Racial integration is possible in Chicago

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The Frances Cabrini row houses on the Near North Side.
I grew up in Chicago, and I love this city and hate its legacy of black and white separation. In my writing, I've regularly denounced the segregation that persists here and throughout our country. But on this Thanksgiving, I'll happily acknowledge some reasons for optimism, and some attainments to be grateful for.

In the 1950s, the community activist Saul Alinsky described racial integration in Chicago as the brief period starting with the arrival of the first black family in a neighborhood and ending with the departure of the last white family. That was an accurate picture here into the 1970s. Then blacks stopped streaming into Chicago from Mississippi, and neighborhoods stopped changing overnight from white to black. The end of the black migration left the city not with integrated neighborhoods, but stably segregated ones—including a sprawling megaghetto on the south side and a smaller one on the west side. Four decades later, these areas are still almost completely African-American, with high concentrations of poverty—and they're home to more than half of Chicago's black population.

There have been a couple of beacons of light on the segregated south side, however—Beverly and Hyde Park—and they have stood the test of time. Beverly was virtually all white in 1970. By 1980 it was 15 percent black, and in 1990 the black population had grown to 24 percent. Normally in Chicago, the neighborhood would have "tipped" after that. But the proportion of blacks in Beverly grew modestly in the next decade, to 32 percent in 2000; in 2010 it was 34 percent. (Whites made up 59 percent of the population in 2010, Hispanics 5 percent.)

Hyde Park has been stably integrated for much longer. It was 3 percent black in 1950; that grew to 38 percent in 1960, and it's remained between 30 and 40 percent black ever since.

The integration achievements of these two neighborhoods come with provisos. The University of Chicago has an ignoble history regarding its management of racial change in Hyde Park and Woodlawn: it used urban renewal money as a "negro removal" tool in the 1950s and 60s, to protect its neighborhood from tipping. Both Hyde Park and Beverly are affluent areas, and they're far from perfectly integrated block-to-block. But they're proof nonetheless that racial integration can work, and last, even on the south side. The area near the University of Illinois at Chicago seems poised to join them as a success story.

African-Americans have been more welcome as neighbors on the north side than on the southwest side—especially in Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, and, increasingly, West Ridge. These communities have significant proportions of Hispanics and Asians as well as whites and blacks, and much economic diversity. There are conflicts, of course, and they sometimes play out along racial lines—but they're nowhere near as heated as the daily battles in the 1950s and '60s and '70s on the south and west sides.

Another bright development is that an appalling chapter in U.S. urban history—the era of the high-rise housing projects—is now just that, history. Some important losses accompanied the leveling of the high-rises in Chicago and most American cities—notably, the resulting smaller supply of affordable housing. The Chicago Housing Authority's "Plan for Transformation" failed to transform as much as it might have. This was partly a planning failure of the city, the CHA, and federal officials. But the unexpected crash in the housing market and the credit freeze were also to blame; the mixed-income developments that were planted on the old project sites might have worked better than they have if the economy hadn't tanked. Most of the project residents, poor and black, have resettled in those poor black neighborhoods on the south and west sides, and in the south suburbs. Racial segregation has become less vertical and more horizontal.

And yet the toppling of those towers has still been a major achievement. The high-rises of Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, Rockwell Gardens, and the ABLA Homes were segregation in its most crystalized and virulent form. It's easier to envision a movement toward an integrated Chicago now than when the projects were looming. As isolated as Englewood is, it's less so than were these projects.

It's also easier to imagine a truly integrated southwest side now that it's no longer a white-only colony, but largely white and Hispanic. Chicago's growing Hispanic population may in fact be the biggest reason for optimism for those hoping for an integrated city. Friction between blacks and Hispanics over jobs is an impediment, but that ultimately may be overridden by empathy. Hispanics can relate to the African-American experience—they know what it's like to be discriminated against.

The subject of segregation, once a focus of urban affairs reporters, has long been forgotten by many of them. But in Chicago lately, another positive has been renewed attention to this issue. It's a favored topic of the insightful Whet Moser on Chicago magazine's staff blog, the 312. Natalie Moore and Linda Lutton often highlight the role of segregation in their reports for WBEZ, as do Angela Caputo and her colleagues at the Chicago Reporter.

Public officials, on the other hand, still avoid the issue. Mayors are flacks for their cities, so Rahm Emanuel's silence is no surprise. The solutions he proposes for high murder rates and troubled schools—changes in police deployment, more teacher accountability—conveniently skirt the main problem. It may take questioning by reporters for the Sun-Times and Tribune, and their editorial boards, to loosen Hizzoner's tongue and refocus his attention.

More helpful would be pressure from ordinary citizens. It was such pressure that led to the civil rights victories of the 1960s. And so the Occupy movement is another cause for hope. Occupy protesters didn't target segregation last year, but their focus on inequality could lead them to segregation if the movement blooms again in the spring.

With entrenched problems like segregation, fatalism is one of the main obstacles to change. All the more reason to recognize what progress there's been. The steps forward have been far too small and slow, but those steps are reminders that progress is possible.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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