Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960

327385Arnold R. Hirsch (1983) University of Chicago Press

For me the key insight is that this spatial arrangement we know as the ghetto is not static or unchanging or some historical holdover that we can’t quite seem to get rid of. Instead, ‘the contemporary ghetto appeared a dynamic institution that was continually being renewed, reinforced, and reshaped’ (xii). It’s forces now as well as the past we need to be analyzing.

He writes up front:

primary attention is devoted to whites. That is where the power was. This is not to say that blacks have simply ‘reacted’ to the actions of others and do not ‘act’ in their own behalf. But what we are looking at here is the construction of the ball park within which the urban game is played. And there is no question that the architects, in this instance, were whites’ (xii)

Of all the books I’ve read, this is the most explicit about class differences and the different costs of policy and geography to whites in Chicago, also the most sympathetic to working class rioters. He certainly does show that ‘white hostility was of paramount importance in shaping the pattern of black settlement’ (9).

It was the sheer presence of the first ghetto and the white reaction to it, though, that did the most to produce the second. In creating it, white Chicago conceived a “Frankenstein’s monster,” which threatened to “run amok” after World War II. The establishment of racial borders, their traditional acceptance, and the conditions spawned by unyielding segregation created an entity that whites feared and loathed. Those who made it were soon threatened by it, and, desperately, they both employed old techniques and devised new ones in the attempt to control it. Others elected to flee to the suburbs, thus compounding the difficulties of those left behind. In any event, the very process of racial succession, dormant for nearly a generation, inspired both the dread and the action that called forth the second ghetto (15-16)

Oh, white people and their imaginations sparked by their racist ways. There is so much to be unpacked in this paragraph, but I’m saving that for later.

Another key idea:

The forces promoting a durable and unchanging racial border–the dual housing market, the cost of black housing, restrictive covenants–were, at first, buttressed by teh hosing shortage. Once new construction began, however, those same forces became an overwhelmingly powerful engine for change(29).

Of these forces, restrictive covenants were possibly the least effective, he notes they are only ‘a fairly coarse sieve, unable to stop the population when put to the test.’ (30)

He notes the ‘imagined “status” differences that were impervious to the bleaching power of money’ (35), the fears of losing the ‘life and death’ struggle for housing. He also notes the shift from open racism in the struggle to protect neighbourhoods to the use of planning jargon and the language and tools of redevelopment. Another key insight is into the nature of Chicago’s ‘hidden violence’, kept quiet by media and ‘conscious city policy’ (42) to try and dampen the possibilities of even more extended racial violence like that erupting in 1919 and 1943 when many lives were lost at the hands of white mobs. In fact white mobs were able to form at will to ‘protect’ their turf, and these collections of ‘Friends, neighbors, and rioters’ were horrific. They are fairly well documented as well, a large proportion of working-class immigrants coming together (German, Irish, Slavs, Poles), a large proportion of Catholics, almost all from the neighborhood under threat (no outsiders here stirring things up…).

They are in contrast with the equally racist but more liberal sounding community near the University of Chicago, and the startling role of the University itself in consciously protecting neighboring areas for whites. Actually, what I find startling is not that they had that policy, but how much is solidly documented in how their expansion from 7 to 110 acres was to stop African-Americans from ‘encroaching’. But they were certainly masters of manupulating city agencies and urban renewal to protect their interests, often at the cost of tearing down good housing and displacing working class white communities (which they viewed as liabilities given their vulnerability to ‘inflitration’) as well as black communities. Chancellor Hutchins of the University wrote the following poem:

The Chancellor and the President gazed out across the park,
They laughed like anything to see that things were looking dark.
“Our neighborhood,” the Chancellor said, “once blossomed like the lily.”
“Just seven coons with seven kids could knock our program silly.”
“Forget it,” said the President, “and thank the Lord for Willie.”

Just as telling:

Nothing would have shocked Hype Parkers more than the assertion that they were part of a generalized “white” effort to control the process of racial succession in Chicago. The imputation of brotherhood with the ethnic, working-class rock throwers would have been more than they could bear. Yet, there was just such a consensus (171)….

Chicago’s whites found themselves engaged in a desperately competitive struggle with each other. The successful “defense” of one neighborhood increased the problems of the others (172).

What troubled me most about the framing was some of the evaluation of strategy. Hirsch writes:

The ethnics’ defensive yet militant espousal of their “whiteness,” however, and the demand for privilege on that basis, was a flawed defense in the context of post-World War II race relations’ (197)

The use of the word ‘ethnics’ causes me a twinge (as natives does later on in reference to whites), but something about the idea that submerging themselves into the white identity caused immigrants to lose out on gaining from minority status is worse. Hirsch does note that this also downplays the differences between national and racial differences in US history and forms of oppression. But then he continues:

Second, the immigrants and their children displayed the poor judgment of becoming militantly white at the precise moment prerogatives of color were coming into question. If they were successful in finally lining their identity to that of the natives, they were left not simply with the natives’ privileges of rank but also with the bill for past wrongs that the “whites” were now expected to pay’ (198).

This simply feeds into a neoconservative line that these ‘bills’ have been paid when they have never ever been properly faced in this country, much less paid. Sure working class whites have benefitted less and been screwed over plenty of times, but they have still benefitted, and inequalities in wealth between them and all peoples of color continues to grow.

Back finally to the formation of the ‘Second Ghetto’. The one that emerged after downtown interests and other powerful institutions like the University of Chicago anchored in the center city under threat ‘realized that the power of the state — not as it then existed but in greatly augmented form — would have to be enlited in their aid’ (213). The working class whites defending their neighborhoods never managed to wield this kind of power, but violence did prove ‘effective’ in many neighborhoods (far more than those who simply relied on covenants), did influence public policy, and certainly impacted the Chicago Housing Authority so that it institutionalized segregation as policy — particularly in projects where whites were willing to fight violently against integration. These new pressures — planning, redevelopment and public housing policy — combined to make segregation more a result of government policy than private activity. It was so entrenched, when the federal court ordered further public housing to be fully integrated in 1969, Chicago just stopped building new housing.

Chicago’s redevelopment policies — developed primarily to benefit the University of Chicago and other downtown interests, then became models for the nation. But this story is a familiar one to anyone who knows Detroit, St Louis, L.A., probably any city in the whole damn country.


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