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Book Tells Gripping Tale of Chicago Racial Imbalance

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May 16, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University's John Hudson began writing what he thought would be a straightforward geography book about Chicago when another story linked to the city's past began to emerge. As he wrote the chapter on the Burnham Plan of 1909 -- the high watermark of the city's symmetrical design that lives on today -- Hudson was struck with how the growth of Chicago's African-American residential areas was not anticipated in the city's planning.

“Chicago: A Geography of the City and Its Region”(Center for American Places and The University of Chicago Press) does indeed offer a topical and chronological analysis of a city that originated as a lake bottom and is well known for its flatness. The book includes 115 maps and an array of color photographs of the city, its architecture and people with ample descriptions, for example, of landforms related to Chicago's geological history.  

But the first geography of the Windy City in more than 50 years also tells a gripping tale of how racism caused the growth of black neighborhoods to seriously skew the planned symmetry of the city.  Earlier groups of immigrants had found housing in the center of the city and moved outward to single-family homes as they became more affluent and rose in stature. This process would largely be denied to African-Americans.

“With one exception, the city grew like concentric tree rings, adding parks, grand boulevards and loops of elevated tracts, in a classical axial design that continues to inspire today,” said Hudson, professor of geography, as he flipped through the book's maps. “You can see the symmetries when you trace these boulevards that start in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago down to Humboldt Park, all the way down to Washington Park on the South Side.”

But the black neighborhoods, whose deviation from the city's design was not acknowledged in any of the city's formal plans, mostly expanded southward, east of State Street, in a single swath. By the 1920s, a smaller black neighborhood on the West Side also emerged.

As their population grew, blacks largely settled into areas adjacent to where they already lived, rather than being accommodated in outlying neighborhoods as other immigrant groups were. Creating a huge contrast between the South and North sides, the black population continued to expand rapidly into the 1960s. But by the 1970s, blacks begin to move out of Chicago in large numbers. “The only place the number of blacks increased is in this hollowed out shape on the South Side,” Hudson points out. 

Other ethnic groups, such as Italians and Russian Jews, who started out in the ghetto of the central city, largely did not find strong barriers to moving and in time scattered throughout the Chicago area, Hudson said.

“As they moved out, sometimes they clustered together and sometimes they scattered,” he said. “But no other group had the experience of African Americans.” As an example, the 2000 Census shows that only 25 census tracts, most of which are in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods, were more than 90 percent Hispanic. But in 2000 the city has 308 census tracts that were more than 90 percent African-American.

The growing imbalance between the North and South sides of the Chicago also was replicated in the city's suburbs.

“In the 1950s, growth in the city's south suburbs was fairly balanced all the way from northwest Indiana to Waukegan,” Hudson said. “But as time goes on you see a reduction in the growth of suburbs in any place that is likely to be in the expansion path of the black population. Other people clearly did not want to take up residence in any place that might include blacks after a decade or two, so by the 1980s the growth of the south suburbs slows considerably.”

At the same time, the growth of Chicago's north suburbs proceeded rapidly all the way across DuPage County, up into Lake County. The growth of Chicago's suburbs shifted from a fairly even directional dispersion immediately after World War II to an increasingly sectoral focus on the northwest quadrant of the metropolitan area by the 1970s. 

Manufacturing districts also shifted in a northwestern direction following World War II.

In Chicago's early years, the majority of manufacturing and warehouse districts were built along railroad lines, and when people moved outward after the war, they began to gravitate toward the northwest part of the city and adjacent suburbs. “Construction of O'Hare Airport and completion of the Edens and Kennedy expressways aided the northwestward tilt, drawing businesses out in that direction,” Hudson said. By the census of 1977 manufacturing industries were playing a key role in the Chicago area's imbalance.

“Whether a continuation of these trends will lead to a 'stretched' Chicago, aligned more noticeably along a northwest axis than around a single downtown focus, is an issue that regional planners and public officials will grapple with for years,” Hudson said.

“Basically, though Chicago remains a growing vibrant city, the city has shrunk from the position it had at the beginning of the 20th century. The residential, industrial and economic trends that took place since then have separated a rich sector from a much poorer sector and suggest that Chicago's future geography could look very different from that of the past.”

Topics: Research