Editor's note: This piece was produced in partnership with City Bureau.
Linda Dausch doesn’t remember dwelling on racial segregation when she was growing up in New England with all white neighbors.
“My parents always had us live in towns that were pretty white, so I guess I never thought about it. I was never confronted with it,” she says.
But lines of racial division became harder to ignore in 1993 when Dausch moved to Chicago.
She remembers reading news about city officials’ vows to tackle social barriers between communities. The conversation around segregation centered on demolishing high-rise public housing projects, replacing them with “mixed-income” communities, and relocating the mostly black residents.
Now a resident of the Albany Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side, Dausch has doubts about the purported success of those efforts and laments that the city is still so divided.
“It's a lot more diverse than any place I've ever lived,” she says. “But at the same time, it seems pretty segregated.”
She doesn’t have to look much further than her diverse workplace — the Harold Washington Library.
Dausch, a librarian, says when her coworkers clock out, they head home to very different neighborhoods. Most of her white colleagues go to the North Side, while her African-American colleagues head to the South Side. Dynamics like this make her wonder if the barriers between races have faded or grown bolder since she arrived in the 1990s.
So Dausch asked Curious City: “Is Chicago more or less racially segregated than it was in the past?”
The simple answer: Yes, Chicago is less segregated than it used to be. Curious City, in collaboration with City Bureau, crunched the numbers and found a slight decrease in segregation since 1990 — both on the citywide level as well as for individual neighborhoods. And while we’ll get into the numbers in a moment, they don’t tell the whole story.
Numbers don’t explain how neighbors feel about one another, if they fear passing each other on the street — or want their children to play together. To see those things — and more — we’ll also head to the Southwest Side’s Ashburn neighborhood. It’s seen a lot of racial change since 1990 and appears to be integrated — at least on paper.
Chicago: Segregated by any measure
There are lots of ways that researchers measure segregation across a city. But one of the most widely used measures is the index of dissimilarity. The index assigns a value between zero and 100 for two groups — for example, blacks and whites. A score of zero means the two groups are completely integrated and a measure of 100 means they’re completely segregated.
For example, the black-white index of dissimilarity in 2010 in Chicago was 82.5, meaning nearly 83 percent of the city’s black and white residents would have to move to a different part of the city in order to achieve integration across the city. But in 1990, it was 88.5, so there’s been a slight improvement.
For Chicago, these numbers have mostly improved since the 1990s.
What about the neighborhood level?
While the dissimilarity index measures segregation across the city as a whole, Chicago is a city of distinct neighborhoods. So we looked at the racial mix within each of Chicago’s 77 community areas. (Community areas are regularly considered proxies for “neighborhoods.”) We consider a community area integrated if its largest racial group represents less than 66 percent of that community area’s total population.
Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, says since the 1990s, the white population has declined on the Southwest and Northwest sides and it’s been replaced by Latinos. This has put Latino communities in closer proximity to black communities on the South Side compared to 20 or 30 years ago.
In a way, Latinos are now a buffer group between whites and blacks.
“Latino communities are in between black and white communities in most areas of the city,” Puente says. “If you look at a map of Chicago from downtown, and you draw a ‘V,’ Latinos are the ‘V’ with whites and black communities being on either side.”
But while the data suggests there are six more integrated communities in Chicago today than there were in the 1990s, the maps and the numbers don’t tell us if residents actually feel integrated.
That’s why we went to Ashburn, a middle-class community of 40,000 people located on Chicago’s Southwest Side. It’s almost in the suburbs, and feels like it, with row upon row of bungalow homes and manicured lawns.
Ashburn was nearly all white 27 years ago, but today it’s a mixed community of blacks, Latinos and whites. It’s also the only neighborhood in Chicago with a dominant black population to add black residents from 2000 to 2010, at a time when black people have been leaving the city in droves.
Integration vs. transition
If you visited Ashburn in 1990, more than four in five Ashburn residents would have been white.
Now, it’s about half black, 38 percent Latino and 13 percent white.
Ashburn’s white population declined rapidly after black people began moving into the area in large numbers in the 1980s. Today, whites continue to leave, and blacks are still moving in, along with Latinos.
Moniece Solsberry, 32, moved to Ashburn early this year. She was sold on the area after attending a Fourth of July party last summer where neighbors shared their backyards and mingled in an alleyway.
“It was real nice,” says Solsberry, who is black. “You would think that a lot of people [of different ethnicities] can’t get together but actually ... everybody was here.”
But the diversity in Ashburn that Solsberry celebrates doesn’t come without consequences, at least in the eyes of some residents.
Katy Ewers, 83, has lived in Ashburn since 1955 and teaches Bible study to Mexican-American kids at St. Denis Church, where she’s also a member. Ewers, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher who is white, has stayed in Ashburn through its racial transformation.
She describes herself as “color blind,” but she says she understands why some whites have left the neighborhood.
“If I had little children, I wouldn't raise them here either because it wouldn't really be fair to them,” she says. “They wouldn’t grow up with kids like themselves.”
Most kids growing up in Ashburn these days are black or Latino, not white, and there are few, if any, signs that will change in the coming decades.
In a 2016 report, American University professors Michael D. M. Bader and Siri Warkentien argue that cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City are undergoing a slow rendition of white flight. For that and other reasons, they predict that more than a third of the neighborhoods considered in their study could re-segregate within the next 20 years.
They call this phenomenon “gradual succession,” and say the mechanism that enables it “is whites’ avoidance of neighborhoods with more than a few minorities.” According to the report, whites have less knowledge of, and are resistant to, living in communities “with more than a token number of minorities.”
The result is that minority families move into areas where long-term white residents are aging, and as those older residents begin to pass away, the communities begin “a slow but steady march toward racial succession.”
Shaun Pinkston, a real estate agent in Ashburn, has seen this happen. The mother of five moved to the community 15 years ago and she says today, it’s mostly Latinos who are buying homes in the area. Few whites seem interested in moving there, she says.
She says Ashburn has been known as a nice place to live for middle-class black families, and she worries the decline in the white population has hurt the neighborhood economically.
"It's this stigma of a high ratio of African-Americans in a community," Pinkston says.
She’s concerned that private investors are fearful of doing business in areas with large numbers of black people. Several important businesses in the area — like the Ultra Foods grocery store, a hardware store and a Bally Total Fitness — have closed recently and not been replaced.
Pinkston heads the Greater Ashburn Development Association, which aims to get Ashburn residents involved in efforts to improve the community, support existing businesses and lure new ones to the area, she says.
Pinkston hopes they can bring new restaurants to Ashburn so families have more options for dining out. But she says she is also worried about Ashburn’s reputation. It’s been known as safe neighborhood, but she’s concerned this is changing.
Alden Loury, head of research at the Metropolitan Planning Council, says he believes Ashburn will eventually stabilize as a middle-class African-American and Latino community.
“I think the future can be bright, but it may hinge on if those black and Latino families there stay and maintain themselves as an economic anchor,” Loury says. “If we see them flee the community, then I think the future could be questionable.”
But even though blacks and Latinos are living together in Ashburn, that doesn’t mean they live on the same blocks — or that they get along.
Signs of racial divide
Like Chicago, Ashburn is divided by invisible racial lines.
It’s almost like there are two neighborhoods within the official community area, one predominantly black and segregated and the other largely Latino with most of the white population sprinkled in. On the east side of Ashburn, at Dan’s Soul Food, owner Dolph Norris says integration is happening in Ashburn, “but it’s basically still segregated.”
“Hispanics [mostly] live west of Pulaski, and then African-Americans live east of Pulaski,” says Norris, who is black. “And you can tell by just walking and going to the parks.”
Loury says that while Ashburn is a diverse community, he takes “integration” to mean a more substantial mixing of people of different groups.
“Essentially what we're seeing [in Ashburn] is that they're all in the same space defined by a border, but they're not necessarily living amongst one another,” he says.
You can see the divisions between blacks and Latinos on a map of Ashburn — and you can also see them by walking around the community, according to Fernando Serna, who is Mexican-American and owns an auto body shop in Ashburn.
Serna says there’s a vibe in the neighborhood he calls: “You do your thing and I do my thing.”
“It’s kind of touchy, this topic, because I have to say some people feel afraid or don’t want to get involved with African-Americans, and the other way around,” he says.
Norris acknowledges the tension between Latinos and blacks, and he says there is some resentment from blacks toward Latinos because of the perception that they are anti-black or don’t trust black people.
But he is confident the two groups can forge a more cohesive picture of integration — eventually.
“The Hispanics are buying nice homes in Ashburn — and staying here. Blacks are buying nice homes in Ashburn — and staying here,” Norris says. “And their children are going to tear down the stereotypes each family has about the other culture. It may not happen overnight, but over time.”
The cost of segregation
There are lots of reasons to be encouraged by places like Ashburn. But at the same time, Ashburn also shows that integration is a fraught, long-term process.
“This city remains incredibly segregated, and that segregation attracts levels of disinvestment, stigmatization — things that really impact the quality of life of the people who live in the affected areas,” Hertz says. “I think there’s reasons to look into the areas that are integrating, and especially those interacting with Chicago's black population, which is bearing the brunt of the cost of segregation far more than any other group.”
Loury says he hopes Ashburn remains an example of a community avoiding a death sentence when people of color move into a white area.
“Even though it may not be a pillar of racial integration, it should be a lesson for us that change is not [something] to fear or to flee,” Loury says.
He adds: “Perhaps if people had that understanding in the ’90s, the Ashburn of today would look much more racially integrated in a substantial fashion, where you have people living on the same blocks and in the same census tracts.”
More about our questioner
Linda Dausch grew up in Boxford, Massachusetts, a small town about 24 miles north of Boston.
A lover of languages, she earned a bachelor's in Russian from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and master’s degrees in Russian and library science from Indiana University Bloomington. She fell in love with Chicago while she was in her 20s. A grad student at the time, she would venture from her college town to explore the city.
Dausch lives in the Albany Park neighborhood, a mix of Latino, Asian and white households. She admits she keeps mostly to the North Side and downtown.
“I guess the things I like to do are more up here or downtown … like restaurants, bike paths, movie theaters, and I’m not really close with many people who live on the South Side,” Dausch says, adding that she would visit other areas if she had more friends who lived there.
Dausch says she’s fascinated by our deep dive into the Ashburn neighborhood because it’s a largely black and Latino community. She thinks Americans need to start thinking more outside the black-white binary of race relations.
“The American population is going to be less and less white as time goes by,” she says. “Those types of integrations will be interesting.”
But that doesn’t mean a white person like herself doesn’t have a role to play in creating a more integrated society.
“Even at work,” Dausch says. “[It could mean] maybe just reaching out to people I think I don’t have that much in common with.”