The term ‘white flight’ entered dictionaries in 1967.
The timing makes sense. White people in cities around the country were leaving the communities they had lived for decades, if not generations, and moving away from their newly arrived black neighbors and toward the perceived safety and comfort of suburban living.
In Chicago, Amanda Seligman takes the measure of white people’s departures from the city’s West Side and concludes that the term, while having the oral appeal of rhyming, masks a more complex reality.
She explores this reality in Block by Block, a well-written and informative read.
Seligman makes several major points in the work.
She explains that many West Side communities, with the notable exception of Austin, were struggling and politically unconnected compared with other neighborhoods before the influx of black people from the South after World War II. In one of the book’s particularly engaging sections, she writes about West Side communities’ unsuccessful efforts to get the University of Illinois to locate its Chicago campus there. The failed attempt reveals both the area’s limited clout and racial motivations and many residents saw it as a way to keep black people out of the neighborhood.
More basically, though, Seligman complicates the notion of white flight.
She argues convincingly that leaving was the last of an array of strategies white people employed to stay in their neighborhoods. These methods ranged from violence and intimidation, as evidenced in Cicero and Englewood, among several communities, to integration efforts, such as occurred in Austin. Gale Cincotta, the venerable community activist who is featured prominently in Alyssa Katz’s Our Lot, is a significant figure in this section of the book.
In the end, though, these attempts at integration do not succeed, and, as Seligman shows through census data, the formerly white neighborhoods became almost exclusively black and continued on a downward spiral. Seligman’s book provides a more textured understanding of the steps that preceded the fall.