Battling Uneven Development in Chicago


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1999 Annual Meeting


Battling Uneven Development in Chicago


Sixth in a series of articles in anticipation of the 1999 ASA Annual Meeting in Chicago


by Phil Nyden, Loyola University Chicago,
and Gwen Nyden, Oakton Community College

Like many cities, Chicago is a city of contrasts‹between rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Anglo, immigrant and non-immigrant. But uneven development has been apparent in Chicago for many years. Through the early 1980s, Harvey Zorbaugh's 1928 classic, The Gold Coast and the Slum, could have been used as a walking tour guide. The contrast between the Gold Coast mansions just north of the Magnificent Mile (along North Michigan Avenue) and the low-income neighborhood just six blocks to the west was still present. In 1980, nine of the 15 poorest neighborhoods in the U.S. were in Chicago.

Last year, Chicago was listed as the third most segregated city in the United States (after Gary and Detroit). While other Northeastern and Midwestern older industrial cities provided tough competition for this highly questionable distinction, Chicago's long history of housing segregation, local race-based politics, and discriminatory lending practices has left a lasting mark on the social landscape of the nation's third city.

The symbolism of uneven development even carries through into professional sports. With its distinct uptown character, Wrigley Field, home to the Cubs, is affectionately described as the "friendly confines." The historic field in gentrified "Wrigleyville," full of popular bars and trendy restaurants, is a sharp contrast to the cement coliseum build on the Southside for the White Sox. Comisky Park, rarely described by the media as being in a "neighborhood," is across a 12-lane interstate from Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, two of the greatest concentrations of public housing in the United States. Just to the west of this new stadium is Bridgeport, the working class community that had long been home to Mayor Richard J. Daley (the "original" Mayor Daley). A few years ago Bridgeport was abandoned by son Mayor Richard M. Daley in favor of the trendy new Central Station neighborhood at the south end of Grant Park. Retail businesses and other investments had preceded Richard M. in the exodus from Bridgeport, reflecting the patterns of disinvestment typical of many former white ethnic neighborhoods.

There are many other signs of continued uneven development. Following the decline of basic industrial employment which hit some Chicago neighborhoods hard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chicago has more recently been riding an economic boom. While investment have found its way into most neighborhoods, the trickle of money coming into some low-income communities has been overshadowed by the flood of money being pumped into Chicago's central business district. Similarly, Chicago's lakefront park system is biased toward the more white and more affluent Northside. A recent Chicago Tribune series on Chicago's park system pointed to inequities in public investment. In addition to having double the acreage of the southern lakefront, the northern lakefront has more food concession stands, playgrounds, marinas, and other amenities. New figures on Chicago Transit Authority budget planning indicate that through 2002, $65 million will be spent to improve downtown subway stations while only $15 million will be spent on all the other stations in the entire system.

You will not have to walk very far from the ASA host hotel to see the boom in hotel, retail, and housing investment boom taking place in the Loop and North Michigan Avenue area. A recent Brookings Institution report projects that 90,000 new residents will move into the central business district in the next 10 years. These will be primarily young and middle-aged professionals with typical individual earnings in excess of $100,000 annually. Along North Michigan Avenue, a new development will include more upscale stores and a multi-story Disney "urban" theme park (opening before August 1999) and other upscale retailers. The millions of dollars pouring into new retail and entertainment development continues a decades-long development "winning streak" for the city's Magnificent Mile.

At the same time, the city is experiencing an affordable housing shortage, partially produced by the dismantling of concentrated low-income high-rise public housing built in the 1950s and 1960s. While the policy of concentrating the poor in high rise housing has been recognized as a policy failure by liberals and conservatives alike, the absence of any clear strategy to build and preserve affordable housing in Chicago has been a major battle line in city and community politics. A University of Illinois Chicago report points to nearly 40,000 affordable housing units lost in the 1980s alone, with more than 20,000 units likely to be lost in the course of "downsizing" public housing.

However, these and other uneven development strategies have not gone unchallenged in this city noted for its change-oriented community activists and organizations, from Jane Adams and the settlement houses, Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation, to the scores of community activists and organizations in Chicago today. Citywide groups such as the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations (CANDO), the Community Workshop for Economic Development, the Chicago Rehab Network, the Women's Self-Employment Project, Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, and the Woodstock Institute work with researchers in documenting successful alternatives to uneven growth and serve as advocate and technical assistance agencies.

There are numerous examples of efforts to present specific alternative models of uneven growth. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a group founded after Martin Luther King's marches to desegregate Chicago neighborhoods in the 1960s, coordinated a national community-university research project with Loyola University Chicago and Chicago State University to determine what factors produced stable racial and ethnic diversity in urban communities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development just published this nine-city report, which includes descriptions of Chicago's Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Uptown neighborhoods, in its journal Cityscape. In conjunction with the Organization of the NorthEast, an umbrella group of activist community organizations in Uptown along Chicago's northern lakefront, Loyola University researchers have documented successful efforts to preserve some of the ten HUD-subsidized affordable high-rise apartment buildings in the face of gentrification and potential displacement trends in this mixed-income neighborhood

In the cultural realm, uneven development has been challenged by the successful Mexican Fine Arts Museum and planned African-American Historic southside Bronzeville District. Opened in 1987, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum is one of the most impressive community-based museums in the city. From its annual Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibit to shows featuring contemporary Latino artists, it has provided opportunities to display Mexican and Mexican-American art not provided by established arts institutions. The Bronzeville Historical District project hopes to invest in and preserve the strong African-American heritage in Chicago's Mid-Southside. From planned creation of a Jazz-Blues Museum to tours featuring contributions by Black educators, social scientists, and journalists, the District will stress contributions by African-Americans often ignored by major cultural institutions.

Chicago is often pointed to as being in the lead of university-community partnerships where academics and community activists work together in completing policy and evaluation research aimed at documenting and strengthening grassroots innovations to pressing urban problems. The Policy Research Action Group (PRAG), a collaborative network of four universities as well as more than 25 community-based and citywide civic organizations, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Having been involved in more than 200 collaborative projects on issues ranging from housing and employment to the environment and transportation, PRAG has established a national reputation. Its university partners include Loyola University's Center for Urban Research and Learning, University of Illinois Chicago's Center for Urban Economic Development (and its Great Cities Program), DePaul University's Egan Center, and Chicago State University's Neighborhood Assistance Center. If you want to learn more about this collaborative network while you are in town, e-mail us ( or call (312-915-7760). A tour on Chicago's "Frontyard and Backyards" scheduled for the afternoon of Monday, August 9, will also address some of the same issues of uneven development that we have discussed here.