April 5, 1968: the day that sapped life out of Chicago's ghettos

April 5, 1968: the day that sapped life out of Chicago's ghettos
Courtesy of Chicago Magazine

Chicagoans that have never seen other cities’ ghettos might assume that all poor neighborhoods are sparsely populated, rife with vacant lots, and starved of commerce. This condition – the de-institutionalized ghetto – is actually  not symptomatic of all ghettos. Differences in density – of people, residences, banks, churches, grocery stores, social service centers, etc. – between rich and poor neighborhoods are far more dramatic in Chicago than in other cities. Using low rent as the primary inducement, poor neighborhoods can attract businesses and community organizations that provide basic services, put people to work, generate taxes, and build social capital. In some cities, poor neighborhoods have higher organizational density than nearby wealthy neighborhoods.

The origins of Chicago’s “Everything Desert”  phenomenon can be traced to April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots started in the Austin neighborhood and expanded to consume most of Chicago’s West Side and pockets of the South Side. Large-scale looting and arsen (of both abandoned and occupied buildings) led Mayor Richard Daley to give police the authority “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” In the aftermath of the two-day riot, 210 buildings were destroyed and more than a thousand people were left homeless.

44 years later, the effects of this destruction are still being felt in Chicago.  To this day, much of what was burned down and/or looted remain empty lots. The riots accelerated the mass departure of Caucasian and Jewish communities. And by the end of the 60’s, scores of once-diverse South and West Side communities were more than 90% African American, spawning the hypersegregation that exists in Chicago today. In the years following the riots, commercial life in these neighborhoods was decimated. The lion’s share of factories and backbone industries moved away. In North Lawndale alone, International Harvester, Sears, Zenith, Sunbeam, and Western Electric all closed down in the 70’s and 80’s.

Here is a table provided in the Chicago Magazine article that shows just how striking the density disparity is between Chicago’s ghettos and ghettos in other cities. Notice the figures for banks and credits unions. Chicago’s ghettos barely have any.

What are the implications of organizational density? The most obvious benefit of high density is resource availability; having clinics, dentist offices, grocery stores, pharmacies, childcare centers, banks, and credit unions nearby are essential for day-to-day survival. Furthermore, studies have shown that high density deters crime and vandalism for the simple reason that it provides more eyes on the street. Sidewalk activity makes illicit activity more difficult to conduct. It also fosters social interaction and community formation.

Other cities – LA, for example – have transformed neighborhoods once devastasted by race riots, using both public and private efforts to gentrify neighborhoods and in turn improve organizational density and diversity. But in Chicago, politicians failed to address the problem in the 70’s, when hypersegregation began to plant deep roots.  Mayor Daley spurned scattered community development in favor of large public housing projects like Cabrini Green that merely moved large pockets of poverty into isolated community areas. Hypersegregation and poverty concentration actually worsened over Daley’s long tenure; and the problem became less of a priority among Chicago politicians as the city grew accustom to the status quo. Affluent regions have long been resistent to the integration of social services and low-income housing in their neighborhoods. At the same time, politicians in poor regions have little incentive to press for gentrification, for a couple reasons. First, their constituents have more pressing problems on their mind, i.e. poor-performing schools, drug activity, high unemployment, etc.. Second, hypersegregation provides a stable electoral base for politicians in poor, homogenous neighborhoods.

Chicago, more than any other city, is a case study in how segregation is inextricably linked with self-perpetuating poverty and the cause-and-conseuqence problem of organizational density. 44 years since the Chicago riots, these problems are so deep-rooted that many wonder if neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale will ever return to their glory years in the late 19th century/early 20th Century.




Leave a comment