Race and Class (and Starbucks) in Chicago

Posted: July 31, 2008 in Random Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , ,

A few articles that I have come across over the past few days have brought up a number of loaded issues regarding race and class in the Chicago area. The New Republic looks at the Chicago area’s transformation to a Paris-style inverted geographic class structure, where the wealthy are increasingly living in or near the center of town and the poor are pushed to the outer suburbs of the metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the Freakonomics blog had an open-ended discussion on America’s most racist city, with Chicago appearing to come right behind Boston with the dubious distinction in the opinion of most commenters. Finally, even the decision by Starbucks to close stores across the country is interpreted by some to have a racial tint when such closings happen to be in areas with larger black populations (most notably, Chicago’s South Suburbs). Although the diversity of the racial, ethnic, religious and other groups within the Chicago area is as high as any place in the United States, the perception remains that city and its surrounding suburbs are extremely segregated.

There are significant arguments that most of Chicago’s racial segregation is rooted more in class differences over anything else. The urban core of Chicago has been rapidly gentrifying over the past decade, with neighborhoods that used to be considered ghettos turning into affluent enclaves for yuppies and hipsters. (Certain people really like gentrification.) The author of the New Republic article, who grew up in what would now be called the West Loop, referenced the incredible changes in the area around UIC, which is something that I can personally attest to. My father worked the bulk of his career at UIC and up until the late-1990s, the thought of walking around the fringes of campus after it got dark out was considered to be a death wish. My family always joked that we could buy back the hubcaps from my father’s car at the Maxwell Street market every week since they were stolen so frequently. Now, the housing projects have almost entirely been eradicated from the area while condos and townhomes that run into the upper six and seven figures line the streets. It’s not quite a West Side version of Lincoln Park as of yet, but it looks a whole lot more like the wealthy North Side neighborhood than the areas immediately adjacent to University Village to the south and west. While there has been plenty of negative press about how people have been pushed out of their old neighborhoods, at end of the day, I believe that gentrification is better as a whole than “managed growth” (which essentially means restrictions on new investment). Certainly, Chicago is a whole lot better off than its Midwestern brethren of Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland as a result of gentrification with businesses and residents correspondingly moving into the area as opposed to out. The utopian vision would be that neighborhoods could improve on a linear basis where a blighted neighborhood can gradually become “middle class” in a neat and predictable fashion, but the reality is that urban development in Chicago (and other strong cities such as New York, San Francisco and Boston) is coupled with a Tipping Point phenomenon – the change in a neighborhood is very slow until it hits a certain critical mass of affluence and trendiness, where it then transforms rapidly from one extreme on the income scale to another. This could also be a reflection of society as a whole where there is a greater bifurcation between the upper and lower classes with a smaller middle class. Despite the significant rise in cost of living expenses in the city, on the whole, when the choice is to be more like Manhattan or Detroit, most reasonable people would choose Manhattan.

However, is what is happening in Chicago, Boston, New York and other cities with rapidly gentrifying urban cores really just about class? I grew up in Chicago’s South Suburbs, which have long been considered the forgotten stepchild of the region. Even while being Polese (half-Polish and half-Chinese), I was always pretty well aware that even the more affluent South Suburban areas of Homewood and Flossmoor were treated with different standards by businesses and even government agencies than the North and West Suburbs and had long theorized that it was because of race. For example, when I took the Metra on the Illinois Central line to the city from downtown Homewood as a kid, every rider had to purchase a ticket prior to getting on board and then put it through a turnstile in order to get onto the train platform. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I took the Milwaukee North line to visit my then-girlfriend now-wife when she lived by Libertyville, I was perplexed that I could get on the train itself, much less the platform, without a ticket and could even purchase it on board. I came to find out this was indeed the case on every single Metra line in the Chicago area – except, of course, for the Illinois Central line that runs through the South Side of Chicago and the South Suburbs. This was rectified in 2003 (not exactly ancient history) where the Illinois Central line is now treated in the same manner as all of the other lines, but this shows where the South Side was treated on the area’s totem pole where its residents couldn’t be trusted to even get onto a train. Plenty of other train lines went through (and continue to go through) high crime areas such as Joliet and Waukegan, yet it’s hard not to notice that the Illinois Central is the one line that cuts through more predominantly African-American neighborhoods and suburbs compared to the others.

After spending my years since graduating from college and law school living at certain points in Chinatown (more like the gentrified South Loop economically than the rest of the South Side), Roscoe Village, Libertyville and now Naperville (all the while either going to school or working in the Loop), it was easy for me to forget that there are places in this world that are begging for places such as Starbucks (and for that matter, any type of retail and restaurants other than fast food) instead of attending the latest NIMBY protest. The news of the Starbucks exit from Country Club Hills brought back those old feelings that the South Side is still being neglected in the region. There are three Starbucks shops within a two block radius in downtown Naperville – yes, in downtown Naperville, not downtown Chicago – while there is a Starbucks on the first floor of the Store Formerly Known as Marshall Field’s on State Street, another one on the bottom floor of the store and yet another across the street. All the while, a middle class suburb such as Country Club Hills supposedly can’t support just one Starbucks even though suburbs to the north and west still have free-flowing coffee with similar economic demographics (but significantly different racial compositions).

I would be the first to tell you that I’m essentially an Ayn Rand objectivist when it comes to economic policy and business decisions and have absolutely no qualms about any entity leaving an area for financial reasons. At the same time, I don’t think that Starbucks has made any type of nefarious racially-tinged decision with respect to closing the Country Club Hills location or any of its other stores. Yet, it would be blind to state that race isn’t a major factor in where people move to, which in turn businesses will follow. My childhood hometown of Glenwood was over 90% white back in 1980. The average income of its residents hasn’t substantively changed since then, yet whites have increasingly moved out of the town (mostly to Southwest Suburbs west of I-57 such as Tinley Park and Orland Park) to the point where it is now a majority black town. This isn’t a comment as to whether this is good or bad, but rather an observation that this relatively fast and very drastic racial change had little relation to changes in income or class demographics (as is often argued about racial changes in gentrifying areas). Does Glenwood have a classic case of white flight that occurred in neighboring Harvey and Chicago Heights long ago? Was it perceptions about crime (whether or not they are true) that spurred people to move? As much as I have tried to use this blog to present possible solutions to issues ranging from sports to politics, I’m at a loss as how to address these issues when we have been looking at the exact same pattern repeat itself over and over.

(Image from uic.edu)

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