Building Homogeneity: A Lifestyle of Segregation in Chicago’s Suburbs


To understand the racial and socioeconomic distribution of people throughout Chicago and its surrounding suburbs is to uncover the past 150 years of the city’s history. The relatively homogenous character of today’s suburbs can only be explained through a thorough examination of how Chicago’s suburbs actually came to be. As a result of this historical examination, it will become clear that there is no single cause affecting the settlement choices of residents, immigrants, and migrants. Rather, there are numerous factors, in a state of constant flux, that influence where varying groups of people reside in and around the central city. Chief among these influences are governmental decisions made at the local and federal level, real-estate speculation and development, as well as popular culture and contemporary social perceptions. The combination of such causative factors has resulted in an urban/suburban landscape that is heavily segregated based on race and income.

Segregation Today

Before delving into the transformative period during which Chicago’s early suburbs first developed, it is necessary to address current demographic patterns within the city and its hinterland. Though there is no clear definition of which counties and townships constitute Chicago’s suburbs, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) includes board members from Cook, Will, Lake, Kendall, Kane, DuPage, and McHenry counties ( Thus, for all intents and purposes at this moment in time, the aforementioned counties will represent Chicago’s suburbs. To get an idea of how racially homogenous these counties are it is appropriate to consider the percentage of whites residing in each county. As of the 2000 census the proportion of whites relative to other races and ethnicities was 81.8 percent in Will County, 80.1 percent in Lake County, 92.9 percent in Kendall County, 79.3 percent in Kane County, 84.0 percent in DuPage County, and 93.9 percent in McHenry County ( These high percentages stand in stark contrast to the proportion of whites living in the city of Chicago (42%, 2000) and those found in Cook County (56.3%, 2000) (

Not only are Chicago’s surrounding counties racially homogenous, they are also relatively uniform in their socioeconomic composition. For example, the median household incomes (1999 dollars) of Will, Lake, Kendall, and DuPage counties are 62,239; 66,973; 64,625; and 67,887, respectively ( Again, these figures illustrate a great disparity in income levels when compared to the median household income of Chicago ($38,625) and Cook County ($45,922) ( The purpose of examining the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of Chicago and the counties around it is to shed light on the distinct differences between the city and its hinterland. While the facts and figures presented above do much to illuminate such discrepancies, they do very little to actually explain why whites chose to live in the suburbs versus the city and why income levels tend to be higher, on average, the further one moves from the city.

Early Suburbanization

To comprehend this, however, it is necessary to step back in time to the 19th century when suburbanization in Chicago first began. By examining early suburban settlement patters one can gain knowledge of the physical and social environment that laid the groundwork for race- and income-based segregation in the twentieth century. Critical to any understanding of suburbanization during the 1800s are the factors that drove individuals and families from the inner-city out, into the countryside. Probably the single most important facilitator of early suburban development was the introduction of the railroad in 1848 (Keating 2002). Before the establishment of railways and other means of mass transportation, city dwellers were restricted in their choice of residence by the distance one could walk to work (Levy 2000). Nevertheless, once the city’s railroads were established, the distance between where one could live and still get to their place of work in a timely fashion expanded greatly. Unsettled areas in Chicago’s hinterland, previously out of the question in terms of development, were effectively opened up for exploitation by the city’s growing railroad system.

Even though railroads facilitated dispersal into the countryside, their presence alone does not provide a clear motive for people to disperse from the inner city in the first place. In order to better understand the historical basis of decentralization one must consider the living conditions of the city that people would effectively be leaving behind. At that time, tenement housing was extremely unsanitary and often acted as an epicenter for the transmission of infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever (Levy 2000). The threat of various waterborne and airborne diseases was amplified within tenements as a result of inadequate waste disposal and poor ventilation (Levy 2000). Underlying the physical reasons that drove people from the city into the country is the less tangible theory of biophilia. Developed by Edward Wilson in 1984, biophilia has been used to explain the great lengths that humans throughout history have gone to be close to nature (Gullone 2000). Given that the 19th century industrial city was relatively devoid of nature it is plausible to suggest that an urban dweller’s innate desire to be closer to the more “natural” countryside played a role in propelling people into the suburbs.

Early Segregation

Despite the various factors influencing decentralization, it is perhaps more enlightening to examine who, in particular, was moving into the suburbs. By exploring the demographics of early suburbs one can begin to see the foundation upon which racially and socioeconomically homogenous communities were built. Among the first to exploit the newly accessible hinterland were typically members of the wealthy upper-class (Keating 2002). Aside from erecting their own personal retreats, some of these suburban pioneers acted as real estate speculators, purchasing large tracts of land and subdividing them for sale to others (Keating 2002). Hyde Park House, for example, constructed by Paul Cornell in 1856, was established with the aim of creating an upscale resort area (Keating 2002). Within a few short years after the hotel’s construction, Hyde Park House was surrounded by suburban homes built by other wealthy citizens, including a railroad executive and U.S. senator (Keating 2002).

In contrast to the wealthier members of outlying communities, 19th century suburbanization also saw an influx of middle, or working, class residents. A number of advertisements at that time targeted working-class males by advocating inexpensive commutation fares into and out of the suburbs (Keating 2002). As a result of the affordability of railroad transportation to and from the city, a commuter population was able to develop in the countryside (Keating 2002). The ability to live in the suburbs and commute to work in the city was so appealing that the population of Cook County outside of Chicago more than doubled between 1850 and 1860 (Keating 2002). The significance of the burgeoning suburban population of the 19th century is that it closely resembles contemporary suburbs in that both are characterized by populations of predominantly wealthy to middleclass commuters. Adding to the sense of homogeneity is the recognition that members of early outlying communities were also overwhelmingly white (Keating 2002).

Race, Property Value, and Real Estate

Taking these various elements into consideration, it is relatively easy to see how, over time, suburbs have come to be seen as the products of a segregationist pattern of settlement. Throughout the 19th century the greatest barrier keeping Chicagoans from leaving the city was based purely on personal finance and income. If one was able to make enough money to afford a plot of land and commutation fares then it was possible to live in the suburbs. Suburbanization in the 20th century, however, began to take on an even more elitist and exclusionary character with the influx of African-Americans into Chicago during the Great Migration. It was at this time that race, in addition to income, became a major barrier to admission into the suburbs. Thus, the forthcoming section will be devoted to exploring the multitude of ways in which suburbs became increasingly segregated and at what lengths suburban residents went to preserve the homogeneity of their communities.

At the turn of the twentieth century Chicago had a relatively small black population of only 30,000; representing a mere one percent of the city’s 1.7 million total (Garb 2006). Due to the low proportion of blacks living in the city there was little racial tension prior to the twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1920, however, Chicago’s black population nearly tripled, growing from 30,150 to 109,540 (Daniel 1980). As a result of the rapid influx of migrants there was increased pressure on the city’s housing market. Competition between blacks, European immigrants, and other whites for access to housing and work fueled racism in and around the city (Garb 2006). It was during this time period that whites began to limit the spatial mobility of blacks by instituting various covenants restricting their housing choices. Ultimately, the consequence of white’s actions against blacks was an urban/suburban landscape increasingly partitioned along racial lines (Garb 2006).

One of the most integral figures in creating this racially divided metropolis was the real estate dealer. At the turn of the century, a majority of blacks from all different social levels were concentrated on the south side of the city in an area known as the “Black Belt” (Garb 2006). As the black population continued to grow, the need to expand the Black Belt became more and more of a necessity. Unfortunately, for blacks, this process meant searching for appropriate living facilities in predominantly white neighborhoods (Cooley 2010). It was at this juncture that real estate dealers and land speculators realized that they could gain significant profits by using the fears of whites to secure housing for blacks (Garb 2006). Realtors quickly became adept at convincing white property owners to sell their land hastily at a lower price so that they could resell the properties back to buyers at an inflated price (Garb 2006).

The tactics used by realtors to frighten white people varied somewhat from person to person but they all tended to center on one central idea; having black neighbors results in decreased in property values. Real estate operators often used the deteriorating homes within the Black Belt as an example of what would happen to white’s neighborhoods if blacks moved in (Garb 2006). Blockbusting, a popular practice at the time among real estate agents, involved moving black families into white neighborhoods with the intent of using their presence to scare residents into selling their properties (Mendenhall 2010). There were also black real estate operators, known as curbstone brokers, who were in charge of recruiting poor black families into white-only neighborhoods and encouraging them, sometimes with financial incentives, to substantiate racial stereotypes of buffoonery (Garb 2006). The actions taken by white real estate agents, in conjunction with those of blacks, ultimately helped to solidify a link between property value and racial identity (Garb 2006).

Community Opposition

Despite their ability to move blacks into white neighborhoods, the work of real estate agents and speculators did not go unchallenged. Many white-only communities, effectively brainwashed by realtors’ propaganda, truly believed that black neighbors would diminish their property’s value. However, instead of selling their properties to realtors and moving further away, many white neighborhoods banded together to protect their investments from “invading” blacks (Ferranti 2009). The Hyde Park Improvement Association, for example, organized in 1908 with the specific purpose of barring non-whites from entering the neighborhood (Daniel 1980). One of the most popular vehicles for deterring blacks from establishing in white neighborhoods was harassment and violence (Cooley 2010). Between July 1, 1917 and March 1, 1921 white property owners threw a total of fifty-eight bombs at blacks pioneering into white South Side neighborhoods and the realtors who helped them move (Cooley 2010). An additional tactic used by whites to segregate their selves was the signing of covenants that prohibited the sale or rent of property to non-whites (Cooley 2010).

The lengths to which real estate agents and community associations went to control and inhibit the mobility of blacks throughout the city is a testament to whites’ desire for homogeneity. By carrying out violent attacks against pioneering blacks, white property owners in and around the city made it clear that they highly valued their segregated lifestyle. Unfortunately, as the twentieth century progressed, the conditions facilitating white segregation only seemed worsen. During the teens and twenties a prominent group of economists conducted property value studies within communities with the hope of developing new ways to boost the nation’s home-ownership rates (Garb 2006). Their conclusions, however, exacerbated spatial segregation by asserting that property value depends on various factors, neighborhood employment patterns, the value of surrounding properties, and the buyer’s income (Garb 2006). The proposals made by economists would later serve as the basis for housing policies under Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal (Garb 2006).

Federally Assisted Segregation

Despite the number of programs enacted during the Great Depression, few did little of anything to help stem the tide of segregation in Chicago. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), established in 1933, is said to have institutionalized redlining and the denial of credit to black neighborhoods by assigning risk categories to various communities based on racial and economic criteria (Mendenhall 2010). Black neighborhoods, represented by the color red, received the lowest code and were often denied funding and loans altogether (Mendenhall 2010). The long-lasting significance of HOLC is that it set a precedent for future discriminatory practices used by mortgage, lending, banking, government, and real estate institutions (Mendenhall 2010). Thus, the work of economists during the twenties, in addition to federal programs initiated in the thirties, helped to legitimize racial stereotypes while enhancing white people’s desire to distance themselves from blacks.

The federal government’s role in facilitating segregation and suburban seclusion did not end with the New Deal’s housing programs. Three congressional decisions in particular helped to solidify a segregationist pattern of settlement for decades to come, effectively allowing Chicago’s suburbs to develop into the homogenous places that they are today. The United States Housing Act of 1937, amended in 1949 and again 1954, authorized the construction of low-income public housing and the clearance of slums for urban renewal (Mendenhall 2010). Since a majority of blacks lived in the dilapidated housing scheduled for demolition in light of urban renewal, appropriations were made to relocate them into public housing; concentrating race and income within the city (McGrew 2001). As it was mentioned previously, the mobility of blacks was even further restricted by redlining which made it nearly impossible to acquire mortgages on the only homes available to them (McGrew 2001).

While the United States Housing Act helped to concentrate poverty in the inner-city, two other congressional decisions facilitated whites’ escape into existing and newly constructed suburbs. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Bill of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, provided mortgages for the construction of over eleven million new homes (Duany et al. 2000). White soldiers returning home were able to take advantage of lower mortgage rates by purchasing these newly constructed suburban residences whereas blacks, because of discrimination, were effectively excluded from utilizing the same resources (Mendenhall 2010). Also ameliorating whites’ dispersal into the suburbs was the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956 (Mendenhall 2010). The construction of highways serving suburban communities, compounded by cheap home loans, made it relatively easy for white Americans to leave the city for its hinterland (Duany et al. 2000). As a result of these federal policies, in combination with various other social and political factors, Chicago’s population declined by nearly 900,000 people between 1950 and 1990 (

One of the few pieces of federal legislature that actually helped blacks attain some form of spatial mobility was Title VII of the 1964 United States Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibited racial discrimination in employment, housing, and other important areas (Mendenhall 2010). Even though it was no longer legal to discriminate based on race, those who wished for racial isolation in the suburbs could still obtain it by virtue of how newer suburbs were developed. A hallmark of suburban housing is its tendency to cluster houses together depending on their selling prices (Duany et al. 2000). This practice results in a segregated landscape where homes selling for $300,000 are in one cluster and apartments priced at less than $100,000 are located in another cluster altogether (Duany et al. 2000). Thus, it is apparent that even if blacks, or any other minority for that matter, are able to move into the suburbs they are still subject to segregation based no longer on race but on income.


Considering the information presented above, it is easy to see how Chicago and its suburbs became increasingly segregated throughout history. At first, during the 19th century, the only real barrier restricting a person from moving into the suburbs was one’s ability to afford the higher cost of living. Suburbanization in the twentieth century, however, took on a racial component as white residents actively fought to keep their neighborhoods free from black inhabitants. Further facilitating the segregationist pattern of suburban development was the number of federal policies enacted since the Great Depression. Thus, the combination of racist and discriminatory practices perpetrated by a number of different groups throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has resulted in a racially and socioeconomically homogenous suburban landscape. Despite the work being done to reverse this trend it is apparent that Chicago and its hinterland, to this day, remain largely segregated.


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