph like you’re on the highway, trying to get out of this ghetto. [But] we want you to know us.”
The authors were a class of fifth graders from the South Shore neighborhood, just a few miles down the coast of Lake Michigan from the University of Chicago. Like many Rust Belt communities, South Shore has its share of problems. But it also has ornate Jazz Age apartment blocks and large, stately homes; it has skyline views from its beaches, and the brilliant ballrooms of the Cultural Center, where Barack and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception. By express bus or commuter rail, it’s just over half an hour to downtown jobs.
If South Shore were in New York or DC, in other words, it would be exactly the type of place you’d expect to be suffering from too much attention, rather than too little.
But just a few weeks after the Tribune letter was published, two Harvard researchers confirmed statistically what many residents had known, or suspected, for a long time: in Chicago, black neighborhoods like South Shore just don’t gentrify.
In fact, it goes much farther than that: they don’t undergo any kind of ethnic change at all. Robert Sampson, one of the researchers, coined the term “white avoidance” to describe the phenomenon of whites simply refusing to move to neighborhoods where more than 40% of the residents are African-American. (Though it’s worth noting that there are actually quite few Chicago neighborhoods at that 40% level: most have either small African-American populations, or are over 90% or 95% black.) But Chicago’s rapidly growing numbers of Latino and Asian-American residents have been steering clear, too. Between 1980 and 2000, the only majority-black neighborhoods to see significant integration were Cabrini-Green – where a major public housing project began transitioning to mixed-income developments that included high-end condos – and the South Loop, whose train yards, warehouses, and convention centers presented more of a blank slate for redevelopment than a cohesive neighborhood.
At the same time, Chicago’s white neighborhoods underwent a profound racial transformation. The far Northwest Side neighborhood of Jefferson Park is typical. In 1980, it was as homogeneously white (97%) as South Shore was black. But by 2000, nearly one resident out of five was a person of color. By 2010, that was up to almost one in three.
These trends – demographically frozen black neighborhoods and rapidly integrating white ones – changed a city that had been profoundly and neatly segregated into one defined by asymmetrical segregation. While Asians, Latinos, and whites are far from perfectly mixed, there are many neighborhoods where they live together. For black households, on the other hand, ethnic isolation remains the rule.
On both counts, though, those trends may be changing.
Since 2000, for the first time in Chicago’s history, people of other ethnic backgrounds appear to be moving into black neighborhoods in nearly every region of the city except the far South Side. To be clear, in many cases the change amounts to just a few percentage points of a neighborhood’s overall population: notable only because the previous rate of change was zero. But dramatic transformations in other places began with a trickle, too. If one of the cardinal rules of residential migration in Chicago is actually weakening, it may open up the possibility of broader demographic change across the city’s South and West Sides in the medium to long term.
Moreover, the changes are much more complex than the familiar narrative of white-led gentrification. As often as not, the newcomers are Latino or Asian-American. Not surprisingly, this seems to depend on the demographics of the neighborhood next door: on the West Side, where black communities bump up against Mexican and Puerto Rican districts to the north, these new residents are mostly Latino. Northern Bronzeville, close to Chinatown, has a rapidly growing Asian-American population. And the communities around Hyde Park – a racially mixed neighborhood with a large number of white residents – are, in fact, getting slightly whiter.
But while Chicago’s black neighborhoods take a few tentative steps away from extreme segregation, some of the city’s white neighborhoods are moving in the opposite direction. Over the last 30 years, as a broad swath of the North Side has gentrified, it has also become disproportionately white. It now seems that nearly as many white North Side neighborhoods are becoming more segregated as are becoming less – a dramatic reversal from recent trends.
At first blush, this seems like a contradiction: why would some parts of the city be getting more segregated as others become somewhat more integrated? Most likely, however, they’re both part of the same broader phenomenon.
For the last few generations, Chicago’s economic geography has resembled a growing donut. In the center is a small, but quickly expanding, core of wealth. As the core grows, a surrounding ring of low-income neighborhoods gets pushed further out. And those neighborhoods, in turn, elbow aside a suburban ring of wealthier communities, which also move away from the core.
For various reasons, including the racial income and wealth gaps, neighborhoods that get absorbed into the rich core become much whiter, explaining the growing segregation there. But as that disproportionately white sector expands, it also helps to push the residents of neighborhoods in its path further out – and, in some cases, into black communities.
Still, that’s probably not the whole story. Ethnic communities, from Poles to Mexicans, have been moving increasingly far from the city center for many generations; only recently have some of them ventured into black neighborhoods. While research like Robert Sampson’s shows that “white avoidance” remains a powerful force, other academics have found evidence that white tolerance for black neighbors has (very slowly) inched up over the last few decades. That might also help to explain the sort of very tentative integration along the boundaries of black neighborhoods that Chicago is now experiencing.
It’s harder to guess at whether these trends – if they grow and continue – are likely to make a famously unequal city a bit more just. Of course, the increasing racial and economic segregation of the core is a huge problem. Would declining segregation in historically black neighborhoods provide a counterbalance? Maybe. But longtime residents who have grown accustomed to living in a neighborhood with a particular community and culture have every reason to be wary of losing those things. And particularly where the newcomers are white – mostly along the borders of Chicago’s growing wealthy core – gentrification may eventually become a reality, and integration may be a passing phase.
Perhaps the most promising trend, then, is the movement of Latinos and Asian-Americans into black neighborhoods – particularly ones that have been losing population as residents move to the suburbs or southern cities. For many shrinking white neighborhoods around the Rust Belt, Latino and Asian immigrants, and their American-born children and grandchildren, have brought a much-needed economic and demographic shot in the arm. If black neighborhoods in Chicago can enjoy those benefits too, it may provide a path towards community development that doesn’t require rapid gentrification.
At the moment, of course, this all remains conjecture. A few bricks may have come loose from the structure of Chicago’s segregation, but the fortress remains. It will be a very long time before it’s gone.