Knowing the City

Growing up in Glenview, a leafy northern suburb of Chicago, I rarely had to think much about the big city next door. In my first 18 years, I visited the Loop for dinners and shows, saw Cubs games on the North Side, and caught countless striking views of the skyline on drives down I-94. I had seen Chicago, sure, but I knew nothing of it.

Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, in a country where 82 percent of people and growing live in urban areas. Chicago is also a global city, with multinational corporations and a constant influx of immigrants and tourists. While Detroit and other so-called “Rust Belt” cities in the Midwest face stagnation and depopulation as manufacturing moves to other countries, Chicago is in many ways a growing and thriving city. And its suburbs make up many of the wealthiest zip codes in the wealthiest nation on Earth. But behind the skyscrapers and McMansions lies an expanse of neighborhoods and suburbs that face poverty, crime, and death rates many times those of Chicago’s wealthier areas.

Chicago is a notoriously segregated metropolis: its poorer minority communities are still mostly confined to the South and West sides and neighboring suburbs, and its white population dominates the much wealthier North Side and northern suburbs. This racial segregation, closely linked to poverty concentration, maps onto drastically higher rates of crime, murder, disease, and infant mortality, and lower rates of high school graduation, community resources, and job opportunity. In numerical terms, 76.4 percent of the Chicago area’s black population would have to move from their neighborhood to a whiter neighborhood to achieve racial integration across the metropolitan area—making it the country’s most segregated urban area.

Unfortunately, that was no accident. Instead, Chicago’s history is one of intentional segregation of African Americans into poor neighborhoods isolated from the resources that most Chicagoans enjoy.

The abolition of slavery in 1865 was, of course, not the end of anti-black racism in America. Though citizens of the Confederate states could no longer own slaves, they maintained their agricultural economy by employing black workers for extremely low wages and sharply limiting their opportunity to save money, get an education, or vote. So when the Southern agricultural economy began shedding jobs just as the Northern industrial economy boomed, African Americans moved by the millions to Northern cities, especially Chicago.

Chicago did not have a formal Jim Crow system in place, but this unprecedented influx of African Americans led the wary white population to limit blacks to a small set of neighborhoods on the South Side. White homeowners throughout the city signed agreements to only sell their houses to other whites. Banks refused loans to black families looking to buy a home, or charged them exorbitant interest rates. Mayors built highways between black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods to prevent mixture. And on hundreds of occasions, white residents threatened, attacked, or bombed the homes of the black families that did manage to move into white neighborhoods.

By the 1960s, like many Northern cities, Chicago was almost completely segregated. And its so-called Black Belt, where more than 500,000 African Americans settled after their journeys from the Jim Crow South, remains to this day the largest bloc of poverty and segregation in the Chicago area.

In a cruel, pivotal twist of history, then, millions of black families left the brutal racism of the South for the much less racist North, only to find racism built up around them through segregation when they arrived. It happened throughout the cities of the North. But it happened most profoundly right in leafy Glenview’s backyard. And the consequences—for racial equality, for social mobility, for America’s future as a land of opportunity—endure to this day.

This issue of the Harvard Political Review, like my academic and personal explorations of Chicago, reads today’s politics off the walls of our world’s cities. From East Jerusalem to San Francisco, Karachi to Boston, cities lie at the center of pressing social questions, and rapid global urbanization suggests this trend will only continue. “City Limits” tries to make sense of this reality.

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Copyright 2018