BRONZEVILLE — A docuseries premiering Tuesday will show the lasting impact of segregation on Chicago residents — and highlight the efforts of those working to disrupt it.
“Firsthand: Segregation” is part of WTTW’s multi-year initiative to shine a light on social issues through the perspectives the people directly experiencing them. Previous iterations of the “Firsthand” series included deep dives into the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence and living in poverty.
“Firsthand: Segregation” kicks off 7 p.m. Tuesday. Community screenings and conversations led by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Tonika Johnson, creator of the Folded Map Project, will be held throughout the year. Expert talks and a companion guide for schools and libraries will also be available. Click here for more information.
Chicago has long had a reputation for being one of the United States’ most segregated cities. A 2017 Metropolitan Planning Council study found segregation had cost the city billions of dollars in income, thousands of college degrees and hundreds of lives every year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Black Chicagoans looking for opportunity elsewhere.
“Firsthand: Segregation” producer Latesha Dickerson spent most of 2021 interviewing residents and community leaders for the project — but her Chicago knowledge goes back decades. The daughter of a grocery store butcher, Dickerson is “a Chicago girl through and through,” a product of Chicago Public Schools who returned to work as a science teacher, leaving the field after 20 years to produce documentaries.
Dickerson has seen how the racial divide has affected her life professionally and personally, which has influenced her work, she said.
Dickerson said she can count on an equal number of fingers what she loves and hates about Chicago, and she feels compelled to do what she can to help it become better. When “Firsthand” director Dan Protess asked her to join the team, she had to do it, she said.
“People are finding ways to make conscious decisions in a segregated city. Working on this project made me explore my relationship with Chicago and interrogate my choices,” said Dickerson.
Dickerson interviewed leaders in housing, education and violence prevention for the series.
The series will show the historical roots of segregation — and how it’s kept alive in modern times.
Nan Brown, an 80-year-old Park Ridge activist working to diversify her community, and Courtney Jones, a New York transplant using his Realtor expertise to combat rapid gentrification in Bronzeville, are among those shown in “Firsthand: Segregation.”
Jones, who moved to the community in the mid-aughts, has witnessed the rising cost of housing — and how Black families are unable to afford it. Forty-one percent of Grand Boulevard residents made less than $25,000 per year 2015-2019.
“The average median income for Bronzeville can’t afford properties being sold in Bronzeville,” said Jones, who runs Re-CHRG, a brokerage firm with his wife, Sanina Jones.
Ongoing discriminatory lending and appraisal practices have continued to depress wealth in Black and Latino neighborhoods. WBEZ and City Bureau reported in 2020 that more than 68 percent of the dollars loaned to buy homes went to Chicago’s majority white neighborhoods. Just 8 percent and 8.7 percent went to majority Black and majority Latino areas, respectively.
WBEZ also reported in 2021 how racial disparities in Chicago-area home values are growing.
Jones also is executive director of the Black Coalition for Housing, a Near South Side nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing blighted areas and creating affordable housing. As part of that work, Jones has been trying to get more Black developers into residential real estate, doing things like “buying the block” to develop neighborhoods for affordable housing, he said.
“Real estate ownership, increasing the Black homeownership rate and building Black wealth through real estate is one of the main ways we see the Black community being able to live out an American dream that is rightfully theirs,” said Jones, who also serves as assistant treasurer of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers.
While local and national governments need to do more to combat the factors that create segregation, Jones said more people from the community also must invest in where they live. He said he thinks it’s critical to buy up vacant lots and distressed properties to make them less attractive to “institutional investors” attempting to swoop in, which forces prices to level off.
Like Dickerson, the Realtor hopes the docuseries “will be a B-12 shot” for those who believe in democracy and housing.
“As folks get a little weary from this fight, hopefully this picks their energy level back up,” Jones said.
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