February 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 2

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Segregation and the Windy City

Footnotes will run Chicago and Las Vegas articles relating to the theme and location of the 2011 ASA Annual Meeting.

Black Hawk Hancock, DePaul University, and Roberta Garner, DePaul University

chicago tenement building

The 2011 Annual Meeting theme is "Social Conflict: Multiple Dimensions and Arenas." Chicago, the original site for the meeting, provides a classic urban laboratory where there are numerous opportunities to examine the dimensions of that theme. A long-standing characteristic of Chicago is the hyper-segregation and spatial isolation of African Americans. This ghettoization was decisively bolstered and extended by public policies, making it as prevalent today as it was in the past (Wacquant 2010).

Recent developments, such as immigration, growing cultural diversity, and gentrification of the central zones of the city, have somewhat modified the fundamental historical patterns of segregation. However, recent changes, such as the closing of high-rise public housing units, may be exacerbating the level of isolation as lower–income African Americans are forced out of the downtown area. While patterns of segregation, immigration, gentrification, racial isolation, and racial disparities are taking place in other cities, the Chicago experience teaches us broader lessons about social conflict relating to continuity and change.

The Chicago metropolitan region is not devoid of integrated communities and neighborhoods. Amongst them are older historical inner-ring suburbs and newly integrated predominantly middle-class neighborhoods (i.e., in the South Loop). Still, in many other areas, the hyper-segregation of African Americans persists, especially in lower-income communities. Spatial isolation of African Americans in the city is perpetuated by a tendency among Latinos and Asian Americans to gravitate towards residences in predominantly white communities. The effect is clear in very large stretches of homogenously African American neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city and suburbs (Garner, Hancock, and Kim 2007).

The Blurring City-Suburb Distinction

The city-suburb distinction in the Chicago region has always been ambiguous; one of the primary reasons is that Chicago "incorporated" its suburbs over a century ago. Chicago has always been a "city of neighborhoods" with distinct ethnic cultures, but to some degree the shifting boundaries, identities, and spaces of the ethnic communities veiled the profound and persistent pattern of African American segregation. The region is best described as having an SES gradient that sweeps from the affluent predominantly white North Shore around the western edge of the city to the low-income predominantly African American suburbs in the south. The southern suburbs have been part of the Southside "Black Belt" for a long time, and although some of them include middle-class residents, many have high rates of poverty. The city-suburb lines are further blurred by new demographics. Latin and Asian Immigrants are increasingly inclined to settle in dispersed patterns either immediately upon arrival or soon thereafter, creating diversification of the inner ring of suburbs. Satellite cities of Chicago now have large and burgeoning Latino populations ranging anywhere from 20-50%.

CHA Closings: The End of Large Public Housing Projects

The high-rise projects of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), mostly built in the late 1950s, are now defunct. In December of 2010, the high-rise units of Cabrini-Green closed, marking the end of an era, initially one of hope and faith in the public sector and later one of racist isolation and widespread disappointment in government initiatives. The CHA had once housed as many as 60,000 people. The building of its complexes was one of the major public policy mechanisms that kept Chicago racially segregated. By the 1960s, the residents of family developments were almost all African American. Initially the CHA complexes were welcomed as providing decent housing in sharp contrast to the cold-water flats, decrepit tenements, and dilapidated frame houses of the private market. But from a progressive vision of integration and decent homes for all, public housing turned into a mechanism of isolation and domination. To liberals, public housing became a symbol of American apartheid, and to conservatives a sign of the incompetence of poor people and the waste of taxpayer dollars. To the residents themselves, the buildings had become a place of poverty, gangs, stigma, and dilapidation (See Sudhir Venkatesh’s (2000) American Project).

Above all, to real estate developers, these gigantic, unsightly obstacles were a huge barrier to development in the central city and business district. By the early 21st century, residents were being relocated to subsidized housing and mixed-income developments. The number of units did not equal the number of residents being relocated, and some residents could not meet requirements for the new housing. Consequently, many residents moved to low-income communities from the far south side and south suburbs. The displacement of public housing residents from inner-city locations to peripheral communities has actually exacerbated the pattern of racial and class isolation.

With the closing of CHA, gentrification and revalorization of the central areas of Chicago accelerated in the last 10 years, utterly transforming large parts of the city. The housing stock of these rebuilt areas consists of rehabbed older structures, new townhouses, a limited number of high rises, and small gated complexes that are inserted into the fabric of the city. The areas adjacent to the downtown have changed from the seedy "zone of transition" to places of residence for young professionals and affluent families (Lloyd 2010). Gentrification of lower-income African American neighborhoods by affluent African Americans is an interesting new phenomenon (Patillo 1999, 2007).

Disparities and Racial Isolation: Challenges for the New Mayor

The social effects of African American (and to a lesser extent, Latino) hyper-segregation remain marked and yet are not being addressed effectively. Several symptoms of segregation, isolation, and a high-level of disparities can be noted. The recent foreclosure rate is about three times as high in predominantly African American and Latino communities as it is in predominantly white areas. In terms of socioeconomic status, the rate is twice as high for families with incomes under $80,000 as for more affluent families. School completion offers a particularly dismal picture, with less than half of young African American men in the Chicago Public School system completing a high school diploma; the rates for African American women and Latinos/Latinas are also low. Health disparities along racial and class lines reflect failed public policies and ongoing structural forces of marginalization of the urban (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009).

The CHA closings and the gentrification of the inner city have produced a "turning inside out" of Chicago, placing higher-income, predominantly white populations near the center, while pushing lower-income people of color into peripheral areas of the city and the poorer suburbs. While this does not overturn the traditional geographical/class divisions, which is the inverse of European cities, this trend raises a daunting question for the next mayor: Why give the city to poor people, when they can have the suburbs? (Wacquant 2007).

The Chicago experience points to much larger national trends indicating new wrinkles in the old story of segregation. Immigration of non-whites, especially since 1965, and the tendency for them to bypass traditional ethnic enclaves and head directly to the suburbs creates new variations in population settlements. Greater class diversity, especially amongst African Americans, creates new twists in the problems of gentrification and city life. The continuing failure of public policies and enduring structural forces pose new challenges to sociology as we come to grapple with the ever mutating changes of social conflict embedded in everyday life. logosmall


Bourgois, Philippe and Jeff Schonberg. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Garner, Roberta, Black Hawk Hancock, and Kiljoong Kim. 2007. "Segregation in Chicago." The Tocqueville Review XXVIII(1): 41-74.

Lloyd, Richard. 2010. Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. (2ed). New York: Routledge

Patillo, Mary. 2008. Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

------. Black Pickett Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wacquant, Loic. 2010 "Urban Desolation and Symbolic Denigration in the Hyperghetto." Social Psychology Quarterly. 73(2): 215-219.

------.2007. Urban Outcasts. A Comparative Study of Advanced Marginality. London: Polity.

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