Desegregating Chicago: not an easy task

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When I talk with people about the demolition of Chicago's public housing, there's one question people ask over and over: Where did everybody go?

I wish it was a simple question to answer. I've wondered it myself countless times. But chronicling the moves of hundreds of families--many of whom live on the margins of society--wouldn't be easy, even if we had the best of records.

But a new study just released by the Urban Institute tells that story for at least a few residents--former occupants at the Ida B. Wells and Madden Homes in the Bronzeville neighborhood. A few of those residents--some of the most vulnerable families in the development--got intensive services to help them figure out life after Madden/Wells. But although those intensive services did seem to help families find and retain jobs and lower the anxiety, they still lived in highly segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.

Segregation, it turns out, is a pretty tough nut to crack.

These residents were encouraged, says the Urban Institute, to seek "opportunity areas"--neighborhoods where crime and poverty are low, and unlike their former homes at Madden/Wells, aren't overwhelmingly African American. The prevailing social science theory is that if you put a struggling family in a neighborhood with plenty of positive activity, they'll learn to thrive.

But getting them to those neighborhoods isn't easy. For one, these families were often in a rush to move. Some of Madden/Wells buildings were closed down fast when buildings experienced "emergency conditions"--much like Cabrini-Green is doing right now. Because of this, service providers didn't always have enough time to sell families on why they should move to a neighborhood that was totally different from the one they came from.

And it wasn't always clear what moving to a "good" neighborhood meant. While some of us might see a neighborhood as higher in crime or lacking in good jobs, former Madden/Wells residents might look at that neighborhood and recognize its strengths--proximity to family or friends, social networks like churches and neighborhood associations. While some might look at their chosen destination and call it "isolated," they see isolation as living on the Far North side, far from anyone they know, with no car and no experience living there.

But high-poverty neighborhoods have pretty significant burdens--burdens that these families might get to shed if they left. If you look at a map of where these families went to, you find almost no little dots in the lightest blue areas--the areas with the lowest poverty rates. Take a look:

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"Opportunity areas" didn't end up being that popular with residents. By the end of 2008, Urban Institute's study shows, service providers had done 88 showings in opportunity areas. But by 2010, "only 26 families had moved to a low-poverty area, and just 4 had moved to an opportunity area."

And although time and social networks were factors, comfort was also a reason people stayed in neighborhoods like their own. At the end of the day, this just might be one of the biggest reasons our city will remain segregated: We're comfortable where we are. We're used to being segregated. The idea of segregation makes us uncomfortable, but in reality, we're more comfortable segregated.

I think about segregation a lot, and it bothers me. I wonder if it will change and how it will change. But, then again, I'm not exactly clamoring to move to Englewood, either.

If what we're comfortable with is wrong, how to we become comfortable with what's better for our communities? I don't know.

Photo credit: David Schalliol

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