Last month, ProPublica Illinois published an in-depth report, “Disinvested: How Government and Private Industry Let the Main Street of a Black Neighborhood Crumble.”

That main street referenced in the title is Madison Street, once the most bustling retail corridor in East Garfield Park. But the street also teemed with activity beyond that West Side neighborhood. 

“Back then, stores, often with apartments above them, lined Madison Street from downtown west to the city limits,” reporters Tony Briscoe, Haru Coryne and Mick Dumke explain. “The east-west axis of Chicago’s grid system, the street once thrived as a commercial beltway known as the ‘Equator of Chicago’ and the ‘Heart of the West Side.'”

Today, Madison Street is lined with empty lots. ProPublica estimates that roughly a quarter of the corridor’s land is vacant. 

The dominant narrative attributes the current blight to the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination. But the ProPublica report shows why this narrative begs more questions than it answers and why it’s also haphazard. 

The desertification of Madison Street and much of the West Side actually began prior to the riots, as the reporters show. 

“It’s important to note that the area began losing resources even before the 1968 rioting,” they state. “Starting after World War II and accelerating in the 1950s and ’60s, the population of Chicago’s West Side turned from almost all white to nearly all Black.

“Thousands of Black Southerners and residents of the cramped South Side moved into communities like East Garfield Park, while white West Siders relocated to the suburbs and the city’s North Side.

And as Congressman Danny K. Davis told ProPublica, when the white population base moved away, the economic base followed.

“As individuals moved away, much of the economy of these areas went with them, and government really didn’t do much to stop it — no unit of government,” Davis said. “It just never happened.” 

Instead, governmental attempts to improve the West Side have been piecemeal and centered on failed attempts to induce private investors to bet on communities that were by this point on a glide path to a point of no return in our capitalist system. 

No amount of tax credits or economic enterprise zones or “Model Cities” programs would be sufficient to return the West Side to its pre-riot state. The only investments that have made sense to most capitalists since then have been predatory (which is why we see so many loan sharks and liquor stores on the West Side). 

I have produced an alternative history of this episode in my head, in which local, state and federal governments joined forces after the riots in ’68, created an agency with the power to identify and penalize the private interests that created the ghetto-ization of the West Side in the first place — the predatory contract lenders who systematically stole from Black homebuyers in North Lawndale, for instance — and then systematically returned that stolen wealth to its rightful owners. 

In this alternative history, the government also investigated and penalized itself because many of its policies, particularly its housing policies, led to the economic apartheid that resulted in the ghetto West Side (see Arnold R. Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit to see how this happened).

Instead, and in reality, the government created incentives to try luring the very private interests that plundered the West Side into “investing” in it. And it gave scraps to Black business interests (some small loans or grants here and there) that chose to do capitalism where they had actually been forced to do it, anyway. 

In other words, the system was never held responsible for creating the mess we now see on Madison Street. 

The nasty truth of the ghetto is that it was created by the twin pillars of capitalist exploitation and systemic racism. In order to unmake a ghetto while avoiding displacement, we have to blow up those pillars — a process of “creative destruction” that entails identifying the real players, processes and policies responsible for the ghetto; penalizing them; and redistributing the wealth and power they plundered in a manner that is just and equitable. 

After decades of plans and programs and perks, Madison Street remains blighted because there has been neither justice nor any real accountability. The players and policies and processes responsible for the blight have never been held to account and the power and wealth those entities plundered from Blacks on the West Side have yet to be redistributed. 

Until that happens, and absent the government (i.e., the politicians and the police) joining market forces to gentrify East Garfield Park (i.e., to make it white again), Madison Street will continue to crumble. 


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