Thirty years ago, when I first moved to town, a community activist explained to me the way of the world in Chicago, as though it were a law carved in stone. "Once a neighborhood goes black, it never goes back," he said, as he took me through racially changing neighborhoods across the southwest side.
One day, Chicago will be a "black city," he went on to predict.
Well, it's time to recarve the stone, 'cause the future didn't happen quite that way.
Not only has Chicago's black population shrunk, but the unimaginable has been happening for years: whites have moved into black neighborhoods, displacing blacks.
Guess we've reached the point where old timers—myself included—need to reconsider the no-longer-so-conventional wisdom.
This message came home to me the other day as I visited the offices of Rob Paral, a computer researcher specializing in demographics, to pore over his analysis of the most recent census data.
Paral has fitted census tracts against a ward boundary map to calculate the political consequences of a decade's worth of demographic changes. (If you want to check out some of his research, go to robparal.com).
Overall the city's black population fell by roughly 180,000 residents—to 872,000 from 1 million—with the steepest decline in several south- and west-side wards.
"This trend has been going on for years, but we're now seeing the results," says Paral.
He figures several forces are at play—the most obvious being the destruction of dozens of high-rise Chicago Housing Authority projects.
The projects were built in the 1950s and 1960s in part to appease white aldermen who wanted to make sure that the surging black population moving north from the south did not settle in their wards.
Politically, the biggest benefactors were black Democratic bosses, like south-side Congressman William Dawson, who suddenly had a captive electorate at their command.
As we all know, the city's been systematically demolishing the high-rises for the last two decades. With the projects demolished, local property values go up and many nearby homeowners and renters are forced to move.
In their place—at least in some wards—have come white residents.
In the Third Ward—which includes such gentrifying near-south-side neighborhoods as Bronzeville, Douglas, and Oakland—the black population fell by 12.4 percent and the white one rose 46.7 percent over the past decade, according to Paral's analysis.
Even more dramatically, in the 27th Ward—which stretches from the near-north side to the west side—the black population fell 32 percent and the white one rose 83.6 percent.
That means that aldermen Pat Dowell (Third) and Walter Burnett (27th) are representing roughly double the percentage of white constituents than existed in the ward ten years ago. The Third Ward is now 9 percent white, up from 4 percent ten years ago, and the 27th is 32 percent white, up from 17.
To realize the significance of these shifts we need a brief—very brief—primer on race and politics in Chicago. In the 1960s and '70s, the political transition from white to black was a stormy one, with white incumbents desperately holding on to office until they could no longer muster enough whites vote to win.
In many south-side wards—like the Ninth, the 15th, and the 16th—the battle for power was viewed almost as tribal warfare. Years ago, Jerald Wilson, a west-side political operative, used to joke that we'd have a black president before white residents would elect a black alderman.
After all, we can only trust our own with the important things like garbage collection and street cleaning.
He was using hyperbole, but good god, he was right. A black alderman has still not been elected from a majority white ward—even on the north side.
Interestingly, Paral's calculations reveal a less turbulent political transition between white and Latinos.
The 14th ward—which is now 88 percent Latino—is represented by Alderman Ed Burke, a proud Irishmen, who will probably hold that office for as long as he wants.
The 13th Ward—72 percent Latino—is home base to another powerful white Irish politician. That would be Michael Madigan, who is, in no order of importance, the ward's Democratic committee, speaker of the house, and father of attorney general Lisa Madigan.
Can't imagine Madigan getting driven from power anytime soon.
Conversely, the phenomenon of white voters electing a Latino alderman is old hat, at least in the First Ward, which includes parts of Wicker Park.
In February voters elected Proco "Joe" Moreno over Deborah Lopez. Keep in mind the gentrifying ward is 55 percent white and 35 percent Latino, a reverse of what it was ten years ago, according to Paral.
Essentially, you have white people choosing which Latino politician they want to represent them. Which is Chicago's version of ethnic kumbaya.
At the moment, I'm looking for the African- American version of Ameya Pawar—the Indian American 29-year-old who was elected alderman in the 47th Ward—running on issues having absolutely nothing to do with his ethnicity. The 47th is 74 percent white and 6 percent Asian.
When the white voters in wards like, oh, the 11th (Bridgeport) or the 42nd (Gold Coast) or the 48th (Edgewater)—just to name a few—elect a black man or woman, we'll know we've truly overcome.
Dropping the F-bomb in the 50th ward
On March 31, I headed over to West Rogers Park to moderate the great 50th Ward debate between Alderman Berny Stone and his challenger, Deborah Silverstein.
It's been a humdinger of a campaign with accusations of everything from to nepotism to incompetence.
In the days leading up to the event, I'd been getting calls and e-mails from ward residents warning me to wear a hard hat to the debate.
They were joking—I think.
Actually, it went pretty well. Yes, Stone and Silverstein hammered one another—voices occasionally rising or cracking.
But they didn't interrupt one another. They made their points. This, I thought, is democracy at its best.
A few minutes after the debate had ended, some guy—I have no idea who he was—came up to tell me that I'd been nodding in agreement when Silverstein was talking.
I explained that I also nodded when Stone spoke. I have a habit of nodding when people are talking—it's a way of concentrating on what they're saying. Sort of like Michael Jordan sticking out his tongue when he plays ball.
Not that I'm comparing myself to Michael Jordan.
We then had a variation of the following exchange.
Him: Well, you nodded more for Silverstein than you did for Stone.
Me: You actually kept track?
I've got to admit—the guy was starting to irritate me. So I turned to Stone, who was standing nearby, and said, "Hey, Berny—this guy thinks I was unfair to you."
Mind you, Stone had just thanked me for doing a great job.
Only Stone was preoccupied. He was standing toe-to-toe with a man who had been in the audience.
They were yelling at each other. Something to do with a building in the ward. I couldn't make out the details.
It's worth noting that Stone turns 84 in November.
Tough guy, old Berny—he wasn't backing down an inch.
Into the fray came a bunch of aides, a security guard and a cop to separate the man from Stone.
As the throng moved out of the room, a clot of people—Stone and Silverstein backers included—wedged together in the door.
Suddenly, more voices were raised. Now aides to Silverstein and Stone were going at it. The F-bomb was dropped. and everything!
Hey, people—can't we all just get along?
The good news is that no punches were thrown. Security hustled everyone out. And with all the excitement, my friend, the head-nodding noter, had disappeared.
Not that I missed him.
Never a dull moment in the 50th Ward.