It’s 5:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening in Chicago’s downtown Loop. Hoards of business people dressed in suits and loafers flood the streets en masse. Some of the flock forges west toward the Union and Ogilvie train stations, bound for suburban commuter trains. A considerable portion of the group hustles up and down cramped and dirty staircases and escalators to catch the local buses and trains of the CTA’s network. A smaller, less obvious group stand or sit stock-still in the streets, their belongings crowded about them. Perhaps they have a sign or empty can to justify their poverty and–with luck–garner some loose change. As this hub expands outward from the second largest business district on the continent, there are patterns that emerge which make visible a historic and deeply entrenched system of geographic segregation across Chicago, the “City of Neighborhoods.”
If you haven’t experienced this particular flock of pedestrian traffic, I dare you to try to walk east across the Madison Street Bridge at 5:30 p.m. During rush hour, human compassion is in short supply. However, Chicago’s commuter patterns transcend the simple fact of cyclically crowded streets, and it offers a visual manifestation of the enduring marks of segregation for those who are watching closely. In Chicago, the train lines are singular, sparse, and specific, and several train lines serve a particular set of communities and riders. For instance, the Orange Line’s southwestern path moves through largely Latino communities in neighborhoods like McKinley Park and Brighton Park before ending its journey at Midway Airport, and therefore, the riders of the Orange Line tend to be mostly Latino. The northbound Red Line, which heads toward Lake View, Wrigleyville, and Rogers Park can be a potpourri of pedestrians, but most often, it is a significantly younger crowd, frequently composed of college students, Cubs fans, tourists, and mostly white professionals who can afford the $1,200+/month price tag common in North Side neighborhoods. This leg of the Red Line contrasts significantly with its southbound companion, which serves a majority of black riders and heads directly south into Chinatown before stopping in neighborhoods including Chatham, Roseland, and the infamously violent Englewood.
As a white woman born and raised in the mostly-white, far northwest suburbs, the CTA and public transit in general, have fascinated me. For four years, I worked in a restaurant near the Adams Street Orange Line, and I gradually began to observe the visual differences of who boarded which train and ultimately, what kind of people lived where. For the last six years, I have lived on the South Side in Bridgeport, and for the past two years, I have taken the Red Line back and forth to the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park. I was frequently urged to take an Uber instead of the train after evening classes. I was also vehemently warned against taking the Red Line farther south than its Sox-35th stop, despite the fact that the next stop on 47th Street was closer to my house. I was repeatedly discouraged against driving my best friend home to his house in Chatham, at 75th and Wabash. However, the more I immersed myself in Chicago, the deeper I dove into its history and culture, and the more completely I transformed into a Chicagoan, the more I wondered why I was supposed to be scared of the South and West sides, as if there were bogeymen lurking in the city’s forgotten shadows. How could these areas be so scary, when clearly so many people live there? How could I ignore the fact that thousands of people live in communities that thousands more would prefer to forget? How could I possibly fear these neighborhoods, without blatantly admitting that my very fear of them as well as the mere possibility to avoid them is a privilege? What is the effect of half of a city fearing its other (darker) half, and what happens to the people living in it?
The effects of this system make themselves visible when we consider who lives where in Chicago and what happens to them. The boundaries of Chicago’s many neighborhoods and community areas are not assigned arbitrarily. Take for instance the southern neighborhood of Bronzeville. In the midst of the Great Migration, Bronzeville’s population skyrocketed with people flocking to the booming urban landscape. Black residents, however, soon found themselves hemmed in by discriminatory covenants with landlords (which weren’t outlawed until 1984) and bombing attacks on any who dared cross the “invisible fence” between black and white neighborhoods. Between the boom of new residents, the unwelcoming nature of the surrounding white neighborhoods, and the advent of cramped kitchenette apartments, population density in Bronzeville was at an all-time high in the 1950s. Public housing was erected to accommodate the population growth, but when Mayor Daley initiated his “Plan for Transformation” (2000), the neglected project buildings were demolished and the residents who had once found themselves forced into the area now found themselves inexplicably kicked out. Sixteen school closures and a culture of poverty later, Bronzeville finds itself on the lengthening list of culturally-rich and yet resource-poor neighborhoods left behind by Chicago’s leaders.1
Bronzeville is just one of many South and West Side neighborhoods that have been left to the whims of Chicago’s leaders. Resources and investment in these communities are visibly absent: buildings are boarded up, public parks are dirty and decrepit, grocery stores are sparse, and development and infrastructure are stalled, as if the community was left on pause years ago. It is a stark visual comparison between these neighborhoods and the gentrified, resource-rich, privately developed areas like Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park, the Downtown Loop, and so many other areas which are mostly white and mostly on the North Side. It is this visibility that makes me wonder about the difference between the working-class people getting on the southbound Red Line and the affluent Downtowners boarding the Purple Line for Evanston. It is these differences that make me wonder who Chicago is for and who it is against. It is these observations that give me cause to worry about gentrification in Pilsen and private development in Logan Square. It is this conundrum I keep in mind when I speak to the homeless man sitting outside of a $2,500/month one-bedroom apartment. It is this pattern of inequality that I think about when I see questions on TripAdvisor about Chicago’s safety answered with the explanation that violence “only happens in the outlying neighborhoods.” It is this kind of haphazard comment that makes me wonder who decides which neighborhoods are outliers and what happens to the people who live there. It is these kinds of questions that make me wonder what Chicago would look like if its leaders addressed its systemic and historic faults. It is this that I think about when I watch the train lines at rush hour.
1 Ewing, Eve L. Ghosts in the Schoolyard. University of Chicago Press, 2018.