Count ‘em: four recent moves for desegregation in Chicago - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Count ‘em: four recent moves for desegregation in Chicago

Lately I've been feeling hopeful about progress we've been making on desegregation as a city. I've got thoughts on that below. But progress is not always linear; for every step forward, we also have the events of the past 24 hours. Last night, the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Brown wrote about the hate and fear-filled comments he'd been sent about the proposed mixed-income housing development in Jefferson Park (this after 3-plus hours of testimony at Monday's Committee on Zoning in which opponent after opponent stated they were not racist, simply anti-density). At a separate event yesterday, the Mayor stated that "as much as [Arena] is offering his idea, residents who live in [Jefferson Park] need to be heard." 

Actually, they have had more opportunity to be heard than most projects garner. In addition to more than 20 small community meetings, there was one public community meeting, one Plan Commission hearing, and two Zoning Commission hearings (each with up to five hours of testimony). As a city, we've enacted a Transit-Oriented Development ordinance that preferences density for land near transit, and as I detail below, have started taking steps to ensure affordability across the entire city. This project is in alignment with both city goals. Voices on both sides have been heard. The elected leader of this ward is supporting the project, over the objections of the loudest and most fearful, and with the support of many others.

It's time for us to make inclusion and equity our top priorities.

It's time to move forward. And in many ways, the city is.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years focused on the history and ongoing maintenance of Chicago’s enduring economic and racial segregation. (For more on its impact, check out our Cost of Segregation report.) During that time, many people in leadership positions have stated something along the lines of “addressing segregation is not my job.”

In contrast, over the past month multiple people in positions of power and influence have used their platform to make inroads on Chicago’s segregation, however incremental. Symbols matter, and given that segregation is created and maintained by decisions that we all makeboth at the smaller individual level and the larger policy level by people in positions of powerthis past month has been pretty heartening. 

I’ve counted four distinct steps forward. Here’s a quick hit on the first three, with more details on the implications of the fourth:

  • As we profiled here, the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development recently released a draft plan that establishes goals for affordability across the entire cityfrom low-income to high-income and everything in between.
  • Seven North and Northwest Side Aldermen held a press conference to hold themselves accountable to adding affordable housing to their high-income wards. MPC was proud to speak at the press conference, where local officials and civic leaders did not shy away from naming the problem: "We understand that for far too long, aldermen on the North and Northwest Sides have done far too little to open our communities to low-income and minority families. Chicago's history of racism has left a legacy of exclusion we must respond to today."
  • Earlier this week, five Aldermen stood with 45th Ward Alderman Arena to support his plans for 80 units of affordable housing in Jefferson Park. Preliminary site approval later passed the Committee on Zoning after more than 3 hours of heated testimony. It now goes to the full Council.

And the fourth desegregation move? Chicago Public Schools’ recent decision to merge two schools: Ogden (diverse, with many high-income whites) and Jenner (primarily low-income, African American) elementaries. Parents and principals from both schools began the push to merge two years ago, but not all parents were supportive.

Last summer we wrote about some Ogden parents describing how they were owed the best education because they paid the highest taxes: “If this passes, I think it’s 100% BS that you have to float the bill for all the Jenner school families that couldn’t afford the higher property taxes and still get to send their kids to Ogden.”

As we’ve written about before, the fact that school quality is “capitalized into housing prices”—in other words, the cost of admission to high-performing neighborhood schools is a high real estate price point—has apparently led some parents to think they’re entitled to something they are not.

As we asserted then, parents who pay more in property taxes do so because their home is worth more than most across the city, not because their child is more worthy of a quality education than other children across the city.

So why is this move by CPS a big deal? With this decision, CPS effectively asserts that parents, as UCLA Civil Rights Project director and longtime school integration scholar Gary Orfield puts it, “don’t have any right to preserve an enclave of privilege and they shouldn’t be fearful of coming into contact with poor kids.”

We don't talk enough about the negatives of concentrated wealth and concentrated whiteness.

Further, with this decision CPS has prioritized a diverse school experience for two sets of student bodies over the most traditionally influential voices. A recent New York Times article on segregation in New York City schools quotes the deputy schools chancellor under Mayor Bloomberg as saying that their efforts to retain the middle class at the expense of the poor were a critical mistake that reinforced racial isolation. The truth is that due to the extremes of our residential segregation, outside of citywide choice schools our opportunities to create a diverse school environment are rare. All the more reason to seize proximate opportunities where they exist. If not in these spaces and not now, then where and when?

Is it a small step? Absolutely. These are but two schools in a district with over 600, and in which 82 percent of these schools were not diverse in 2015-2016 (meaning they’ve always had a single racial group comprise more than 60 percent of the student population).

Yet, it matters.

As New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones puts it, integration is not just about inclusion, it’s about justice.

And it is my contention that we don’t research or understand or talk enough about the negatives of concentrated wealth and concentrated whiteness, and as a result when decisions arise that would increase diversity in such settings, the focus is squarely on what residents perceive they will lose rather than all that they have to gain. As a field and as human beings we have to do better.

Congrats to all who’ve been pushing for better throughout their lives and careers, and to those who specifically stepped up over the last month. Onward.


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