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Natalie Moore's 'The South Side' digs into Chicago's segregation

Natalie Moore's 'The South Side' digs into Chicago's segregation
(Courtesy/David Pierini)

Journalist Natalie Y. Moore's "The South Side" is a loving portrait of black Chicago by a self-proclaimed "South Side girl." It is also an incisive critique of the persistence of segregation in one of America's most diverse cities. Moore's exploration of Chicago's racially segregated neighborhoods could easily extend to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, and any other American city where boundaries that demarcate black communities, schools, and voting districts remain firmly in place. But by focusing on Chicago, Moore furthers localized studies begun in works like St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's "Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City" (1945). These snapshots provide readers with microcosmic illustrations of how, almost 50 years after the Fair Housing Act, an American city can still be racially segregated.

Moore takes a clear stance against segregation in "The South Side," though she distinguishes self-selected spaces that cultivate community and collective identity from the practice of state-sanctioned segregation. Indeed, Moore is a product of predominantly black spaces, such as her childhood neighborhood of Chatham and alma mater Howard University, a historically black university. Black social spaces and institutions have been and still are important sites of community building and political organizing. Moore takes care to show that "Desegregation isn't about black people giving up their institutions," but rather about equal access to resources. State practices of racial confinement are not about "choice" or affinity with one's own kind. Enforced segregation enhances more insidious racial inequalities like "[p]overty, low-wage jobs, juvenile delinquency and high death rates."

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In nine well-researched and cleverly titled chapters, Moore unpacks the hefty costs of segregation while providing a nuanced look into the beauty and the complexity of majority black communities. She employs memoir as a strategy for tracing a broader history of black urban migration. Her use of personal narrative combines with a journalistic tone to make "The South Side" more accessible than a conventional history book. Her style is both smart and conversational as she confesses to readers that she once was a "so-called [black] gentrifier" or tells us she is an "uppity Negress" before divulging an encounter she had with Chicago police at 19. Moore's personal stories make readers feel more connected to and emotionally invested in the city she calls home.

Like hundreds of thousands of African-American southerners, Moore's late grandparents moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, the period in the early and mid-20th century when "a wave of black Americans … left the South in search of opportunity and a better life." Fleeing lynch mobs and a sharecropping economy, a number of black migrants found better work and social and political opportunities in northern cities. Some, like Moore's ancestors, even realized the American Dream of home ownership. But migration north did not liberate African-Americans from Jim Crow racism. Jim Crow only shifted form: As Moore explains, "The Great Migration also set the stage for lingering hypersegregation, a division between black and white that has shaped the Chicago experience." By confining the swelling black migrant population to the Black Belt, by the end of WWII Chicago had established a pattern of housing discrimination and spatial racism that still imprints the city today.

Initially, public housing sought to ameliorate overcrowding and a lack of decent and affordable accommodations in Chicago's Black Belt. Moore connects violent white resistance to integrated developments and bad legislative choices such as the 1969 Brooke Amendment—which fixed income levels for public housing occupants—to the deterioration of high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes. The advent of the drug trade in the 1970s only compounded problems for public housing residents until "The high-rises built in the mid-twentieth century to replace Black Belt slums had become their own slums." Moore asserts further that schemes to privatize subsidized housing, and to disperse and often displace "voucher holders," not only failed to resolve concentrated poverty but also betrayed a callous disregard for the black poor.

The spread of violence throughout the South Side is a dire consequence of economic and racial segregation. Still, Moore balks at attempts to brand black Chicago as "Chiraq." Readers who follow Chicago's daily body count tallies in the news might be surprised to learn that "Chicago is not the murder capital of the country or the planet." While Moore doesn't downplay the murder rate in Chicago, she does historicize the city's association with crime and (mob) violence. Media reports today tend solely to equate crime in Chicago with so-called "black-on-black" gun violence. Moore cautions that portrayals of poor urban communities as war zones are not only racist but also ignore more systemic issues like unemployment, poverty, and unequal education.

Since students attend schools according to assigned districts, it makes sense that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA) major accomplice in maintaining segregation. Despite post-Brown v. Board of Education busing experiments, CPS is still as separate and unequal as the city's neighborhoods. Moore looks back on her own integrated education with fondness. "This wasn't 1974 Boston," she writes. "No screaming white parents hurled epithets at black students as we rolled up to the school steps. Law enforcement didn't arrive at the scene to escort us into the building." Ultimately, however, legal mandates to desegregate public schools have been largely unenforced in Chicago. The recent controversial closures of 50 Chicago schools support Moore's conclusion that CPS suffers from a lack of leadership and innovative solutions to address poverty and low-performing schools. It's a matter of resources, Moore writes. "Even though I emphasize that segregation doesn't work, I am not suggesting that there is something wrong with black children or black institutions," she notes. "Racialized inequities are the problem."

Integration may level racial imbalances, but it won't happen overnight, Moore says. An immediate solution is to equalize access to resources across neighborhoods. To be sure, segregation is costly for the black poor. The middle class is also subjected to what Moore calls the "black tax": undervalued homes, higher tax penalties, spatial proximity to high crime areas, and "retail redlining." Moore's personal story of having to sell a home she purchased in Bronzeville at a loss underscores segregation's hidden costs in black middle-income areas. The meaning of resources varies according to class, however. Access to groceries and proximity to a farm-to-table restaurant are very different concerns. Solutions to segregation have to grapple with class as well as racial disparities. But gentrification is not the solution. Rather, as Moore implores, we must all "see the humanity in the people behind the policies" to start affecting change.Media reports today tend solely to equate crime in Chicago with so-called "black-on-black" gun violence. Moore cautions that portrayals of poor urban communities as war zones are not only racist but also ignore more systemic issues like unemployment, poverty, and unequal education.

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