Historical roots of Chicago’s segregation and gentrification

“Making the Second Ghetto” explores the creation of Chicago’s Black Belt.

By Lynda Lopez 

A few weeks ago, I spent the day at the Chicago History Museum, listening and learning.

In the morning, one of the museum curators made a presentation about migration in the city and the ways the boundaries of the Black Belt were created. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before, but being in a space where people were actively asking questions about neighborhood change again triggered my desire to pick up some of the history books I hadn’t read since the summer.

One of the questions that drives my interest in Chicago’s history of migration is understanding how communities have changed economically and demographically over time. While the curator described how the West Side of Chicago was devastated by the 1968 riots, I wondered about the many other other factors that contributed to the vacant lots, poverty, and disinvestment, such as deindustrialization and white flight.

I decided to reread Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 to continue answering those questions and unravel new ones. I had read this book over the summer, but it’s the type of book that requires rereading. Mainly focused on housing on the South Side, it is also more tangible now that I am spending a few days of the week in South Chicago. What does history mean when it’s an abstraction about places you never visit? It remains fiction in your mind. As I reread, I draw connections between the racist housing policies of the past and the current process of gentrification in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

The last few chapters I’ve been reading are important in understanding why our communities continue to displace low-income people, while higher-income people move in. From the early decades of the 20th century, there was concern from business interests in the Loop and major institutions (notably universities) about the “deterioration” of the inner-city, flight of the middle-class, and the insulation of State Street from its “normal market.” At a luncheon in October 1946, Henry Heald, president of IIT, declared a call to action, “We really had only two choices –to run away from the blight or to stand and fight.” And fight they did.

Spearheaded by Milton C. Mumford, an assistant vice-president of Marshall Field and Company, and Holman D. Pettibone, president of the Chicago Title and Trust Company; Illinois passed the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947. Land clearance commissions could now essentially acquire property through the extended use of eminent domain, make improvements to prepare them for redevelopment, and then convey that property to private redevelopers. This set the stage for the gentrification of communities throughout Chicago.

A few miles south of the Loop, the University of Chicago was also preparing to embark on its own redevelopment and urban renewal plans because, as Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton asserted, “it is not possible to operate and maintain a great university in a deteriorating or slum neighborhood.” Time and time again, those in power have driven the ways our communities develop, often marginalizing working-class, people of color.

With the challenges our city faces, we have to challenge ourselves to learn and understand our history. Whether that means rereading or reading something for the first time, we can’t afford to be ignorant of the processes that keep repeating themselves.