By Farooq A. Kperogi
A day after I returned from Nigeria, I headed straight to Chicago, America’s third largest metropolitan area (after New York and Los Angeles) and reputedly its most segregated city. I was there to present a research paper at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), America’s largest and most prestigious association for journalism scholars.
As has become my tradition, I traveled there by bus. That afforded me the opportunity to travel through—and sometimes lay over at—many historic towns and cities across three other states: Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana.
I was not particularly excited about passing through Tennessee. I had been to several towns and cities in the state before, and I will be going to Nashville, the capital city of Tennessee, for another conference in the midpoint of next month.
The city I eagerly looked forward to seeing on my way to Chicago was Kentucky’s biggest city, Louisville (pronounced as LUU-VUL by its residents), the birthplace of the legendary Muhammad Ali and home to the famous Kentucky Derby.
I stopped over here for about an hour to glow in the city’s lavishly elegant and refined splendor. In this city of over 700,000 people (which makes it more populous than the entire state of Alaska), you can’t escape Muhammad Ali’s symbolic shadows. One of the longest streets in the city—Muhammad Ali Boulevard— is named after him. Several other monuments are named after him.
In geopolitical and cultural terms, Louisville commingles the gentleness of southern United States and the snot-nosed detachment and industry of the northern states. An acknowledgement of this cultural confluence is encapsulated in the fact that Americans love to describe Louisville as the northernmost Southern city or the southernmost northern city in the United States. But the city also does have its own singularities that transcend the stereotypes of America’s geopolitics, although Kentucky is officially regarded as a Southern state.
Another major city I stopped over was Indianapolis, the capital of the state of Indiana. The city didn’t register any strong impressions in me. It is just another American city. But I was told by residents that it is home to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, said to be the world’s largest children's museum. Americans are famous for their love to lavish superlatives on their possessions, so I was skeptical about this claim. But I confirmed this to be true when I returned to Atlanta. Someday I hope to return there with my children.
The last major town I passed through before getting to Chicago was Gary, a town that is technically in the state of Indiana but that is actually contiguous with and often regarded as a part of metropolitan Chicago. This sleepy and desolate town of a little over 100,000 people is the birthplace of Michael Jackson. I had read a long time ago that Michael Jackson—and his brothers— were born in some place called Gary, Indiana. I had not the slightest inkling that I would some day visit it.
Gary struck me as a derelict city. The people I saw on the streets looked forlorn and resigned. Many homes appeared vacated. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the fact that this was the hometown of the Jackson Family, of Morgan Freedman and of Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics and former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank who is known for his very biting criticisms of the World Bank and IMF.
Things made sense to me when I was told that Gary is one of America’s most dangerous cities. It has one of the highest crime rates in the country and experienced what is called “white flight”—the phenomenon of working- and middle-class white people leaving cities en masse. As a result of white flight over several years, over 84 percent of the town is African American. Only about 12 percent is white.
I got to Chicago in the early hours of the evening. This city of skyscrapers, freeways, and a flourishing downtown beggars description. It suffices to say that the regal architectural grandeur of this city is simply awe-inspiring. Its intimidatingly gorgeous skyline must rank among the tallest in the United States, outrivaled, perhaps, only by New York and challenged only by Los Angeles. I was not surprised when I read somewhere that Chicago was once first on the list of largest buildings in the world.
In the midst of this architectural elegance, the city is also very leafy. It has a record 552 parks, several parklands, beaches, lagoons, conservatories and wildlife gardens. That’s why the city is affectionately nicknamed “City in a Garden.”
But why is Chicago called America’s most segregated city? I first heard this expression from my colleague in Atlanta, who is originally from Chicago. As one of the bastions of American liberalism, I was taken aback to learn that Chicago has the notoriety of being America’s most segregated city. I thought that dishonor belonged more properly to Birmingham in the state of Alabama.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out the puzzle when I got to Chicago. The city is divided into four parts: the North Side (which is predominantly white), the South Side (which is heavily black), Downtown (which is also predominantly white) and the West Side (which is largely black). Obama lives in the South Side of Chicago, although in a highbrow part called Hyde Park.
I personally didn’t experience any racial tension in my two-day stay in this city. Our conference was held in downtown Chicago, and I lodged in a hotel located in the North Side. Interestingly, many of the people I spoke with weren’t conscious of, or at least were not bothered by, the fact of Chicago being labeled the most segregated city in America. One of the few blacks I saw in the North Side dismissed the description as inaccurate. “Which American city is not segregated?” he asked. “Racial segregation is not unique to Chicago. It’s an American problem.”
It turned, however, that it was Dr. Martin Luther King who first called Chicago America’s most segregated city. Since then, that epithet has stuck. As recently as 2001, Mark Skertic and Bill Dedman wrote in the Chicago Sun Times: "The first Census 2000 numbers show that in Chicago, while the city is more diverse, with a rising Hispanic population, African Americans remain largely segregated in all-black blocks." Even Barack Obama, Chicago’s most notable resident, when asked what he knew about Chicago, replied that it was “America's most segregated city."
Until relatively recently, Chicago had been called the Mecca of Black America, a position now occupied by Atlanta. During the so-called “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern United States to the North, between 1910 and 1970, to escape racism and seek more opportunities, Chicago was a huge magnet. The South Side of Chicago became known as the black capital of America.
Up to today, African Americans constitute a significant proportion of Chicago’s population. While whites make up about 42 percent of the population, blacks constitute 37 percent of the population. Asians are a distant third with a little over 4 percent of the population.
Although my stay was brief, I still nourish fond memories of Chicago. It was, for me, America’s second flashiest city after New York.