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4 Takes On Chicago's Latest Gentrification Woes

By Stephen Gossett in News on Apr 17, 2017 7:43PM

18th Street, Pilsen's main street, circa 2010 (photo by Joe Balynas on Flickr

While scholars argue the merits vs. harms—and even the definition—of gentrification, the eternal debate seems to be repositioning front and center in Chicago, even of course, as it never really dissipated. With that being the case, we rounded up four recent essays on gentrification which, to varying degrees of penetration, offer something of a roadmap for where the conversation appears to be headed in our city.

'Confessions of a reluctant gentrifier' by Eula Biss, The Guardian, April 11

An edited extract from Biss' 2009 collection Notes From No Man’s Land, this long-form personal reflection from the celebrated essayist takes a complicated dive into the author's relationship with her Rogers Park neighborhood, a place that afforded the writer/educator proximity to the Northwestern University campus where she teaches while also granting a way out of the "cloistered," "insulated" trappings of academia. From pearl-clutch warnings about gangs that Biss encountered from some colleagues, to encountering the use of the word "pioneer" by and about white business owners, to encountering a group of black boys riding their bikes who shout "Don't be afraid of us," the detail-rich essay gets at the "work of being a neighbor" for those who value diversity—and don't want to squeeze it out.


"But this place will probably change, if only because this is not a city where integrated neighbourhoods last very long. And we are the people for whom the new coffee shop has opened. And the pet-grooming store. “You know your neighbourhood is gentrifying,” my sister said, “when the pet-grooming store arrives.”

“Gentrification” is a word that agitates my husband. It bothers him because he thinks that the people who tend to use the word negatively, white artists and academics, people like me, are exactly the people who benefit from the process of gentrification. “I think you should define the word ‘gentrification,’” my husband tells me now.

I ask him what he would say it means, and he pauses for a long moment. “It means that an area is generally improved,” he says finally, “but in such a way that everything worthwhile about it is destroyed.”"

"On Chicago’s South Side, gentrification is not the great evil" by Natalie Moore, Chicago-Sun Times, March 16

Back in 2014, WBEZ reporter and author of the modern classic The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation Natalie Moore explored why black neighborhoods in Chicago don't gentrify the same way Latino neighborhoods do. In a recent op-ed, Moore revisits some of the studies and indexes that she previously cited to look at how majority-black neighborhoods on the South Side struggle to rebound from the housing crisis. A dwindling middle class, an overall population drop and racial stereotypes on the part of would-be gentrifiers all play a part in how neighborhoods like Bronzeville are presently shaped.


"[A] 2012 study by Montana State University compared Bronzeville to Pilsen. The latter has experienced gentrification. Why? Because, the study found, Pilsen was treated as a more viable site of ethnic consumption - a la tacos and margaritas - while Bronzeville struggled to redevelop because of stereotypical conceptions of blackness.

I get these facts and figures mean little to people who worry about affordability and sustainability in their neighborhoods. Past racial practices in this city, whether public or private, probably echo louder for black households who remember land grabs. Still, I caution that we consider various market forces. In times of insecurity about the future of black neighborhoods, people should clamor for smart economic development and make their voices heard at City Hall, foundations and universities and among any other players they don’t completely trust."

"Three ways of understanding gentrification in Chicago" by Alex Bean, Chicago Detours, January 18

Here, the author puts forth a small handful of side effects and perhaps under-considered hallmarks of the debate: one, there's little consensus what "mixed-income" means in relation to developers; two, the "ripple effect" hostility faced by some displaced people who move to outer-ring suburbs; and lastly, the seemingly eternal push by some residents to restrict public housing options, as illustrated by the contentious negotiations around the Lathrop Homes, in Lincoln Park. It's really only kernels offered here, but some of them have potential pop.

Excerpt, with unfortunately clumsy use of "projects":

"These days a large influx of young whites (including yours truly) have moved from the suburbs to the city. This tide of white millennials are flooding into the city and are eyeing neighborhoods like Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Bronzeville.

Amidst this in-migration, the Chicago Housing Authority has been working with the suburbs to provide affordable housing for minority residents who wish to relocate.

So now white professionals are moving into neighborhoods that were once projects and those projects' former residents are moving to the formerly white-only suburbs. It’s confusing."

Four Types of Gentrifiers You See in Your Neighborhood by John Joe Schlichtman, Next City, April 14

Urban sociology professor at DePaul and co-author of the recent Gentrifier, Schlichtman posits four unique categories of newcomer (if you're generous) or interloper (if not so much): the Gentrifier Against Gentrification, the Tiptoeing Gentrifier , the Conqueror and the Curator. Behind the undoubtedly whimsical flair behind Schlichtman's nomenclature, he's onto something in breaking down the psychological impulses that drive, rationalize and defend the different motives that underlie the issue.


"Today’s most profound housing injustices rest on historical and structural foundations. Most gentrifiers give no attention to, or are unaware of, the history of housing injustices that made their neighborhood’s real estate “affordable.” And would we expect this? How many neighborhoods come with required reading?

The reality is, though, that housing does not go “on sale”: If a particular neighborhood is surprisingly cheap, there is always a story behind it. In the U.S. context, the gentrifier’s housing “bargain” is often enabled by a history of race-based injustices such as mortgage redlining, racial restrictive covenants, biased public housing practices and other policies. The systemic racism behind the depressed real estate values benefitting the gentrifier is one reason why gentrification is considered, as I often say, a four-letter word. Both middle-class residents who are resisting gentrification and those who are enjoying it will inevitably — in some way — reinforce these injustices."