Seeking: Diverse Childhood For Chicago Kid

October 9, 2014
Waters Elementary

Waters Elementary School in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. Credit: Mike Fourcher

It takes work to live a diverse life in Chicago. For someone raised by contentious, activist parents and who worked in minority Democratic politics for a dozen years, it’s an inescapable reality. And I’m beginning to believe that, unless my wife and I make some serious changes in where we live and how we spend our time–by deliberately seeking out diversity, nothing is going to change for us.

And let me be clear: By diversity I mean Latino and African American people. Asians. Native Americans. People of color. Brown people. I know that my neighborhood, Lincoln Square/North Center, is a generally higher income area, but not all of it (for now anyway). Yet according to the 2009 census, Lincoln Square is 61% white and North Center is 78% white. Why the heck don’t more people of color live in my neighborhood?

That’s a naive question, I know. Yet, I’m told my ZIP code has the highest number of Sierra Club members in Illinois. My ward was the one of the biggest vote getters for Miguel del Valle in the 2011 mayoral election. On the face of it, we’re a liberal, open community. So why don’t people of color feel welcome and want to move to Lincoln Square?

In fact, I feel like our community is getting even more lily white.

This year my son started kindergarten at our neighborhood elementary school, Waters Elementary. Since I once operated a community news site, I’d noticed that Waters seemed relatively diverse, with a significant Latino population, even hosting a fairly well-attended annual Dia del Muertos celebration. My wife and I, who both lacked diverse elementary school experiences, were looking forward to our son getting, “the full city experience.”

But something else important has been happening with Waters: relatively well-to-do families in Lincoln Square have been stuck in their mortgages, unable to move to the suburbs and unwilling to fork out tens of thousands of dollars a year for increasingly expensive private school. All of a sudden, over the last five years Waters Elementary has become, “a good neighborhood school,” where upwardly mobile parents volunteer in droves and plan to enroll their kids.

After the first day of school this year, Waters’ principal announced there would only be neighborhood kids in the Kindergarten class. Local demand was so high it could not take in children outside the Chicago Public Schools-defined boundary. In addition, the two kindergarten classes would reach the legal maximum of 33 kids each.

Sitting in evening orientation sessions, waiting on the playground for the morning opening bell to ring, my wife and I looked around and greeted the other parents of kindergarteners. They all looked like us: white professionals with a heavy sprinkling of white stay-at-home moms. Maybe a couple of Latino families–one a emigrant professional from Buenos Aires.

The diversity we had sought for our son seems to have eluded us.

Yes, the average single family home price is bumping up on $800k in the area immediately surrounding the school. And I recognize the average income disparity between people of color and whites is significant. Is it purely money? Or is there more?

But to ask a more concrete question: If I want my son to experience diversity in his childhood, do we need to move to another neighborhood?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Maybe you do.