Chicago’s Poor Neighborhoods: Everything Deserts

In many cities, poor neighborhoods have a high concentration of stores, services, and other organizations, often higher than in wealthier neighborhoods. Not in Chicago.

Englewood Chicago


One of the phrases that Chicagoans have grown used to in recent years is the “food desert": a lack of grocery stores in poor neighborhoods, and the resulting implications for health and obesity. I’ve written about this before. But what about general commercial and organizational density, from bars to churches to social-service centers? While browsing for something totally unrelated, I stumbled across an interesting paper from Mario Luis Small on this very topic.

He begins with something that reminds me of when I was new to Chicago:

One of the first things you notice when ascending from the A train subway stop at 125th Street in Harlem, where I lived while conducting five years of research in New York City, is the density. It is a density of both people and organizations, as just about every lot on either side of the street is occupied by a clothing store, bank, pharmacy, grocery store, electronics outfit, beauty salon, or restaurant (such as the legendary Manna’s), and every conceivable space on either sidewalk is filled with old and young, mostly African American men, women, and children struggling to get past the crowds (see Newman 1999). It was a marked contrast to many wealthier neighborhoods in the city, where the streets were often desolate and all but a few specialty establishments were difficult to locate.


I thought of both neighborhoods when, soon after recently moving to Chicago, I spent hours walking block upon block of its South Side neighborhood, including 63rd Street, the area a few blocks south of the University of Chicago…. What I first noticed, and what took me months to get used to, was the utter lack of density, the surprising preponderance of empty spaces, vacant lots, and desolate streets, even as late as 2006. Repeatedly, I asked myself, where is everyone?

From this, Small works out into a larger point in both papers: poor Chicago neighborhoods are a lot different from poor neighborhoods in other cities. Organizational density in Chicago overall is different than in other cities; it’s really odd.

By “organization,” Small just means places that employ people and provide things: restaurants, grocery stores, churches, banks, a whole list of stuff. He’s trying to put his impressions to the test: many poor neighborhoods, despite being poor, have a high density of (literally) low-rent businesses. That’s why they’re there, because the rent is low. And while they’re low rent, they do provide basic goods, employ people, establish social connections, generate taxes, and generally provide both foundation and circulation within the neighborhood.

Except in Chicago, where poor black neighborhoods have a low density of almost everything.

Most striking is the difference between Chicago and other cities (331 metropolitan areas) in banks and credit unions. In Chicago there’s practically nothing.

It’s not the only way in which Chicago is different. In some cities, poor neighborhoods have very high organizational density, higher than not-poor neighborhoods. Not Chicago:

[N]on-ghettoes in other cities and non-ghettoes in Chicago tend to have similar organizational densities (with the notable exception that Chicago non-ghettoes have an especially large 2.24 small restaurants per 1,000 residents, living up to its reputation, buffered by its annual Taste of Chicago festival, as one of the country’s restaurant capitals)…. [I]n Chicago, black poor ghettoes are much more organizationally deprived than non-ghettoes than is the case in other cities. In other cities, organizational density is actually not lower (and sometimes slightly higher) in ghettoes, which is consistent with what I observed in both Harlem, New York, and Villa Victoria, Boston.

This is a really, really bad combination. Commercial and organizational density doesn’t fix poverty and isn’t a substitute for wealth and education, but it does provide ameliorating effects. A city where wealth and organizations are concentrated is one that’s profoundly out of balance, with worrisome implications:

Empirical studies have, in fact, found that street drug activity and violent crime are lower in neighborhoods with greater organizational density, given that illicit activity is more difficult to conduct with the sidewalk activity created by a preponderance of establishments….


Another perspective would add that local community is built by interactions in the establishments themselves. Certain kinds of establishments, such as cafes and barbershops, create opportunities for neighborhood residents to interact repeatedly, thereby strengthening local networks and building collective efficacy….


A third motivation is that organizationally dense neighborhoods offer greater resource access. Urban scholars have worried about the availability of goods and resources important to day-to-day survival, especially in poor neighborhoods.

Small doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation. It’s not a longitudinal study, which would be extremely interesting—my guess is that organizational density in Chicago’s poor black neighborhoods, and its ratio to non-ghetto neighborhoods, would be much more like other cities in the early- to mid-20th century, maybe even into the 1960s and 1970s, just from reading about the city. He does suggest that the industrial collapse that hit Rust Belt cities harder than their peers, and the depopulation that followed, is a sensible theory. I couldn’t help but also think of the 1968 riots, as Gary Rivlin wrote in 1988 (emphasis mine):

Twenty years later, the effects of the riots are still being felt in Chicago, in at least four different ways. First and most obvious (at least to those who live on the west side or visit occasionally) is the sheer physical destruction. Much of what was burned down on the night of April 5 was never built back up. Entire blocks completely destroyed by fire today stand as extended empty lots along the main drags of the west side. Strips of stores and restaurants that did not suffer the arsonists’ wrath, only the interest of the vandals and looters, were boarded up shortly thereafter, and that’s how a number of them have stood since.


Whites had begun fleeing to the suburbs long before 1968, but never at the pace exhibited for the next several years. Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department, plotting and charting change in the city’s population, for 15 years. “It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call ‘white flight,’” Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling. Numbers are the lifeblood of her work, and she knows of no conclusive data to back up her instinct, but she is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible.


Businesses also left in droves. The commercial life of the west side was literally gutted; to this day, residents complain that it is impossible for them to shop in their own neighborhoods. And factories left, taking their valuable jobs to the suburbs. At the time of the riots, for instance, there was a thriving machine-tool industry centered along Lake Street, west of the Loop. Many of the firms there closed their doors and fled to places like Elk Grove Village, where an opportunistic developer established a new machine-tool center in the safety of the suburbs.

It’s not just Chicago; some Los Angeles neighborhoods are still crippled from the 1992 riots, while others have recovered; they can do a lot of lasting damage.

Both could well play a part, but it’s impossible to believe there aren’t many others; it takes a lot for a city to stand alone as Chicago does.


Photograph: Payton Chung (CC by 2.0)



2 years ago
Posted by oakpark

I'd be curious to see what the average of "all other cities" would be if you excluded NYC. It'd also be interesting to see how other Midwest cities such as Detroit, St Louis, and Cleveland would fair.

2 years ago
Posted by lwainscot

What do you expect? Wasn't your fearless leader, Obama, a community organizer in Chicago? No one wants to put a business in a neighborhood that is crime ridden! If you can't act like civilized human beings, if you think you have a right to take things you can't afford to pay for, if you think having a gun in your possession negates your obligation to pay for your items, then you are the reason your neighborhoods have no stores. You simply aren't worth the cost of doing business in your neighborhood.

1 year ago
Posted by JJonahJ

If there are 5 blacks per 100 people, everyone applauds how integrated the community is.

At 5-10% black there is an occasional spike in loudness, but it's usually isolated and brief. People are usually too embarrassed to say anything, and it temporarily abates.

At 10-20% black, these problems rise dramatically. People occasionally hear loud hip-hop music from a passing vehicle, usually later & later at night, as an outgoing signal of rising 'blackness' in the community.
Pasadena, California — Black 10.7% (figures are 2011)
Manhattan, New York — Black 12.9%

At 20-30% black, the loudness & behavior is so disruptive that well-meaning families begin to stop going to certain public areas. Black-on-black fights occur to establish dominance, and fights between black females occur in parking lots, usually over a black male.
Boston, Massachusetts — Black 24.4%
Tampa, Florida — Black 26.2%

At 30-40% minor public incidents give way to more serious crimes, and somewhere in the community the first felonies occur at the hands of blacks, targeting the elderly or defenseless.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida — Black 30.9%
Compton, Los Angeles — Black 32.9%
Willowbrook, Los Angeles — Black 34.4%

40-60% sees an atmosphere that is so loud, fast, & unpredictable that it interferes with peaceful activity. At this stage people's gut sense of "safety" in the community is eroding. Anticipating the unexpected starts to factor into simple decisions like going to the store or getting into one's car.
Inglewood, Los Angeles — Black 43.9%
Philadelphia — Black 44%
South Chicago — Black 50.2%
Carol City, Florida — Black 52.1%

60-75% black: expect covert drug use, and concealed guns. Good families are moving away. At this stage hip-hop emanating from cars is now an advertisement for illegal drug sales.
Opa-locka, Florida - Black 69.6% (In 2004 Opa-locka had the highest rate of violent crime for any city in the United States.)
Ladera Heights, California — Black 73.7%
Overtown, Miami — Black 74.7%

At 75-85%, walking down the street is now a risk. Find hair-trigger, unprovoked violence, usually targeted against those of non-black race. Calls to 9-1-1 demonstrate slower & slower response times. Local businesses deteriorate, as does the general condition of the neighborhood. The last of the liberal, die-hard families vacate the community whose memories they have cherished for decades.
East Garfield Park, Chicago — Black 75.5%
Brightmoor, Detroit — Black 82.7%
Gary, Indiana — Black 84%
Metcalfe Park, Milwaukee — Black 84.1%
Shaw, Washington D.C. — Black 84.8%

At 85-95% black, the public institutions in the area (schools, libraries, etc.) slowly wither from lack of use. Consumer places (food stores, day-care centers, etc.) show graffiti & territorial gang signs, and gang membership now outweighs the number of non-gang people. Drug sales & prostitution are open and obvious. A gunshot is heard every week. All businesses which are still in operation (liquor stores, stereo wholesalers, etc.) have bars on their windows.
Highland park, Detroit — Black 93.5%
Liberty City, Florida — Black 94.6%

At 95-100% black, there is debris everywhere. A large number of dwellings are ruined or burned-out. At this stage, the economy of the community is nearing total collapse, and good jobs are scarce. Emergency services infrequently patrol for fear of risking officers' lives.
Bronzeville, Milwaukee — Black 96.2%
Washington Heights, Chicago — Black 97.2%
Franklin Park, Florida — Black 97.6%
Englewood, Chicago — Black 100%
The name of the neighborhood is now synonymous with violence & gangs. At this stage the spread of this condition bears characteristics similar to the unchecked spread of a virus, and adjacent communities begin to show signs of following suit.

Do not give in to despair.
Take a stand in your community. Help each other.

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