Chicago activists highlight housing segregation in city

theGRIO REPORT - A recent study examined the racial makeup of American neighborhoods and proclaimed the decline in segregation nationwide. For two housing advocates in Chicago, this study could not have been further from the truth...

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CHICAGO – A recent study by the Manhattan Institute examined the racial makeup of American neighborhoods and proclaimed the decline in segregation nationwide. For two housing advocates in Chicago, this study could not have been further from the truth.

The study, entitled “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010”, stated that that American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910, all-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct, gentrification and immigration have made a dent in segregation, and that while ghettos persist, they are mostly in decline. This came as news to Morgan Davis and Patricia Fron, who each deal with housing segregation issues in Chicago.

Davis and Fron co-authored a response, titled “Hardly The End of Segregation,” on Feb. 7. They felt the Manhattan study oversimplified the issue of desegregation, and relied too heavily on census data as proof of the changing face of American neighborhoods.

“The reason why we used oversimplified was because a lot of people think that diversity equals integration, and just because there might be a sprinkle of minorities in your community, that doesn’t mean that your community is racially integrated,” said Davis, 27, a policy analyst for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. “It doesn’t mean that people aren’t isolated into one central location, or that there’s a large representation of them so that it can shape world views or build relationships.”

“In relation to Chicago, it’s extremely evident. When you go to the southern parts of the city, and you go beyond the city into the southern suburbs like Harvey, Dolton, and even South Holland where they have higher incomes, these areas are racially segregated.”

Chicago is one of many Midwestern cities where racial segregation continues to be very prevalent. The biggest example is Detroit, which — along with Milwaukee — is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country (Chicago is fifth).

While the surrounding Detroit Metro area is just 22 percent black, the city itself is 83 percent black. White flight of the 1950s through the 1980s started the shift, while the mass exodus of nearly a quarter-million residents since 2000 has exacerbated Detroit’s problem.

In Chicago, gentrification led to a change in the racial dynamic of the city during the 1970s and 80s. When the housing projects were torn down, it led to the migration to the south suburbs and a change in racial dynamics that continue to have lingering effects in the city. Many of them are isolated from grocery stores and health care facilities.

“Maybe for people of our generation we don’t think of it that much, but there is a huge fearfulness of people who are from the housing projects who may have housing choice vouchers,” said Fron, 26, who works for the Chicago Area Housing Alliance. “Outside of Chicago, you don’t have to accept a voucher for payment, so that keeps voucher holders out but that could also be a covert form of racism as well.”

“It was supposed to broaden the opportunities that are available to you. It was supposed to be driven by creating opportunities and promoting integration, but since it’s not mandated across the board that every municipality has to accept a voucher holder, it hasn’t been effective.” Davis — who is black — grew up in Oak Park, which is 64 percent white, 21 percent black, and 7 percent Hispanic according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In the diverse Oak Park, Davis had friends of various races, and was relatively sheltered from racial issues until she attended Calvin College — a small, predominantly white school in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She experienced a culture shock of sorts in dealing with other students who had very little experience around blacks. That experience led her to become active in racial integration and diversity at the school, and eventually in Chicago.

“I went to school with a lot of people where not into (integration),” Davis said. “Having to be the person who had to go above and beyond to start a conversation with a person that wasn’t black, it was very difficult.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of them being racist. They were just sheltered. I couldn’t just go through my four years and just be ok with it.”

Fron — who is white — is from Alsip, which is southwest of Chicago. Alsip is 58 percent white, 18 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.

“Where I lived (in Alsip) was a traditional working-class white area,” said Fron. “I think a lot of people, at least from my family, they left the South Side of Chicago probably due to the ‘changing demographics.’ To be honest, I think my family did move because they wanted access to better schools for their kids.”

“We moved to a little bit better of an area, but I don’t think it was. I thought it was just a whiter area. I valued that diversity that I had growing up.” Fron noted that Alsip’s changes were more organic and the recent economic downturn made it more difficult for people to move out of their homes.

The purpose of their response was not to simply point out the fallacy of segregation being thing of the past; it was also a chance to offer potential solutions to the problem. Both Davis and Fron feel that diversifying neighborhoods can only strengthen a community.

“Wouldn’t you want the people who work with services in your community, your schools, and your hospitals to have the ability to live in that area”, Davis said. “Usually, when you have a conversation with white residents about bringing black people (into their neighborhoods), the response is ‘Can you take on this burden?’ They have to realize that this is not a burden.”

With three of the top five most segregated cities being in the Midwest, Davis and Fron are hoping that more proactive measures are taken to change the trend of racial segregation. HUD has already commended them for their efforts but they know that more action is needed to make more tangible changes and truly integrates neighborhoods and cities.

“Ideally, any kind of stable integration will only come through changes in policy and changes in mindsets,” Davis said. “Maybe there is more diversity, but that is subject to change. Re-segregation occurs quickly and if you don’t have stable policies in place, you’re going to lose any traction that’s been made.

“Saying that we’ve reached the end of (segregation), it implies that we don’t have to work at it anymore, and I don’t see in the near future where we as a society no longer have to work toward (integration). That’s just the way it is.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith