CN December 6 2018

A thriving suburb advertises itself as “close enough to the city for industry — far enough away for good clean suburban living.” And it was close, too -right next door to Chicago across from Riverdale on the far south side.

But over a few short years thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs in steel and manufacturing just disappeared, with nothing to replace them. Many of the most-white residents, while not rich, have enough resources to move away in search of other jobs, and they do, quickly. Suddenly, hundreds of well-maintained mid-century houses are on the market for unusually low prices.

African-American Chicagoans, striving for years to find a better alternative to to their violent, under-resourced neighborhoods recognized an opportunity. They moved, by the thousands, in a very short time-span, into this community that represented, to them, a great opportunity.

But the lack of jobs, the steadily-rising inability to pay property taxes and mortgage foreclosures begin to take their toll. Within 20 years, Dolton becomes a poster-chid for suburban poverty.

A stunning history of the decline of Dolton (and by comparison, a cluster of similar suburbs adjacent to it) has been presented in a reporting collaboration between the BGA and WBEZ.  You can read Casey Toner’s written narrative for the BGA here. And you can listen to Miles Bryan’s audio reports for WBEZ here.

Both reporters appeared on this week’s Chicago Newsroom.

“The Great Recession just had this enormous effect on these communities, Toner explains. “The housing market especially was just devastated. I was talking to an academic at UIC and one of the things she told me that stuck in my mind is that people that can move do. There’s always people in Dolton that bought these houses and when that recession hit the value of their homes has plunged by more than 30%, and so there’s all these houses that are under water and it keeps people kind of locked there, because if they leave they just take this giant hit on their home value. And so just by staying in a town like Dolton or staying in a town like Calumet City or Harvey or any of these suburbs people are just losing money and if they leave they are also losing money, so it’s kind of a lose/lose situation for some of these struggling residents.”

“But conversely,” Bryan responds, “there are still people coming to Dolton from Chicago in this interesting way where there are folks who still –  even for all its problems – see Dolton as somewhere where they can have a better situation than they did in some of the hardest parts of Chicago. Something we encountered really early on is if you talk to folks,  if they’ve been around for a while and you say, “How’s it going?” generally people say, “Things have gotten worse.” I mean that was almost the entirety of what we got. And then if you say, “Why?” I can’t tell you how many times I heard a variation on this answer which is, “There’s more renters now. There’s more people from the city. They don’t take care of things.”

“And you see it in the language of some of the white folks who we talked to,” he continues, “who would say, “Oh I’m not racist, but these people didn’t know how to live in the suburb. They didn’t know how to cut their lawn. They didn’t know how to do their gas, their water bill.” You see some of that language strangely coming back up now in some of the homeowners who are almost entirely black talking about renters. And so it was just something that I thought about a lot which was how do you break this cycle of economic downturn, fueling, a lot of times irrational fear of the other, the new arrival that sends the village into sort of a faster downward spiral?”

We talk in depth about Dolton’s schools, its indebtedness, its occasional three-person police shifts and the fact that today there are more suburbs mired in poverty than there are larger cities. There are no easy solutions, because often the citizens of these towns reject proposals that might seek solutions outside their own city councils, such as consolidation with other suburbs as a way to build more influence with state and county governments.

And we also discuss the rise of tax-purchasing companies, which swoop in to purchase delinquent taxes. Homeowners can usually buy their homes back from these companies, but only after having to raise, perhaps, tens of thousands of dollars to settle the debt. We ask why  there can’t be a non-profit alternative, and their answer is essentially that, since the county always gets its money under the current system, there’s no real need for government to seek a more equitable solution.

You can watch our discussion by clicking the image above.

You can listen to the audio of this show here.

You can read full transcript of the show here.CN transcript December 6 2018


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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