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

It’s been a minute since I’ve read a real academic history book, so Making the Second Ghetto really took some work to get all the way through. But it was undoubtedly worth the tough slog. This book has changed the way I look at the ghettos of Chicago and the country.

One of Hirsch’s central arguments in the book is that the African American ghetto in Chicago (specifically, what he calls the “second ghetto,” which emerged as a distinct period from 1940 to 1960) was not created by inertia; it was not a random, natural creation, that simply resulted from a bunch of poor African Americans suddenly showing up in Chicago. Rather, the ghetto was maintained; there were specific policies and priorities that were chosen among other options. Repeatedly throughout the two decades this book covers, the city’s movers and shakers in government and private enterprise were faced with choices in preventing and eliminating the miserably run-down and overcrowded slums that were beginning to expand in the city’s South Side and, to a lesser degree, West Side. Rather than making choices that had the potential to result in racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, those players continually chose to plans that would appease whites’ racist sensibilities and facilitate the fattening of businesses’ pockets.

Hirsch writes about the “white consensus” that was carried out in an almost high road/low road fashion. White ethnics–working class Irish, Italians, and Eastern European immigrants, among others–used the only tools they had available to prevent African Americans from moving into their neighborhoods: violence. According to Hirsch, that violence was utilized in extremely limited, strategic ways that had the most potential to affect public policy. On the high road side, businesses and big neighborhood interests like the University of Chicago in Hyde Park used their clout and vast economic resources to push policies that, in the long-run, helped prevent large African American populations from taking root.

Despite the differences in tactic, the consensus among both groups of whites was the same: African Americans were, under no circumstances, to be allowed to establish a foothold in these areas. Instead, they were to remain confined in overcrowded slums.

The book gives some history on the birth of public housing in the city, which I found maybe the most eye-opening revelation of the entire volume. Public housing was pushed hard by big business interests, as they saw it crucial to their slum clearance efforts: they needed to relocate the large numbers of African Americans that had moved into areas like Hyde Park or the near South Side around the Illinois Institute of Technology, and they saw in public housing a way to do it. Hirsch gives an interesting anecdote about a black community leader who complains that the public housing built to accommodate displacement from a particular neighborhood in the city was not commensurate with need and was not effectively alleviating suffering in that area; Hirsch argues that that was never the point.

Also, the history of how sites for public housing came to be chosen is incredibly frustrating, as the reader gets the sense that public housing in Chicago could have turned out much differently if white neighborhoods and the aldermen representing them had not mobilized so strongly against the placement of projects in their neighborhoods. The whole project of public housing seemed destined to fail–if not from the very beginning, then certainly from the point that the agency that was supposed to be administering it, the Chicago Housing Authority, had its independent authority effectively neutered by the city council when the latter finaggled a law change that required council approval for the choosing of sites. (The removal of its strong progressive leadership in Elizabeth Wood didn’t hurt either.) From that point on, no white aldermen would vote for a mostly-black project to be located in their neighborhood; and, given the dire housing crisis in the city for African Americans, few (if any) black aldermen would turn down the opportunity to expand affordable housing for blacks. Public housing, in other words, seemed designed to fail from its beginnings.

There’s much more to be said about this book. I had heard about it for years, and it’s easy to see why it’s considered a classic. As I noted above, this book is a long slog, and I skimmed many parts of it, as I feared I would never finish it otherwise. But it’s a very worthwhile read–one that could change how you view poverty and housing in American cities.

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