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Two Chicagos, set apart even today by segregation, must become one whole city

Is the answer some type of reparations? Perhaps. But only as part of a long-term integration and equalization plan.

A view of downtown Chicago in 2010 from the 7th floor of the last Cabrini Green highrise, which has since been torn down.
Sun-Times Media

The view from the 30th floor was spectacular:

The verdant woods, winding paths, open grasslands and welcoming amenities of Lincoln Park. The glitzy, architecturally diverse hi-rise condos dotting Lake Shore Drive. The sandy beaches, a bit further east, of our great Great Lake, Michigan, with its changing palette of blues and greens.

It’s still breathtaking, a thousand views later.

But sadly, the walk up to that 30th floor view was more about holding my breath than breathtaking as I tried to block out the malodorous mixture of urine, soiled clothing and burnt furniture in the stairwells.

This was the late 1980s, and I was with an ABC 7 photographer checking out allegations of child abuse in one of the long-since-demolished buildings in the infamous, crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project that bedeviled Chicago’s Near North Side for decades.

The elevators were — no surprise — out of service, so we had to hoof it up to the designated floor, where a beleaguered African American single mom, her four young children and several friends and relatives were in a one-bedroom unit.

This is my personal and very visceral picture of our Two Chicagos: The poor, mostly Black occupants of dangerous drug, gun and gang-infested housing projects like Cabrini-Green, supported by inferior health, education and social service programs. And the affluent, mostly white families who lived safely and comfortably just a few blocks away.

I won’t pretend to know exactly how we arrived at this bifurcated urban dilemma. It’s complicated and I’m not a sociologist. But I covered news stories and did good-government watchdog work in those combustible communities for 40 years, and I embrace a widely held working theory:

Fearful business owners joined the white flight of residents who were hurrying to get away from Black Chicagoans moving into their old South and West Side neighborhoods. And the exodus took with it jobs and services, creating a vacuum that was slowly filled by a drug trade that required an infrastructure of guns and gangs.

Add to that an array of ineffectual social programs and an unjust criminal justice system and you’re left with what I found on the 30th floor of Cabrini-Green that day.

Simplistic? Perhaps. But it was, and to an extent remains, the conventional wisdom.

Those hi-rise housing projects are gone now. Their residents have dispersed to low-rise living in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, and in nearby suburbs. But the violence continues, exacerbated by an undisciplined police force that has cost Chicago taxpayers nearly a billion dollars to settle cases of excessive force.

Nationally, in the wake of multiple police-involved killings of Black men and women under questionable circumstances, our country is experiencing a painful reckoning — a history lesson that reminds us of the devastating and permanent social and economic impact of slavery and the violent decades of discrimination that followed.

The clear message is that, despite affirmative action and welfare and set-aside programs, this country still hasn’t done enough to level the severely slanted playing field.

Millions of Black Americans remain trapped in poor neighborhoods with inferior housing, schools and social services, with limited access to jobs. Guns, gangs and drugs still run rampant, and law enforcement still can’t get a handle on it. The terrible beat goes on.

Is the answer some type of reparations? Perhaps. But only as part of a long-term integration and equalization plan that includes a massive investment of public and private dollars to open the doors to a gradual migration of segregated inner-city Blacks into integrated city and suburban neighborhoods — for the better schools, health care, social services and employment opportunities.

Chicago got rid of its housing projects. But not the problems that festered in those ghettoes. Now they’re spread out, but just as toxic.

It’s time for our city, as part of a national strategy, to mobilize public and private sector resources — there are more than enough — to eliminate forcibly segregated neighborhoods and their inherent inequities. The story of Chicago — some of the worst racial segregation to be seen in the nation — need not continue to be the story of Chicago.

Pie in the sky? Politically impossible? Maybe. But I don’t see a better way to actually make America great for everyone.

Andy Shaw is a former ABC political reporter and former head of the Better Government Association. He is still active in good government reform organizations.

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