Segregated Chicago: a perspective from a French foreign exchange student

Chicago really seems like two cities in one: the North Side and the South Side _㐠the division between both is obvious. A trip on the CTA red line from Fullerton to 35th or 47th paints a pretty clear picture: when getting off, it seems like white people are few and far in between _㐠Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States.

Yet when you live in the north, or travel to Chicago as a tourist, you would never know so. Chicago is more than just tall skyscrapers, Michigan Avenue and deep dish pizzas. Chicago is also about 532 homicides in 2012 (more than the combined number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan that same year), public school kids having to wear clear backpacks and go through metal detectors, and food is limited in many underserved areas.

My year abroad in Chicago would not have been complete without beginning to understand how the city has reached this point. As such, my friend and I decided to venture out to the “dangerous and intimidating” South Side to check things out for ourselves. Seeing that being a white girl can have its inconveniences, I didn’t want to go that far south. But we still went to Bronzeville, amongst other neighborhoods.

Walking down 35th Street is quite the experience. We ran into three students of the Chicago Military Academy who offered to tell us more about their experiences of being students in Bronzeville. All three decided to go to that school to gain leadership skills; one even expressed the desire to join the army and become the next Colin Powell.

They seemed to be extremely smart and motivated students and told us that not all South Side residents were like them; they then questioned why some residents act the way they act, referring to the disruption and violence of South Side Chicago. Of course, they were curious to know more about France. However, they questioned what I was doing in Bronzeville _㐠a “bad neighborhood” _㐠and told me to get home before dark because, as they claimed, “that’s when people in the streets try to sell you things.”

I strongly believe that the reason the South Side has gotten to these degrees of poverty, segregation and violence is because of inaction: nothing is being done to better the lives of these thousands of individuals who are barely getting by. What is most tragic is that in many of these neighborhoods, there may be kids with real potential. Yet society is set up to where these kids are automatically barred from participating in the game.

Something must be done. And for something to be done, people need to realize that the current situation of the South Side is wrong. Every day on the news, we hear of someone being shot on the South Side. I guess this has become so routine that we just aren’t shocked to hear about it anymore.

The origins of the current situation in the South Side are numerous; as such, it is not my intention to sociologically analyze them all, but to simply shed light on them and bring them forward. The South Side is largely inhabited by African Americans and minorities who still suffer from segregation and discrimination as if we were still living in the 19th century. As a result, these people receive fewer chances to succeed in life and to climb the social ladder. Unemployment rates are high in this area _㐠so are illiteracy rates. The murder rate is through the roof. Schools see poor attendance and graduation rates remaining low. Housing laws remain unfair. The question is not who is to blame for letting the South Side decline into such poverty, segregation and violence; rather, we should see who or what can set the South Side on the path to upward mobility.

It’s a vicious cycle that gets passed down from generation to generation. The deconstruction of many African American nuclear families has left many children to grow up without the presence of a father figure. Mothers have to work and educate their children on their own _㐠a task that is not easy to undertake. Oftentimes, there may be little entertainment for children when they are not in school; as such, many may be driven to the streets when the atmosphere inside the house becomes unbearable. Joining a gang sometimes seems like a natural consequence of this South Side lifestyle; sometimes it may even seem that being a part of a gang provides the only motivation that drives one’s life. As a result of escalating violence, grocery stores are often afraid to open stores due to the fear of being attacked or stolen from. Public transportation doesn’t serve certain neighborhoods, which increases isolation furthermore.

The school system and its teachers cannot take sole responsibility for the current situation; parents and the city of Chicago have to help to set these kids on the right track.

Segregation and poverty are inherently linked, and it would be ineffective to simply address one problem at the expense of the other. Segregation, concentrated poverty, isolation and gun violence leads to a recipe for disaster. It is time that city officials work up the courage to put an end to this _㐠Chicago needs to become one united city.

So much needs to be done before one can sing Frank Sinatra’s “Chicago is my kind of town” and truly mean it.