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.

13 thoughts on “The South Side: Not actually an unmitigated sea of misery

  1. The Sun-Times ran a solid JRW column this Sunday under the headline, “Little Leaguers’ success provides welcome relief from Chicago’s violent reality.” It’s really a shame that even in cases of thoughtful reporting — the kind that seeks to illuminate some of the very same issues you mentioned — copy editors and others so often default to this idea that the violence is what’s real while everything else is a pleasant distraction, at best.

    I normally can’t stand when people complain that the news is too negative (as if the point of journalism wasn’t to shine a light on the problems that still need fixing) but some of the recent coverage has definitely made it feel as though any previous concern for proper contextualization have now gone fully out the window.

    I could very well be wrong, but to me, it feels like a conscious decision on the part of publishers and editors who, lacking any substantive ideas about how the problem might be fixed, figure the best they can do is continue the drumbeat of scorecard reporting.

    1. Agreed. I think there is a sense that, like, what really needs to happen is to raise awareness of *exactly how bad it is*, and then somehow everything will be fixed. It’s related to the “if they would just stand up to violence” theory: all that’s needed is willpower. All of it is wrong.

  2. Bravo, Daniel. I’m glad you decided to write on this, too. It needs to be repeated. Often.

    I blame media outlets for this, national and local. I think the worst local media bit over the last ten years has been the “there were x shootings resulting in y murders on the South Side this weekend”, with absolutely no context. The same formulation was NEVER used during the crack-era ’90s, when Chicago was pushing 1,000 murders annually. Let that sink in. But the media only validates what viewers believe about a place already.

    Anyway, thanks again. As a black man there’s only so much I can say until I come across as being exceptionally defensive.

    1. Thanks, I really appreciate that. You’re completely right about the media – and I hate just saying “the media,” but with the possible exception of WBEZ, it is actually the case that virtually every newspaper, radio station and TV news outlet that’s covered crime in Chicago has participated in this problem.

      And yeah, I also feel a bit self-conscious, as a white person who lives on the North Side, about doing something that might be seen as trying to minimize a problem faced by other people. But at a certain point, it’s just too much. The way we act like the level of ostracizing of the South Side is normal – justified – is really unbelievable.

  3. Thank you for this article. Many South siders are proud of where they live, they raise their families, take care of their properties and invest in our businesses and schools. It’s just not attractive to the general media. Their loss.

    You summed it best – “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.”

  4. Reblogged this on WARR – We Are Regal Radio and commented:
    Indeed, the story of #JRW should help shine a light on the elements of diversity that exist “out south.” If we leave it up to most media, the kids can and will be seen as a cultural aberration, they should be just the start of bigger and better things.

  5. I mostly agree with the general sentiments expressed in this article. In particular, the author hits the nail on the head when pointing out the diversity of the Southside and the presence of many well to do, middle class neighborhoods which remain unknown on the Northside apart from Hyde Park. That being said, I wanted to add that Roseland is actually a fairly unsafe neighborhood. As someone who’s ventured down there a few times, I can confirm Pullman is very safe (though I’m not sure I’d say it’s worth seeing), but Roseland is one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the city, despite playing host to good schools. Though I do not agree with the parent’s refusal to let their kids go down there to play a game, I can understand and feel their refusal comes from overprotectiveness rather than sheer blind ignorance of the Southside.

    1. I always have to shake my head when a person says he “ventured” into a neighborhood. What are you, a 19th century missionary? What a condescending choice of words. And as a long-time Pullman resident, I would like to invite everyone to celebrate Labor Day with us, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Pullman Strike with speeches, music, great food and drink and, of course, our Annual Bike Ride on Monday, Sept. 1. In addition, go to our various websites and discover — for yourselves — what a wonderful place Pullman is. Come for our annual House Tour in October, Garden Walk in June, self-guided and guided tours of the neighborhood and factory site — and so many other events too numerous to list here. And even if you just come to “mosey around” on a weekend afternoon, there is always a neighbor or three who will take the time to talk to you and give you a mini-history lesson on their home or, practically, any other home on the block! And don’t forget to some by the Cal-Harbor Restaurant for a belly-pleasing omelet! But, whatever you do, DO NOT take DK’s opinion on Pullman or you will truly miss out on a great Chicago experience!

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