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Houses Divided - In downstate Illinois - and cities across the country - government policies are keeping racial segregation firmly rooted in place.

Written by Daniel C. Vock, J. Brian Charles, Mike Maciag

This story is the first part of a series on segregation in Illinois that resulted from a six-month Governing investigation.

It didn’t take Silas Johnson long after he moved to Springfield, Ill., to identify the border that separates the black section of the city from the white one.

Growing up in Mississippi as the civil rights movement swept through the South, Johnson knew about dividing lines. In the town of Macon, blacks knew to stay on their side of the railroad tracks. “It wasn’t something that was taught,” he says. “It was just something that was known.”

After he graduated high school in 1973, Johnson left the South to join his brother in Springfield, the state capital and former home of Abraham Lincoln. But Johnson soon discovered that race relations in his new home weren’t much better than what he’d left behind. Blacks and whites attended separate schools. Blacks were excluded from certain professions. 

And just like Macon, Springfield cleaved in two along racial lines, with railroad tracks again marking the split. This time, it was the Norfolk Southern tracks alongside Ninth Street. East of the tracks, the neighborhoods were predominantly black, and many blocks were pockmarked by vacant houses and boarded-up businesses. West of the tracks, the neighborhoods got progressively whiter and wealthier. “I experienced a lot of racism here. It was more covered up than it was open,” says Johnson, now 63. “In the South, blacks stayed in certain areas and so did whites. That’s the same here now in Springfield.” 

That pattern persists in cities throughout the state. In fact, according to a new Governing investigation, segregation between blacks and whites is worse in most of Illinois’ metropolitan areas than in demographically similar areas around the country. It’s particularly bad in large metro areas, and certainly the Chicago region is the most segregated in Illinois. But the state’s smaller cities are also disproportionately segregated. 

Springfield may have launched the political careers of Lincoln and Barack Obama, but it is among the worst third of American cities in terms of black-white segregation, according to our analysis of federal data. Both the Springfield and Champaign-Urbana metro areas are more segregated than that of Charlottesville, Va., or the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley area near Mobile, Ala., even though they all have similar populations and percentages of black residents. Peoria -- the veritable shorthand for Middle America -- is the country’s sixth most racially divided metro area in terms of blacks and whites. When it comes to schools, we found that the Peoria area is the most segregated in the nation.

The truth is that segregation isn’t limited to the South, or to large cities. America’s racial divide, in fact, runs right through the Heartland. 

Governing conducted a six-month investigation into segregation in downstate Illinois, and why and how it has persisted there. We spoke with more than 80 people, including mayors and other city officials, legislators, sociologists, attorneys, school district officials, historians, community activists, housing experts, and both black and white residents. We analyzed 50 years’ worth of U.S. Census data for economic and demographic trends, along with both state and federal school enrollment data. We also drew from hundreds of pages of court documents, information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, several books and dozens of academic reports.

What emerged was a picture of the way segregation continues to shape and reshape metropolitan areas in Illinois and, indeed, throughout many parts of the country. In these cities, segregation means not just a physical divide, but a huge disparity in resources. White areas of town benefit from more development, better infrastructure and more accommodating government policies...

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The Shadow of History   

Silas Johnson moved to the East Side of Springfield when he arrived in 1973 looking for work. He found jobs as a shoeshiner, a dishwasher and a janitor. In search of something more stable, he applied for several apprenticeships with trade unions. The federal government was ramping up its affirmative action policies at the time, so companies needed black workers to qualify for federally funded work.

Johnson managed to take the test for an apprenticeship with the electrician’s union, but was rejected. The Urban League had to sue to get the local union to accept minorities -- including Johnson -- into its apprenticeship program.

One day, while installing wiring in a stairwell at a new library at a local university, Johnson told a white electrician he was working with about the trouble he’d had getting into the program.

“Oh yeah,” the electrician told him. “I was sitting on the board.”

Johnson asked if he had failed the test.

“No, you didn’t fail. I just voted against you,” Johnson remembers the older electrician saying.

“Why did you vote against me?” Johnson asked.

“I just didn’t like you,” the man said, “because you were black.”...

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One Neighborhood at a Time

Bringing affordable housing to Springfield’s East Side is exactly what Silas Johnson is trying to do, and he’s already made a lot of progress.

Johnson made a good living as an electrician. He went to work for the city, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a house. But in 1984, when he was 29, Johnson took on another job, too, as pastor of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on the far East Side. He saw firsthand what decades of disinvestment had done to the immediate neighborhood around the church. Clutter and tall weeds filled vacant lots. People were dealing drugs across the street, and the houses next door were rundown eyesores.

He knew he needed to act. “In order to control your neighborhood, your area, you need to own stuff around you,” he says. “You can’t wait on everybody else.”

The church started acquiring property, so it could have the trees trimmed, the grass cut and the drug-dealing eliminated. Johnson also created a nonprofit to buy rundown houses from absentee landlords, fix them up and sell them to neighborhood residents at a low price.

The nonprofit’s original plan had some serious weaknesses. One reason why people hadn’t already been buying homes on the East Side is because they couldn’t get a loan from the bank. Either their credit wasn’t good enough, or the banks didn’t want to invest in an East Side property. One drawback to living in a predominantly black neighborhood is that property doesn’t hold its value well there, because whites generally don’t want to live there, lowering the property’s marketability. The other reason was the homes themselves. Not only were they old, but, because they were old, they tended to be small and crowded onto lots just 40 feet wide. The city of Springfield started mandating that lots be at least 60 feet wide in 1966, but the houses predated that requirement.

So Johnson worked with a developer to come up with a different approach. The nonprofit, Nehemiah Expansion, would build its own single-family houses using the federal low-income housing tax credit. The tax credit allows corporations and other big taxpayers to reduce their taxes by funding affordable housing through credits bought from state agencies. The states then distribute the money they raise to projects on a competitive basis.

What that means is that it costs Nehemiah substantially less to build new housing. The nonprofit also borrows money at low interest rates from the Illinois Housing Development Agency (IHDA), which it pays back using the rent paid by occupants. And the city and other creditors agree to remove the liens they hold against some of the vacant homes, sometimes using the in-kind contribution as a tax write-off.

As for the houses, Nehemiah looks for places it can buy three 40-foot-wide lots next to each other and split them into two 60-foot-wide lots. That’s enough to build one of five models of houses, with anywhere from two bedrooms to four bedrooms, a laundry room and a one-car garage.

But the real impact of the houses comes at the end of 15 years, when they’re permitted to go on the market. The renter in the unit gets first dibs, and he or she only has to pay what Nehemiah owes IHDA, but not the cost covered by the tax credit. The theory is, in other words, that occupants could buy a $70,000 house for $50,000. That would give the buyer instant equity, something that’s long been in short supply in black neighborhoods, and signals to the market that homes can sell on the East Side.

Nehemiah has built 80 new homes so far, with plans for more. The first batch of 20 homes will go on sale in about three years. Most of Nehemiah’s renters are black, although several are white. “When we started this project, [this area] was 75 percent rental, 25 percent owner-occupied housing,” Johnson says. “My goal is to reverse that whole trend, to go back to being 75, 80 percent owner-occupied.”

It’s certainly an ambitious goal, considering just a third of people in surrounding neighborhoods own their own homes. But it seems to be one that’s paying off already. For several blocks on the East Side of Springfield, resources available to black residents such as quality housing and perhaps even home equity seem to be slowly building, rather than constantly draining as a result of racial segregation....

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