“In Chicago, when we do see racial change, it’s an all or nothing thing. It goes from one extreme to another,” said Alden Loury, director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council.
Growing up in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in the 1970s, Loury says he would often dream about the community to the west. He remembers crossing Western Avenue and traversing into Ashburn, a predominantly White area where to him, “everything seemed better.”
“The houses seemed better, the cars seemed better, the streets seemed cleaner, the sun even seemed like it shined brighter,” said Loury, who is now director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It just felt like a higher quality of life.”
Forty years later, the green lawns and single-family bungalows remain, but the residents have changed. According to census data, between 1990 and 2014 Ashburn’s White population shrank from more than 30,000 to just over 6,000 at a time when middle class African American and Hispanic families moved to the neighborhood in droves. Despite many African Americans leaving the city altogether, Ashburn remained a stronghold where Blacks could buy homes and escape from some of the economic decline of neighborhoods further east.
In a report released in March titled “The Cost of Segregation,” the Metropolitan Planning Council found that Chicago has seen a slight decline in racial and economic segregation. Here, Loury, who helped author the report, discusses integration, racial change, and how Ashburn serves as a model for the rest of Chicago.
What have you noticed about the change in racial segregation in Chicago since the 1990s?
There are communities that are shifting from one racial group to another. In 1990, Ashburn was largely a mostly White middle-class community and it has shifted to a middle-class African American and Latino community. The eastern sections of Ashburn are predominantly Black now, the western sections are mostly Latino, and still maybe 13 percent of the community is White, found mostly in the western sections of it. Ashburn stands out since it saw a dramatic shift from 1990 to 2010, after a lot of the other demographic shifts in the city already happened. But you’re also seeing levels of change in Morgan Park, and the communities a little north of Ashburn that have become more Latino, that were predominantly White at some point.
So does Ashburn serve as an example of a racially integrated neighborhood?
In 10 to 20 years from now, once those communities have stabilized as middle-class largely Latino and African American, we’ll look back and say that we weren’t really seeing a decline in racial segregation, we were just seeing a change in how we were racially segregated. There are census tracts in Ashburn that went from majority White to majority Latino or Black literally in a 10- or 20-year period. That, I would say, is evidence that Ashburn is not integrated.
In Chicago, when we do see racial change, it’s an all or nothing thing. It goes from one extreme to another. Then the question becomes: Is there a way to slow that down? If a community, like Ashburn, is able to maintain some type of racial balance for at least two decades, I would say then it has achieved some level of integration.
How do Chicagoans view segregation now compared to decades prior?
The challenges we’ve had with segregation are still there. We don’t see the marches or the vitriol and the drama and the emotion we used to see, but I would say the things that were kind of underlying that kind of reaction in the 1950s and 60s are still there. We are far more sophisticated, but we still are responding in the same ways we did then, just without the fanfare and, to some degree, without even openly recognizing that we are still operating in the same fashion, which I think is kind of dangerous.
What do you think will happen in Ashburn—demographically and economically?
My guess would be that Ashburn will eventually stabilize as an African-American and Latino community. It may not, due to its racial composition, be seen or viewed as a middle-class community, but given the fact that it’s not flooded with rental properties, I don’t think there will be an influx of low-income renters. That’s not something that always holds, but if the families that have purchased property stay there, they will be fine. Now, the tricky part is will the community be able to maintain the commerce? There was an Ultra Foods that’s located at 87th and Kedzie right on the border of Ashburn and Evergreen Park that closed. If we see things like that happen, that becomes a drag on the community. If the middle-class families feel that they have to go farther and they’re in a food desert and Ashburn loses its luster in that way, that makes people want to pack up and leave.
If we see the middle class flee the community, then I think the future could be questionable. Places like Auburn Gresham and Washington Heights went through the same kind of change in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Black middle-class families left Bronzeville and settled there. Those communities have much more rental properties than Ashburn and as more lower income African Americans moved into those communities, many of those middle- class folks started to leave. Those neighborhoods saw a decline to some degree, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. Even sections of Chatham, which is still in some sections a Black middle-class haven, have seen challenges due to the loss of its Black middle-class base.
How does the story of Ashburn fit into the larger story of racial change in Chicago as a whole?
I would say even if Ashburn does not exemplify integration, it should be held up as an example of a community where racial change was not a death sentence. The people who lived in Ashburn in 1990, when African American and Latino families were coming in, may have thought that that was some signal or some kind of bellwether for problems. Now, 20 years (soon to be 30 years) later, yes, the community changed, but it is still a safe and stable place to live. We don’t hear about shootings and robberies that we hear in other South Side areas—and the same thing can be said about Beverly and Morgan Park, and I think Ashburn can be added to that list. Even though it may not be a pillar of racial integration, it should be a lesson for us that demographic change is not one to fear or to flee.
This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.