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Q&A: Natalie Y. Moore on “The South Side”

The WBEZ reporter talks about her new book on the part of the city where she grew up, and where she reports from today.

WBEZ reporter Natalie Y. Moore   Photo: David Pierini

WBEZ’s South Side bureau reporter, Natalie Y. Moore, reports from an area she knows well. She grew up in Chatham, the most famous of Chicago’s black middle-class enclaves. She was bused to school in Beverly, one of the city’s more successfully integrated neighborhoods; her parents later moved there when they wanted a bigger house. As a young, single professional, she bought a condo in Bronzeville when people like her were moving in to revitalize the neighborhood (and find good real estate investments); when the housing market went bust, it killed her investment, as it did for so many black Chicagoans.

She not only reports on these subjects; she’s also lived them, as has her family. Three of her grandparents came to Chicago as part of the great migration. One was a Pullman porter who got a job at the Playboy Mansion through the Chicago Urban League. Her other grandfather was a printer; her grandmothers, a CPS cook and a secretary for a federal agency. “My grandparents lived the American dream,” she writes in her new book The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Her parents continued that, going to college and emerging as white-collar professionals. Moore went away to Howard University and came back for grad school at Northwestern.

She left again for stints at the Detroit News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the AP bureau in Jerusalem. When she returned again to Chicago, her reporting deepened her understanding of how her life had been shaped by race and policy, from redlining at the federal and city level that determined where black families lived, to busing that put her in an integrated school in a majority-white neighborhood, to neighborhood-level efforts to integrate the neighborhood where her parents would move after leaving Chatham.

The South Side is a chronicle of both—Moore’s experiences observing the city as a reporter and living in it as a native and resident. I spoke to her about how she got here, how we got here, and what comes next at a time when government seems unable to do much (but maybe not so much its constituents).

What was Chatham like when you were a kid?

I loved my neighborhood. My sister said one time, did you know that daddy had us canvassing? (My sister’s in politics.) We used to have to put up block club flyers in mailboxes around the neighborhood, for community meetings. [My father] would have us kids do that. My sister later started doing campaign work, and said, yeah, this is what he was teaching us.

What I learned from that—I’m obviously not in politics—is that it takes concerted effort to maintain a neighborhood. I’ve never lived anywhere else where we knew every single neighbor on the block. That stayed with me. When I moved to Bronzeville, I was like, we need to start a block club! We’ve got problems in this area, on this block, let’s do something. I was putting flyers in mailboxes.

Those kind of lessons stayed with me. I knew that I lived in a black neighborhood. I didn’t know why it was black. I just thought, well, black people live on the South Side, and white people typically don’t. Even though, obviously, they do. I just thought that this was the way the city was made up; I didn’t think anything about it. As a child, you can’t really process that.

How did Chatham get shaped as a middle-class neighborhood?

Chatham, for a long time, was seen as the flagship of these communities, but it’s in no way unique. I know people think South Side, white flight, means complete obliteration of the neighborhood. While Chatham suffers from the repercussions of that, you still have Pill Hill, you had Washington Heights, Avalon Park, Park Manor where we are now, parts of South Shore. We may have earned the reputation, but we weren’t an anomaly. I think it’s just the same values for any neighborhood.

I’ve never seen block club signs outside of black neighborhoods. Where they say, “welcome to the 8200 block of so and so, no loitering, no this, no that.” There’s a strong neighborhood ethic that’s in these communities.

I just moved to a single-family-house, residential neighborhood, and new residents are looking for the stuff they had in their old, more dense neighborhoods. One of the first things I learned is that that push happens at the neighborhood level.

One thing I’ve learned just through reporting is that neighborhoods don’t thrive just because. There’s work that’s put into it. Neighborhoods that have more than just volunteer organizations, like if there’s a [community development corporation], or a community planning group, there’s actual staff that makes it better. Even the richest neighborhoods have associations, or groups that maintain whatever kind of neighborhood it is that they are looking for.

It’s interesting that you talk about canvassing. I read Robert Sampson’s book on Chicago neighborhoods and neighborhood resiliency—and Chatham is a big part of his book—and you lived that.

He’s optimistic about Chatham, that it will remain resilient despite its troubles. Which they’ve had more of since I was a kid. Even then, it still had its challenges. I think black neighborhoods, and black people, make the best of their circumstances.

If I can get on a soapbox for a minute, some of the pushback I hear from white people is, well, no one’s making you live here. Or, why don’t black people be better parents, or take care of their neighborhoods? And that’s just simply not true. Because we’re segregated, people have no idea what is happening in these neighborhoods. Englewood, Washington Park, some of the poorest neighborhoods as far as income, have a lot of residents and community groups trying to make it better. That’s just a myth. Community groups can’t always fight institutional racism, if we’re talking about banking, policy, and things like that.

What do you think has caused the problems in Chatham since you were a kid?

I think it’s an aging community. It’s not a neighborhood I considered living in, for various reasons. This generation of black professionals are looking for the en suite, master bedroom/bathroom, they’re looking for the granite. Not that you can’t re-do, but some of these are starter homes. People want different things out of their housing stock.

You’ve had older people die and leave it to their families. You have renters; not that renters are inherently bad, but I think that’s brought some instability with absentee landlords. With my parents, this was the neighborhood to move into. It’s lost some of that cachet, at least with a younger set that’s looking to start a family, or that has a family.

Did things get appreciably worse during the housing crisis?

Yes. As I say in my book, look at all those bad loans that were marketed to African Americans here. That’s why this is a race issue, not a class issue. You’re going to be affected, whether you’re poor, working class, middle class, upper middle class, in different ways, but you’re going to be affected. The fact that these loans were targeted [at black people] shows this. And that definitely hurt the neighborhood.

The ethos of this country is that homeownership is the path to wealth building, and African-Americans bought into that. I bought into that, thinking, I have to own something by 30. That self-inflicted pressure comes from societal norms. And look what happened. We have a generation of black wealth that has been decimated, not just in Chicago but around the country, because of the housing crash.

You grew up in Chatham, you were bused to Beverly for school—and your parents would later move there, a neighborhood that, as you reported for WBEZ, really intentionally shaped itself to try to integrate. When did you start to realize how much of a role government and quasi-governmental institutions had shaped your family’s path?

Honestly? Probably being a reporter here. I knew what a racially restrictive covenant was. I knew about white flight. I didn’t know what Beverly did. I knew that integration was important and deliberate, but I didn’t know the steps that they did, like, oh, we’re going to change the Beverly Area Planning Association’s mission. We’re going to clap back at the real estate industry. We’re going to make this an issue.

Reporting, reading the work of Robert Sampson, Douglas Massey, Mary Patillo, over the past decade [gave me a better understanding]. I’ve been at WBEZ nine years. I remember Mary Patillo’s book came out not long after I started at BEZ—I’d read Black Picket Fences, but Black on the Block [came out in 2007]—and we did a program together. I’m really indebted to their social-science research.

One of the things I like most about the book is that it’s about you navigating the city as a journalist, but also you navigating the city as someone who lives here, and who has to balance what you’ve learned about the city as a journalist with making the right decisions for yourself.

As a journalist we’re taught to be observers, and I’ve done that here and in other cities. But this project is special because I’m invested personally as well as professionally. This could have been a book where I profile people who had similar experiences. It’s hard to get over this hump where you’re putting yourself in—and I put all my financial business out there, too. I hope that’s what makes the book relatable to people.

I really appreciated the inclusion of your financial business, because it shows how someone who is an observer, who does know all of these currents that are going into segregation, into housing, how you have to swim in them as well. Why did you decide on Bronzeville?

It was in my budget; I really liked the idea of helping revitalize a neighborhood. I think that, not that there aren’t class issues, but I thought that it was going to be a different dynamic with black people moving into a low-income black neighborhood as opposed to… I didn’t think this was going to turn into Cabrini, in terms of the social tension. I’m not saying [the tensions] don’t exist, because they do, but I think that it’s different. I thought that there would be change.

I thought it would be a good investment. I didn’t see myself staying there permanently—it was a condo, I hoped that I would get married and have a family one day—but I wasn’t looking to flip it. I was going to stay there as long as I had to. I didn’t have a five-year plan to flip it or become a landlord. I thought, I’ll stay there as long as necessary, and it’ll be a good real estate investment down the line.

Wanting to be a part of the revitalization of a neighborhood was a big part of it?

Yeah. I had a lot of friends who moved into the neighborhood, who have since left, like me. There are things to like about Bronzeville. It’s right on the lake, right on the Green Line, close to the Dan Ryan. My life in the city takes me all over, so I felt I was in a good location to get to wherever. It wasn’t too far south, too far north, too far west.

Even though I overpaid, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo at that price wasn’t something I could have gotten in the South Loop, Wicker Park, or some other place where a single person would like to live. And there was some change. I don’t want to knock Bronzeville completely. There were galleries; there was a neighborhood change that was happening. A coffee shop that’s since closed, the Bronzeville Coffee House, that seemed to foster some sense of community. Gallery Guichard has done amazing things for the neighborhood, even before they moved to 47th Street.

I still have an affinity for Bronzeville. I’m drinking a coffee from Peaches on 47th and King Drive. I want Bronzeville to succeed. I didn’t wash my hands of it.

There’s a phrase you use about what you felt in Bronzeville—hood fatigue. Was that the first time you’d felt fatigued by the city?

When I was at Northwestern, my life was the North Side. Everything I did was downtown or north. It gave me a different perspective on the city and all the things that were cool about it. Nightlife, clubs, restaurants, arts. I don’t think I felt hood fatigue in Chatham; I knew some things were missing, but it wasn’t fatigue.

What does that consist of?

Not seeing enough development quickly, trash, lack of grocery stores, crime, not always feeling completely safe. Having to deal with being harassed going to the Green Line. There were shootings in the neighborhood. Being aware, you know, not taking the el too late at night. Having to make conscious decisions about the timing of things I was doing. Not completely having a walkable neighborhood.

My block was truly mixed income. Some landlords weren’t doing their share to keep up the property, or keep control of their building. We did, using my—and I’m not saying I did this alone—using my upbringing to make change on the block. So, for example, I write about the shooting that happened, and that building was hot. There were always people out—I don’t have a problem with loitering versus hanging out, but you knew that… this was a place where a shooting happened. This was not just folks having a good time. You learn the difference between porch-sitting and illegal activity.

After that shooting, that really mobilized us. Not just to go to CAPS meetings and call 311, but to find out who the landlord was, and to approach that landlord. And the landlord did make some changes. Putting better lighting out front, taking our concerns seriously. And I feel like it did improve. That building was less of a problem.

One of the most interesting local studies I’ve read comes from Mario Small, from the University of Chicago; he came to Chicago from New York, and was used to Harlem, parts of which are very poor, but there are lots of businesses. He was expecting the same in Chicago and he was just shocked. You talk in the book about food deserts, but there are whole retail deserts. What do you think separates Chicago?

We’re so big. I think it’s an asset and a deficit. We’re massive. This is a huge city. My New York friends, some of whom are from Chicago but have been gone a long time, they think my place is humongous. 1,100 square feet for a condo? I’m like the Jeffersons or something! And they always remark on the vacancy. I just think it’s because Chicago is so big.

I may have changed my tune a bit on density. Marshall Brown is an architect here, and he has some ideas around Washington Park that I did a story on, and he’s like, maybe we shouldn’t think about density. Bridget Gainer has said that, too. The idea that we’re going to repopulate these areas—we’re probably not. In the suburbs it’s open space, in the city it’s vacant land. We have to rethink how we see land and use land.

Reading your book, I got depressed about what’s possible at the local level. And you write in your book about the idea of an urban Marshall Plan, and….

The money part.

There are a number of solutions that aren’t cost-prohibitive at the end of the last chapter, [like] not looking at arts as something extra. I talk about Marshall Brown’s plan in the book. We have to be creative—zoning is a way to be creative. He’s talking about, let’s make the streets look different. If this is an empty block, let’s do something with these lots. Let’s just be creative.

Urban Marshall Plan? Yeah, we’re looking at a lot of money for that. But there are small things that can be done.

What worries me about the idea of an urban Marshall Plan is actually less the money required than the political will required at the national level in the current political climate.

But I want to show a range. Even if it wouldn’t happen, it’s something that’s needed, that kind of intervention, that our neighborhoods need. That’s on the high end. There are things in between, things on the lower end, when we think about development.

A lot of policy seems to have to navigate cross-purposes: getting people out of struggling neighborhoods, but without making those neighborhoods struggle even more.

Because we don’t have the density, you don’t have to displace people. I know displacement can happen in different ways—people not feeling wanted, taxes. Putting that aside, if there are foreclosures, abandoned homes, empty lots, you can move new people in. I don’t mean to contradict myself about density, I’m not saying, oh, let’s make high-rises in these neighborhoods, but I think there’s a way to do that. Even in Bronzeville, I joke that I’m a gentrifier, but my building was an affordable place, although it had myriad problems, according to my neighbor.

But there wasn’t very good planning, because that building didn’t have to be converted. It could have been a new building built. And that may cost more, I don’t know. All these black neighborhoods have had population loss, so I think we have to be cognizant of what that means for planning and new people coming in regardless of race, but we’re not talking about a very small land mass, where you’re going to write someone a check to leave, and then a developer comes in. I think there’s room for everybody.

What would you look for if you wanted to move, again, to a neighborhood that you wanted to help improve?

I don’t know… we’d have to think about putting our money somewhere else if we were going to do that for an investment. Right now, we really love Hyde Park, and it’s great for our family. There’s a train that goes directly from Flossmoor directly to Hyde Park. That was important to us. Since we’re renting, it’s like, we might as well do the best-case scenario. It’s walkable, close to the lake, it has the arts and culture that are important to me and my family. It has everything that we need.

When you started on the book, after years of reporting on the city, having grown up here, was there anything that surprised you?

That there are more solutions than political will. I actually came out a little more optimistic. It’s intractable in many ways, but there is a roadmap. There are things that can be done. That left me feeling, well, all right, how can we do this? That surprised me.

With regards to political will, one thing you talk about is how the black political coalition has fractured since the death of Harold Washington. Can that happen again?

So many things happened since I wrote that chapter that I might have done it differently. I was able to get in Laquan McDonald, but that’s because I was literally writing in the margins of the proofs. I think I would have gone more in-depth, or taken the angle about what is happening outside the mainstream political system. And I think we’ve seen some amazing activism in this city, particularly from young people. I think they’ve instituted change.

Honestly, just as a resident, I’ve felt somewhat more hopeful in the past year or so. And I think to a certain extent that’s been lost in the national coverage. It’s the first time in a while that people seem very organized about local politics.

I did a story—I don’t love the headline, even though I came up with it—about “why didn’t Chicago riot?” Because that was the question, and that’s what people were expecting, a riot after Laquan McDonald. And that’s because of the legacy of activism here. Even going beyond the past year or so. This is Chicago. That response, whether it was the Trump rally, or shutting down Michigan Avenue, that was Chicago to me. It’s the legacy of activism here.

One of the things that interests me about the current activist/organizing community is that there seems to be a lot of skepticism about establishment Chicago politics as a whole, and a hesitation to work with politicians. Does that gap need to be bridged?

Our politicians are still our lawmakers. They’re still the gatekeepers for policy change. We saw what Rahm Emanuel did—"Oh, Garry McCarthy’s great, Jason Van Dyke is one bad apple.” A week later: “This is a systemic problem, I need to get rid of Garry McCarthy.” That’s direct action that we saw from those young people. So they have to work… I’m not someone who believes activists should go into politics. I think you just know your role. People at book readings ask me if I’ve considered politics. No; I’m a writer, I’m a journalist. I’m staying in my lane. I don’t think activists make good politicians, as a general statement. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

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