Mixed Income, Mixed Results

Are high incomes and high hopes enough to revitalize my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago?


A few weeks after I moved into my condo in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, I saw a group of black men—ages from 20s to 50s—standing in front of my building. As I unloaded my groceries, I introduced myself as the new gal on the block.

They seemed genuinely shocked at the neighborly overture. The other newcomers seem to forget that they and people like them were there first, the men told me. “We got your back.”

Our community has a proud history dating back to a time when the Black Arts Movement thrived and Gwendolyn Brooks and Nat King Cole held court. Black-owned banks and funeral homes catered to everyone, rich, poor, white-collar, blue-collar. But when wealthier residents fled, the neighborhood eventually disintegrated.

Now that many black professionals are moving back to Bronzeville, it is creating new kinds of tensions—and a new opportunity.

For decades, the South Side has been the proving ground for various theories on how to house black people. In the mid-20th century, the government erected miles of public housing such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green (of Good Times lore). In recent years, politicians finally realized that decades of vertical living and concentrated poverty wasn’t the best way to house poor black folk. So the projects are being slowly demolished or overhauled, and replaced with “mixed-income” housing. (The goal is to build communities that are one-third market rate, one-third affordable and one-third public housing.)

Throw in a little gentrification in neighborhoods like mine and a new picture has emerged: Across the South Side, we are trying to figure out how people of different social classes, of the same race in most cases, can get along.

Some critics decry the “mixed-income” movement as social engineering. Others believe it puts low-income families on a path to self-sufficiency. In reality, it’s somewhere in between.

I recently spent time at a new development called Oakwood Shores, a few minutes away from Bronzeville. It replaces the Ida B. Wells low- and mid-rise housing project. A few buildings remain and the open-air drug market quickly reminds a lost driver of Hamsterdam, a la The Wire.

Oakwood Shores is now an urban cul de sac. Virtually all of the residents are black. Regardless of their economic bracket, every renter has a yearly housekeeping check and drug test. “Loitering” is discouraged, and in the summer, the development is quiet as a suburb.