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The Big Lie Behind Housing Segregation

Susan O'Halloran

3 min read

Apr 1

39

2



We say that home is sacred and it’s easy to see why. Our homes hold more than our belongings and even more than our memories. They hold the key to true opportunity. Where we reside can determine our education, our employment possibilities, and even the likelihood of whether or not we’ll live in health. Vibrant, diverse communities where all people interact in dignity and have every opportunity to blossom into their full human potential have never been fully realized in this nation.


How is that possible in 2024?






In my one-woman show, Dividing Lines: The Education of a Chicago White Girl in 10 Rounds, I use a boxing ring plus one white boxing glove and one black as a metaphor for the fight over housing as I was growing up in Chicago. I set out to discover why my town, like so many other U.S. cities, was and is so segregated. Being raised in the 1950s and 60s on the White side of town, I had always been told that people preferred to live “with their own kind.”


But as I researched my show I discovered that there was a time when Chicago and other cities were more integrated. The first strategic and protracted wave of segregation came during the 1920s when through restricted covenants, coupled with bribes, threats, and violence, politicians and others in power set out to create separate White and Black residential areas in the city. People hadn’t chosen “their own kind.” We were purposefully (and often violently) separated from one another.


Black people were herded into the oldest, wholly inadequate, and massively overcrowded sections of town. During my interviews, I heard stories from people who lived through this period. They told me of trips to the emergency room because of young children hit by fallen plaster from rotting ceilings, old people trapped in tenements because the landlords refused to fix stairwells, and whole families killed in fires because greedy landlords had strung extension cords and other makeshift wiring to create yet another improvised apartment in an attic, basement, or storage shed.


With so little housing supply for Blacks, the mostly White businesspeople made fortunes from these life-threatening housing arrangements. With no mortgages for Black people and no Open Housing laws in effect, African Americans had few alternatives but to live in these dangerous, dilapidated buildings in the designated “Black Belts” of Chicago.


While African Americans rose to the challenge and created their own support systems and incredible cultural institutions, they were left, nonetheless, vulnerable to the vultures who came to feed and capitalize on their physical entrapment.


A Black family could protest and move out, but where were they going to go? And with so many other families desperate to move into the substandard housing what leverage did anyone have who tried to stand up to the injustice of deplorable living conditions?


Meanwhile, in the White areas, politicians and others who benefitted from divide-and-conquer tactics fed on White people’s fear and existing prejudices. They pointed to the rundown areas as proof that Blacks were unfit to live with and said that Black people would pry away the working-class Whites’ tenuous hold on the bottom rungs of the city’s ladder of economic security.


Thus, by the end of the 1930s, our cities began to take on a familiar look with more prosperous White areas and more rundown Black and Brown neighborhoods.


Was that the end of it? Hardly…

 

Next week: The Second Wave Of Housing Segregation

 

 

Sue’s one-woman show, Dividing Lines: The Education of a White Girl in 10 Rounds, is available for download at: https://www.susanohalloran.com/product-page/dividing-lines-the-education-of-a-chicago-white-girl-in-10-rounds

 

“Sue tells a hundred-year history of segregated housing in Chicago that rings true for major cities across the country. Dividing Lines helps make sense of racial tension and lack of opportunity we experience today. I can’t believe I never learned this history!”

 

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If you know someone who is part of an organization that wants to focus on equity issues, would you send this article to them or tell them about O’Halloran Diversity Productions? They can reach us at susan@susanohalloran.com and we will set up a short conversation to see if we can be of help to them. Thanks in advance!

 

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You may reprint this article with proper credit: Written by Sue O’Halloran at www.SusanOHalloran.com

 


 

Susan O'Halloran

3 min read

Apr 1

39

2

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