The Making and Remaking of Urban Peripheries

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

What are urban peripheries? Where do they come from? How do they get where they are? This article suggests that urban peripheries are created and sustained through policy decisions that regulate, punish, exclude, pollute, and ignore populations with little political or economic power. By “urban periphery” we mean the under- resourced geographical areas on the outskirts of cities, places with little access to basic amenities. In this article we discuss two types of urban peripheries we call the periphery within and the periphery without. The periphery within describes those high-density areas far from the urban center but still within city limits. The periphery within shares the same municipal tax base of wealthier neighborhoods within the city. The periphery without does not have this advantage. It consists of lower-density suburban communities within the metropolitan region, beyond the city proper.

In the following discussion of the periphery within and the periphery without, we examine how urban space is transformed through the mass displacement of the poor and working poor, particularly communities of color, away from the central city. We use the concept of urban restructuring to describe how cities are remade over time and to help demonstrate that as Chicago is remade, so too are its surrounding areas. At its most basic level, urban restructuring deals with the changing human and material composition of urban space and the forces that shape who lives where and how.

The margins of present-day Chicago have been created through practices of population removal, which has been spurred or accelerated by mass incarceration, environmental degradation, gentrification, and the Plan for Transformation. Deindustrialization—the rapid disappearance of factory jobs from the metropolitan region beginning in the 1970s—has intensified the process. Though the forms of structural urban change we address are distinct from one another, they all weaken the bonds between low-income people of color and their communities. We focus on how African-American families have been moved from place to place through government policy decisions, and how those lands have been made toxic through environmental racism. The ongoing disruption of African Americans from urban land has profound implications for community formation, and dramatic consequences for the political potential of oppositional urban social movements.


The Periphery Within

Chicago has a long history of forced relocation. In recent decades, the City has invested in ambitious urban development projects for the areas in and around the Loop, directing resources intended for neighborhood improvement away from those with the greatest need. Instead of expanding opportunities for our city’s most marginalized groups, Chicago has repeatedly chosen to remove them from the central city.

At the edges of Chicago’s South, West, and Southwest Sides are those neighborhoods with the least amount of capital investment and the greatest degree of economic challenge. These neighborhoods comprise what we call the periphery within. This periphery has been created and sustained through policies that exclude low-income people of color from the opportunities, amenities, and life possibilities available to more affluent Chicagoans. The communities that compose this periphery have been at the receiving end of the displacement processes driving folks away from the central city, a fact that has further limited the life pathways for residents of these areas.

How has this population removal worked in practice? In the wake of deindustrialization, American cities became dependent on a failed public safety strategy requiring large-scale containment of its citizens: mass incarceration. This regressive attempt to secure urban neighborhoods disproportionately impacts low-income people of color with limited formal education. Though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it has twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated, with a prison population of more than 2 million people. Most of these prisoners come from cities, and of those, most come from a relatively small number of neighborhoods. Today’s unsuccessful approach to public safety has become another form of population removal.

Every year in Chicago, roughly 30,000 men and women are removed from a handful of targeted neighborhoods and detained in some form of correctional institution. Rather than create real economic or educational opportunity in these targeted neighborhoods, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking up Chicagoans for non-violent offenses. While many of these incarcerated individuals return to the city following their release, they typically do so with neither a job nor a home waiting for them and are faced with the threat of either homelessness or re-entry into the prison system. As a result, in Illinois roughly 66 percent of former prisoners return to confinement within three years. This historically unprecedented cycling of people in and out of urban neighborhoods destabilizes social networks among families, and the most severe impact occurs in areas that have already been economically and politically marginalized. As a result, those tens of thousands of people moving in and out of prison are without any stable place to rebuild their lives and generally end up living in Chicago’s edge neighborhoods.

Another form of population removal comes in the drastic changes to public housing produced by a policy known as the Plan for Transformation. In response to decades of mismanagement and neglect of the city’s public housing stock, in 1995 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over the management of the Chicago Housing Authority. After a wave of administrative improvements coordinated between federal and local interests, on May 27, 1999, the City of Chicago successfully negotiated the return of CHA from federal to local control. The City of Chicago was required to match administrative improvements with a fundamental makeover of its public housing stock. To do this, Chicago produced a ten-year, $1.5 billion plan designed to transform the city’s 38,000 public housing units by demolishing 22,000 and rehabilitating 9,000, with the promise of creating or maintaining 25,000 city-run affordable housing units. While demolition has proceeded on schedule, securing the 25,000 city-run affordable housing units is a different story. In the CHA’s 2007 Annual Plan (which led to an agreement in 2008), the city successfully petitioned HUD to extend what was a 10-year plan into a 15-year Plan for Transformation. Displaced former public housing residents, directed to the housing market with a voucher-based housing subsidy, have largely wound up in peripheral neighborhoods.

Our analysis of the distribution of Chicagoans receiving housing assistance through the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (commonly known as Section 8) demonstrates that the Plan for Transformation has underwritten extraordinary population removal from the center. Analyzing these numbers gives us our best estimate of the destinations of former public housing residents. Our findings show that in 2007, approximately 30,634 households received housing voucher assistance within the city of Chicago. Nearly 50 percent of those households reside in two distinct geographic clusters: one on the city’s far West Side (Austin, Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale), and the other on the city’s South Side (Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Grand Boulevard, Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore, Washington Park, West Englewood, and Woodlawn). Between seven and eight percent of the residents in each of these clusters receives voucher-based housing assistance (that rate is 2.89% of households for the city as a whole). The average poverty rate in these areas is around 35% of households; the overall rate for the city is approximately 19%. These two clusters indicate the movement of tens of thousands of households to the periphery within. These statistics do not end here, however; the story extends beyond the city limits.


The Periphery Without

Like marginal communities within the City of Chicago, many of the suburban areas just outside the city limits face extreme isolation from basic amenities and opportunities for advancement. While the periphery without shares demographic characteristics with Chicago’s marginal communities, it has no access to the city’s tax base, has even more difficulty attracting capital investments, and is home to extreme instances of environmental injustice.

Not all Chicago suburbs are part of an urban periphery in this sense. Taking geographical isolation and economic marginalization as the key indicators of an urban periphery, Robbins and Ford Heights are part of the periphery withoutWilmette and Glencoe are not. Robbins and Ford Heights are among the very poorest of communities in Illinois; Wilmette and Glencoe are among the richest. Even as southern Cook County receives families displaced from the heart of Chicago, northern Cook County towns create strong barriers to entry. So while places like Robbins and Glencoe are geographically outside the city, they have very different access to resources like efficient transportation, quality employment, healthy food and residential infrastructure.

The periphery without is the site of an extraordinary amount of environmental pollution. Landfills, garbage incinerators, rubber burning plants, waste transfer stations and a host of other polluters call Chicago’s south suburbs home. One municipality that has been especially burdened by environmental injustice is Robbins. Few people move to the Village of Robbins. New houses aren’t built there, even though land can be bought for less than anywhere else in the Chicago region. It is one of the most economically stressed and environmentally polluted communities in Illinois. And it provides a real example of the peripheral areas to which former public housing residents have been displaced. In 2007, 276 households with voucher assistance called Robbins home—approximately 16% of the total population. Like the two voucher-heavy clusters in Chicago, the Robbins poverty rate stands over 30%.

Conditions in Robbins were not always bleak. At the dawn of the 20th century, the future of this land was open. Used for farmland until its incorporation in 1917 as Illinois’s first majority-Black municipality, the area stayed semirural as it developed. Residents kept family gardens to supplement their earnings. During the height of Chicago’s industrial era, nearby factories brought jobs, but also serious pollution. But subsequent attempts at economic development have brought even worse pollution to the community.

Since 1997, the number of businesses in Robbins has plummeted from 32 to 20. New jobs in the area have been created only through shortsighted toxic projects. Farming is no longer possible given the area’s high pollution. With few economic development prospects at hand, town leaders have welcomed a garbage incinerator and a waste transfer station in the last twelve years. The area’s extreme poverty forced the Village to make grueling choices between health and a false promise of economic renewal.

Downward economic shifts disproportionately affect urban peripheries like Robbins. These places have little to no buffer against their traumatic consequences. Isolation from political power and distance from economic resources forces municipalities on the peripheries to build their futures on destructive foundations—choosing between options that range from bad to worse.


What Is To Be Done?

As with deindustrialization and urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, Chicago has continued to remake itself through practices, policies, and processes of population removal. The factory jobs that began vanishing through deindustrialization have fueled the mass incarceration of the present. Past urban renewal is mirrored in today’s Plan for Transformation. So where do we go from here? We must recognize the deep ecological ties between all residents of a region and act on this awareness. When we send our garbage to a waste incinerator or landfill, it comes back to us through the air or ground water. When we ship people to downstate prisoners en masse for non-violent offenses, we create more problems for poor communities than we solve. When we tear down the housing of our city’s lowest-income families, we disrupt lives and force less equipped municipalities to provide services for them.

Awareness is a vital starting place, but without real sustained action we will not address the basic needs of those living in Chicago’s shadows. We must organize the social movements required to build a region where communities of color can build lasting relationships to urban land. Organizers, advocates, artists, educators, and planners need to work together to change our laws, our policies, and our culture towards this end. At every step of the way we must affirm and defend the right of low-income people of color to live in the city, to be a part of not just Chicago’s workforce but also its leadership. Through regional organizing and grassroots policymaking, we can plan more inclusively for the people who’ve been pushed to Chicago’s peripheries and we can begin to challenge the dominant inside-out approach to urban development. ◊

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s