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Saturday, September 18

Gapers Block

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Chicago's Second Ward was designed to include the projects closest to the Loop: so the South Loop (at the time, a depressed, seedy area known for its brothels, shelters and muggers) was combined with the Hilliard, Ickes, Prairie Court, Dearborn and, improbably, ABLA homes. This created a vote-rich, almost exclusively African-American ward that abutted the city's central business district. Bobby Rush, one-time Black Panther (and close friend of Fred Hampton), was the previous alderman of the ward, and is still the Party Committeeman. The Second is, or was, a "black ward."

That is changing. Nowhere is the policy of displacement more evident than in the Second. Cleaning out the dens of iniquity in the South Loop and Printer's Row included the city condemning buildings and a development craze that brought gigantic skyscrapers, all residential, sprawling low-rise developments, and helped speed up the destruction of the housing projects.

When thinking about the systematic dismantling of the public housing system, most Chicagoans think about Cabrini-Green, with the emblematic high rises giving way to ticky-tacky suburban style "town homes" and fake neighborhoods like "North Town Village." That property was no doubt valuable because of its proximity to the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park — the sprawling Cabrini-Green was what effectively separated Near North from the more working-class Italian and Mexican neighborhoods west of Halsted. But the methodical destruction of the housing projects on the Near South Side was the real victory for the developers: a beachhead in the gentrification war that would hand the entire lakefront to the super wealthy. The subversion of the spirit of the Burnham Plan: connect the North Side luxury lakefront high rises to Hyde Park, without break.

Think what you will about the elimination of the projects — I'm not crying over the wiping out those inhumane sardine cans — but the concept of public housing, which used to be called "worker housing," is a noble one, and there is something to be said for peoples' rights to stay in their neighborhood. That's their neighborhood. It is part of how they defined how they were. Not only that, but the Second Ward is the historical center of the original black South Side. The "Black Metropolis" that sprang up during the First World War. With all due respect to Harlem, Chicago's black neighborhoods were among the most unique on the planet, as the African-American experience was unique among the world's cultures. It is unfortunate that this was transformed into drug, poverty and crime ridden housing projects, but with the right development policy, the projects could have been destroyed without destroying the cultural jewel that lived in the Second Ward.

Today, incumbent alderman Madeline Haithcock is facing a tough reelection bid against a series of candidates. Two of him are white, including front-runner attorney Bob Fioretti. In discussions of the election, it often comes up that Fioretti is white, and that gentrification in the ward makes his election more likely (the assumption being that whites are more likely to vote for a white guy). The Second Ward election will represent the first competition that will reflect the rampant gentrification and displacement that has become City of Chicago policy — a black ward with a black alderman becoming a white ward with a white alderman. That has never happened before.

A city is a living thing, and nobody owns neighborhoods — somebody was always here before you — so I am not going to rail against people moving to Chicago, or one part of Chicago versus another. But the fact that that movement is always such a binary proposition — either/or — is what I have a problem with. The Second is becoming a White Ward because the black people that have lived in the area for generations are being shouldered out by astronomical property taxes, pressure from developers, and social institutions that immediately bestow stakeholder and political power to white "settlers" and the real estate developers who bring them to a new area. White Wards became black because institutional panic at the relocation of black people led to the White Flight.

The inexorable "flip" of the Second from black to white is just another example of our continuing refusal to look at solutions to the segregation in this city, and the fact that we continue to be dupes to the development interests, hos to their pimps. Individuals will always make the choices they make, and individuals will almost always choose to live with or near people who share cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. You can't force people to become shiny and happy and hold hands, in other words.

But you can stop the economic violence that chases people like rats from the neighborhoods and communities painstaking built over generations. The Second should serve as a lesson, it should be first and last "re-flip," this white version of reconquista. We aren't asking anything of the gigantic business interests that isn't rational or even fair: since we live in these neighborhoods, work in these neighborhoods, fall in love in these neighborhoods, create memories in these neighborhoods, bury our loved ones in these neighborhoods, raise children in these neighborhoods, are these neighborhoods, be our partner in these neighborhoods, not our boss.

It isn't in the nature of big business, and their accomplices in the City Council, to make partners of people. Their disposition is to dominate through low deception. Years of listening to their own propaganda has convinced them of the messianic nature of The Market and Private Sector Solutions. We can't keep flipping the black switch and the white switch. Chicago will not really survive with that policy. People are not chattel to be wholesale removed periodically. It isn't a good sign that white people and black people in this city are only able to co-exist so long as they have Mexican neighborhoods as a buffer. I know we all think we're way past racial tension and violence, but just because nobody's throwing bottles and rocks or setting fire to grocery stores doesn't mean there isn't violence, because economic violence is still violence.

In a short eight years, two election cycles from now, the Second Ward will likely be on its third term of a white alderman in what will be considered a "white ward," and that connection to one of the great periods of history, the Great Migration of the 20th Century, which ushered in one of the most unique and creative periods in the history of our nation, if not all western civilization, will be extinguished.

I hope those granite-top counters are worth it.

GB store


JP Paulus / February 7, 2007 7:37 AM

Obviously, this kind of story is happening elsewher ein the city, to perhaps smaller degrees, such as the 46th.

The reason why the 46th hasn't won yet is due to the extreme negativity of the anti-Shiller people. They live in contradicitos they can't see: they loudly proclaim how bad the ward is, backed up by statistics. Yet, with all that info, one wonders why they didn't do that research before moving into Uptown in the first place.

They also ignor ethe needs of the poorer people, who live in buildings nowhere close to being decrepit like Cabrini-Green or Robert Taylor.

The housing as Wilson Yards is closer to Uptown's High rise housing, rather than Cabrini Green, but they insist on claiming otherwise, and ignoring their neighbors.

The fight in the 2nd will depend on who can bridge the most gaps, and not who can create the most fear/hate against the other.

Jack / February 7, 2007 11:03 AM

I really enjoyed your column (as always). The one mistake you make is tying gentrification, etc. to the forces of the Market. The free market does NOT fundamentally operate in real estate markets. Zoning laws and related regulatory frameworks make the housing market perhaps the worst example of a free market in the US. Gentrification is not market forces taking over. Nothing about housing and real estate ever is or likely ever will be.

Like I said, I look forward every week to reading your column. Keep up the good work


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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