Stereotypes of the South Side
May 4, 2023
World-renowned museums, historic landmarks, scenic public parks and ornate architecture — these aren’t always what people think of when talking about Chicago’s South Side. Sometimes, these fundamental aspects are overshadowed by stereotypes and negative rhetoric about violence, poverty and instability. With U-High students representing the South Side and other parts of Chicagoland, do students see through the … Stereotypes of the South Side?
Cultural offerings overlooked
The South Side of Chicago is one of the most important urban areas in American history. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Jackson Park, is conventionally seen as the beginning of a great period for the South Side. Representatives from nations around the world created exhibitions showcasing their nation’s culture. The United States exhibitions at the event focused on showing off the scientific and cultural advancements of the country. This was a pivotal moment for the United States because it demonstrated that the country was becoming a leading power in the world’s new Industrial Age. In turn, Chicago, and its South Side, were the beating heart of this industrializing America.
While many of the landmarks and monuments from the event, including the Museum of Science and Industry, the Midway Plaisance Park and the Garden of the Phoenix —part of the Japanese exhibit at the fair — still exist today, the South Side has dramatically changed since then. Currently, the most commonly held perceptions of the South Side are overwhelmingly negative. Violence and poverty, instead of industry and innovation, are now what Americans think of when talking about the South Side.
However, various marks remain from the more prosperous periods in these neighborhoods’ histories. Museums and monuments, as well as some of the most robust parts of the Chicago public parks system, are in these neighborhoods.
Jay Molony, a senior who grew up in the suburbs but whose family moved to Hyde Park, has enjoyed exploring the different landmarks of the South Side.
The historical element is a little more interesting than the suburbs.
— Jay Molony
“They’re cool because they’re more actually significant in a way — there’s a statue that’s dedicated to a specific person, instead of, ‘Here’s a park, there’s a playground here,’” Jay said. “The historical element is a little more interesting than the suburbs.”
Chicago’s problems with violence are so well known, they have become an issue in national politics. Former President Donald Trump proposed deploying the national guard to the city to deal with the gun violence problems in the majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
William Montague, a senior whose family has lived in South Shore for three generations, thinks that the neighborhood has physically remained similar, but demographic changes damaged the neighborhood.
“It basically looked the same exact way it did. There was a cultural center and that was a big golf area; a lot of families golfed there,” William said about the former South Shore Country Club, a segregated institution which closed in 1973 but has been repurposed as a community space. “And then white flight happened, and pretty much everyone left, and I guess the neighborhood got worse.”
The South Side was highly diverse and populated largely by immigrant communities working in the steel and meat packing industries. Starting in 1910, the Great Migration drew thousands of Black people from southern states to the industrialized North, many settling in Chicago to seek opportunity and build new lives.
There was significant housing discrimination in Chicago — policies and practices such as redlining, which forced Black people to live in an area of the South Side called the “Black Belt.” Despite these policies, the area was not uniformly poor or Black. Hyde Park and Kenwood were wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods. The University of Chicago was founded in that area in 1890. During the 1910s and ’20s, Bronzeville was a hotspot of Black culture and business comparable to Harlem in New York.
The South Side has not always been the way that it is, and there’s no reason why it has to stay that way now. Recent years have shown positive signs. Developments, such as the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, are indicative of revitalization in the South Side.
“Property taxes in my neighborhood are basically on a skyrocket, especially because of the Obama library. I think that’s really improving my neighborhood,” William said. “I notice a lot more people having a good time, walking their dogs outside more often, than I have in previous years. That’s just something I’ve noticed. It’s definitely on an uprise.”
Boundaries of South Side viewed as subjective
At Lab, 45% of students reside in Hyde Park. To many students, both those who do and don’t reside in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago campus around our school has become a second home. After all, this school is in the South Side — and that sparks a different reaction out of everyone.
Students find that people make assumptions about Hyde Park based on South Side stereotypes, but they believe the South Side shouldn’t be generalized due to its large size and diverse neighborhoods. Students also believe the comments that students hear from outsiders on going to school in the South Side are fueled by harmful stereotypes.
According to Hyde Park resident Brandon Jones, a junior, living in Hyde Park is quite different from the rest of Chicago, but also from the rest of the South Side.
“I think Hyde Park, especially near UChicago, is a lot safer than the rest of Hyde Park,” he said. “I also think, though, that while it is different from the rest of Chicago, it’s in ways different than just safety. It has more suburbs vibes, and I find it more homey.”
The stereotypes he hears are dangerous.
“But I think the stereotypes of it being gang-infested and super violent are wrong and harmful, especially to the Black community, since the South Side is predominantly Black,” Brandon said, “and to make assumptions about Hyde Park based off that shows implicit bias.”
Sophomore Helen Kraemer, a resident of Lincoln Park on the North Side, hears similar stereotypes.
“I think Lincoln Park is different from Hyde Park in the way that soil and sand are; they’re just totally different and difficult to compare. Which is why I find it frustrating when people who aren’t familiar with Hyde Park make immediate assumptions about the South Side whenever I bring up Lab’s locations,” she said. “There’s just these associations with safety that are harmful to marginalized races when enforced.”
According to Hyde Park resident Blake Dunkley, a senior, the boundaries of what is considered the South Side is subjective.
People need to realize how big of a region it is and how different each little neighborhood within it is.
— Marie Hurley
“I just think it’s wrong when people clump all of the South Side into one box along with all their assumptions,” Blake said. “There’s Hyde Park, Kenwood, Englewood — a whole different and distinct collection the same way as with South Loop or Bucktown or Lincoln Park.”
Marie Hurley, a ninth grader who lives in Lake View on the North Side, feels similarly.
“When I hear South Side, I think of the entire bottom half of Chicago, which is just too big an area to generalize,” she said. “People need to realize how big of a region it is and how different each little neighborhood within it is. When I say I go to Lab, people just make generalizations of all of the South Side, which I think is odd, because Hyde Park is distinct, the same way every other neighborhood in Chicago is.”
University insulated from wealth discrepancies
You can tell a lot about Hyde Park just by looking at the sidewalks. In and around the University of Chicago, they’re pristine — neat squares of fresh cement march around every block, often shaded by lush trees during the day and lit by Victorian street lights at night. Walk a few blocks away from the university, however, and neglected litter and black spots of gum become more and more frequent, and scraggly weeds will poke through the cracks starting to show in the surface that seemed perfect just a few streets ago.
Chicago, especially the South Side, is seen as one of the most violent places in the United States. Many neighborhoods in the South Side do have a significantly higher rate of violent crime compared to other U.S. cities, but, while it’s close to many of these neighborhoods, Hyde Park itself is mostly an exception. Senior Nathan Greeley, who lives in Little Village, is surprised by how sealed off Hyde Park is from the rest of the South Side.
“Where we are right now, it’s almost as if we are in ‘University City,’ than the greater Hyde Park area,” Nathan Greeley said. “You look at a map of food deserts, housing prices, crime… In all of those, you are going to see a little ‘oasis’ around the university. There is a bubble. There is absolutely a bubble.”
Where we are right now, it’s almost as if we are in ‘University City,’ than the greater Hyde Park area.
— Nathan Greeley
Part of this isolation is due to the significant security measures the University of Chicago has taken since the ’60s to keep crime out of its home neighborhood. This goes beyond the university’s large private police force, whose jurisdiction extends well beyond the Hyde Park campus and into Woodlawn and Kenwood. The university pressured state legislature into tearing down older buildings at the fringes of the neighborhood, often home to Black and low-income residents, replacing them with commercial zones and much more expensive housing. Alleyways were made private and dozens of streets were converted to one-way traffic, making the neighborhood difficult to navigate for an outsider. The city worked with the university to seal Hyde Park off from the communities around it.
Geographically, Hyde Park might be in the southern part of Chicago, but its access to resources, culture and community are starkly different from its neighbors.
“I definitely feel safe around Hyde Park, despite where it is,” said senior Kajus Nakas, who lives in the Bridgeport neighborhood. “I think there are a few different definitions of the South Side — you can talk about the part of Chicago that is geographically in the south, but some people are talking about a very specific set of neighborhoods when they talk about the South Side.”
Hyde Park regarded as safer than nearby areas
Chicago’s South Side is famous for its diverse culture, historic neighborhoods and rich music. Despite this, the area is also challenged with the underlying assumption that those who reside in it are from low-income households.
While the average income on Chicago’s South Side is lower than that of the city as a whole, the area is often assumed to be exclusively lower income, and the income discrepancies that exist are often overlooked.
The median income of the South Side is $39,798, while the median income of the city as a whole is $62,097, according to a 2022 census from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency For Planning.
Hyde Park households have a median income of $52,423, nearly identical to that of Kenwood families. In comparison, households in the Woodlawn area have a median income of $27,541, according to the same census. Despite the varying economic situations, many students and residents assume that income in the South Side is equal across the board.
According to senior Ege Halac, who lives in Woodlawn, there is a disparity in wealth among the South Side, which can partly be attributed to expansion from the University of Chicago.
“The university also built some dorms really close so I think that this leads to that disparity and I think that definitely exists,” Ege said. “Especially since there is a limited area around the university and the university does need to expand their residents.”
Additionally, both neighborhoods have a significant discrepancy in wealth, something that is often overlooked, as the areas are stereotyped as low income: 16.2% of Hyde Park households make over $150,000, as do 4.3% of Woodlawn households.
Ninth grader Daniel Chang, who moved to Hyde Park from the western suburbs at the beginning of the school year, believes there is a presumption of a lower socioeconomic status for families that live on the South Side.
I think there definitely is an assumption of poverty if you live [on the South Side].
— Daniel Chang
“I think there definitely is an assumption of poverty if you live [on the South Side],” Daniel said. “There have been comments from my friends from my previous school.”
Sophomore Lyra Luu, who has lived in Hyde Park her entire life, acknowledges the assumption that the South Side is less wealthy than the North Side. She also believes that Hyde Park is unique from other neighborhoods in the South Side because of gentrification in areas near the university.
“Stereotypes about the South Side are that it’s the less wealthy side of Chicago in comparison to the North Side,” she said, “but I think it’s sort of different in Hyde Park, because Hyde Park is sort of gentrified, just because it’s right by the university.”
By the numbers
Here are some notable statistics about Chicago and its South Side.