By Gerald Taylor
Modern-day Chicago is known for her Magnificent Mile, that stretch of opulence where designer names drip from the shops like diamond pendants, and the cost of retail space soars almost to the heights of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or even New York City’s Fifth Avenue. But Chicago has another magnificent landscape: a seven-mile stretch, where the wealth has been measured more in terms of its cultural cache. The names associated with the place are designer in a more substantive way, for example: journalist and activist Ida B. Wells; author Richard Wright; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks; first Black woman pilot Bessie Coleman; baseball’s Negro National League founder Andrew Foster; rhythm and blues singers Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Even Louis Armstrong claimed this section of Chicago as his home.
The community dubbed itself Bronzeville, an obvious reference to the skin color of the people who lived there. The neighborhood began forming during the Great Migration, as Black southerners escaped the overt oppression of the South, sought industrial jobs, and settled there. The area pulsed with the sights, sounds, and tastes of the new transplants. It grew so much in population and vibrancy, it became known as the Black Metropolis for its intersection of Black arts, commerce, and religion. During its heyday, more than 3,000 people lived in that narrow stretch of South Side Chicago.
By then, Chicago’s manufacturing sector had grown from the earlier metal working industries. In the mid-19th century, mills located to her rivers for access to water and the abundance of inexpensive land. They produced steel, pig iron, and coke. By the beginning of the 20th century, steel mills in Chicago had exploded in size and were selling large quantities of steel products to companies building railroads and bridges. As the steel industry expanded, it also consolidated — and giants emerged.
U.S. Steel and Wisconsin Steel together employed tens of thousands of workers. Many of Bronzeville’s residents worked at the steel mills and were able to provide a decent living for their families while also contributing to the sustainability of their neighborhoods. New Deal legislation in the 1930s helped even more by making it easier for workers to unite in a union. By 1970, the United Steelworkers had more than 130,000 members. African American members had become one of the prominent USW ethnic groups. At about the same time period, steel production in the Illinois-Indiana region began to peak, rising to become the geographic center of the U.S. steel industry.
But steel produced overseas was allowed to overtake the U.S. product, and the U.S. steel industry suddenly collapsed. It was stunning; especially to the Chicago area that had once seen 200,000 people employed by her steel mills and steel-related manufacturers. Two hundred thousand families had been able to buy homes and cars, and contribute to the tax base that kept their communities comfortably livable. Jobs were slashed. Economic and emotional upheaval followed, as those suddenly unemployed scrambled to adjust. By the mid-1980s, Chicago’s steel industry had been eviscerated — and so had many of her neighborhoods built and kept viable by the manufacturing sector, especially Black neighborhoods like Bronzeville.
Industrial flight is devastating to all communities, but the devastation is even worse in those Black communities that depend on the stability of manufacturing jobs. Black neighborhoods take longer to recover — if they do at all. Crime increases, while city services, due to the shrinking tax base, decrease. Those who can, leave. Those who cannot, remain — often on a course to chart a horrible legacy of generational poverty. Adding even more to the tragic demise, the jobs lost in the manufacturing sector are generally replaced by low-paying non-union service sector jobs.
Strolling along the Magnificent Mile, it appears that Chicago has recovered from the plague of products being unmade in America. In reality, that stretch of opulence is indicative of the disparity industrial flight has ushered in: stores filled with goods made overseas that seldom can be afforded by those Chicagoans whose livelihoods depended on manufacturing jobs that have left the United States.
The gap can be closed. Fair trade policy that does not disadvantage American manufacturers can stop the flood of goods made overseas. Proper investment in Infrastructure could fuel the manufacturing sector even more. Smart workforce training can ready those frozen out of Chicago’s new economies.
Communities like Bronzeville don’t aspire to become the Magnificent Mile, and they will not. But they can recover some of their own magnificence lost.
Gerald Taylor, a Black fellow with the Alliance for American Manufacturing and a Georgetown doctoral student, is the author of “Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities.” This new report released by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, not only identifies the roots of the problem to industrial flight, but also provides a three-pronged approach to a solution that could restore these communities and improve American’s investment infrastructure. “Chicago’s Magnificent Mile: Magnificence Lost” was the first of five compelling vignettes written to bring greater awareness to the issues of industrial flight by telling the stories of five cities in a series called, “Tale of Many Cities.”