‘The South Side’ Offers a New Take on an Old Problem: Segregation

By Sylvia A. Harvey Mar 23, 2016

The South Side is a magical place, writes Natalie Y. Moore in her new book, “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” The WBEZ South Side Bureau reporter reminds readers that alongside Chicago’s storied architecture, dynamic skyline and vibrant culture, the vestiges of 20th Century redlining, bad mortgages, racial steering and failed school policies continue to impact many South Side communities. More than half of the Black population in Chicago live in only 20 of the city’s 77 communities, and Moore illustrates the ways housing segregation touches the lives of South Siders, from employment to food access to education to violence.

In “The South Side,” Moore interweaves academic expertise, reporting and personal narrative resulting in an accessible work that puts modern segregation under a microscope. We spoke with Moore about her book, which came out yesterday (March 22).

You’ve wrote, “Black residents in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, have taken to the streets not just to protest the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown at the hands of police. Those two locales have something in common with [B]lack Chicago communities and other [B]lack urban areas: state sponsored segregation.” How?

Twentieth-century housing policies linger today, and they’re why our neighborhoods look the way they do. Take redlining, for example, how no one moves out of Black neighborhoods. You might have immigrants who are in a neighborhood and then they move up and out and another group comes in. That doesn’t happen in Black neighborhoods. The government encouraged White flight by building expressways to the suburbs and favoring loans to the suburbs that were all White. With White flight, you had the sucking of resources out of Black neighborhoods. You have these Black communities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, that became stuck.

Based on your reporting, how is race—not class—the pulse that keeps segregation alive in the South Side of Chicago?

Middle- and upper-class Black people who live in these neighborhoods are affected. You can earn $100,000 a year and still live in a food desert. You can buy a house and be upwardly mobile, but if you’re in a Black neighborhood you’re going to have the Black tax where goods and services nearby are more expensive and you may lack city services that other neighborhoods have.

How does the claim that segregation was good for the Black community because doctors lived next to janitors, we had our own institutions and we existed outside of White people miss the insidious nature of segregation?

We do have sometimes-safe sepia-toned lenses on the past as if everything was so perfect in the Black community, but things went wrong when integration happened. I think about the 1962 anecdote in my book where Black, 10-year-old, Tony Burroughs slid on a piece of glass. When his parents took him to a hospital two blocks away, they said they couldn’t serve him. He had to go to multiple hospitals before he was seen, and by then, the infection deepened and it became a serious injury.

Black people are very resilient; we thrive and we do the best that we can with the circumstances we’ve been given. But in the Black Belt there were a lot of one-room kitchenettes and cut up, fire-gutted apartments with multiple families living in them. … It was overcrowded and the restrictive covenants said they couldn’t live in other areas.

But we need to remember: It’s one thing to self-select, but it’s another thing when there are policies and informal laws present that keep Black people from getting certain resources.

Can you tell us how Black neighborhoods experience change but don’t actually gentrify in parts of the South Side where the demographic is at least 40 percent Black?

The University of Illinois at Chicago and Harvard University both conducted studies on Black South Side neighborhoods and concluded the neighborhoods didn’t gentrify. Green doesn’t trump Black. In Bronzeville, Black professionals moved in with a range of salaries, but the amenities, the retailers and some of the investment didn’t come. Research is showing gentrification is overplayed in Black communities, and [gentrification’s ability to thrive] has to do with perception. Because we’re segregated, people in other parts of the city are like, “I’m not coming to the South Side.” It’s this blanket, big, Black, ghetto where there are shootouts on the corner every weekend.

How do faulty appraisers impact property value, thus wealth-building in these communities?

I paid $172,000 for my Bronzeville condo. It was assessed at $55,000, then $45,000, and then the bank says its $87,000. The appraisals seem very subjective. You can go from one block to another and have a major change. So, if you have a White suburban appraiser come in and see an empty lot—not that we want empty lots in Black communities‑but I think it’s perceived differently and this goes into why Black houses are valued at less.

This is important because we’re taught the cornerstone of the American dream or wealth-building is through home ownership. So you’re at a disadvantage from the appraisers and some banks as they bring bad loans that target Black and Hispanic people.

You highlight issues with segregated education. What’s an example of an effective solution?

Strong schools don’t get by on the per-pupil allotment. Instead, they have strong PTAs, robust fundraisers and parents with more social capital. I don’t think there’s been a lot of coordination with housing and schools in this city. We should look at school boundaries in a way that encourages integration. Gary Orfield suggests, despite hyper segregation, Chicago’s diverse make-up could aid interracial, inter-class schools by opening magnet schools across regional school boundaries. There are a lot of great ideas from urban policy people, public policy people and academics, but politicians aren’t paying attention to them.

Spike Lee named his last film “Chiraq,” a popular moniker that combines “Chicago” and “Iraq.” Why is the term problematic for Chicago?

When you hear “war,” you’re thinking the most violent thoughts. I’m not saying there aren’t violent neighborhoods in Chicago and that people aren’t affected by violence, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are a handful of neighborhoods that are the most violent in the city. What those neighborhoods have in common is unemployment, poverty and segregation. Those aren’t sexy things to talk about, but there is voyeurism that goes along with violence.

When you think about war, who is the enemy? It sets up a more militaristic response to the problems in the neighborhood, rather than [addressing] the systemic racism that these neighborhoods have experienced. I just think that if you want to be solution oriented, you have to understand the facts. Hyperbole is not going to get us anywhere.

You write, “Contrary to what outsiders believe, [B]lack lives do matter to [B]lack people,” but there is a discrepancy of coverage. What are some of the ways you see [B]lack love and community justice manifest in the South Side?

I hate when people write, “crime is tolerated in these communities.” It’s not tolerated at all! A place like Englewood, which has some of the most acute violence, also has several block clubs and neighborhood organizations–people who deeply care about their community. Last summer, you had moms who got matching shirts and starting patrolling their blocks. It’s not a neighborhood of victims. Diane Latiker, who opened up her Roseland home to kids after school, eventually started a non-profit called Kids Off the Block that serves thousands of youth. There are intra-racial conversations happening about violence, [but] Black people talk to each other the way you would talk to family—sometimes it’s in private.

In the end, what do you hope people will do with what they learn in your book?

I hope people start thinking about segregation more. I hope people think about some of the structural issues in our neighborhoods that prevent or don’t encourage development or growth. Segregation is a familiar story in American cities, so I also hope it resonates with people outside of Chicago.

Sylvia A. Harvey is an independent journalist and storyteller who writes at the intersection of race, gender, culture and policy.  Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, Narratively, The New York Post and AOL’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Patch, where she served as the gentrification columnist, Connect with her on twitter @Ms_SAH.