By Toni Nealie
If you ride a bus from the Magnificent Mile south along Michigan Avenue, or take the Green Line west, a cityscape of glossy buildings and lush planters changes to one of boarded windows and cracked sidewalks. Beyond the Loop, the color of the riders changes, a fact noticed by Natalie Moore when she was a teenager. In “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation,” Moore examines the city’s deep divisions, its history of segregation and the contemporary policies that reinforce racial inequality. “Ending segregation surely won’t end racism,” she says, “but its dismantling will provide better outcomes for black people.”
Moore is the South Side bureau reporter for WBEZ and has published stories in Essence, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. She blends reportage, investigative research, family history and her own difficult experiences in this portrait of the city. She discusses redlining, subprime mortgages, racial steering, negative educational policies and retail leakage as the reasons behind intentional black segregation and its accompanying disinvestment, unemployment, high poverty rate and crime. A century after the Great Migration to Chicago began, Moore describes it as a “story of northern racism.”
A “child of Chatham,” Moore writes of joyous times in her middle-class community and her dawning awareness of segregation. She recounts anecdotes about her family’s migration, including a false rape accusation against her great-uncle. Once in Chicago, families fleeing from violence and oppression in the South were expected to stay in the “Black Belt.” Regardless of social status, their “badge of color” meant they had to put up with overcrowded housing and high rents. Racist institutionalized practices continue to disadvantage black neighborhoods.
Moore critiques housing policies, food deserts, mainstream media’s narrative on the city’s murder rates, and school closings. She talks to community leaders about their ideas for desegregation. They include regulations to eliminate exclusionary zoning, cultural “intentionality” in event-planning and deliberate action to desegregate. “The South Side” is a must-read for Chicagoans interested in understanding segregation and how to create a more equitable city. Moore discussed her book with Newcity and put forth her ideas for change.
You blend reportage and research with your family stories. Why did you choose this style? What were the risks involved—especially in sharing your narrative about your condo purchase and your personal finances? Was that terrifying?
I thought weaving in my personal story would make this book unique. That’s not often done in books about American cities. I write about the South Side, not as an observer, but as a participant. It wasn’t terrifying, but definitely made me feel vulnerable when laying out my condo purchase and personal finance debacle.
You present the South Side as a diverse array of communities, whereas the media tends to present the South Side as homogenous, a negative zone of shootings and dysfunction. How do these views reflect public perception and help shape policy?
Because Chicago is so segregated, people in other parts of the city—who never visit the South Side—have their opinions shaped by the media. Consequently, public perception about the South Side and black people are pretty bleak.
You mention needing to set your own biases aside, when considering why people might not want to move from the Robert Taylor Homes. How difficult was that? How important is it for writers to be conscious of personal prejudices and how do they set them aside?
There’s no such thing as objectivity. We’re all subjective and bring our life experiences to newsrooms. That’s not a bad thing. But reporters sometimes have to check their biases so they don’t cloud news coverage.
What did you feel while writing and how do you deal with those feelings?
Toward the end I actually felt hopeful. Segregation may seem intractable, but scholars and policy makers have good ideas. There are steps that can be taken. The politicians aren’t listening though.
You point out how poor blacks suffer under neoliberalism while elite blacks benefit. How can South Siders push against this effectively?
Elect the right aldermen and mayors.
Segregation—and the income inequality, educational deficits, lack of personal safety that goes with our model of segregation—does seem intractable. When I read the comments section in mainstream media, it seems that way. If you were mayor, what would you prioritize to change things?
I would convene a segregation task force. Chicago has a lot of talent at our local universities and nonprofits. The task force would come up with a list of policy recommendations.
Natalie Moore reads March 22, 7pm, at Parkway Ballroom, 4455 South Martin Luther King, (773)373-4320, March 26, 2pm, at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison Street, Forest Park, (708)771-7243, March 31, 6pm, at International House Assembly Hall, 1414 East 59th, (773)753-2274.
“The South Side”
By Natalie Y. Moore
St Martin’s Press, 272 pages, $27.99
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.