Chicago’s poor neighborhoods aren’t just lacking businesses. These Chicago neighborhoods have significantly lower numbers of businesses compared to poor neighborhoods in other American cities.
Translated: that means Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods are tremendously business-poor, even compared to other cities’ poorest neighborhoods. As the author, Marco Luis Small, puts it: “In some cases, the difference is stark. Chicago has 82% fewer small restaurants, 95% fewer small banks, and 72% fewer small convenience stores than a black poor ghetto in the average city…. The average black poor neighborhood in the U.S. does not look at all like the South Side of Chicago.”
The effects go beyond mere economic loss. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg notes the differences between North and South Lawndale and their effects on the death rate during the 1995 heat wave:
“In North Lawndale, the dangerous ecology of abandoned buildings, open spaces, commercial depletion, violent crime, degraded infrastructure, low population density, and family dispersion undermines the viability of public life and the strength of local support systems,” he writes. “In Little Village, though, the busy streets, heavy commercial activity, residential concentration, and relatively low crime promote social contact, collective life, and public engagement in general and provide particular benefits for the elderly, who are more likely to leave home when they are drawn out by nearby amenities.”…
What struck Small when he moved to Chicago was this absence of activity—compared to, say, Harlem, which is poor but tremendously vibrant: “What I first noticed, and what took me months to get used to, was the utter lack of density, the surprising preponderance of empty spaces, vacant lots, and desolate streets, even as late as 2006. Repeatedly, I asked myself, where is everyone?”
This is part of Chicago’s exceptionalism: gleaming downtown and struggling poor neighborhoods amidst residential segregation (as discussed by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid and others). One strange aspect of all of this is the lack of conversation within the Chicago area itself about these disparities. Plenty of people are willing to discuss murders and crime rates. But, while sociologists like Mario Luis Small, Sudhir Venkatesh, Robert Sampson, Eric Klinenberg, and others have provided clear data about the lack of economic opportunities (as well as other kinds of opportunities) in poor Chicago neighborhoods, this is rarely discussed in public.