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)