Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities

The former site of the Robert Taylor Homes (flickr/vxla)

“Segregation” is a dirty word. Even before it had a specifically racial meaning, it was, according to historian Carl Nightingale, a word used mostly by researchers to describe the loosening of chemical bonds and hospital officials to refer to the practice of isolating contagious patients. When the bubonic plague broke out in Hong Kong in 1894, it became the name for the practice of pulling potential invalids out of their homes and isolating them in hospitals, tent cities, or ships; in an attempt to keep European colonists healthy, this medical “segregation” was done predominately by race. As the century turned, the word acquired its contemporary meaning of dividing spaces by race, something that was openly legislated by local governments in the United States until, depending on where you draw the line, something like Buchanan v. Warley made racial housing ordinances illegal in 1917, or Brown v. Board of Education integrated public schools in 1954. And if segregation didn’t end then, the general line of thinking tends to run, it ended with King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Things are not perfect now, but certainly there is no de jure segregation in America’s cities–the Supreme Court has long since made sure of that.

Carl Nightingale’s “Segregation” performs the great service of explaining just how naïve this view is, and just how prevalent the problem of segregation is today. The book’s basic premise is perhaps its greatest merit: there is no distinction, Nightingale believes, between “de jure segregation, made compulsory by government legislation, and de facto segregation, which is not institutionalized or based solely on cultural beliefs or custom.” This idea of “de facto segregation,” a way of sidestepping the simple word “segregation” itself, works as a bit of a euphemism for most of America’s cities today, in which Chicago stands out as an unfortunate exemplar. The city, Nightingale argues, is a prime example of both segregation and what he terms “archsegregation,” the kind of extreme divisions associated with cities like South Africa’s Johannesburg. Plotting the connections between cities like Chicago and Johannesburg forms the basis of Nightingale’s larger point: that segregation is part of a seventy-century-old phenomenon of city-splitting and has evolved in its methods and its means, exerting itself explicitly when it can and disguising itself when it needs to. It can work through government, but more often than not, its agents are “networks of intellectual exchange” and “the institutions associated with the modern capitalist real estate industry.”

In Chicago, as elsewhere, Nightingale finds that segregation was often the consequence of a belief that a black population would cause a neighborhood’s property values to plummet. Nightingale makes frequent use of the Hyde Park Property Owner’s Journal, which, in 1920, wrote that “Every colored man who moves into Hyde Park knows that he is damaging his white neighbor’s property. Therefore he is making war on the white man.” And as Southern blacks moved north before and during World War One in the Great Migration, a speaker for the Hyde Park and Kenwood Association said that the “negro invasion” was “the worst calamity that had struck the city since the Great Fire.” Blacks who attempted to move out of the “Black Belt,” a quarter-mile wide strip of land centered along South State Street, were confronted by working-class gangs to the west and the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhood associations to the east, where boycotts were called on real estate agents who sold to blacks and money was pooled to buy black-owned houses and resell them to whites. Between 1917 and 1919, twenty-four bombs were set off in black homes, and in 1919, at least thirty-eight people were killed in a race riot that left about a thousand people homeless.

In the aftermath of the riots, segregation was camouflaged through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants. Zoning by housing type, developers and planners like Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. recognized, was essentially zoning by class: houses that were specified to be located a certain distance from the street and built to certain neighborhood specifications were, naturally, houses that required a fair amount of money. Zoning by housing type can create different zones that, as Olmsted says, are “more or less coincident with racial divisions.” By designating some large areas for single-family homes, others for apartment rentals, planners were able to maintain strict color lines, Nightingale argues. Restrictive covenants that could prevent houses from being bought or sold to blacks further strengthened color lines in the city. As early as 1914, the far South Side neighborhood of Roseland was developed with covenants that forbade resale to people with “African blood.”

Nightingale does not, unfortunately, spend a great deal of time detailing the development of public housing in Chicago, though he does do a fair bit of work in highlighting the politics of the Chicago Housing Authority, an agency that has, for much of its history, perpetuated–rather than overturned–segregation in the city. By the 1970s, the construction of projects like the Robert Taylor Homes had made the CHA “Chicago’s largest slumlord.” Stretching along two miles of State Street, the 28-building project was ironically named after Robert Taylor, a CHA board member who pushed for project locations designed to induce integrated housing. Taylor resigned in 1950 when the city council refused to endorse his proposals, and the Robert Taylor Homes became known as the “Chicago Wall,” a physical manifestation of the city’s racial divide.

The last of the Robert Taylor Homes was demolished in 2007, though that part of Chicago’s housing history is not present in “Segregation.” A work of global history, the book is as much about Chicago as it is about the slums of India and South Africa and the imperial cities of Britain and Portugal. Nightingale is interested in telling a story much larger than that of any single city. This story does not, unfortunately, have a very happy ending–the United States, Nightingale finds, has “the least egalitarian, most devastated, and most environmentally damaged” cities in the wealthy world. This need not be the case, of course, but while Nightingale cites a few promising developments from grassroots activists, the book is a history, not a manual for self-improvement. It offers a chance to recognize a problem as both global and systemic, something that will neither disappear overnight nor remain in place forever, and in that recognition it provides the possibility of reform and action. The prospect of continued segregation is grim–over half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and segregation “makes them less equal, less democratic, less livable, less safe, and less able to sustain us all.”

“Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities,” by Carl H. Nightingale. The University of Chicago Press, 536 pages, $35