We hear a lot these days from candidates and political pundits about the hollowing-out of the middle class, but the meaningful consequences of that great change in our society extend well beyond who votes for whom.
Consider South Shore, a lakefront neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. It’s a study in stark contrasts: trim, house-proud bungalow blocks and desolate commercial strips with vacant storefronts; lovely parks and glorious lake views and neighborhood schools avoided by residents who have the wherewithal to send their children to charter, magnet or private schools; both Ph.D. holders and high school dropouts in numbers above the city’s average; a longstanding reputation for respectability and a grim litany of shootings in the news.
A majority of South Shore’s residents rent apartments in walk-up buildings — over one-third of them have incomes that fall below the poverty line. They, along with another third whose incomes put them above the poverty line but below the lower limit of the middle class, are the neighborhood’s have-nots. Unequipped by schooling or credentials to break free of dead-end work at the vulnerable low end of the labor market, they’re both stuck in place and drifting. In recent years South Shore has led the city in housing vouchers and evictions.
Single-family homes owned by the haves of South Shore occupy 70 percent of the neighborhood’s land area. Among them are over a thousand historic Chicago bungalows, arrayed in blocks that have a distinctive feel, both gracious and fortified, the houses ranked shoulder to shoulder on tight lots with well-tended lawns and yards. Once upon a time, the bungalow block was Chicago’s quintessential landscape of middle-class solidity and working-class confidence in upward mobility. These days, South Shore’s bungalow blocks have an air of besieged respectability: Iron bars on windows, dogs pacing behind high fences, alarm company signs and speed bumps mark the hardened boundaries between the two dispensations.
In South Shore, the local consequences of a national transformation take tangible form. We are moving from a familiar and somewhat fluid three-part system of social class — working, middle and upper, with what many regarded as a decent amount of movement between them — toward a more rigid two-part system: haves and have-nots, with very little upward movement. As the neighborhood’s middle class shrinks, recedes and ages out, it leaves a deepening divide that makes it hard for the haves and have-nots to see one another as neighbors.
As an Irish and Jewish neighborhood until the late 1960s and as a black neighborhood since then, South Shore has traditionally been a quiet, green bedroom community in the inner city with an enviable lakefront location. It was long known as a first-house neighborhood where police officers, nurses, bus drivers, postal workers, small-business owners and unionized city workers and factory workers climbed up into the middle class and tried to put their kids in position to aim still higher.
What happened to the neighborhood’s once-dynamic middle class? Some have left for the suburbs or the South, but an important movement has happened in the minds and habits of those who stayed. Educated professionals who once thought of themselves as solidly in the middle gradually became haves inclined to remove themselves from the disorder, danger and bother of public space and public life. Growing less likely to heed calls to action on the community’s behalf, they insulate themselves with money, technology and educational credentials. To do anything at all outside the home — buy groceries, educate the kids, see friends — they typically jump in the car and leave the neighborhood. It’s not that they suddenly got richer; they became haves by default as the have-nots increased in number and slipped farther behind them.
Because South Shore’s middle class has traditionally decided the community’s priorities and how to pursue them, the gap left by its hollowing-out makes it difficult for neighbors to get together to solve problems. In the 1970s and 1980s, residents came out in force to stop the local bank from leaving, shut down a notorious tavern strip and pressured the city to turn a defunct country club into the beloved South Shore Cultural Center. By contrast, recent efforts by elected officials and community activists to mobilize neighbors around the cause of replacing South Shore’s only supermarket after it closed in 2013 foundered in the split separating the priorities of homeowning professionals from those of marginally employed renters.
South Shore still has its fair share of citizens who are passionate about the neighborhood, but they have often shifted their investment of money, energy and sentiment from the community of neighbors to the physical neighborhood: a beautifully maintained house; a favorite spot in Jackson Park.
That’s especially true of the haves. Deborah, a longtime resident of South Shore who has made a career in philanthropy aimed at helping other neighborhoods overcome racial inequality, told me that “being on the lakefront is a joy and an honor,” but she also said: “My home is my sanctuary. It breaks my heart, but I turn away. I don’t walk around.” Maurice, a cop’s son who moved up from a bungalow to a bigger house, doesn’t park in his garage anymore because he located a weakness in his defensive perimeter. He parks at the curb out front, where one of his security cameras can monitor the car.
If you want to see what our cities are going to be like when we’re done reversing the great postwar expansion of the middle class, neighborhoods like South Shore are a good place to look. The shallower wealth that makes the status of the black middle class especially precarious also tends to suit it for the role of canary in a coal mine, and the continuing fact of residential segregation means that black haves tend to live closer to have-nots than do their white counterparts.
The lovingly maintained bungalows of South Shore look just as redoubtable these days as they did when I lived in one, on the 7100 block of South Oglesby, as a child in the 1970s. Nothing much may appear to be happening on a bungalow block at any given moment, but if you stand there long enough and pay close attention — and perhaps take a stroll down to the corner where the block intersects a once-bustling shopping artery abandoned by all but the poorest and most vulnerable — you can detect the tectonic grinding of vast economic and social forces at work beneath the surface of the neighborhood.
Carlo Rotella, a professor of American studies at Boston College, is the author of “The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.”
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【掌】【风】【靠】【近】【刮】【得】【脸】【生】【疼】，【苍】【墓】【下】【意】【识】【的】【松】【开】【手】【急】【忙】【后】【退】。 【只】【见】【一】【个】【人】【影】【从】【那】【草】【丛】【中】【窜】【了】【出】【来】，【将】【古】【漓】【晏】【揽】【入】【怀】【中】，【冷】【冷】【的】【瞪】【着】【自】【己】，【苍】【墓】【定】【神】【一】【看】，【竟】【是】【墨】【宸】！ 【只】【是】【让】【他】【感】【到】【奇】【怪】【的】【是】，【这】【个】【墨】【宸】【和】【刚】【刚】【离】【开】【的】【墨】【宸】【有】【些】【不】【同】…… 【墨】【宸】【低】【着】【头】【看】【了】【眼】【怀】【里】【已】【经】【昏】【倒】【古】【漓】【晏】，【再】【抬】【起】【头】【时】【目】【光】【阴】【冷】【看】【着】【苍】【墓】。
“【原】【来】【如】【此】，【利】【用】【冷】【热】【温】【差】【过】【大】【么】……” 【牧】【修】【文】【看】【着】【这】【一】【幕】，【瞬】【间】【明】【白】【了】【冉】【秋】【灵】【的】【意】【图】。 “【可】【是】【这】【样】【也】【有】【一】【个】【问】【题】。”【修】【千】【刃】【此】【时】【也】【来】【到】【了】【这】【里】，【他】【抬】【头】【看】【着】【天】【空】【上】【不】【断】【划】【破】【天】【际】【的】【火】【团】，【说】【道】。 “【是】【啊】，【有】【个】【严】【重】【的】【问】【题】，【冉】【秋】【灵】【不】【可】【能】【不】【知】【道】。”【牧】【修】【文】【眯】【着】【眼】【睛】【喃】【喃】【开】【口】。 … “【可】【恶】，【竟】【然】