Chicago, Housing and School Closures

Just go ahead and read this by Eve Ewing in the New Yorker. The thesis is that, much as Jesse Sharkey explained the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools are “broke on purpose,” community areas on the city’s South and West Sides have been undergoing a purposeful depopulation of school-aged children through the closing of public and low-income housing. While the closure of schools in a “utilization crisis” seems to speak to the intelligent allocation of resources, it in fact speaks to the purposeful removal of poor and Black families with children from vast swaths of the city and the conversion of those neighborhoods to less hospitable terrain. In Ewing’s words:

The former superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett explained the closures by citing what she termed a “utilization crisis.”…. Byrd-Bennett’s argument that the schools should close because they were enrolled below their capacity was intended to counter another argument that was persistently bubbling up across the city—that the school-closing process was racist, and the schools were being closed because they served black students and, in many cases, employed black teachers. “What I cannot understand, and will not accept is that the proposals I am offering are racist,” Byrd-Bennett told members of the school board, local media, and assembled community members at a 2013 board meeting. “The greatest population losses in our city over the past decade have taken place in the South and the West sides. Underutilized schools in these areas are the result of demographic changes and not race.”

But this picture fails to account for two of Chicago’s least-favorite reasons for national notoriety: the city’s history of segregation and its public-housing system. Perhaps the demographic changes that drove enrollment numbers down at schools like Dyett—indeed, the very “utilization crisis” itself—did not arise by happenstance but through the machinations of where and how black people in Chicago have been allowed to live in the course of the last hundred years.

This approaches a very significant point that I’ve been thinking about lately, in response to some insightful academic and non-academic writing on the relationship of schools to urbanization. Cities are habitats for humanity, but what sort of habitat, and what sort of humanity, are subject to the vicissitudes of urban ecology. In the past, of course, Chicago sociologists posited that this ecology was akin to natural ecological secession, accommodating difference and facilitating gradual assimilation through spatial mobility out of ethnic enclaves and ghettoes. This view has always been insufficiently attentive to the use of political power to manipulate that environment, which is particularly important today in light of the aggressive neoliberal redevelopment efforts cities like Chicago are undertaking, where leaders have rejected the traditional urban burden of housing and educating the poor.

And, language like that Byrd-Bennet uses in the quote above is particularly important, because it signals the willingness of reformers to appropriate the language of earlier educational justice and civil rights advocates to advance reforms that are in fact deeply regressive. The material deprivation of poor and Black children becomes a justification for actually removing the vestiges of educational institutions from their communities.

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