Are You Telling Me Bike Lanes Won’t Fix The Problem?

Background Reading


United Workers rally photo   ©

United Workers rally photo ©

When we talk about gentrification, it’s usually in terms of comical caricatures: white hipsters jogging around with Otterhounds, then later found chugging on exotic microbrews in front of a pop-up performance gallery. We assume images of invasive, pale-skin denizens of a transitioning urban neighborhood that was once lived in almost exclusively by black and brown people.

But unlike in, say, Brooklyn, the Chicago story isn’t really about new mayonnaise shops and dog parks. While Grist writer Brentin Mock reports how gentrification is a real thing, especially in D.C. where he resides, the starker problem in Chicago is black neighborhoods that have suffered economically through the decades and are continuing to suffer.

At WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, our neighborhood bureau reporters produced a package of stories, “There Goes the Neighborhood” (found here) in December, about the changing conditions of neighborhoods in racially segregated Chicago. We partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago, which created a gentrification index for understanding how to measure neighborhood change in the city, for better or worse. The index measures 13 indicators of neighborhood conditions, including race, income, house values, education, and even the percentage of kids attending private schools. The findings confirmed and challenged some of our own notions, but the main takeaway is that gentrification is not as pervasive throughout Chicago as conventional wisdom might suggest.

Scoring neighborhoods based on the index, Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods were grouped into nine categories ranging from “stable upper/middle class,” meaning index scores remained high since the 1970s, to “severe declines,” meaning those scores dropped significantly since the ’70s. The “gentrification” category captured neighborhoods that had low index scores in the 1970s, but grew significantly higher by 2010. There were only nine neighborhoods that fit that “gentrifying” classification, almost all of them in downtown Chicago (“The Loop”) or just north of it, areas that have been historically white. These places were basically immune to the housing crash, but meanwhile a glut of luxury high rises cast shadows over Lake Michigan.

The category you want to pay attention to, though is “severe decline” — 14 neighborhoods found mostly in South and West Chicago have populations that are, on average, two-thirds African American. Add those to the 12 neighborhoods that have remained in extreme poverty since the ’70s, of which 94.5 percent of residents are African American.

Black middle-class neighborhoods are falling behind, also, with median incomes and home values dropping in places like Washington Heights, Roseland, and Pullman. Chicago not only has a shrinking middle class, they also have a shrinking population. It hasn’t helped that there’s been a loss of affordable housing in some of the most desirable areas. The net result, according to the index, is that more neighborhoods show decline or no change at all than have gentrified — or rather, improved.


First, it is good to see that someone in the Liberal community is willing to ‘owngentrification as a reality. But having said that something about this report is very troubling.

If indeed the population is Chicago is in decline (no thanks to urban gun violence) who then are we building all the bike lanes for? Just saying. If the place is on the skids (in terms of the viability of its neighborhoods) of what value are equity installations of bike lanes (to the residents currently there)?

Of what value are bike lanes in areas where people have no jobs to bike to? Why would converting another unused railroad right-of-way on the South Side be anything of value to the current residents? Now if you were to respond that these amenities attract new home owners, then fine.

We have returned to the question of ‘gentrification‘. You cannot save neighborhoods with bike lanes. You cannot save neighborhoods with BRT revamps. The bottom line is that the city has to stop trying to recoup tax money from the state or the federal government that it cannot otherwise gain from its citizens.

Jobs and education are the only real equity efforts that matter. Failing that all we are doing is marking time until the inevitable gentrification takes place. But the notion that gentrification is less consequence than the deterioration of the neighborhoods is problematic for me.

Every disease is diagnosed by symptoms. Gentrification is a symptom of an underlying problem. It is the rash that signifies the presence of a bacterium. Getting rid of the rash is not the solution to the disease itself. But neither is repainting the walls of the room of a terminally ill patient.

Much of the so-called change for the better (including adding bike lanes in places where people have no jobs to ride to) is really a matter of preparing the way for the next caretakers to own the homes and businesses in a blighted area. So as far as the current residents are concerned, gentrification is a signal that their ‘time is short‘.

And regardless of your viewpoint these lives matter. Cops who shoot unarmed civilians are often told that ‘black lives matter‘. Well the same is true for politicians, who shut down schools while painting the lanes outside of them green to allow bicycle riders to feel safer.

That at the very least is a misuse of funds. If you cannot fund schools, then the very last thing you need to be doing is building a sports arena in the downtown area of Chicago. Just saying!