Chicago's South Side and the Story of American Segregation

Natalie Y. Moore is the author of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.

In mid-June, she took part in a conversation at the Harold Washington Library Center about the causes and consequences of segregation in American cities. Moore is the south side bureau reporter for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. She has also been a city hall reporter for the Detroit News and an education reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Here are excerpts from Moore’s comments:

Violence as “a black problem”

There’s a chapter in the book called, “We are Not Chiraq,” where I do a media study looking at how violence has been covered over the past 40 years by the Tribune and the Sun Times. But I also spend some time talking about Chicago’s place historically. We’ve always been a violent city. And in the 1920s, the Tribune did a murder count clock. Not that dissimilar from what we see now with the counts. That was pretty amazing to see. And Chicago was more violent that New York and L.A., and so there were stories about that, just like there are now.

Chicago’s violence goes back to the mob and Prohibition, and we just have never shaken that. It’s just that the violence has come in different forms. So the difference back then was that the violence was among ethnic white immigrants, a lot of times in bars, places after they got off work from the meat-packing plant, or what have you.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, from Chicago, who runs The Schomburg Center in New York, wrote a book called The Condemnation of Blackness that I cite in the violence chapter. And the book chronicles how violence became a black problem. And he uses Chicago as an example.

Natalie Y. Moore

Natalie Y. Moore

White immigrant violence was seen as society’s problem. And you had settlement houses and social workers. When there was black violence, that was seen as a problem just for the black community. And you didn’t have settlement houses working to try to mitigate that violence. And the black social workers working on the south side were under-resourced, and so they weren’t able to have that same kind of impact. And it’s the same today. Segregation allows people to say, “Look at those savages on the south and west side. Those are black and brown people killing each other. I live far away from that. That’s not my problem.” But it is society’s problem, and it’s not being treated that way.

What suburb should I move to?

This isn’t going to change in a generation. There’s no magic silver bullet. But there are solutions that are out there. To me, this book is trying to at least get that conversation started, and to have people think about the choice of where they live.

I’m on this really kind of insipid Facebook group, with moms. There’s thousands of people in it, and I don’t really get anything out of it, except understanding the thought processes of people. So, there’s this recurring post that happens in this group: “Hi, everyone. My kid’s about to start preschool. What suburb should I move to?” And these are always white moms who live in Lincoln Park or Bucktown or Roscoe Village.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to move to the suburbs. That’s not my point. But I think it’s really interesting that all of these women, repeatedly, get to the same conclusion: I’ve done my city living. This has been really cool and hip. And now it’s time for me to find a white suburb. No one talks about integration. Everyone says, “I want safe schools and streets.” But everybody says that. People in Englewood say that. I just wish there were a little bit more awareness of, well, why are you choosing Arlington Heights? That’s not a dis against Arlington Heights. But people are making racial decisions with their housing choices, and not acknowledging that.

Building walls

Choice comes in different forms. And these suburbs exist because the federal government said, We’re not going to give loans in the city in black neighborhoods. We’re not going to give blacks the GI bill to help them buy a home.

White flight didn’t happen in a vacuum. White flight happened because whites had somewhere to go. And the federal government built those highways, they built those suburbs for them. And the racial composition of those places are, by and large, still the same.

I didn’t think about, regionally, wanting people to think about their housing choices the way I do now. But this isn’t just a Chicago story. This isn’t just a south side story. This really is the heart of our metropolitan area. And to begin to address some of these issues, there has to be an acknowledgement of why you make the choice that you do, to live where you live.