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Race Thu Oct 27 2011
by Daniel Hertz
On a recent sunny afternoon, "John," 25, was hanging out at the Lake Meadows shopping center at 35th and King Drive in Bronzeville. He is a new resident of the city's oldest black neighborhood, formed in the first quarter of the 20th century by southern migrants searching for better jobs and living conditions in the North. John is also a migrant: he moved to Bronzeville from southwestern China earlier this year. And, in doing so, he became part of the slow breakdown in the racial order of Chicago that has been taking place for the last few decades.
It is not news that this city, like most northern industrial metropolises, is an especially egregious case of American racial segregation. Separation was never explicitly enforced by law, but restrictive housing covenants, social pressure, and violence, both random and coordinated, managed to create very real boundaries outside of which few blacks dared to live. Successive waves of migrants following World War II expanded the black ghetto to encompass much of the south and west sides of the city, while the severity of segregation worsened.
But it is less often noted that since peaking around 1970, black segregation in Chicago has been on a slow, but notable, decline. Now, new data from the 2010 Census gives an in-depth portrait of a still-divided city's tentative steps away from the kind of apartheid that earned it the nickname "Beirut on the Lake" in the 1980s. In neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Woodlawn on the South Side and Garfield Park on the West Side, white, Latino and Asian Chicagoans have cracked open the door to integration. Likewise, black families have started to move into pockets of the northwest and southwest sides where African Americans often made up less than one percent of residents just ten years ago. In some of these places, African American populations have grown by factors of two, three, or even ten since 2000.
John came to Chicago to study at the Illinois Institute of Chicago; he says he chose to live in Bronzeville because he "heard there was a large Chinese community there." In fact, in the Census tract bordered by King Drive, 26th St., 31st St., and the lake, Asians now make up 35% of residents-triple the level in 2000. Between 31st and 35th, the Asian population boomed by nearly 2,500% in ten years, and now represents nearly one in every five people there. Overall, the Douglas community area-which covers northern Bronzeville-has seen the African American share of its population drop from over 90% in 1990 to about 77% today.
It would be easy to exaggerate the results of these trends. The dissimilarity index of black-white segregation, which measures the percentage of people who would have to move to create a completely integrated city, stands at 76.4 in the Chicago metro area, one of the highest in the country. Moreover, segregation between whites, Latinos, and Asians changed hardly at all, though it is still significantly less pronounced than the black-white rift. (Chicago's dissimilarity index between whites and Latinos in 2010 was 56.3; for whites and Asians, it was 44.9.)
Still, the city's 2010 segregation index represent a drop of 5% in the last decade and nearly 15% since 1980; it is now at its lowest level since 1920. These shifts have been especially pronounced in the city's most racially homogenous districts. Whereas in 2000 34% of black Chicagoans lived in Census tracts that were 98% black, only 13% did in 2010. The percentage of blacks living in 90% African American tracts declined from 74% to 67% over the same time period.
Many Chicagoans don't need these statistics to know that their neighborhoods have been changing. Mark Lindsay, 51, has lived in the Washington Park neighborhood for 20 years, but commutes to Bronzeville to work and buy groceries. Lindsay, who is black, says over the last ten years, he's started to notice that more of his neighbors are white. "You even see white people on 43rd Street now, which never would have happened ten years ago," he says.
A couple miles to the south, Kenwood has also changed over the last decade. Although its southern half, below 47th St., has been integrated for years, North Kenwood was nearly 97% black in 2000. Since then, the white, Latino and Asian populations have all more than tripled; the neighborhood is now over 10% non-black. "Eric," 39, says his was one of the first white families on his block in North Kenwood back in 2006. "We got used to being the only ones," he says. "But I definitely see more white faces now."
In 1980, nearly 55,000 people lived in the Jefferson Park, Forest Glen and Edison Park community areas on the city's far Northwest Side. According to the Census, not a single one was black. Nearby Norwood Park and Portage Park, with a combined population of well over 100,000 people, were home to only 33 African Americans.
Since then, however, a steady trickle of black Chicagoans have established households in all five communities, joining white, Hispanic and Asian families looking for relatively quiet, leafy and peaceful streets in the city's outer neighborhoods. This trend strengthened notably in the last decade, though integration is still far from complete. In Portage Park, the number of African American residents more than doubled in the 2000s, reaching 1.7% of the population in 2010, compared to 0.05% thirty years earlier; in Jefferson Park, the black population more than tripled in the last ten years, hitting 1.2%.
There have been similar trends in some Southwest Side neighborhoods like Bridgeport, where historically, black people risked violence simply by passing through. As a result, the parts of the city where African Americans had been all but invisible have diminished considerably. Whereas over 200,000 people lived in Census tracts where fewer than 0.5% of residents were black in 2000, that number had dropped to under 75,000 in 2010.
How do the residents of these areas feel about this gradually evolving new reality? Asked whether there have been any tensions as a result of the racial changes in his neighborhood, Eric says that while it's a topic of conversation with his neighbors, he's not aware of any problems-though he quickly adds: "I'm not sure I would know." In fact, all of the people interviewed for this story expressed a tentative embrace of their new neighbors. Mark Lindsay, the man from Washington Park, was typical when he said he cared most about having neighbors who were employed and not "causing problems," whatever their color.
In fact, even as racial segregation ebbs, fair housing advocates have warned that longstanding trends in gentrification, the housing bust, and the demolition of public housing projects across the city have led to increasing segregation by income. The Census does not compile income segregation statistics, but the issue has been covered extensively by media outlets like the Chicago Reporter, among others.
Chicago's drop in racial segregation is part of a national trend. According to research by Reynolds Farley, a professor at the University of Michigan, Chicago's 15% decline since 1980 falls roughly in the middle of the pack of large American cities. On the extremes, Atlanta saw its dissimilarity index fall by nearly a quarter over the last three decades; New York City's decrease was only 5%.
The causes of this shift are harder to pin down. In part, Farley says, it's about changes in the culture of real estate professionals. While in earlier years it was common for realtors to "steer" clients to neighborhoods matching their ethnicity, "we've had a generation who, when they get their training, receive a lot of information about which practices might be discriminatory, and if they're found guilty of those practices, they could be targeted for a lawsuit. There's a change in real estate practices."
There has also been some opening in racial attitudes on all sides, Farley adds. "Many whites increasingly recognize that blacks would make good neighbors, and I think many blacks now think that it might be safe to live in an area with some blacks, but that's majority white." Maria Krysan, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agrees, noting that the "very negative impressions" of some neighborhoods left by a history of racial violence have dissuaded many African Americans from considering living in them.
Recently, though, she says "those reputations have shifted," and have opened the door to greater integration.
But the real question may be why desegregation is taking so long. Despite perceptions-among whites, at least-that segregation persists because of minority preferences, a long record of surveys show that most African Americans want to live in mixed neighborhoods. "African Americans look for housing in neighborhoods with a variety of racial compositions," says Krysan. "But they tend to end up in black neighborhoods. It contradicts the idea that African Americans are segregated because they prefer all-black neighborhoods."
So what's the problem? While real estate agents and landlords are legally prohibited from discriminating, Krysan says, "there are people who figure out ways to do it. If you're looking for a place to rent, for example, landlords just won't return your call." Moreover, despite some progress, whites still usually don't share black preferences for mixed neighborhoods, and "tend to search [for housing] in all-white communities." Her research also shows that racially homogenous social networks lead to "racial blind spots," meaning that people tend to know less about neighborhoods of different ethnic make-ups than their own, and don't include them in their housing searches.
What's more, Chicago politicians have proven unwilling to tackle the issue head-on, preferring to shift to less racially sensitive issues like employment and education. Even when asked specifically about segregation-as they were by Steve Bogira, who wrote a front page story on the subject for the Chicago Reader during the mayoral race earlier this year-none of the candidates vying to lead one of the most segregated cities in the country had a plan to promote integration.
As a result, the modest pace of gains made over the last ten years may be all the city's residents can look forward to. Asked about possible future trends, Farley says he "doesn't see any tremendous acceleration" in desegregation. If that's right, real integration is still a long way off.