Today’s battles

At Corner Side Yard, Pete Saunders has an interesting case that exclusionary zoning, while once a major front in the struggle for equitable cities, is no longer relevant.

Before getting into the actual arguments, I would like to point out that this is not a common opinion among people who study these things. Patrick Sharkey, the author of a recent book on segregation and someone Pete has cited favorably on this very subject, puts it this way in the conclusion to Stuck in Place:

Integrating metropolitan areas by confronting exclusionary zoning, promoting and expanding fair-share housing plans, and developing coordinated metropolitan-wide plans for transportation, housing, education, and economic development is essential to promoting prosperity across urban areas. There is widespread consensus about the need for equitable development at the regional level. Generating the political coalitions necessary to create regional planning structures and to confront exclusionary zoning is the true challenge. [my emphasis - DKH]

Now, obviously, the fact that Sharkey feels this way doesn’t really prove anything. But I think, in weighing the evidence, it’s worth checking in with the people who have made studying this issue the focus of their careers. In this case, we have a prominent sociologist of urban inequality, a person we have already established that both I and Pete respect greatly, stating unequivocally not only that a) it is his opinion that exclusionary zoning is still relevant, but also b) there is “widespread consensus” within the field that this is the case.

With that out of the way, Pete’s argument goes like this:

1. Exclusionary zoning is not responsible for vacancies in Englewood. I think I could tell a story in which this is not entirely true: that exclusionary zoning made the suburbs and outlying neighborhoods more attractive, because more exclusive, to the middle and upper middle classes, which induced more people (including African-Americans) to leave when they could, which induced people to flee even further from the city, which contributed to the dispersion of jobs, which made Englewood’s geographic location less attractive, etc. But I will grant that the vast majority of the blame for Englewood’s depopulation has little to do with exclusionary zoning. Still, the fact that there are problems for which zoning reform is not the solution doesn’t mean that zoning reform is not important for solving other problems.

2. Black people have been able to move to areas with exclusionary zoning in the years since the 1968 Fair Housing Act. This is true, and it shows that exclusionary zoning is not, on its own, a failsafe tool of segregation. After all, exclusionary zoning promotes segregation by artificially raising housing prices; in established communities, it does that by keeping the supply of housing low relative to its demand. But if demand crashes – when, say, an area is abandoned by whites, or any other class of people with enough numbers and purchasing power to keep demand high – that strategy doesn’t work any more. That’s been the case with any number of inner-ring suburbs and outlying city neighborhoods over the last forty years.

But the fact that exclusionary zoning sometimes fails does not, again, take away from its overwhelming effectiveness elsewhere, both in the suburbs and, increasingly, in the central city. As much attention as we give the parts of our regions where demographics and economics are changing, they remain the exception, and stability in the hierarchy of privilege remains the rule. (Apologies that the paper is behind a paywall. I’m in the process of writing a post about its findings soon, which boil down to: rich areas stay rich.)

This continues to be the case in the suburbs. The fact, as Pete says, that “African Americans and all minorities have made significant inroads into suburbia” does not mean that they’ve integrated; it just means that segregation is increasingly about divisions between suburbs, or even within suburbs, as opposed to between a heavily minority Chicago and its homogeneously white satellites.

3. Zoning reform in the suburbs will cause privileged suburban residents to flee, either moving further out to the suburbs, or returning to the cities, accelerating gentrification. To some extent, this may be true: if it were legal, and someone started constructing courtyard buildings all over Wilmette, I imagine that some of the people there would move to whiter, richer pastures.

Honestly, I don’t know to what extent Pete’s fears would play out. I suspect that things would be mostly okay, for a variety of reasons: zoning reform would create gradual integration, which would be less of a shock to the locals; the greatest concentration of change would be at the center of the most privileged, in-demand regions of the metro area – places that have structural advantages like excellent educational infrastructure, access to jobs and elite social networks, and so on, that would strongly discourage broad-based flight; and the absence of exclusionary zoning would mean that those inclined to flee would have much less of a guarantee that there would be anywhere “safe” to flee to.

But I guess the bottom line is that if this is a problem, it’s always been a problem. If this is a deal-breaker for exclusionary zoning reform in 2014, I don’t see why it wasn’t a deal-breaker in the 1960s, when white flight was an even more powerful force. If integration is impossible, because white and wealthy people will always find somewhere to flee, then I’m not sure why exclusionary zoning was ever relevant, as Pete claims it once was.

Fortunately, in the bleak landscape that is American racial dynamics, there is evidence that this is not entirely true. It turns out that today – like in the past – metropolitan areas with less restrictive zoning really do tend to be less segregated racially and economically. Improvements really are there to be had. We should take them.

Update: That said, of course, I should reiterate that Pete is obviously right that exclusionary zoning is not the main problem facing places like Englewood, and zoning reform on its own wouldn’t come close to fixing the problem of inequitable urban development. But, again, the fact that it’s not a panacea doesn’t mean it’s not a part of the solution.

Fun With Neighborhood Development Meetings

DNAInfo has a story about two proposed developments across the street from each other on Diversey, the border between Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and only a few blocks from the lakefront park. One would have 50 units, the other 78. Some residents aren’t pleased:

“Traffic’s going to be horrendous,” said Cheryl Cornell, who’s lived in the area for 33 years. “You’re putting 50 units where none existed. They’re going to put 78 units where none existed. … That area is horribly congested already. Just drive down Diversey on a weekend. It’s scary.”

The “50 units where none existed” line made me think: I bet Ms. Cornell’s neighborhood actually has fewer housing units now than when she moved in. And I bet it’ll still have fewer units, even if they build 128 “where none existed.”

So I went to the numbers. Story checks out:


And what about population? Is the neighborhood pushing towards unprecedented density?



For reference, here is the area in question:




So no. Since 1980, the neighborhood has actually lost roughly 800 housing units – or about 3% of the total – and its population has declined by about 1,600 people, or a bit over 4%. If we moved the start date back – to 1960, say, or 1950 – the decline would almost certainly be more dramatic.*

In conclusion, the idea that building 128 housing units on Diversey would be pushing the envelope into uncharted territories of congestion is simply a lie. In fact, the area was notably denser within very recent memory. And, of course, in the interim, the demand to live in this area has skyrocketed; median income family income is now well over $100,000 a year, or more than twice – and pushing three times – the metropolitan area average. Housing costs are correspondingly high. And Chicago’s housing policy has led to a situation in which fewer people are allowed to live there. Dear alderman, who have the power to approve this and other housing projects (and, while we’re at it, a rational inclusionary zoning ordinance): fix it, please.

* Why did it decline? The longer answer is you should read this. But the basic story is that Chicago has laws that prohibit buildings over a certain density all over town; in fact, they generally prohibit anything denser than what’s already there. As a result, when buildings get redeveloped, they’re usually either built at the same density as before – a two-flat replaced by a two-flat, for example – or at a lower density – a two-flat replaced by a mansion. That makes the total number of housing units fall, which also makes population fall. On top of that, over time people have been taking up more space – instead of a five-person family in a two-bedroom, you get a three-person family, or a childless couple – and so population often declines even if the number of units hasn’t. To make up for that space issue, the city would have to let people build more. But it doesn’t.


Where did Chicago’s population decline?

Recently I’ve been doing a bit of digging into Chicago’s population figures, with the general research question being: what parts of the city have seen their population fall the most? There are a number of reasons that population matters, beyond civic pride: tax receipts, for example, as well as a consumer base for local businesses. Because jobs generally follow people, a shrinking center city also means that a larger percentage of jobs will be out in the suburbs, far from public transit, making that transit worth less and less to people who would like to use it to commute. As a result, people either a) just don’t have access to lots of jobs, b) spend a huge amount of time commuting, which they can’t spend, say, taking night classes or caring for their kids, or c) spend a bunch of money on a car, which is money they’re not spending on, say, night classes or caring for their kids.

Anyway, here’s a quick overview map:


A few notes:

1. The historic “black belt” – the area from roughly 26th down to Woodlawn (the neighborhood), from the Dan Ryan to the lake – got hammered. This isn’t surprising for a number of reasons. The first is that the black belt – especially the older parts in central Bronzeville – was horrifically overcrowded in the 1940s. In Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch estimates that there were three times more people than were meant to live in the housing that existed. (Why were they so overcrowded? Because black people weren’t allowed to live anywhere else, and a huge wave of migration from the South had dramatically increased the city’s black population. Shortly thereafter, South Side whites began to flee for the suburbs, and Bronzeville began to empty of the relatively better-off black households who could afford to move further south.) Most of the others have to do with urban renewal, and the purposeful removal of people from potentially high-value land near the city center.

2. The difference between North and South Lawndale – the dark red area just above the dark blue area on the western edge of the city – is here, as in so many other ways, illustrative of the effects of public and private disinvestment and shunning on black communities, as opposed to working-class white and immigrant ones.

3. The wealthy north lakefront neighborhoods have lost significant population, contrary to popular belief. Lakeview is down over 20%; Lincoln Park, over 30; and West Town (not lakefront, but home to Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Ukrainian Village) is down over 40%. Why? A combination of a) a dramatic decline in the number of people living in any given housing unit, as large families were replaced by smaller families, childless couples, and people living alone; and b) a decline, or at best stagnation, in the number of housing units thanks to zoning restrictions.

More on all this later.

From the comments: On being part of Chicago’s black middle class

Last week, my post on where Chicago’s black middle class lives was republished at Crain’s. From there, it received many responses making many different points, which I might take on in a separate post at some point. But for the moment I wanted to highlight two recent comments left at the original piece.


My friends and I are all college educated, (many with MAs) Black twenty something’s who are looking to establish roots soon. Most of us have any desire to move to Chicago from the burbs (South Holland, Olympia Fields etc). Personally, despite the great amenities the North side has to offer, I am very apprehensive about living there because of higher rent and racial tensions (and frankly ,in my experience, north siders just aren’t as friendly). However, living on a more friendly (and adorable) south side means no grocery stores, no shopping, no restaurants, no nightlife, no fun. The south burbs aren’t as bad but are still generally lacking in amenities. Here’s an experiment, on google maps, look up your favorite places (Target, Starbucks, Thai food restaurants etc) you’ll find next to none on the south side. So what many (and I mean MANY) of us would prefer is to move out of state all together. That sounds extreme, but I literally feel that I have nowhere to live in Chicago.

Naomi Davis:

I imagine some rationale for lower household incomes for African Americans living north is that a significant percentage could be early career professionals, living single, making modest incomes relative to established families and professionals in their areas. I lived the majority of my years in Chicago as one such professional, only moving to the south side to combat cultural isolation and to pursue my life’s work in a social milieu I assumed would be more supportive to dating, marriage, community-building. People of color in the neighborhoods where I lived/loved for decades – Lincoln Park, Old Town, Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, Bucktown – were either just like me or low-wage immigrants or low-income families, arguably remnants of pre-gentrification, but not necessarily the “public housing/SRO” enclaves referenced in previous entries. I also appreciate this more nuanced conversation around race and household income, core to my work. I bristle at the notion that a prime way to improve life in African American neighborhoods is to import whites – a surprisingly common thought. While my org actively invites blacks with higher incomes to “move back home” to our hard-won legacy communities, I’m always surprised that few consider the complementary alternative of helping lower-wage families increase their household income – again, core to my work. Complicated, of course, by seemingly implacable structures holding poverty in place. Implacable perhaps, but not impossible to transform. Gets me out of bed in the morning, anyway. Many thanks for your thoughts. I look forward to hearing more.

A credit to their race

Okay, I have abandoned not one but *two* draft posts tonight, but this has to be finished because it’s just so amazing.

I’m going to choose to interpret this as a piece of truly inspired trolling on the part of Ms. Preckwinkle, who is extremely smart and not averse to some good trolling now and then.

Who is she trolling? She’s trolling the people that Natalie Moore is talking about at the end of her appearance this week on Chicago Newsroom:

MOORE: I didn’t love [Kenny Williams' speech at the Jackie Robinson victory rally downtown]. I think telling an audience – this assumption that every black youth is going to pick up a gun. Inspiration is good, but these boys are – you’re preaching to the choir. “Pick up a book, not a gun!” This is the rally for kids who have done that!

It’s not, of course, just about Kenny Williams. The JRW Little League team’s US championship has been mostly reported on through the prism of the boys’ race and fictitiously terrible neighborhoods, because even when black kids excel at the most normal, all-American thing there could possibly be – Little League baseball – we require elaborate storytelling to explain how it’s actually all about how these kids are rising above their broken black communities, not just doing something that’s exceptional by the most universal, mundane standards of American childhood.

Now, that’s more than a little unfair. To begin with, the presence an all-black team at the Little League World Series is not a normal event. Moreover, the South Side does, in fact, have more than its share of problems, and even if the particular areas where these kids are from have fewer of those problems, it’s not unreasonable to see this as a particularly happy thing to happen in that broader context. Certainly, many of the people on the South Side feel that way.

On the other hand, I think it is even less fair to a) tell a bunch of children who have only barely hit puberty that they carry the burden of representing to the world that black kids on the South Side can do something other than shoot each other, and then b) turn around and lecture them at their own victory party about how they really should be sure not to shoot each other.

In short, we have utterly refused to untether from these boys the albatross of being black, and particularly of being black from the South Side of Chicago. At every turn we’ve communicated to them that what they’re doing matters first and foremost because of where they’re from, and what they look like; that excelling at something ordinary is the farthest thing we expect from black children, an achievement that surely requires constant vigilance, lest they revert to their natural state.

In other words, this whole time we’ve been telling the pre-teens on JRW that they’re a credit to their race. If it sounds offensive and outdated when Toni says it, that’s only because we haven’t bothered to listen to ourselves.

Excerpts from “The Formation of American Local Governments,” by Nancy Burns

Scholars have argued that part of the reason for the Salem witch trials was that Salem Town refused to let Salem Village secede to form an independent town. The residents of Salem Village faced land constraints and consequent decreasing income; the residents of Salem Town had access to other forms of income because the male residents there were largely merchants. Salem Village repeatedly petitioned for its own government; just as repeatedly, Salem Town refused. The Salem witch trial accusers were from Salem Village; the accused were from Salem Town. (p. 34)

Exclusionary zeal in various forms has been a part of American local institutions from their beginning…. The earliest tradition is the establishment of towns that create economic homogeneity…. In the seventeenth century this process was led by English merchants who planned the colonization of New England. The resulting communities are exemplified by the founding of Watertown, Massachusetts, in the late 1630s: “Everyone hoped that there would be no poor, and Watertown had made special provisions to exclude them.” To that end, they established that “anyone who ‘may prove chargeable to the town’ could be ordered to leave.” (p. 35)

Church groups in St. Louis decided to purchase twelve acres of land in Black Jack, Missouri, an unincorporated section of St. Louis County, in 1969. The land was zoned for multiple-family dwellings. The groups planned to build racially integrated, moderate-income housing on the site. Almost immediately, the white residents of the area…petitioned the St. Louis County Council to incorporate the area. They succeeded. Immediately upon forming the municipality, they zoned apartments – including publicly funded ones – out of the city. (p. 36)

“The real issue is not taxes, nor water, nor street cars – it is a much greater question than either. It is the moral control of our village. Under local government we can absolutely control every objectionable thing that may try to enter our limits.” – suburban Chicago newspaper editorial in favor of incorporating as a separate municipality, 1907  (p. 37)

“Planners and zoning experts often appeal to their clients, that zoning for height and lot area, and sometimes other items, will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, all the arguments adduced to show that zoning protects property values are meaningless unless they imply this important element in the determination of values. No height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.” - Bruno Lasker, academic, 1920  (p. 57)

Americans have discovered in local institutions effective barriers to racial and economic segregation. Living within particular city boundaries means that schools will not be integrated, that neighborhoods will not be integrated, that offensive industry will not be apparent, and that taxes will not be higher. It also means that the problems of people in other – even, and especially, neighboring – cities will be considered irrelevant to local politics….

Because municipal boundaries can be boundaries between races and classes, boundaries that reinforce homogeneity, the possibilities for transformative public discussion in local politics are severely limited.

Moreover, the space we have created for local political autonomy means that we allow local boundaries to define citizenship, and we allow that definition of citizenship to carry weight in American politics. Boundaries, and the import we give to them, can thus legally impede desegregation efforts, halt efforts at redistribution, and restrict access to services. (p. 117)

The South Side: Not actually an unmitigated sea of misery

As I’ve written before, the South Side is a much more diverse place than people give it credit for. This is true both in the ethnic sense – you can find Asian, Hispanic, white, black, and, yes, integrated neighborhoods there – and in the sense that for each of these ethnic categories, there’s a range of economic conditions.

Pete Saunders has a nice post reminding people of this second fact, by pointing out that the kids on the Jackie Robinson Little League team (and US champions, by the by) mostly come from neighborhoods that don’t actually fit the storyline some media outlets have chosen to put on them. That is, they did not all emerge from broken homes, dodging bullets as they cut through trash-strewn lots to the baseball diamond, which was the one outlet they had to seek relief from their impoverished ghetto.

No, in fact, this is what the houses across the street from Jackie Robinson Park look like:


And here’s a random block from a few streets away:


If you look at the maps of the black middle class I made a bit ago, you can see the far South Side neighborhoods that make up the area around Jackie Robinson Park lit up in blue:


Now, that’s not to say that these neighborhoods don’t have problems. Like many, if not most, working- and middle-class neighborhoods in America, they’ve seen significant losses of well-paying jobs over the last several decades. Like most black neighborhoods in America, they’ve been shaped by a legacy of segregation that’s dramatically increased the concentration of poverty there, compared to working- and middle-class neighborhoods that aren’t black, and they have some of the issues that come with relatively higher poverty rates, like relatively higher crime rates. But they’re also, as Pete points out, not generally dangerous in the way that outsiders imagine every black neighborhood on the South Side is.

Roseland – one of the neighborhoods where a lot of the Robinson players are from – also happens to be home to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, which Chicago Magazine named the fifth-best public high school in the city, just below the four super-elite test-in academies, and higher than another North Side selective-enrollment school, Lane Tech. Its average ACT score is even with Niles West, a well-regarded north suburban school that serves a significantly more affluent population.

Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep

Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep

Near Brooks is Poe Elementary, which that same issue of Chicago Magazine ranked as the fifth-best public elementary school in the city, above many of the neighborhood schools – and even a handful of selective enrollment schools – in places like Lincoln Park and Lakeview that have become the default option for the city’s “global city” class. Three other Far South Side schools made the top ten, two of them in black neighborhoods.

There’s something to all this – to my laying out the case that you should think of the South Side as a place where people live, and where they accomplish things that they and other people find admirable, like keeping tidy lawns, or playing baseball extremely well, or supporting high-achieving schools – that’s very noxious. That is to say, it assumes that a) the personhood, and respectability, of these people is in doubt, and b) that the esteem of the people who doubt it – the North Siders and suburbanites and newspaper writers and readers all around the country – is necessary, that it’s not enough that the residents of these neighborhoods are, in fact, people.

My indignance – not to mention the prospect of freeing up more time to write about things that shouldn’t be obvious – makes it tempting to declare that the esteem (or, at the moment, the ignorance) of the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, that’s plainly not true.

Brooks College Prep, the fifth-best public high school in the city, was at the receiving end of that ignorance last year, when parents from Walter Payton College Prep (number two on Chicago Magazine’s rankings) forfeit a game of baseball because they were too terrified of Roseland to allow their children to go to Brooks’ campus to play.

And if Payton parents – whose views, I imagine, are broadly representative of those “global city” households downtown and on the North Side, and in analogous neighborhoods across the country – won’t go to Roseland on a chartered bus to play a scheduled high school baseball game at one of the city’s elite selective enrollment high schools, they’re certainly not going there to spend any money at the local businesses, or to open businesses, or to visit the local sites, like the Pullman Historic District. Their ignorance demands that these places, and these people, be completely shunned.

Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

And while the parents themselves certainly deserve some blame for this, I’m going to go ahead and add it to the j’accuse from “The Dignity of Fifth-Graders” and ask that media outlets in Chicago and nationwide consider how their coverage of crime on the South Side has contributed to this situation. If you spend years telling your readers that the South Side is a “war zone,” then you don’t get to be surprised when your readers treat it like a war zone.

We don’t get to celebrate one baseball team’s worth of black kids from the South Side while we’re shunning all the rest.

Gentrification and Integration in Chicago Public Schools

Is the topic of a piece I have over at Next City. (I’ve written about this before here.) Excerpt:

More remarkable, maybe, is that only a mile from Blaine is Audubon Elementary, where “exceeds” scores have increased from barely 1 percent to nearly 16 percent among low-income students over the same period. And then walking distance from Audubon is Burley, whose numbers have jumped from 4 percent to more than 19 percent. All told, there are 10 elementary schools, all clustered in the same region of the city, whose low-income students have collectively improved more than twice as fast as their peers in other public, non-selective Chicago elementaries.


The world beyond the blogosphere

Last week, I published a piece on the history of zoning as a civil rights issue at the Washington Post:

For years, activists and researchers have known that restrictive zoning is among the most powerful forces behind racial and economic segregation in the country….

In the aftermath of Brown…, civil rights activists took up the cause of what became known as “exclusionary zoning.” After the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, President Richard Nixon’s first HUD secretary, George Romney (father of Mitt), actually devised a plan to deny federal money to cities and suburbs that engaged in exclusionary zoning….

The 1970s saw a tidal wave of high-profile civil rights lawsuits taking aim at restrictive zoning laws…

[I]n places, the fight has continued. Researcher-activists such as Douglas Massey and Myron Orfield have bolstered the academic evidence that restrictive zoning laws promote segregation, and reporters such as Hannah-Jones are keeping those stories alive….

Part of the impetus for writing it was a sense that proponents of maintaining restrictive zoning – from the Gawker article that I cited in that piece, to the lefty activists the Gawker article was ostensibly supporting, to Jim Russell and Pete Saunders – score a lot of their rhetorical points by linking people who would like to see cities legalize a wider array of building types to “bad guys,” from greedy developers to self-absorbed yuppies and hipsters.

Gawker, for example, characterized zoning reform supporters as “tech bloggers, Redditors, Hacker News trolls, and politically-connected venture capitalists.”

Jim Russell has written that “Urbanists want to gouge tenured African-American residents in order to secure cheaper access to the city,” and, on multiple occasions, that loosening zoning restrictions would “exacerbate segregation.”

Pete Saunders, for his part, has claimed that the entire idea that zoning causes problems is a “millennial fallacy,” promoted by “young urbanists” who are more interested in “where want to live” than in the broader economic health of the city.

What’s interesting here is a view of the world that completely erases decades of fair housing fights on exactly the lines that Gawker, Russell, and Saunders are more or less openly claiming to champion. In this world, the NAACP never waged a decade-plus fight to overturn restrictive zoning in New Jersey. In this world, civil rights lawyers in the Obama Administration aren’t fighting to overturn restrictive zoning in the New York suburbs right now. In this world, the country’s most respected researchers on racial and economic inequality, like Douglas Massey, haven’t authored their own studies linking exclusionary zoning to segregation.

These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.

These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.

The erasure is so complete that Jim Russell can use sociologist Robert Sampson’s research to “prove” that allowing more housing construction makes segregation worse – and Saunders can endorse this as a “fantastic” takedown – without ever realizing that Sampson himself has written that the exact opposite is true. (Of course, this is not an isolated incident for Russell: his very first post on the subject used research by Joe Gyourko to claim that increasing the supply of housing wouldn’t significantly reduce the price of housing, without ever disclosing that much of Gyourko’s career – including the paper that Russell quoted – has been based on proving the reverse.)

To be fair, as Surly Urbanist has pointed out, it’s not as if the more selfish motivations that these writers and activists perceive don’t exist somewhere. The rise of housing supply restrictions as a concern in places like Slate and so on surely is, to some extent, a result of rising rents becoming a bigger problem specifically for young, relatively well-to-do journalists and their social circles. Beyond that, loosening zoning regulations definitely appeals not only to fair housing advocates, but also to libertarians (who are amenable to any argument against government regulation) and developers (who see an opportunity to make money). As histories of civil rights struggles around zoning show (Our Town, for example), this has always been the case. It happens to be an issue that attracts a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests that are, in other policy areas, usually in conflict.

The problem with the Gawker/Russell argument, besides the occasional ad hominem, is that making zoning reform a position that only villains would take doesn’t just benefit from this erasure of fair housing work; it requires it. Because once a reader realizes that, in fact, civil rights lawyers and activists have been pushing to overturn restrictive zoning for decades, the “tech blogger”/”millennial fallacy” framing just falls apart. As it should.

[EDIT: I wanted to acknowledge that Pete Saunders, in particular, has talked about a lot of fair housing issues, from redlining to contract buying. While I'd like to see him include the history of zoning fights into that narrative, I don't want to imply that it's completely absent.]

But keeping that history hidden – the history of zoning, but also, in some cases, the broader fair housing fight of which zoning was a part – deals a huge blow to anyone who would like to see housing and segregation return as a major issue on the national stage. The incredibly dramatic story of the 20th century fair housing movements is both a source of great inspiration, as well as a nearly endless well of lessons to be learned about activist strategies, the impact of discriminatory laws and attempts at reform, and so on. Without that history, we’re left to grope in the dark.

It would be nice, then, to see more people who are sympathetic to anti-segregation zoning reform making reference to the fact that they have inherited an issue with a long history. For every report by Nicole Hannah-Jones or Doug Massey, there’s a piece by Ed Glaeser or Ryan Avent who, while making compelling arguments against restrictive zoning, do so mostly without making reference to the civil rights aspect of the issue. There’s been some progress on this front: Jamelle Bouie, who writes for Slate, has introduced some of these ideas there. But I’d love to see that become a standard part of the left-urbanist (or anyone-who-opposes-segregation-urbanist!) spiel against status-quo zoning.

The dignity of fifth-graders

In a timely development, the Columbia Journalism Review just published a long essay on how media outlets cover violent crime in Chicago. They interview a lot of very smart people, including some who have done some of the city’s best reporting already; the whole thing is worth a read.

There seems to be general agreement that the current coverage falls short in a variety of ways: that’s it too obsessed with “box scores” (X Killed Over Y Hours This Weekend), and can be too light on humanizing victims – both the people who are shot, and the family, friends, and neighbors who are also traumatized – and on explaining the larger picture, the social and economic forces that create Chicago’s landscape of crime.

But I think Natalie Moore, the South Side bureau chief for WBEZ, got to the heart of the issue best:

“What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks.

Obviously, ideally, you’re checking many boxes: that crime is a major problem in many neighborhoods; that its victims are real people, with families and lives that every reader should be able to empathize with, even white North Siders; that in most places, crime has been falling; that the concentration of crime in Chicago is the more or less predictable result of decades of segregation and economic decline; that in most ways, despite the violence, normal life continues in these neighborhoods: people go to work, to school, have birthdays, and so on.

But I think nearly as important as coming up with an ideal list is acknowledging that choosing one path over another involves tradeoffs. That sounds stupidly obvious, but I think it may be obscured by the coverage philosophy taken by both the Tribune and Sun-Times over the last several years. Both papers have committed themselves to covering every homicide in the city at a level of detail that, as Alex Kotlowitz says in the CJR piece, they have not, historically. The principle, as I understand it, is that each victim deserves the dignity of being recognized, of having their passing officially and publicly acknowledged, and that to do otherwise is an abdication of our collective responsibility to face one of our city’s ongoing tragedies.

That’s an admirable principle for a news organization to hold itself to, and it’s certainly an improvement over ignoring the issue, or pretending it’s not a big deal. But if that is the focus of scarce journalistic resources, then what does that say about our implicit answer to Natalie Moore’s question? More to the point, what are we saying we don’t think is important? Or – to really get down to it – whose dignity aren’t we upholding?

A class of fifth-graders in South Shore has some ideas about that:

We saw your news trucks and cameras here recently ad we read the articles, “Six shot in South Shore laundromat”…. You don’t really know us.

Those who don’t know us think this is a poor neighborhood, with abandoned buildings everywhere, with wood covering the windows and broken doors. They see the candy wrappers and empty juice bottles and think that we don’t care. Uneducated, jobless and thieves. You will be scared of these heartless people. When you see us coming, you might hurry and get in your car and lock the doors. Then speed through these streets at 60 mph like you’re on the highway, trying to get out of this ghetto.

We want you to know us.

The authors of those lines are ten and eleven, and they already know that they and all of their friends and all of their neighbors are pariahs. That is also a tragedy, and not one that any paper I’ve seen has seen fit to dedicate any journalistic resources to at all, prior to this op-ed.

Their pariahdom, of course, was not invented by the media. Its roots go back to the way white people reacted when black people began moving into their neighborhoods, not so long ago – the panic, the desperate attempts to use laws, violence, or anything within reach to keep black people as far from their homes as possible. In short, racism.

The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

But a social phenomenon as widespread and powerful as the pariahdom of Chicago’s black communities requires ongoing rationalization, and by far the most powerful at the moment is an overwhelming fear of violence that is completely untethered from the reality of daily life in those neighborhoods. Visiting the South Shore Cultural Center, or getting a meal at Lem’s BBQ on 75th St., does not actually involve taking your life into your hands; but a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans who have been fed a steady diet of “war zone” stories for years think otherwise.

Fifth-graders in South Shore, and every other black neighborhood, are children like their peers everywhere else. They are not thugs to fear and mock. But a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans fear and mock them. And the fifth-graders know it.

That is also an affront to dignity.

I’m not, of course, under the impression that newspapers have the power to erase the legacy of racism. But I think that if the answer to “What do we want people to know?” doesn’t include “That you don’t have to be terrified of everyone, including fifth-graders,” we need to think about that some more. And if we think about it and decide that that is still our answer, we need to acknowledge what, and who, we have chosen to shortchange, and we need to have some very good reasons for it.