A history of segregation leaves Chicago with distinct neighborhoods of diverse culture
Published: Monday, April 2, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
While Chicago may be a perfect example of the range of cultures that call America home, the reality of many Windy City neighborhoods is much more like a stew than a melting pot. Rather than assimilation, the many cultural neighborhoods are a testament to a history of division.
Named the most segregated city in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau, it also recently earned the title of “most improved.” Although some nearly homogenous neighborhoods are the result of socio-economic class separation, they yield a beautiful collection of rich cultural narratives.
The north side features a variety of cultural hubs, such as Devon Avenue’s ‘Desi Corrdidor,’ one of the best known Indian and South Asian communities in North America. The flourishing street between Ravenswood and California Avenue is home to hundreds of Indian restaurants, markets and testaments to South Asian culture.
Alternately, the Lincoln Square neighborhood, north of Montrose on Western Avenue, is heavily influenced by German culture, even sporting a piece of the Berlin Wall in their Western Brown Line station. Its many ‘Brauhauses’ highlight Bavarian tradition and feature scores of imported beers.
Andersonville’s cultural history is flaunted through a large water tower adorned with a Swedish flag and the “Swedish-American Museum,” as well as a variety of businesses and restaurants catering to the European country. Located between Foster and Bryn Mawr, west of the Red Line, the cultural relevance of the area is encouraged by the museum and supported by Swedish bakeries and delicatessens.
Slightly further south, you might stumble upon Argyle street, a neighborhood heavily influenced by its Vietnamese and East Asian population. Known under a variety of names ranging from “Little Vietnam” to “North Chinatown”, the blocks between Broadway and Sheridan are packed with Asian restaurants and businesses. Many of their walls feature murals representing the cultural history within the area.
Argyle Street is not to be confused with the actual Chinatown, located off the Cermak CTA station bearing its name, though. Walking through the culturally thriving thoroughfare of Chinatown can feel as though you have just been transported to Beijing. A majority of the businesses, restaurants and churches are exclusively East Asian, and even the street signs feature a Chinese translation.
To the immediate west you’ll find Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican community that holds a rich history for many of Chicago’s minorities. No neighborhood has represented its cultural ties more completely than Pilsen’s Mexican-American community. This neighborhood also serves as a reminder that communities are constantly changing. According to Pilsen’s Explorechicago.org tourism page, “This is a living neighborhood that has evolved over generations, from Irish and German to Czech and Polish to predominantly Mexican, alongside a pocket - called Heart of Chicago - that clings deliciously to its Italian roots.”
The Latino influence is more than simply a background here. Rather, it is the way of life, as indicated by the endless Mexican flags and small businesses catering to a Spanish-speaking community.
The south side of Chicago is home to a majority of the African-American population, a fact that is routinely criticized as one of Chicago’s biggest segregation issues. While economic disparity seems to be more apparent here than other parts of the city, African-American culture has permeated these neighborhoods and is playing an active role in its recent gentrification efforts.
For example, the south side neighborhood of Bronzeville is the product of resettlement following the “Great Migration,” in which nearly seven million African Americans left the South for urban centers in the north. More than 500,000 of these people ended up in Chicago, making Bronzeville a hub for black culture, rivaled only by New York City’s Harlem. Many prominent African-Americans have lived and worked in this neighborhood, including civil rights leader Ida B. Wells and jazz icon Louis Armstrong. The area is also home to the Illinois Institute of Technology – a university with a significant international student population. The recent gentrification efforts in Bronzeville have transformed the neighborhood from its cultural past, but it still retains many of its Afro-centric roots.
Additionally, Hyde Park has long been the exception to south side disintegration. As the home to the prestigious University of Chicago, DuSable Museum of African American History, Museum of Science and Industry and President Obama, this south-side neighborhood appears as an oasis of old money in a desert of economic struggle.
Although the racial separation is quite consistent in most areas of the city, the neighborhood of Beverly proves to be another exception. This south side neighborhood is predominantly Irish, a reminder of the massive influx in immigration during Chicago’s early years and the racism that accompanied it. Western Avenue between 103rd and 111th is home to the South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which returned to the neighborhood last week for the first time in three years.
Each neighborhood serves as a reminder of our immigrant past. Though there are certainly many socio-economic barriers that we must overcome, the culturally diverse landscape that is Chicago, creates a beautiful opportunity to explore culture in a way that few cities are able to offer.