Chicago is one of the country's most prosperous and diverse cities. Its population is split into almost equal thirds of white, Black, and Latino residents. More than 30 percent of Chicagoans speak a language other than English at home, with Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Tagalog, and Chinese being the most popular. The longtime racial and ethnic diversity has lent itself to the cultural richness of the city: Chicago has been named “best restaurant city,” and “food and drink capital of the world.” It sports both a Chinatown and New Chinatown neighborhood, plus many more “little nations” neighborhoods, like Little India, Little Italy, Little Vietnam and La Villita. Chicago has dozens of museums, and over 200 theaters. Even its economy is one of the largest and most diversified in the world. But high diversity does not mean low segregation. In fact, Chicago is the second most segregated metro region in the United States, behind only New York City.
Like other northern cities, Chicago has a long history of industrial manufacturing. During the Great Migration (1916-1970) an estimated 500,000 Black Americans moved to the city. Also like other northern cities, Chicago has a long history of segregation created by policy, including some of the nation’s oldest racial covenants and most neglected public housing projects. There is even evidence that mechanisms of modern segregation, such as racial covenants, were invented in Chicago. In the early-twentieth century Chicago’s real estate industry wielded immense power and national influence. According to historian Elaine Lewinnek, “The first texts of real-estate appraisal were written by Chicagoans. The first real-estate lobby, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in America, was formed in Chicago. These ideas that we need single-race, single-use spaces in order to have our property values go up—these are actually new ideas that can be traced back to Chicago in the 1910s.” In the 1910s Chicagoans, including earlier immigrant communities, were able to build homes and neighborhoods using loans from non-banking institutions. But by the time of the Great Migration, federal banking regulations were established, prohibiting those means for new Chicago residents. When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was created in 1937 as a New Deal era agency, building affordable public housing was a top priority. But many white neighborhoods fought to block affordable housing development, fearing it would depreciate property values. By the 1960s 90 percent of CHA developments were in Black neighborhoods, and many, like the Cabrini-Green Homes, were blighted. Segregationist policy ensured that property value concerns became a self-fulfilling prophecy: after separating residents by race, non-white residents were barred from bank loans, neighborhoods that already had high property values, and from well-paying jobs. In turn, these mechanisms of segregation consolidated race and poverty.
Chicago remains highly segregated, with resultant large gaps in wealth. And while manufacturing has declined in Chicago and across the country, it remains a significant part of the city's diversified economy and a significant environmental burden. In this highly segregated city, the brunt of the environmental impact disproportionately affects the south and west sides, which are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. In 2017 the city council re-zoned an industrial corridor on the north side to make way for tech and retail developments. In that same city council decision, the city committed to expanding manufacturing in south and west side neighborhoods. A 2018 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) mapped the city’s industrial corridors and cumulative burden of environmental exposures, such as toxic air risk, lead paint exposure, proximity to hazardous waste, and toxic releases into airways. It shows that not only are there more and larger industrial corridors in areas with more Black and Latino residents, but that even among industrial corridors across the city, ones on the west and south sides had higher environmental burden.
What does this mean for residents on the south and west sides of Chicago? According to the Respiratory Health Association, “Chicago has also been identified as an epicenter for asthma, with higher prevalence in minority communities on the city’s west and south sides.” Rates of asthma-related emergency hospital visits for Latino children are almost three times that of non-Hispanic white children. Rates for Black children are almost five times that of non-Hispanic white children. And between the years 2009 and 2018, those rates remained largely stagnant. That same report found that 63 percent of all asthma-related emergency department visits were by Black children, and that the stark disparities between Black and Latino children versus white children in asthma cost $6.1 million in preventable health care charges in 2015 alone.