Journalist Natalie Y. Moore grew up in Chatham on Chicago’s South Side, “a solid black middle-class neighborhood” where her college-educated parents worked as a teacher and a Shell Oil middle manager. In 1986, the family agreed to be interviewed and photographed for a Chicago Sun-Times feature story about viewers of “The Cosby Show.”
“In the tradition of being a good, upstanding Negro, my dad wanted to present a positive image in the news media by showing how we lived accordingly in black middle-class-dom,” Moore writes in “The South Side,” her ambitious study of one city’s legacy of segregation.
Mirroring Cosby’s Huxtable family for the media, Moore’s father happily took on the responsibility of representing his race because it fit with “his version of middle-class militancy,” writes Moore. He donned a tie to present a positive image while staying true to his black identity. She shoulders her own huge task: Examining segregation through the lens of her hometown’s shameful record and her vibrant personal story, starting with grandparents who moved North to the city during the Great Migration.
The investigation alternates between history and analysis, journalism and memoir. The chapters “Jim Crow in Chicago” (on the history of segregation) and “A Dream Deferred” (on subsidized housing) are recommended reading for anyone who wants to more fully understand the roots of current Chicago issues from teachers’ strike rumblings to police shootings of black teenagers.
Chicago’s race restrictive covenants and public housing policies created the city’s enduring segregation, which today imposes a downward drag on home equity — in effect, a “black tax.” Beyond housing, Moore writes, segregation also limits choices in food and schools, and leaves predominantly black neighborhoods more vulnerable to crime.
Moore, the South Side bureau reporter for Chicago’s WBEZ, draws on her past journalism to introduce Chicagoans affected by segregation or fighting its harms. Many intriguing figures come and go too fleetingly to make an impression — a resident of the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes gets less than a page.
Moore’s personal reflections, however, are honest and fascinating, making “The South Side” shine. She relates her hopeful purchase of a condo in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the loss she took when she sold it. She acknowledges her contradictions, embracing black cultural institutions while hating the economic injustices of imposed racial separation.
This complexity helps “The South Side” make a compelling case for keeping the cultural diversity of American cities’ ethnic enclaves, in contrast to the 1980s sanitized ideal of Huxtable assimilation, while striving to eliminate the high-poverty legacy of government-sanctioned segregation. Moore gives no clear path forward, but convinces readers that there’s value in the search.