The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

A Review Of Natalie Moore’s "The South Side"

A mixed use building at the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove on Chicago’s South Side.  Source: pangeare.com

Natalie Moore, the South Side Bureau reporter for Chicago’s National Public Radio station WBEZ, has long been a favorite of mine.  She deftly covers a large region of Chicago — at over 100 square miles and with about a million residents, the South Side of Chicago alone is bigger than Indianapolis or San Francisco — with a nuance and context that often eludes other reporters.  While other reporters, local and especially national, treat the South Side as an amorphous abstraction, or as shorthand for “troubled inner city”, Moore brings her bona fides as a South Side native to help WBEZ listeners understand the issues that undergird the South Side’s past and present.

Every day, her reporting tells us that the South Side is far more complex than the stereotypes than others use to define it, and that, yes, we still have far more to learn about it.

Moore expands on the South Side’s complexity, challenges and promise in her new book, The South Side: A Portrait Of Chicago And American Segregation, released this past spring.  Equal parts historical analysis, journalistic investigation and personal memoir, Moore tells the story of how integral segregation has been to the creation and development of the South Side — the South Side of our minds as well as the streets — and how that segregation led to both a strong black middle class and entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  The South Side that produced the nation’s first African-American president and First Lady is the same one that dominates today’s headlines because of its wave of violent crime.

Moore begins the book by introducing us to a South Side that is a “magical place,” yet has been defined by segregation for decades.  While many people picture of the South Side as a solidly troubled and often-avoided sector of the city, she paints the South Side as a place that experiences the joys and pains familiar to anyone:

“It’s the heart of black America, with its miles upon miles of black middle-class neighborhoods and strong political and business legacies.  In summertime Chi, the aroma of barbecue wafts from backyard grills and smoky rib joints onto the Dan Ryan Expressway.  Chicago is a soulful city that gave us Sam Cooke and Common, Koko Taylor and Chaka Khan.  Driving east on 79th Street toward Lake Michigan is a colorful trip: men sipping out of bottles on corners, vibrant businesses, bars, funeral homes, foreboding boarded-up structures, liquor stores, churches, Harold’s Chicken Shacks and sound of house music dancing in the air.  This sense of place is special.  I would never want to erase black Chicago.”  

And yes, it’s fair to say that “black Chicago” and “South Side” have become synonymous.

Her Chicago upbringing and life experiences mimic my own in Detroit.  She grew up in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, which became a solid black middle class enclave in the 1960’s.  I grew up in Detroit’s Northwest Side Pembroke neighborhood, which developed similarly at virtually the same time.  Our neighborhoods were the neighborhoods of choice for black teachers, doctors, lawyers, city workers, postal workers, and corporate middle management types.  Homeownership was the goal and defined our neighborhoods.  We lived in aspirational neighborhoods, the kind that those in poor and working-class areas wanted to, and did, move to, But, as demonstrated by the quote above, neither of us were too far removed from the “men sipping out of bottles on corners,” or the “foreboding boarded-up structures,” that let us know that our prized communities did not enjoy the same widespread and visible affluence that other communities did, no matter how well some individuals and their families did.   It was only as both of us grew older that we saw the role segregation played in that.

Moore recounts her family experience to show how the South Side’s segregation legacy grew and expanded.  Several members of her family escaped the poverty and racial violence of the Jim Crow South of the turn of the twentieth century.  They ended up in Chicago, just like more than 500,000 African-Americans who settled in Chicago between 1916 and 1970.  As they settled in, they accepted the fact that Chicago was a place of opportunity while the South was not, but that it had limits.  Moore demonstrates how her family climbed the middle class ladder throughout the middle of the twentieth century, within the context of segregation, and also how the opportunity to do so today is rapidly fading away.

The book tells the story of one family’s push for economic security during one of the few historical periods that African-Americans have been able to do so.  And, Moore tells the story by alluding to the the things that constrained the South Side — animus and outright hatred directed toward blacks; abundant job opportunities in some fields, but with little chance for growth; a lack of investment in schools and parks.  But I wish Moore had gone more in depth about the policies the created the segregated South Side.  I wish there was more about the restrictive housing covenants that barred blacks from owning homes until the practice was struck down in 1948.  More people are gaining an understanding of the impact of the practice of redlining; what about retail redlining, where we find that commercial development skips over black communities in favor of white ones?  I wish there was more about the concentration of  — and spirited fight against — public housing on the South Side, which created a literal wall of poverty separating the South Side from the rest of the city.  I wish there was more about the illegal real estate practices of blockbusting or panic peddling, or how mob violence was strategically utilized against new black homeowners — effectively dashing the dreams of those pursuing integration.

I also wish there was more about our perceptions of the South Side, too, and how that’s changed over the generations.  I think it’s worth pondering how the South Side’s neighborhoods — South Shore, Woodlawn, Washington Park, Auburn-Gresham, and Moore’s beloved Chatham, among others — all full of solidly built homes with decades of service in meeting the needs of middle class families, acquired a taint that prevents them from being used in the same way today.  Before 1950, black Chicago/the South Side was largely confined to Bronzeville, a three-square-mile sliver of a much larger South Side.  By 1960, all of these neighborhoods saw significant increases in their black population; By 1970, all were mostly black.  They simply aren’t viewed the same way they were before, and revitalization is more difficult as a result.

I think we know why.  Chicago, like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis and other Rust Belt cities like them, established the template for implicit segregation that worked just as effectively as the explicitly racist Jim Crow South.  It simply took longer for people to realize it, because it took longer for a critical mass of residents affected by it to rebel against it.

For anyone looking to understand the South Side’s wonderful history and legacy, and how policies can limit the growth and potential of the region despite the best efforts of its people, there’s no better place to start.

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