Author: Alvin Ulido Lumbanraja
Program of Study: SSD MAPSS (MA Program in the Social Sciences)

 

Before Bronzeville gained notoriety in recent decades as a low-income, high-crime, and depopulated neighborhood, it used to be a thriving hub of the African-American community during the early to mid-20th century. Thousands of African-Americans who migrated north to escape the harsh oppressions of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century found themselves confined to this South Side area due to the exclusionary residential covenants in other neighborhoods. Forced to endure overcrowding and poor services, they strived and transformed Bronzeville into Black Metropolis.[i] At its height, Bronzeville was home to some of the most renowned African-American activists, artists, performers, and entrepreneurs.

However, the fortune of Bronzeville declined rapidly following the end of World War 2.[ii] Among several factors that contributed to the deterioration of Bronzeville, Chicago’s post-war urban transport policies are the most insidious. The construction of Dan Ryan expressway—often blamed as one of direct causes of Bronzeville’s decline—is just a symptom of a larger problem with American’s post-war approach to urban planning. Chronic underinvestment in public transit and blind optimism in car-centric policies in post-war United States, intertwined with racism and anti-poor stance of the government, played pivotal roles in systematically destroying inner-city neighborhoods across American cities.

Plaque in front of Nat “King” Cole’s house

Contrary to what Americans may think, the undesirability of inner-city neighborhood such as Bronzeville is neither inevitable nor universal. Given that living close to downtown are deemed desirable in many European and Asian metropolises, the sorry state of inner-city neighborhoods in American cities is a product of policy decisions unique to United States. These policy decisions came in the form of Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) explicit bias in favor of single-family suburban houses, and the resulting decline in funding for public transports.

These policies affected housing choices by changing the costs of living in the suburb vis-à-vis near downtown core. First, the construction of new highways reduced transportation costs by allowing fast commute between downtown and suburbs, provided that one can afford a car.[iii] Second, FHA effectively subsidized the cost of owning suburban homes by only issuing mortgage insurance to suburban houses, a policy explicitly designed to create wide living space for (mostly) white homeowners at the expense of redlined minority groups. Furthermore, zoning codes, such as minimum parking lots requirement, increased the appeal of cars relative to public transportation. As a result, the idea of living in the suburb and owning cars became highly appealing to post-war middle-class Americans.

Makeshift house under “L” train track

Building highways was expensive, and the way states and cities financed highway construction effectively restricted the mobility of inner-city populations. The government—all too eager to move their white voters away from overcrowded and increasingly black urban neighborhoods—diverted public funds that could be used to invest in train or city bus systems into highway construction. In Chicago, lack of investment in public transport was particularly severe in the South, Southwest and Far South, all of which were predominantly African-American.[iv] For example, while the northern end of Red Line extends to northern boundary of Chicago, the southern end of Red Line stops only at 95th Street.

Underinvestment in public transport and the increasing appeal of suburban living did not adversely impact Bronzeville when the middle class and wealthy African-Americans were still restricted to the South Side. However, once the housing restriction was lifted with the passage Civil Rights Act of 1968, middle class and wealthy African-Americans that were eager to have access to better neighborhoods and schools left Bronzeville in droves.[v],[vi] The remaining working-class population of Bronzeville, unable to afford cars, were effectively isolated from job opportunities in other parts of the town. Combined with introduction of low-income public housing projects in Bronzeville, the area saw an increase in population living below the poverty line.

Vacant Lot on E 45th St.

The flight of middle class to the suburbs since 1970s and the resulting decline in tax base trapped Bronzeville in a vicious cycle of disinvestment and disrepair. This prompted the remaining middle and upper-class living in Bronzeville to move to the suburbs or even out of Illinois altogether.[vii] Douglas and Grand Boulevard, the two constituent community areas of Bronzeville, recorded population decline of 21.5% and 20.3% from 2000-2017.[viii] This trend is in line with the overall decline of African-American population in Chicago, from 1.2 million in 1980 to just 860,000 in 2017.[ix]

The damages caused by car-centric transport policies are still visible in Bronzeville through vacant lots, disused buildings, and neglected streets. Despite efforts at rejuvenation, thanks to community groups and affluent young African-Americans, one cannot escape the consequence of racism and decades of anti-poor, pro-car transportation policies. The story of Bronzeville should serve as a reminder that misguided policies can ruin an entire community for generations.

 


References:

[i] White, H. (2018). Opportunities for Transformative Placemaking: Bronzeville, Chicago. Washington, D.C.: Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking, Brookings Institution.

[ii] Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. (2012). Bronzeville Retail Corridor Land Use Plan: Existing Conditions Report. Chicago: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

[iii] Glaeser, E. L., & Kahn, M. E. (2004). Chapter 56 – Sprawl and Urban Growth. In J. V. Henderson, & J.-F. Thisse, Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics (pp. 2481-2527). Oxford University Press

[iv] Swyngedouw, E. (2013). The Segregation of Social Interactions in the Red Line L-Train in Chicago. Symbolic Interaction36(3), 293.

[v] q.v. (i) (White, 2018)

[vi] Frey, W. H. (2015, July 31). Black flight to the suburb on the rise. Retrieved from Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2015/07/31/black-flight-to-the-suburbs-on-the-rise/

[vii] Saunders, P. (2019, January 19). Is Chicago’s legacy of segregation causing a reverse Great Migration?. Retrieved from Chicago Reader: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/chicagos-black-exodus/Content?oid=66920657

[viii] Community Data Snapshot. (2019). https://www.cmap.illinois.gov/data/community-snapshots

[ix]  Gibson, C. & Jung, K. (2005). Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United States. Population Division Working Paper No. 76. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau