What’s important about Natalie Y. Moore‘s new book is less that it’s about Chicago’s south side, and more that it’s of the south side, deeply and lovingly, in a way journalism about the area rarely is. That’s partly due to Moore’s day job: she’s WBEZ’s south-side bureau reporter. Yet it’s also because The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation isn’t simply a work of journalism, but a combination of reporting with policy analysis and prescription and, most compellingly, memoir. Weaving her own history through discussions of educational and residential segregation, food access, and black politics in Chicago, Moore pays tribute to a place of “loveliness and contradictions and negotiation.” Moore grew up in Chatham; she owned a condo in Bronzeville; she now lives in Hyde Park and works out of an office in Greater Grand Crossing. These details aren’t incidental to the book but necessary for it.
This grounding in personal experience, and in human history, is a vital corrective when the dominant media narrative of the south side is one of violence and despair—from “Chiraq,” the ironic coinage turned Spike Lee film, to Homicide Watch Chicago, a project of the Sun-Times to document every murder that takes place in the city. In a particularly polemical chapter called “We Are Not Chiraq,” Moore argues that such a sensationalist focus on African-American deaths (particularly gun-related deaths) hurts more than it helps, further stigmatizing struggling areas of the city while glossing over root causes like racism and economic inequality. “The voyeuristic exercise of counting deaths is not a good method, for it tells us nothing except that bad shit sometimes happens in ‘bad’ black neighborhoods,” she writes. “Monday morning hand-wringing about Chicago weekend shootings is nothing more than social media masturbation.” She notes the trickle-down effects of that blinkered view: the high school baseball game canceled in 2013 after north-side parents refused to let their children travel south for it. Or the Sunday-morning 5K run in 2014 that attracted more donations than it did runners, who according to the run’s organizer stayed away because it took place in Englewood.
These on-the-ground reports aside, some of the book’s best passages are those in which Moore simply describes where she comes from: the middle-class “black cocoon” of Chatham, recalled here in tender detail. Moore’s father raised vegetables in the family’s backyard and her mother drove a red Camaro—”not fire-engine or candy-apple red; more like the color of smeared red lipstick.” Her grandfather “drank Old Style beer and occasionally played the numbers. He loved Mahalia Jackson. He watched the White Sox and Cubs on television. . . . Every day Granddaddy read the Tribune and often called legendary columnist Mike Royko a racist bastard, even though he kind of looked like Royko and they wore the same glasses.” Some paragraphs about the south side feel like movie montages, images of the area’s prodigious cultural output—”Sam Cooke and Common, Koko Taylor and Chaka Khan”—streaming by alongside glimpses of the everyday experience of, say, driving east on 79th Street from the Dan Ryan to the lake: “men sipping out of bottles on corners, vibrant businesses, bars, funeral homes, foreboding boarded-up structures, liquor stores, churches, Harold’s Chicken Shacks and sounds of house music dancing in the air.”
Three of Moore’s grandparents came north during the Great Migration. Initially confined to the black belt—a narrow strip along South State Street—many of those migrants spread out across the south side following Shelley v. Kraemer, a 1948 Supreme Court decision that ended the restrictive housing covenants that locked black would-be buyers out of most markets. As black people moved out across the south side, whites ditched it. Though the story of white flight has been told frequently, its details retain the power to shock: Chatham, Moore notes, went from 99 percent white in 1950 to .2 percent white in 1970. As chroniclers from historian Beryl Satter to Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates have pointed out, myriad institutional restrictions, including redlining and contract selling, impeded the ability of Moore’s grandparents’ generation to build wealth (to say nothing of the routine violence black home buyers faced from white home owners).
Nowadays a different set of factors conspires to keep south-side neighborhoods in a state of disadvantage: White appraisers, Moore argues, undervalue houses in black neighborhoods, holding down home values. Retailers won’t invest in them. The mortgage companies that caused the subprime crisis targeted neighborhoods like Chatham. Here too, a personal touch: In 2008 Moore bought a condo in Bronzeville for $172,000; one Great Recession later it was valued at $55,000. With Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 school closings, Moore’s concerns were compounded: “Foreclosures and short sales had already rocked my block and Bronzeville as a whole. How could a vacant school affect property values?” That story comes in a chapter called “Notes From a Black Gentrifier,” tongue in cheek. The reality, Moore writes, is that “black Chicago neighborhoods don’t gentrify.”
Relying on interviews with scholars and activists, Moore ends most chapters, and the book, with concrete, imaginative recommendations for ways forward for Chicago’s struggling black neighborhoods. The South Side is a powerful political document. But the book also constitutes its own argument, unspoken but unmistakable, for how badly the media needs to represent a diverse array of perspectives and backgrounds—as a matter of accuracy, empathy, and understanding. Even the best bring their biases. Moore recalls writing a cover story for the Chicago Reporter about the history of the Robert Taylor Homes shortly before their demolition in 2007. She went to the public housing development for an interview with a resident who’d lived there for 40 years. “I walked into that interview thinking that Taylor residents surely wanted to leave,” she writes, but was disabused—to her interview subject this was home. When she left, “I thought about how it would feel if an outsider unsentimentally ordered me and my family out of our home,” Moore writes. “No one wants to be told that where they live is fucked-up.” v