Race and Class (and Starbucks) in Chicago

A few articles that I have come across over the past few days have brought up a number of loaded issues regarding race and class in the Chicago area. The New Republic looks at the Chicago area’s transformation to a Paris-style inverted geographic class structure, where the wealthy are increasingly living in or near the center of town and the poor are pushed to the outer suburbs of the metropolitan area. Meanwhile, the Freakonomics blog had an open-ended discussion on America’s most racist city, with Chicago appearing to come right behind Boston with the dubious distinction in the opinion of most commenters. Finally, even the decision by Starbucks to close stores across the country is interpreted by some to have a racial tint when such closings happen to be in areas with larger black populations (most notably, Chicago’s South Suburbs). Although the diversity of the racial, ethnic, religious and other groups within the Chicago area is as high as any place in the United States, the perception remains that city and its surrounding suburbs are extremely segregated.

There are significant arguments that most of Chicago’s racial segregation is rooted more in class differences over anything else. The urban core of Chicago has been rapidly gentrifying over the past decade, with neighborhoods that used to be considered ghettos turning into affluent enclaves for yuppies and hipsters. (Certain people really like gentrification.) The author of the New Republic article, who grew up in what would now be called the West Loop, referenced the incredible changes in the area around UIC, which is something that I can personally attest to. My father worked the bulk of his career at UIC and up until the late-1990s, the thought of walking around the fringes of campus after it got dark out was considered to be a death wish. My family always joked that we could buy back the hubcaps from my father’s car at the Maxwell Street market every week since they were stolen so frequently. Now, the housing projects have almost entirely been eradicated from the area while condos and townhomes that run into the upper six and seven figures line the streets. It’s not quite a West Side version of Lincoln Park as of yet, but it looks a whole lot more like the wealthy North Side neighborhood than the areas immediately adjacent to University Village to the south and west. While there has been plenty of negative press about how people have been pushed out of their old neighborhoods, at end of the day, I believe that gentrification is better as a whole than “managed growth” (which essentially means restrictions on new investment). Certainly, Chicago is a whole lot better off than its Midwestern brethren of Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland as a result of gentrification with businesses and residents correspondingly moving into the area as opposed to out. The utopian vision would be that neighborhoods could improve on a linear basis where a blighted neighborhood can gradually become “middle class” in a neat and predictable fashion, but the reality is that urban development in Chicago (and other strong cities such as New York, San Francisco and Boston) is coupled with a Tipping Point phenomenon – the change in a neighborhood is very slow until it hits a certain critical mass of affluence and trendiness, where it then transforms rapidly from one extreme on the income scale to another. This could also be a reflection of society as a whole where there is a greater bifurcation between the upper and lower classes with a smaller middle class. Despite the significant rise in cost of living expenses in the city, on the whole, when the choice is to be more like Manhattan or Detroit, most reasonable people would choose Manhattan.

However, is what is happening in Chicago, Boston, New York and other cities with rapidly gentrifying urban cores really just about class? I grew up in Chicago’s South Suburbs, which have long been considered the forgotten stepchild of the region. Even while being Polese (half-Polish and half-Chinese), I was always pretty well aware that even the more affluent South Suburban areas of Homewood and Flossmoor were treated with different standards by businesses and even government agencies than the North and West Suburbs and had long theorized that it was because of race. For example, when I took the Metra on the Illinois Central line to the city from downtown Homewood as a kid, every rider had to purchase a ticket prior to getting on board and then put it through a turnstile in order to get onto the train platform. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I took the Milwaukee North line to visit my then-girlfriend now-wife when she lived by Libertyville, I was perplexed that I could get on the train itself, much less the platform, without a ticket and could even purchase it on board. I came to find out this was indeed the case on every single Metra line in the Chicago area – except, of course, for the Illinois Central line that runs through the South Side of Chicago and the South Suburbs. This was rectified in 2003 (not exactly ancient history) where the Illinois Central line is now treated in the same manner as all of the other lines, but this shows where the South Side was treated on the area’s totem pole where its residents couldn’t be trusted to even get onto a train. Plenty of other train lines went through (and continue to go through) high crime areas such as Joliet and Waukegan, yet it’s hard not to notice that the Illinois Central is the one line that cuts through more predominantly African-American neighborhoods and suburbs compared to the others.

After spending my years since graduating from college and law school living at certain points in Chinatown (more like the gentrified South Loop economically than the rest of the South Side), Roscoe Village, Libertyville and now Naperville (all the while either going to school or working in the Loop), it was easy for me to forget that there are places in this world that are begging for places such as Starbucks (and for that matter, any type of retail and restaurants other than fast food) instead of attending the latest NIMBY protest. The news of the Starbucks exit from Country Club Hills brought back those old feelings that the South Side is still being neglected in the region. There are three Starbucks shops within a two block radius in downtown Naperville – yes, in downtown Naperville, not downtown Chicago – while there is a Starbucks on the first floor of the Store Formerly Known as Marshall Field’s on State Street, another one on the bottom floor of the store and yet another across the street. All the while, a middle class suburb such as Country Club Hills supposedly can’t support just one Starbucks even though suburbs to the north and west still have free-flowing coffee with similar economic demographics (but significantly different racial compositions).

I would be the first to tell you that I’m essentially an Ayn Rand objectivist when it comes to economic policy and business decisions and have absolutely no qualms about any entity leaving an area for financial reasons. At the same time, I don’t think that Starbucks has made any type of nefarious racially-tinged decision with respect to closing the Country Club Hills location or any of its other stores. Yet, it would be blind to state that race isn’t a major factor in where people move to, which in turn businesses will follow. My childhood hometown of Glenwood was over 90% white back in 1980. The average income of its residents hasn’t substantively changed since then, yet whites have increasingly moved out of the town (mostly to Southwest Suburbs west of I-57 such as Tinley Park and Orland Park) to the point where it is now a majority black town. This isn’t a comment as to whether this is good or bad, but rather an observation that this relatively fast and very drastic racial change had little relation to changes in income or class demographics (as is often argued about racial changes in gentrifying areas). Does Glenwood have a classic case of white flight that occurred in neighboring Harvey and Chicago Heights long ago? Was it perceptions about crime (whether or not they are true) that spurred people to move? As much as I have tried to use this blog to present possible solutions to issues ranging from sports to politics, I’m at a loss as how to address these issues when we have been looking at the exact same pattern repeat itself over and over.

(Image from uic.edu)


Icy Wrigley and Land-o-Links for 7/23/2008

It’s been a long time, so let’s throw up some links:

1. The Blackhawks Game of the Century (My Tribe) – It’s nice to see the Blackhawks start getting some attention again in town, with Rocky Wirtz taking swift action in turning around a franchise that was decimated by his father’s bull-headed business practices. The biggest news for the casual fan, of course, is that the Hawks and Red Wings will be playing at Wrigley Field next New Year’s Day in the NHL Winter Classic. This will certainly be a great event for the city of Chicago in a historic venue – of course, I’ll miss it all if the Illini end up in a warmer locale for a bowl game that day. (We actually have expectations this year!!!)

That’s the dilemma here. The scheduling choice (I’m not sure if the NHL or NBC is to blame here) to put the Winter Classic on the same day as the Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl and other major bowl games makes about as much sense as putting it opposite of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament or game 1 of the World Series – the national attention is elsewhere. Plus, this past New Year’s Day, Michigan played in the Capital One Bowl while Illinois played in the Rose Bowl right after that, which happen to be the major college football draws for the Detroit and Chicago media markets, respectively. If that type of situation happens again this coming New Year’s Day, how are Chicago and Detroit fans going to choose between the Winter Classic and their respective college home teams?

As much positive press as the NHL received for the ratings for last year’s Winter Classic, it ended up garnering a 2.6 on NBC with teams from two cities (Buffalo and Pittsburgh) that got huge local ratings since they had no local college team conflicts. In contrast, the Capital One Bowl aired directly opposite of the hockey game on cable (as opposed to network television) and received a 9.1 rating on ESPN and the Rose Bowl got a 11.1 rating on ABC. That should be clear evidence to the NHL its headliner event ought to be moved to a date with a lot less competition for eyeballs. Plus, while there will be a certain curiosity factor of watching a hockey game at Wrigley Field, any combination of Illinois, Notre Dame, Michigan and/or Michigan State playing in New Year’s Day bowl games, which has occurred every single year except for one since the turn of the millennium, would reduce the local ratings for the Winter Classic in Chicago and Detroit by a significant margin. If I were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, I would do a whole lot of things, but first and foremost would be to move the date of the Winter Classic to the weekend in between the AFC and NFC Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl where the game would have the full attention of the sports world. Placing the marquee regular season game of the season up against a day that has been reserved for college football for decades (with the ratings to back it up), particularly in the middle of Big Ten country, is asinine.

2. The Dark Knight Triumphs and Disturbs (Chicagoist) – I’m not a very big comic book guy at all, but even I got wrapped up in the hype around The Dark Knight and ran out to see it this past weekend. The generally glowing reviews of the film are warranted – the best thing that I can say about the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is that you completely forget that it’s Heath Ledger up there since he consumes himself in the role so thoroughly. Plus, the latest Batman installment spent much of last summer filming right outside of my old office building at LaSalle and Wacker, so it was a kick to see the long chase scene on Lower Wacker Drive and multiple shots on LaSalle Street up on the big screen. In contrast to Batman Begins, which filled in a shell of the Chicago skyline and street scenes with a lot digitized images, The Dark Knight displays the city of Chicago pretty much as-is, such that it’s truly fair to call this a “Chicago movie” in the same manner as The Fugitive, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Blues Brothers. Regardless, if you’re one of the five people in America that hasn’t seen the film yet, there’s no reason to wait.

3. Williams, Jazz to Play Bulls in Champaign (Pantagraph) – I wasn’t planning on going to the Illinois Homecoming game this year because it happens to fall on the same day as my law school class reunion, but now I’m really regretting it with this preseason game being added on Friday night to start off that weekend. Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Ron Zook, Rejus Benn – all my man crushes in one place and I’ll have to miss it. Uh, let’s move on.

4. Together Again Briefly, Dee Brown and Deron Williams Chart Different Courses (ESPN.com) – Speaking of the Illini and the NBA, J.A. Adande (one of the few non-schmucks left at TWWL) had this nice piece examining the juxtaposition of the situations of Dee Brown and Deron Williams in college compared to the pros. It would be nice to see Dee get a spot somewhere in the NBA – the Jazz were a much deeper team, so he may have a better shot at cracking the rotation in Washington.

5. Brett Favre, Could Cause Sickness (Windy City Gridiron) – If there’s one saving grace about the 24-hour news ticker about Brett Favre’s movements over the past week, it’s that there is finally some movement away from the monolithic media monkey love for this man that has existed for the past decade. I have always hated Favre, plain and simple, and it’s nice to see people outside of Chicago and Minnesota start realizing that he is as selfish as any other athlete out there.

6. Kevin Jones Signs With Bears (Huddle Up) – As the Bears open training camp, I’m trying to think of any athlete that has ruined my past fantasy seasons in either baseball or football more than Kevin Jones. I’ve been a victim of catastrophic injuries to Rocky Baldelli and Cris Carpenter on a number of occasions on the baseball end, but there’s nothing quite like how you get fucked when your starting running back goes down. That being said, the Bears taking a flyer on Jones isn’t a bad idea in the real football world – when the alternative is throwing in rookie Matt Forte out there after an offseason dedicated to wiring Cedric Benson bail money, you can’t afford to be picky.

7. Illini Sell Out Ohio State Game (FightingIllini.com) – The note here about the Illinois-Ohio State game selling out within an hour is a load of B.S. – I went online as soon as tickets went on sale and this game was already gone. So, if anyone out there has 2-4 tickets available for the game, shoot me a message.

And finally…

8. Baseball Hall-of-Famer Jerome Holtzman Dies (Chicago Tribune) – Most of the nation knows of Peter Gammons’ work at the Boston Globe due to ESPN, but for Chicagoans, it was Jerome Holtzman that defined baseball writing. His old column going through the all of the tidbits across the baseball world (not just the Cubs and White Sox) was always the first place I went to every week when the Sunday Chicago Tribune hit the driveway. May the Dean rest in peace.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)