How the System Ghetto-ized Black People in Chicago

Thoughts on Reading Making the Second Ghetto

Revolutionary Worker #985, December 6, 1998

The Revolutionary Worker received the following correspondence from a reader in Chicago:


"Locked in a desperate struggle for survival, the city's large institutions used their combined economic resources and political influence to produce a redevelopment and urban renewal program designed to guarantee their continued prosperity."

"Decaying neighborhoods were torn down and their inhabitants were shunted off to other quarters, and the land upon which they stood was used for middle-class housing and institutional expansion."

"The [Chicago Housing Authority] also engaged in `checkerboarding'--the movement of relocatees from one temporary home to another `as though they were checkers or chessmen'--when a single family remained in a building scheduled for demolition."

These quotes sound like a description from 1998. Every word here rings with truth about the struggle today facing the people of Chicago's public housing--the tooth-and-nail battle that they (and their allies) are engaged in with the Chicago Housing Authority, the federal agency for Housing and Urban Development, the city government of Chicago and the real estate developers.

Yet the observations I have just quoted were taken from a book called Making the Second Ghetto, Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 by Arnold R. Hirsch. The ghettoization of Black people in Chicago went through two previous shapings--and it is chilling how much about these earlier events is interchangeable with the battles people are fighting today.

Chicago has been a pioneer in housing experiments and policies--aimed at containing and controlling the masses of Black people. In the past, the plans to create large-scale public housing in Chicago became models for nation-wide federal housing policies. And now, the Chicago plans to destroy public housing are being promoted as a model for the rest of the country as well.

I have been involved in the battle against the government's drive to "end public housing as we know it" for the last several years. Every day we learn something new about the maneuvers, lies, false promises, threats and tricks that are used to divide the people--about the underhanded deals and cold blooded police murder which have framed the lives of the people fighting to stay in public housing.

Reading this excellent book Making the Second Ghetto caused me to take a fresh look at the struggle people all over the country are waging for housing for all and at the role Chicago has played as a flagship for the vicious efforts of the government.

I am writing this article for the Revolutionary Worker because I want to share some of the history revealed by this book. I want to pull people's coats to the conclusions I drew and encourage people to look at the book themselves -- all as part of preparing to struggle even harder against an enemy whose interests are entirely opposed to those of people.

Frontlines in a Difficult Struggle

During the 1990s, some very courageous people have protested and resisted the physical disintegration, emptying and demolition of the housing projects which have been their homes and community for years. The battle is made even sharper by the fact that--as rundown as the Chicago Housing Authority has allowed these buildings here to become--they are part of a dwindling supply of housing that is affordable to poor people.

Some victories have been won. Mae Francis Johnson and her family in Horner Homes have inspired many by standing strong in the face of eviction--a fight which continues today. A lot of people have risked everything to defy police sweeps through their buildings, beatings and jailings of countless youth, point-blank shootings (for example, 26-year-old Shaunnay Royal in March 1997) and even killings (like that of 21-year-old Michael Russell in April 1998). Young revolutionary activists have taken their stand with the people of these projects, working to rally allies to this cause, and themselves facing arrest and threats.

Collective forms for living and resisting have been developed, like the "Fix `Em Ups" in 500/502 Oak Street in the Cabrini-Green complex--where people put the slogan "Fix `Em Up, Don't Tear Them Down" into practice. Residents shoveled, mopped, nailed and painted together--through ice floods, heatless or waterless winter nights, and weeks of no garbage collection. They managed to keep the structures livable and functioning for many months longer than the powers-that-be planned.

Young men, who the authorities dismiss as "gangbangers," have stood knee-deep in icy floods in Chicago winter weather, fighting to cap frozen bilge surging from aged pipes. Mothers have banded together to protect their children as buildings have been forcibly emptied rendering them dark, dangerous caverns for the remaining families.

And yet, so far, all the buildings under the gun from CHA/HUD have eventually been closed, and have either been demolished or slated for demolition. And the people in several buildings have eventually been driven out. Such residents have often been scattered throughout the city, making it harder to band together to fight. While some have gotten replacement housing in the same areas, the buildings are flimsy and come with extremely expensive utility costs.

The struggle over people's homes remains very much alive. But at times, it feels like the forces of resistance are standing on a railroad track with a train bearing down, and in spite of every effort, the train keeps coming.

After reading Making the Second Ghetto, I know three things very clearly:

First: We should not be surprised by a single dirty trick, maneuver, plan or under-the-table deal the CHA/HUD or the Chicago city government attempts. They have done them all before in one form or another. This is a way of life for them; they have been developing their techniques over years of practice. We should be furious at their total disdain for the poor and especially Black people--at the way they view human beings as just checker pieces on their board. But not surprised. As the revolutionary leader Mao Tsetung said: We must cast away illusions, prepare for struggle.

Second: Public housing policy is not meant to "help the poor." It has always been designed to strengthen the system's social and political control over the people. In Chicago, Black people, in particular, were forced from one ghetto to another--all according to the needs of profit and wishes of the Captains of Capital--the ruling class, federal, state or local.

And third: Violence has been the midwife of every change in the lives of the people, and in particular any change in housing patterns of Black people, including public housing.

Arnold R. Hirsch wrote Making the Second Ghetto as a dissertation at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early 80s, and republished it with a new foreword in 1998. He has real sympathy for the people whose lives are at the center of this story. And yet, I should be clear, he does not draw the same conclusions I do. He does not see the repeated ghettoization of Black people as the product of a system, which by its very nature, requires the oppression and exploitation of Black people. However, his book has given me valuable insights into the workings of this system.

Making of the First Ghetto

In the twentieth century, Black people poured out of the former plantation areas of the Deep South--and millions passed through a historic transition from rural sharecroppers to urban proletarians. The railroad that ran straight north from the Mississippi Delta carried hundreds of thousands to Chicago, carrying cardboard suitcases filled with dreams.

This history of the Black migration from the South was tumultuous. And what the people found "up North" was far different than the opportunities they dreamed of. Their experience is concentrated in the history of housing in Chicago--where people live, or are allowed to live, determines much about the rest of their lives. It affects the education their children get, and the work they are able to find.

Under capitalism, housing does not exist simply to provide human beings shelter--but it is a means to accumulate wealth and control the people. Interwoven through this picture are two continuing threads--the wealth accumulated and wielded by the rich (especially land developers), and the deep involvement of every level of government in carrying out the strategies of the developers, using law, policy and violence. In short, this is a story about the workings of capitalism--and of the ruling class's methods of enforcement and repression.

Black people poured out of the South in two great waves that accompanied the two world wars of the twentieth century. When wars cut off immigration and the creation of large armies caused a labor shortage--Black people were drawn, by capitalism, from the fields of the South into the factories of urban areas.

This Great Migration was a complicated push and pull of many factors: the deterioration and mechanization of the rural economy caused a forced removal from plantations in some areas, and violent attempts to keep Black folks on the plantations in other areas. Dreams of freedom in the North were spelled out by the Chicago Defender newspaper and others--and thousands of Black people were drawn by the powerful lure of wages and life without Jim Crow north of the Mason Dixon Line.

In Chicago alone, the numbers speak volumes. By 1920 Chicago's Black population was already 109,458. Between 1940 and 1960, it grew from 277,731 to 812,637-- one of the largest concentrations of African American people in North America.

But the trip North did not mean an end to segregation. Black people were tightly confined into specific communities--at first, just a narrow sliver of land called "the Black Belt" on Chicago's Southside. As the hundreds of thousands arrived by train at the Union Station seeking a new life, they were forced to move onto these same few streets--producing some of the most intense and horrific overcrowding in modern history.

Housing deteriorated even while high rents extracted fortunes out of people who had no freedom to move. Real estate speculators and absentee landlords made killings by dividing up buildings and large apartments into many small "kitchenettes," some separated by no more than cardboard. Many units lacked plumbing. Often many families had to share one bathroom. The movie "Raisin in the Sun" sharply depicts these conditions. Many people were forced to squat for shelter, but they were not the only ones to face the Windy City's famous "Hawk" without heat.

Disease was widespread. The infant death rate was 16 percent higher in the Black community than for the city as a whole. Rats infested the ghetto like a plague: 29 tons of the rodents were killed in 1940, the first year any control effort was made. There was constant threat of fire in the ramshackle and crowded buildings. Many started accidentally, as people were forced to use dangerous methods of heating and cooking. But (then as now) some fires were deliberately set. One landlord was shot by a tenant after he set fire to his building as a means of eviction. The tenant's four children perished in the flames.

Decade by decade the housing got more overcrowded, and the ghettoized conditions became more intolerable and outrageous. The Depression of the 1930s brought a sharp decline in Chicago's housing industry. "Not only was there little construction during the 1930s, but the city began a demolition program in 1934 that destroyed 21,000 substandard housing units; about one-third of the demolition occurred in black areas. Even the steps taken to relieve the poor housing condition of the black population were hardly unmitigated blessings. The construction of the Ida B. Wells public housing project destroyed nearly as many apartments as it supplied. When the project finally opened in 1941, 17,544 applications were received for its 1,662 units." (MSG, p. 18)

Something had to give.

Black people, quite simply, started pushing out from their established communities into surrounding areas--in the face of great threats and violence. And war-like confrontations broke out. The search for decent, affordable housing brought Black people into direct conflict with real estate speculators, downtown banks, developers, and networks of racists, all organized (or at least backed) by Chicago's notorious Democratic Party political machine.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, mainly to the south of what-was-then the "Black Belt" on the Southside and spreading west, the cold-hearted drama of "racial succession" played itself out. Making the Second Ghetto describes this process.

As the borders of the city's expanding "Black Belt" approached a previously-white community, a "stagnant" period would set in. "Rents and purchase prices were lowered in a futile attempt to attract white residents, lending agencies refused to grant mortgages to whites in such `threatened' areas and, of course, they demurred in providing financing to the first blacks to `break' a block. With the future of the area uncertain and income restricted, landlords and homeowners often cut back on the maintenance of their properties. Deterioration thus frequently set in before blacks stepped into the neighborhood. Vacancies began to appear and the economic pressures of the dual housing market pushed white property owners to rent or sell to blacks. It was at this point the speculators stepped in." (MSG, p.32)

People influenced by racist thinking often argue that "Black people allow their communities to become rundown," but the history of Chicago shows vividly that this view is upside down: the communities were run down and then (and only then) were Black people allowed to come in--and buy up the rundown housing at inflated prices.

RCP chairman Bob Avakian once sketched this process in an article called "Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story": "The place became a dump, and then Black people, and others who were previously kept out, were brought into the neighborhood, or allowed to come in there. And it was systematically turned into a dump, not by the new residents but by the banks, insurance companies, real estate concerns, and others who speculated in land and housing, along with the government. The new residents not only were not the cause of this, but they were not able, not allowed, to do anything about it." (RW #895, also available on RW Online)

By manipulating all the factors, the speculators raised prices for Black home owners with markups from 35 to 115 percent. Also the speculator usually retained title to the house, so that if the new home owners couldn't make their payments, the house reverted to this "thief with a pen."

Violence is as
American as Apple Pie

Many fairy tales have been spun about the might of the pen, but in reality, behind every successful pen lies the might of the sword. To fully understand the dynamics of this process, we have to look at the systematic savagery used to prevent the free movement of Black people.

Chicago's history (like the history of many American cities) is riddled with "race riots," starting with one in 1919--racists rampaged through the Southside and the downtown Loop beating and killing Blacks. Black people defended themselves. In all, 38 people were killed and 537 injured--and borders dividing up the city had been marked by blood.

During the 40s and 50s, thousands of white people, including many new immigrants who had just graduated to their first non-slum housing, were organized into racist networks that attacked Black people. All through this period there was an intense battle over where Black people would be allowed to live and socialize. Many attacks took place at public facilities and beaches along the lakefront, which were traditionally considered "whites only." In 1957, 7,000 whites surrounded and beat 100 Black picnickers in Calumet Park.

At the fringes of Chicago's Black areas, brutal attacks took place all year round, especially in the spring and fall when leases traditionally change. "From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six black residences were assaulted (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)..." (MSG, p.53)

For over a year, there was one attack a month. There were 29 arson-bombings. Three people died. The worst incident was the "Cicero Riot" in 1959, when a mob of "2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single Black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building's contents lasted for several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County Sheriff's police." (MSG, p.53)

A whole chapter of Making the Second Ghetto is devoted to the history of violence against Blacks who sought to move beyond the confines of the ghetto. This brutal establishment of boundaries was reinforced by the media which collectively decided not to publicize the incidents. Police allowed racist crowds to terrorize Black families for days on end. And police routinely beat and arrested Black people caught "in the wrong neighborhood" (and still do!)

The Chicago city government sent out word when agreements were about to be made, signaling that the crowds should go back behind closed doors until they were needed again. The constant threat of attack was a key mechanism for enforcing segregation and confining Black people to specific ghettoized areas.

Public Housing and the Building
of the Second Ghetto

The racist power structure and the attacks they encouraged could not, and did not succeed in containing Black people. Black people were in Chicago to stay, and they had to have a place to live.

After the second great wave of Black migration during and after World War 2, Chicago's local business elite was concerned that their downtown business district, the Loop, not become a deserted "island" surrounded by Black communities. In their mind, many Black areas were potentially valuable--if they could "retake" them and reverse the middle class exodus to the suburbs. The local Chicago ruling class wrote a plan to "redevelop" some so-called "slum areas" inhabited by Black working people and middle classes.

"Locked in a desperate struggle for survival, the city's large institutions used their combined economic resources and political influence to produce a redevelopment and urban renewal program designed to guarantee their continued prosperity...The real purpose of redevelopment,' one knowledgeable observer later noted, was `to re-attract solvent population and investment to the dying areas of the city.' " (MSG, p. 100)

The masters of this war were Milton C. Mumford, assistant vice-president of Marshall Fields department store and Holman D. Pettibone, president of Chicago Title and Trust Company. They dressed their efforts up in the lamb's wool of public interest--as they formed a wolf pack to make a killing in previously Black areas. Mumford and Pettibone needed some place to put the people they intended to displace. They worked intensely among various local and state political forces to build support for huge public housing projects. They established two principles which became part of the "public mission" for Chicago's city government: (1) that the city government absorb the "cost of assembling and clearing land for private redevelopers who would then purchase the property at a price less than the cost of acquisition." (MSG, p. 106) and (2) that public housing be built to house poor Blacks who were to be removed from areas targeted for redevelopment.

In Chicago, the ruling class had long worked to prevent the outward expansion of the Black community--so they developed a plan to house and concentrate Black people by stacking them upwards in a huge network of highrise housing projects. After initial opposition, the ruling class embraced federally-subsidized housing in a big way as a key part of their plans for Chicago.

The first project was for an all-Black middle class highrise called Lake Meadows on the Southside lakefront. The planners intended to "anchor" the area with profitable business concerns, starting with an office complex for New York Life Insurance. The plans flowered in consultation with two monied interests in the area, Michael Reese Hospital and Illinois Institute of Technology, who were already carrying out aggressive expansion to "reclaim" the Southside.

In this period, right after World War 2, "redevelopment" meant moving Black people off "valuable property" into a "second ghetto"--within huge housing projects of highrise buildings. Today, "redevelopment" also means moving the people from their homes on "valuable property"--but this time, by targeting the highrises of public housing and trying to disperse the concentrations of poor people.

Some of the same capitalist interests have been involved in both periods. Today, the Illinois Institute of Technology is seeking to invest millions to "redevelop" the "Southside Corridor"--which is now the site of miles of highrises, including Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the country.

People Removal

The creation of the housing projects after World War 2 represented a callous new "checkerboarding" of people's lives to suit the needs of profit. People were forced to move out of their homes to provide a location for New York Life Insurance--while the new housing project of Dearborn Homes was not ready to receive them. "[T]he CHA was placed in the bizarre position of having to relocate residents displaced by the relocation housing project before the land could be cleared." (MSG, p. 123) Rules were amended, eligibility standards were stretched as needed, people were shuffled from place to temporary place, and some families were broken up to form smaller groups that would fit into limited space. It is a scenario all too familiar to people in Chicago today.

There were originally regulations that required new projects to be racially integrated. But this never happened. Jane Addams Homes (part of the ABLA Homes now slated for demolition) was the only housing project that was integrated.

Harold Ickes, who headed Roosevelt's Public Works Administration (and for whom Ickes Homes was named), first posited the "neighborhood composition rule" which demanded that government projects not alter the racial composition of their host neighborhoods. Only two projects were built in white areas, Lathrop and Trumball Park Homes, and they were designated "whites only."

By 1976, a huge complex of public housing had been built. It contained over 40,000 apartments, housed in 1,273 separate buildings. These projects were the homes of about 5 percent of the city's population. And these inhabitants were overwhelmingly Black people. The local ruling class had built itself a "Second Ghetto."


This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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