Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Over the last century, an array of political and cultural forces have created clear lines of division between racial groups. These demarcations were shaped by racist sentiments toward Black residents and non-whites and manifested through urban planning, housing policies, discriminatory banking, and other practices—all effectively confining people from different demographic groups to certain parts of the city.
Despite the simplicity of Chicago’s famous grid system, designed for flat land and seemingly equitable on a map, residents of Chicago have never been equally dispersed or had the same freedom of movement and belonging. From the beginning, Chicago’s demographic makeup was segregated by race and ethnicity along neighborhood boundaries and the physical features of the built and natural environment.
Native American tribes—the Potawatomi, Odawa, Sauk, Ojibwe, Illinois, Kickapoo, Miami, Mascouten, Wea, Delaware, Winnebago, Menominee, and Mesquakie—were forced out of what is now Chicago by early French and British settlers. After Chicago’s incorporation by Yankees in 1837, European immigrants flocked to the city through the early 1900s; Irish, Jewish, Polish, German, Italian, Czech/Bohemian, Swedish, and Lithuanian immigrants among them. At one point, Chicago boasted the largest Irish population and the second-largest Polish population of any city in the world.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the U.S. Many immigrants were fleeing poverty and war, with many others coming to Chicago in pursuit of economic prosperity. Chicago’s position as the hub of a vast railroad system enabled a bustling industrial economy that was teeming with job opportunities in its stockyards, factories, and steel mills. Later, this hotbed of activity attracted rural migrant workers from places such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the southern United States—from which racist discrimination and violence drove more than 500,000 Black Americans to Chicago.
Maps of Chicago’s early ethnic composition show that immigrants and their descendants lived in clusters. A 1920s map by sociologist Frederic M. Thrasher placed the Polish and Bohemian enclaves throughout the entire West Side, including the Lower West Side near Halsted Street; Germans occupied the northern lakefront, with Jewish people settling north of Madison Street and also along the southern lakefront. A more detailed 1950s map showcases crowded clusters of Irish, Italian, and smaller ethnic groups establishing new communities across the city.
Black residents did not enjoy the same geographic freedom. The first waves of Black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow South were relegated to a vertical strip of land near Lake Michigan. Up until the 1940s, Black residents were confined to this corridor, better known as the Black Belt, which ran along State Street roughly between Roosevelt Road (12th Street) and 79th Street. The growing Black population eventually formed settlements farther south and up north in isolated and undeveloped areas along the Kinzie rail lines, Roosevelt, and the North Branch of the Chicago River. These segregated communities maintained a tense coexistence until 1919, when racist white hostility bubbled over.
The 1919 Race Riots, which were part of the racial violence seen across the country during a period known as the Red Summer, were provoked by an attempt to enforce segregation in the waters of Lake Michigan. At a beach near 29th Street, a white man began throwing rocks at Black boys who were swimming at a perceived whites-only beach, drowning seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams. Black communities protested, and the strife culminated in five days of violence that left thirty-eight dead—twenty-three Black and fifteen white Chicagoans. Another 537 were injured, more than half of whom were Black.
African Americans were also denied access to white areas by means less violent, but no less destructive. The discriminatory practice known as “redlining” was a color-coded classification system implemented by the Federal Housing Administration that determined the value of housing based on the racial demographics of a neighborhood.
Close to a third of Chicago neighborhoods were given a “D” grade and marked red on a map—thus, “redlined.” These areas, all of which were predominantly Black communities, were deemed undesirable, and residents from these neighborhoods were usually denied bank loans and insurance, severely limiting their housing prospects and mobility. They were simultaneously subject to predatory practices such as contract selling, in which realtors would deceive buyers into signing contracts to buy marked-up houses on installment with high interest rates and no guarantee of title.
Racially restrictive covenants were also common in the Chicago area, as in the rest of the country. These were stipulations written into deeds of sale that prohibited Black residents and non-whites from buying, leasing, or inhabiting property in a determined parcel. According to the Hyde Park Herald, since 1916, restrictive covenants kept Chicago’s neighborhoods white from “the northern gates of Hyde Park at 35th and Drexel Boulevard to Woodlawn, Park Manor, South Shore, Windsor Park, and all the far-flung white communities of the South Side.”
These restrictive covenants were outlawed in 1948, allowing Black residents to begin to spread out beyond the Black Belt and to pursue a middle-class life in better-resourced communities. The interactive map shows that by the 1950s, Black residents had started to trickle into “grade C” or “yellow-lined” European immigrant neighborhoods on the West and Southeast sides. By the 1960s, Black residents had moved into “grade B” (blue) communities in the South Side, such as Roseland and Beverly. This meant that what was once the Black Belt saw many of their upwardly mobile residents leave public housing and the immediate area. There were approximately 813,000 Black residents in Chicago by 1960.
The postwar relocation of urban whites, known as white flight, was facilitated by the new expressways that connected them to the developing suburbs west of the city limits, where Black, Latinx, and the growing Asian population were kept out. Effectively acting as sundown towns, suburbs such as Cicero utilized police and mob violence to draw a line in the concrete. Most famously, the Clarks were a middle-class Black Chicago family that in 1951 attempted to move into a Cicero apartment, but couldn’t last a day after thousands of white protesters set their belongings and the whole property on fire.
There are different types of segregation beyond the Black-white binary that normally, and rightfully, comes to mind. A 2017 study by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute looked at Latinx/white segregation, finding considerable disparities in educational attainment, upward mobility, and generational wealth between these groups.
From the 1910s to the 1920s, thousands of Mexicans were recruited by industrial contractors to work seasonally in the Midwest, in some cases as strikebreakers in the steel mills. By 1928, there were at least six Mexican settlements parallel to Lake Michigan that were referred to as colonias. From north to south, they were Hull House, the Stockyards, Blue Island, South Chicago, East Chicago, and as far as Gary, Indiana. Immigrants typically lived in inadequate housing near railroads and industry—in bunk houses, boxcars, and section houses.
Their numbers fell off during the Depression amid intensified immigration crackdowns, according to researchers. Their early presence is not reflected in our interactive map because the U.S. Census did not accurately track the Mexican population in Chicago during this time period. But future waves of immigration in the mid-twentieth century and, later, in the 1980s and ’90s bolstered their numbers in the city.
In the 1960s, then-Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration began to address the dilapidated housing conditions of the city’s poorest and signed off on the construction of 165 high-rises managed by the Chicago Housing Authority that would house mainly Black Chicagoans. The developments were primarily clustered into six groups in addition to scattered sites with low-rise buildings and row houses.
These housing projects, as they became known, are represented by orange dots on the interactive map. The Near North Side’s Cabrini-Green complex at one time had 3,606 apartments. But the largest group of projects was the Street State corridor in the former Bronzeville Black Belt, which had a total of 7,938 units. The Robert Taylor Homes, located between 39th and 54th streets, had more than half of those apartments.
Public housing was intended to house a mix of working-class and poor families and was welcomed and enjoyed by new residents, according to early testimonies. But CHA maintenance began to fall off quickly, and by the 1980s the War on Drugs and mass incarceration created crises of crime and concentrated poverty in the densely populated towers of the Robert Taylor Homes, adjacent Stateway Gardens, and Cabrini-Green.
CHA high-rises were stigmatized by the city and the media, which portrayed them as vertical drug-ridden ganglands. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in the ’60s further “othered” the Street State corridor. The expressway was originally designed to run through Bridgeport, then Mayor Daley’s neighborhood, but the development was moved eight blocks to the east, installing a multi-lane barrier between Bridgeport and the Black Belt, literally cementing the segregation of Black and white communities.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to Chicago during the Freedom Movement campaign for fair housing made headlines in 1966. As he led a march through Marquette Park on the Southwest Side, he was attacked with bricks by a racist white mob. He would later say, “I have been in the Civil Rights Movement for many years all through the South, but I have never seen – not even in Alabama or Louisiana—mobs as hostile and hateful as this crowd.” The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.
Puerto Rican people are the second-largest Latinx group in Chicago. By 1960 there were 32,371 Puerto Rican residents in Chicago, a number that more than doubled within a decade. They were concentrated in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side and are credited for pioneering the fight against displacement due to gentrification spurred by the expanding DePaul University campus—a fight they lost.
Two laws in 1947, the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act and the Relocation Act, helped create the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, enabling the City to raze areas that it deemed blighted without regard for who it would displace. Despite the high-stakes campaign led by the Young Lords and the Rainbow Coalition against the City’s urban renewal plan, they were priced out and pushed to Humboldt Park and Hermosa, and in recent years they have been partially displaced again by new development.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, as the City realized the projects sat on prime real estate, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced a plan to transform public housing in 1999. Under the Plan for Transformation, the City began to knock down the projects one by one like dominos. The plan was ostensibly intended to decentralize Black poverty and relocate residents to mixed-income housing in integrated neighborhoods. Tenants were promised a “right to return” to soon-to-be-built housing on the sites and placed on voucher waiting lists, but many residents struggled to meet the bureaucratic requirements to be considered. CHA admitted they lost track of thousands of displaced people as they moved to other Black neighborhoods. Much of the promised housing failed to materialize, and it’s uncertain whether the CHA will ever build new housing for the 40,000 families currently on their waiting lists.
Mexican residents of the area around Jane Addams’s Hull House settlement house—today’s University Village—had a similar fate as the Puerto Ricans. Through the city’s use of eminent domain, much of that neighborhood, which included Black, Italian, Greek, and Jewish residents, was razed in the 1960s for the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the development of the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus. Many were pushed to industry-heavy Pilsen, which for almost a century was an immigrant point of entry, but is now one of the most expensive gentrifying neighborhoods on the South Side. Mexicans and Mexican Americans account for the vast majority of the 819,518 Latinx residents currently living in Chicago and continue to live in or right next to polluted industrial corridors on the Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest sides.
Tens of thousands of Black residents are also leaving their traditional South and West side neighborhoods in recent years, as has been extensively reported, in what some are calling an “outmigration” or a “reverse migration.” The city’s Black population peaked in the mid-twentieth century and is now at its lowest level since then, with 787,551 Black residents as of 2020.
Black communities bore the brunt of the closings of fifty-plus Chicago Public Schools that were shuttered during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. Chicago’s suburbs, Indiana, and other Midwestern states are popular destinations for Black residents. But folks are also going back to the South, citing a lack of well-paying jobs and resources, as well as steady gun violence and a rising cost of living, as their main reasons for leaving the city.
Housing discrimination is still a significant problem in Chicago. A 2017 fair housing study looked into six community areas that had the most reported complaints of racial and income discrimination against renters: Jefferson Park, the Near North Side, Bridgeport, Hyde Park, Clearing, and Mount Greenwood.
Sixty-three percent of the time, Black testers posing as potential renters holding CHA Housing Choice Vouchers experienced some form of discrimination. “The highest ratio of discriminatory acts to race-related tests occurred in the Near North Side neighborhood, where over half of the tests involved race discrimination,” the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee found.
Despite the City’s first settler, Jean-Baptiste Point DuSable, being of Haitian descent, Chicago’s infamous segregation is still intact, and it joins a list of large cities with similar rates of racial polarization, such as Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Houston. Through a century of discriminatory strategies from the City and the real estate industry, in addition to antiquated attitudes toward Black residents and people of color, Chicago continues to be a “city of neighborhoods”—highly segregated neighborhoods.
Credit: Charmaine Runes and Pat Sier
This story was produced for WTTW’S FIRSTHAND: SEGREGATION, an award-winning FIRSTHAND multiplatform, multi-year initiative focusing on the firsthand perspectives of people facing critical issues in Chicago. South Side Weekly partnered with WTTW and the Invisible Institute to co-publish text and visual reporting and analysis covering the impact racial divisions have on individuals, the city, and our region. Visit the website (wttw.com/firsthand) to explore the elements of the project.
Jacqueline Serrato is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief.