More Chicago Crime, Isolation and the Rust Belt Formula, and Black Middle Class Flight

Crime Scene in Chicago.  Source:
I’m returning to the blog after a brief and unexpected hiatus.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks since I last was here (hello summer!), but I’m back.
Chicago is in the news once again for another series of shootings and killings over the extended holiday weekend.  By one account, there were 72 shootings over the July Fourth weekend, resulting in nine deaths.  Residents and community activists are vocal about the urgent need to put a stop to the killings and shootings; the Chicago police say that crime is down from last year, but continued improvement requires greater community involvement.
Chicago garners many of the headlines, but shootings and killings are up in many cities.  Much of the news regarding Detroit is about its perilous financial state, but the murder rate has risen there as well (unfortunately the prevailing narrative there is such that people expect that from the D; maybe that’s why it’s not news).  The same goes for Philadelphia.  I’ve yet to confirm it, but I believe murder rates have gone up also in Cleveland, and possibly Cincinnati and St. Louis.
I was listening to a Sunday morning talk show on the radio this past Sunday, and several callers were offering their opinions as to why shootings are plaguing Chicago.  The responses were quite familiar – poor quality schools producing poorly educated teens and adults; lack of economic opportunity; gangs out of control; the “no snitch” value that so many hold dearly; a general sense of hopelessness.  There’s some truth to all of these.
Broadly speaking, the shootings are up the most in cities that are most distressed economically.  Again, I have no data to confirm it, but my suspicion is that there is a fairly direct correlation between increased economic distress and increased murder rates.  But I believe a couple of other factors play into this as well – the cities most impacted by white flight over the last generation have increased murder rates, and the cities that have witnessed recent substantial black middle class flight are the ones whose murder rates have recently spiked.
The inner city’s enduring isolation is causing it to take its own.
I believe Chicago’s current experience to be rather unique and particularly perplexing.  To understand this one has to take a historical viewpoint.  Like many other major cities in the U.S., Chicago did improve its economy during the 1990s, and had a resulting population increase and crime rate decrease.  However, the economic gains of the decade did little to change the physical and social structure of the city.  Areas that had already been doing well, like the North Side, were doing better.  Other areas that had been on the cusp of change but needed that last little bit of catalyst, like the West Loop or South Loop, started to improve.  But for the most part, Chicago’s legacy as one of the most segregated cities in America remained intact.
But starting in the last decade, shifts began to occur in Chicago’s socioeconomic dynamic.  The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, an ambitious plan to dismantle the public housing high-rises and create new public housing and mixed income communities, began in earnest in 1999.  The high-rise projects that many were familiar with – Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Cabrini-Green – all came down.  Thousands of public housing families were given a choice: they could receive new homes in new developments, or they could receive vouchers and select housing where they liked.  Unfortunately for the CHA, the pace of new development construction did not meet the pace of dismantling, so most tenants opted for the vouchers and selected the voucher option.
This changed the dynamics in many Chicago neighborhoods.  Former public housing residents generally moved to areas closest to where they came from, on the South and West sides of the city.  They moved into working-class neighborhoods like Austin, Auburn-Gresham and Roseland.  This caused neighborhood allegiances to shift, and caused strife in communities dealing with the influx.  This in turn led to more black middle class flight from those working-class neighborhoods.  And then the economic collapse of the late 2000s.  And that’s how we get to the spike in murders and shootings in Chicago today.
The formula seems pretty clear to me.  In Chicago’s case, public housing resident dispersion (in a notoriously segregated city), plus middle class black flight, plus economic distress, equals a higher murder rate.  In other cities with rising murder rates, you could take out the public housing variable but the rest is constant.
To me this is fundamentally a problem of isolation.  The inner-city inhabitants of our Rust Belt cities have become the “left behind”, and have been so for at least three generations.  Just yesterday I saw an article on Atlantic Cities about a study that suggests that poor, inner-city residents may care more deeply about urban neighborhoods because they have fewer relocation options available to them.  Is it any coincidence that so many of the Rust Belt’s major cities – Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, among others – lead the way on segregation indices? 
Open House Tour at Levittown, PA, 1953.  Source:
The impact of white flight on Rust Belt cities does not receive enough acknowledgement from urban scholars, policymakers or the general public.  This fact must be recognized, confronted, dealt with and resolved.  Whites must be able to be comfortable with returning to Rust Belt cities.  Blacks must be open to welcoming them to make our cities complete again.
A last point about middle class black flight.  Thousands of blacks are doing now what millions of other Americans did before them – move to the suburbs when they had the means.  Unfortunately, they may be moving to live out yesterday’s dreams.  Recent studies have shown that there is an emerging and possibly enduring  trend of city populations growing at rates faster than that of suburban areas, in contrast to the typical city-decline, suburban-growth meme of the last 60 years.  If this truly is the case, I fear that the black middle class that is currently moving to the edge of metro areas will find themselves stuck in declining areas, just as cities complete their turnaround.  If this continues, blacks will find themselves perpetuating the cycle of isolation that has limited their economic fortunes since the 1960s.

Just a few thoughts.

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