Women’s History Month: Amanda Seligman takes it Block by Block

Amanda Seligman deepens our understanding of white flight in Block by Block.

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.

Hillel Levine and Larry Harmon told this story about Boston’s Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods in Death of an American Jewish Community.

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.

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2 responses to “Women’s History Month: Amanda Seligman takes it Block by Block

  1. I’m looking forward to reading this book. There were so many amazing and influential organizers from that time and area.

    One person that I had a brief connection with and so admire is Lew Kreinberg, the author of “Street Signs Chicago” and founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. I understand he’s back in Chicago, after a stint in his native Mississippi.

    If you can track Lew down, I bet he would add some insightful and colorful commentary. I believe he’s also an old Hoopster.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Hey, Dany,

      Great to hear from you, my brother! Hope all is well with you and your family.

      I very much enjoyed Street Signs Chicago and met with Lew a few years ago while working on the series about King in Chicago. Didn’t know that he was a hoopster, and it only adds to his appeal for me.

      Regards to your crew from ours.

      Jeff

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