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Mayoral candidates speak up about Chicago's segregation

Well, at least four of the five did.

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See our related story: "The most important issue no one's talking about in the mayoral race."

In 2011, with racial segregation off the radar as usual in the mayor's race, we interviewed the candidates on the subject.

Four years later, we again sought to talk with the candidates about segregation. Four of the five obliged. The exception was Mayor Emanuel. We asked him for the interview more than a month ago, but his campaign spokesperson, Steve Mayberry, told us the mayor was too busy. He offered to provide an e-mail response from the mayor. Our "interview" with Emanuel four years ago had been by e-mail—his condition. We told Mayberry we wanted to have an actual conversation with the mayor this time, as we were having with the other candidates. We didn't hear back.

It's not our first attempt since Emanuel took office to interview him about Chicago's racial segregation. Halfway through his term we requested an interview. In our e-mail to his office in January 2013, we acknowledged that "in two years, no mayor can substantially change racial segregation that's persisted in Chicago for a century." But we said we wanted to know "if the mayor feels he's making any progress, however slight, in reducing our city's racial segregation—or if he's planted seeds he feels confident will ultimately bear fruit." A spokesperson for the mayor promised to get back to us but didn't.

The candidates who spoke with us for this story all said they considered racial segregation a significant problem in Chicago. Their ideas for addressing it were hazy—a product, we think, both of the complexity of the problem and the infrequency with which they're asked about it. We realize there are no easy answers, and appreciate the willingness of four of five candidates to discuss the issue.

Dock Walls

Dock Walls was nine when his family moved into the South Chicago neighborhood in 1966, from nearby Park Manor. The second black family on the block, at 81st and Euclid, they weren't cordially welcomed. "We fought battles every day," Walls remembered. White neighbors threw garbage in their yard and, when Walls was riding his bike in the street, menaced him with their cars.

He thinks African-Americans are still reluctant today to move into predominantly white neighborhoods because they remember how blacks were greeted years ago. He also believes African-Americans are often discriminated against when they do try to move into white areas. He favors increasing the budget of the Commission on Human Relations to combat such discrimination.

Many residents of racially segregated neighborhoods "would move to more affluent communities if you gave them the opportunity," he said. "But they don't feel welcome in those communities now."

Chicago's segregated neighborhoods not only are beleaguered by unemployment, crime, and underperforming schools, Walls said, but basic city services such as street sweeping are also inferior. That's because these areas lack clout, he said: "If you have all poor people in a community, they become powerless." Poor neighborhoods also are short on role models, he said. "Unemployed people can't help unemployed people—it's employed people who show the way."

He thinks the city should work harder at fostering mixed-income housing developments. In such developments, people without clout benefit from getting to know people who have it, he said.

He thinks the mayor should work with the governor and general assembly on regional strategies to desegregate neighborhoods and deconcentrate poverty. He said suburban mayors could be persuaded to provide more affordable housing if Chicago's mayor were more vocal about it. "The mayor has to use his office as a bully pulpit to persuade people to do the right thing."

Walls, who owns a T-shirt company and has run for mayor twice before, raises few of these ideas on his website. He proposes using tax increment financing to build grocery stores in low-income communities. Improving the parks, schools, and libraries in segregated neighborhoods would make them more attractive to white families, he said, and might encourage them to move in. He said an increase in white families in parts of Woodlawn shows this is possible.

The city needs to work on integration at the same time as it works on economic development, he told us. "If Chicago is going to be a world-class city, it needs to be integrated."

Bob Fioretti

Alderman Bob Fioretti grew up on the far south side, in Roseland, a neighborhood that was mostly white when he was born in 1953 and was 98 percent black by 1980. He recalls that when he was a teen, panic-peddling real estate agents would call his parents and ask, in ominous tones, "Do you know who's moving in on your block?"

During that period of rapid racial change, mills and factories were closing or moving to the suburbs, and Roseland and neighborhoods like it grew poorer. With crime worsening, Fioretti's parents sold their home and moved to the suburbs in the early 1970s, when he was in college. "What happened then has left us with the racial inequality that we have now," Fioretti said. "It was never addressed by our political leaders."

How should Chicago address racial segregation now? "I don't even know where to begin," he told us. He said most politicians—white ones especially—are wary of talking about race.

Fioretti argues that the best way to attack segregation is by helping African-Americans access good jobs. In the Second Ward, where he's been alderman for eight years, he said he's tried to break up entrenched segregation with economic investment. Before a 2012 remap the ward included much of the near south and near west sides, including public housing complexes and parts of East Garfield Park, which is predominantly African-American and largely poor. Fioretti said he pushed the city to upgrade street lighting, repave roads, and spruce up parks in these areas, not only to make them more amenable for residents but also to attract businesses offering jobs. He noted that hundreds of new jobs came to the ward from employers such as Rush hospital, which expanded over the last decade, and Costco, which opened a store in 2012.

Fioretti said he'd like to require companies receiving TIF funds or a zoning change to hire city residents to ensure taxpayers aren't subsidizing people leaving for the suburbs. He also said he'd consider creating community job centers to help people get training and find openings.

Willie Wilson

In his downtown penthouse overlooking Lake Shore Drive, Willie Wilson recently recalled the whites and colored signs over the separate bathrooms and drinking fountains in his childhood in the south.

Wilson was born in Gilbert, Louisiana, in 1948. His parents were sharecroppers. At age 13 he left home to find work on his own. He ended up picking crops in Florida in an environment he characterized as a work camp. When he quit, he had to flee from its angry overseers.

He later made himself into a millionaire by acquiring McDonald's franchises and starting a medical supply company.

He moved to Chicago in 1965, at age 17, and settled on the west side, where whites were fleeing from the growing black population. He said the west side hasn't changed that much in 50 years: "It's like a third-world country—like Haiti, and South Africa under apartheid. Some of the people in that neighborhood haven't been outside a ten-block radius all their life."

Wilson said he considers segregation—racial and especially economic—the city's biggest problem, and declared that he's running for mayor to address it. He castigated city officials, present and past, for investing meagerly in the west and south sides, shutting residents out of jobs and opportunities to start their own businesses. He pointed to corporations profiting handsomely from their contracts to operate businesses at O'Hare Airport. "Millions of dollars," he said. "If you take it and put it into the west side of Chicago, it would be a different west side."

He favors legislation requiring city contractors to hire people from neighborhoods across the city in proportion to their population. He said tax increment financing funds should be spent across the city and not just downtown.

But Wilson said he'd rather talk about opportunity and jobs than race. "I'm not running for just the black community," he told us. "I'm running for all citizens."

Jesus Garcia

Jesus Garcia's family was the first Mexican-American family on their block—Pulaski near 28th—when they moved into Little Village in 1969. More Latino families soon joined them, and the eastern European families moved out, grumbling as they left about the neighborhood's decline.

He's lived in Little Village ever since, and said he's enjoyed being in a largely Mexican-American community. "But I want my grandchildren to live with other ethnicities, other races. I think they become better human beings that way. There's something great about this amalgam of ethnic enclaves, because of what every group contributes in terms of culture, art, and history. But there's also the intolerance and stereotypes that come with it. That's what I'd like to end."

Whereas residents of ethnic enclaves, including Latinos, have been able "to move to other areas of the city and suburbs pretty readily" when they wish to, African-Americans have been hemmed in by discrimination, he said: "Clearly they've suffered the most confinement and prejudice."

He said he's optimistic about racial integration because he thinks millennials are more willing "to embrace people who are different from them." He added that "a mayor working with people in neighborhoods can build new communities that are truly diverse—income-wise, ethnically, racially."

Garcia pointed to efforts in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, where the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, an affiliate of the University of Minnesota Law School, has been working to create more affordable housing throughout the region, to alleviate the segregation and concentration of poverty within the cities and some of their suburbs. He said Chicago should collaborate similarly with its suburbs.

Although mayors of central cities have no formal control over the suburbs in their region, he said he thinks mayors who "demonstrate a commitment to greater equity" can convince suburban mayors to participate in such an effort.

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