The significance of the Metropolitan Planning Council/Urban Institute report I wrote about yesterday is that it puts new numbers to an old truth: that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, if not the most. (There are different ways of measuring that, but Chicago is usually far up the rankings no matter how it's approached.)

But what is it about Chicago that made it that way?

It's impossible to answer definitively, but the most satisfying answer I've encountered comes from Carl Nightingale, author of the book Segregation: A Global History—it has a lot to do with timing. When I interviewed Nightingale about the book, this is what he told me:

Perhaps it was the chance of historical timing. The city’s population exploded in a still-developing city as the flourishing of racial and eugenic “science” overlapped into the nascent fields of sociology and real-estate economics.

“There is a regional Midwestern thing where all the cities with the highest segregation indexes until this day are all in the Midwest,” says Nightingale. “I’m not sure exactly why that is true. But it is true that Chicago had this enormous and booming land industry that the Chicago real estate board—which is founded in the 1890s—could claim, plausibly, that it was the most powerful real estate organization in any city, and in the world, and was then strong enough to then create a national organization located on Michigan Avenue. And in so doing really fell into the position, after the demise of Buchanan vs. Worley, as the center of power that people who wanted to divide cities had to rely upon.”

A substantial part of Nightingale's book is about how Chicago was a laboratory for segregation. Tools of analyzing real estate and racial data were being created in Chicago in the early 20th century. Tools to segregate the city based on race were created here, such as restrictive covenants. This came up in one of my favorite interviews I've done, with the historian Elaine Lewinnek, author of The Working Man's Reward: Chicago's Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.

Myths around property values needing to be in segregated space, those myths come from Chicago in the 1910s. Chicago wasn’t just interesting because of the social workers and the sociologists and the boosters and the advertisers, but it’s also interesting because of the real estate industry.

Chicago’s real estate industry was a national leader. The first texts of real-estate appraisal were written by Chicagoans. The first real-estate lobby, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in America, was formed in Chicago. These ideas that we need single-race, single-use spaces in order to have our property values go up—these are actually new ideas that can be traced back to Chicago in the 1910s.

The city was growing quickly, particularly because of the Great Migration, during this period. That meant a new influx of migrants—who were perceived as a threat to property values—flooded the city just after prior waves of immigrants had struggled to establish modest wealth that was tied up in housing. Lewinnek's book goes into detail about how they did it, and she talked to me about that as well:

[I]n earlier Chicago, the poorest people weren’t getting money from banks anyway. They were forming their own banks, what I call immigrant microlending institutions, what they called building and loan societies. They were finding different ways to access credit. That story of who gets to access credit and how is a really important story about who gets to access upward mobility in America. I think it’s a story that’s still playing out. Our most recent recession has a lot to do with who gets to borrow money for housing and what that money means.

The creativity of early Chicagoans wasn’t as possible after the 1930s, for very good reasons—we got national banking laws that imposed a rigidity on what had been a flexible system. The variety of [homeowners in] early Chicago became less possible after the 1930s.

This whole process is finishing when the Great Migration ramps up, and so the backlash is very bad.

[A]t first they wanted to build public housing in poor white areas as well as poor black areas. But Chicago’s white people, even the very poorest, had managed to access home ownership through these very creative methods. And they fought fiercely to save their homes. So very little public housing was built in white areas. Public housing became black housing, and hurt an entire group of people. We didn’t have to inherit this.

I thought back to this when I came across something that didn't make it into my piece yesterday. In the mid-1980s, one thousand Chicagoans presented an explicit "white ethnic agenda" to Mayor Harold Washington, in a conference that, according to the New York Times, "brought together white groups that had deserted the Democratic Party last year rather than vote for a black mayoral candidate." In 1994, David Roeder profiled one of the organizers, Jean Mayer, and wrote about a key plank in that agenda, and one that resonates with a historical fear of collapsing property values:

Much of the 1980s at [Save Our Neighborhoods/Save Our City] was consumed by its campaign for home-equity insurance, which it finally won in 1988. That's when the General Assembly approved the program after seeing Mayer send legions into the Capitol wearing buttons depicting an upside-down donkey and saying, "Home equity or else." The buttons were a warning from a faithful Democratic constituency that years before had left the party in presidential elections.


The home equity battle was so prolonged because it was a perfect red-flag issue in Chicago's ongoing racial tensions. The proposal called for setting up an insurance pool, funded by slight additions in homeowners' property taxes, that would reimburse those who had to sell their houses for less than an appraised value. Participating homeowners had to sign up for the program and were ineligible for claims for the first five years. It would apply only in specifically defined white communities.

The plan is at work today and has about 2,000 participants on the southwest side and another 1,000 on the northwest side. Supporters say it has stabilized the communities by curbing fears about rapid racial changes and real-estate panic peddling. Critics say it keeps minorities out of those neighborhoods by discouraging current residents from putting their homes on the market.

As WBEZ's Natalie Moore reported in 2014, the program still exists and, at the time, had banked $9.6 million dollars.

In short, when the Great Migration grew, Chicagoans had both the motive and the means to segregate the city. Meanwhile, cities that have seen their explosive growth come after those means were taken away—and after the motives for it dwindled—tend to be more integrated, as William Frey observed in 2014:

Declines in black-white segregation continued through the 1980s. Between 1970 and 1990, segregation dropped from 87 to 63 in Dallas, from 82 to 66 in Atlanta, and from 78 to 66 in Houston. Many such areas were beginning to attract black migrants, part of the emerging reverse black migration to the South. Because substantial suburban growth in these areas took place after the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, the impact of that law in reducing segregation was greater than in more stagnant areas of the country with little new housing development. Yet as of 1990, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit continued to show segregation levels above 80, and the majority of their northern counterparts registered levels in the high 70s or above. Within these areas, old stereotypes persisted about which communities were appropriate for whites and blacks, with whites expressing a strong distaste for integrated neighborhoods.

So when the MPC wanted a less-segregated comparison to Chicago, they chose Houston.

Cities have taken steps to increase integration, like Louisville and Cincinnati. European countries, Carl Nightingale has written, are the most aggressive in desegregating. But it's harder to integrate than to segregate, and to do so the city that practically invented modern segregation will have to reinvent itself.