Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.
After recently writing about how Hip Hop music got us through the Covid-19 pandemic, I dug deep into my own crates for this next one. I was a Chicago rapper in the 90s (the golden age of Hip Hop), fully immersed in the culture – with a knapsack on my back, shell-toe Adidas on my feet, and notebooks full of rhymes written in graffiti. I went by the name “24K” (long before the current “24KGoldn” rapper).
On June 17, 1994 I finished a demo tape with two audio engineers in a small studio on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. This was the same day that O.J. Simpson fled police in a white Bronco (we watched it with the sound off on a monitor while we worked like the music was the soundtrack to his drive).
With the recent passing of the rapper DMX, I reflected on how the pandemic brought new attention to the importance of music to get people through tough times. I recently spoke with El Da Sensei of the 90s Hip Hop group, Artifacts. I asked him what he thinks about the state of Hip Hop today. He told me simply, “I don’t”. Well said, but I should expect nothing less from one of Hip Hop’s finest golden-era lyricists. He went on to say how most Hip Hop music nowadays sounds the same and lamented the lack of originality. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Hip Hop. With a few exceptions, my digital Serato playlist is crammed with Hip Hop prior to 1999. I also love vinyl and original analog cassette tapes that take me back to the moment when I first fell in love with the music. Back in the day, some might have called my favorite sub-genre “underground” – before artists like Jay-Z, Nas, and Common became world famous. I centered up on groups like: The Artifacts, Black Moon, Jeru Da Damaja, The Pharcyde, and The Boogiemonsters. For me, on the South Side of Chicago, Hip Hop was my window to the world – a Black urban CNN in my headphones. East Coast microphone masters delivered lyrics of fury over boom bap beats while West Coast rappers told tales of street life over soul samples that felt like the breeze over the Pacific Coast Highway.
Much controversy has been raised over the recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue publishing 6 of its books due to racist representations. I applaud their reevaluation of the content and commend them for taking action. Some however feel that this a part of an overblown “cancel culture” or obsession with race. I reflected on this while I was rummaging through my parent’s basement and discovered an old children’s book that likely belonged to one of my older siblings. The book is called This is My Country by Jene Barr. First published in 1959 by Albert Whitman and Company in Chicago, the book’s cover depicts a 1950’s brand middle-class White family standing on a precipice looking out over a great mountainous American vista. Lawn chairs are positioned down slope near a towering American flag. The picture, along with the title, paints an American aesthetic with a clear underlying message — this is a great country, a beautiful country, a White country. The title is in all caps and the “My Country” is a clear statement to young White Americans — this land is yours and you are entitled to it. It also sends a message to non-White people as well — this land is theirs; this land belongs to them and not you. For someone who might say that I’m reaching and that this is an innocent children’s book devoid of racial under and overtones, let’s not judge it by its cover, or even take my word for it — let’s open it up for ourselves and see if there’s more evidence.
The above image is a landscape art installation by a friend and former Cornell classmate, Amanda Williams. Amanda took soon-to-be demolished homes in the Englewood area on the South Side of Chicago and painted them distinct colors that could be found elsewhere in the community. This one is called ”Crown Purple” for the purple Crown Royal liquor bag. Other homes were painted the color of fast-food products or fried chicken shacks. The work is a commentary on the colors that saturate communities of color in Chicago. The structures screamed that something isn’t normal here and forces the question, Why is Crown Royal purple a dominant and recognizable color in this community versus other colors? The home isn’t far from where I grew up.
There has been so much talk about equity and structural racism over the past few years that I think it’s important to establish some definitions. One definition of racial equity that I like is from Oboi Reed of Equiticity, a transportation and equity advocacy organization in Chicago. They define Racial Equity as “the fair, just distribution of resources, explicitly targeting and prioritizing racial groups who have the greatest need due to being systematically disenfranchised and using these resources to address both historical and contemporary injustices and their consequential burdens.” His definition frames racial equity as an active instrument that steers resources and opportunities to people and places that have been denied them.
Racial zoning and other tactics devised to exclude Blacks stem from the same cause: White superiority. Whites viewed Blacks as inferior and unfit to live together in the same community. Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton explain in American Apartheid, “Middle-class whites were repelled by what they saw as uncouth manners, unclean habits, slothful appearance, and illicit behaviors of poorly educated, poverty-stricken migrants who had only recently been sharecroppers.” Whites who were already influenced by predetermined fears were mortified at the invasion of this new group that they deemed subordinate and lacking adherence to their cultural standards. In 1970, surveys of White residents in San Francisco revealed that, “41% believed that blacks were less likely to take care of their homes than whites; 24% said that blacks were more likely to cheat or steal; and 14% said that blacks were prone to commit sex crimes.” A similar survey in Detroit at the time revealed that almost half of Whites in that city viewed Blacks as immoral. Civil Rights Attorney Vernon Jordan describes his family’s experience as the first homeowners to integrate Hartsdale, New York in 1970. As Whites curiously peered through his window, one woman who couldn’t contain her dismay, approached his wife in a drugstore and remarked, “I saw you and your husband and your daughter in the house, sitting down to the table having dinner. I did not know black people did that.”
W.E.B. DuBois observed of Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, “[Whites] regard color prejudice as the easily explicable feeling that intimate social intercourse with a lower race is not only undesirable but impractical if our present standards of culture are to be maintained.” In Sundown Towns, historian James Loewen suggests that the psychology behind excluding blacks can be traced to America’s very foundation. He reasons “`If the founding fathers…thought African Americans were `altogether unfit to associate with the white race,’ then let’s stop associating with them. And let’s do this, not by altering our behavior, but by limiting their choices – by excluding them.
Although Whites homeowners in the North used numerous organized methods to block the so-called assault by Blacks on their communities; organized resistance and violence were especially favored tactics. Between 1917 and 1921, there were 58 firebombing incidents. Many occurred during the summer of 1919 and several more continued for the next several decades in places like, Cicero, Bridgeport, and Trumball Park. Bloody urban turf battles followed upwardly mobile Blacks and was especially harsh on the first families with the means to integrate an all-White neighborhood. These pioneers were subject to written and verbal threats, mob violence, break-ins, beatings, shootings, lynchings, cross burnings, rock-throwing, bombings, and arson. Picketing outside a Black family’s home was another preferred form of harassment. Picketers reminded Blacks that they were unwelcome by holding signs in front of their property bearing epithets that read, “We Want This Neighborhood White!” and “We Want This Nigger Moved”. These cabals were well-planned or spontaneous groups that joined in on the agitation as a matter of course during their day. Often violent protests against Blacks was a family affair, as entire households (men, women and children) banded together with neighbors at various intervals throughout the day to ensure the intimidation was uninterrupted.
In far too many cases, zoning is being used to protect the narrow self-interest of a particular community without regard to the health, safety, and welfare of the community and the nation as a whole.
1971 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights excerpt (Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership)
America no longer talks about spics, wops, niggers but talks about density, overcrowding of schools to achieve the same purpose.
Former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stoke (Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership)
Zoning has been used by municipalities for the past century to steer environmental growth and direct land use agendas. On the surface, zoning was designed to prevent certain negligible land uses, like hazardous industry, from encroaching on residential and common areas. Although the language in many zoning ordinances historically expressed the desire to create spatial order and prevent environmental nuisances; it was in fact, used as a tool to divide the races and keep Blacks out of White neighborhoods. Keeanga-Yahmahhta Taylor in her book Race for Profit, describes the term “snob zoning” was coined during the civil rights era “as only the latest method of discrimination in the real estate market. Through local ordinances, ‘low-income’ renters and buyers were excluded on the basis of economic segregation, but that designation enabled the exclusion of Blacks and Latinos as well” (Race for Profit, p. 114). The first zoning ordinance was enacted in New York City in 1916 and proved so effective at controlling land and people that by 1936, 1,322 cities had zoning ordinances of their own. Chicago’s first zoning ordinance of 1923 stands as a good example of zoning’s racial intent. In Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Castel’s Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago, they write, “By determining what can be built or maintained in a given area, this [zoning] ordinance became a tool used to limit housing opportunities for low-income residents, particularly African-Americans.” As the late Professor of urban studies, Marsha Ritzdorf explains “While in theory the original zoning ordinances of the late teens and early 1920s were designed to protect all citizens against the intrusion of noxious commercial and industrial uses into their neighborhoods and to preserve property values, they were in actuality devices designed to keep poor people, as well as industry, out of affluent areas.” Urban historian Kenneth Jackson reinforces zoning’s racial origins in Crabgrass Frontier.
2020 was one of the most violent summers in recent memory on the streets of Chicago. Unemployment in some Black neighborhoods topped 30 percent and Black people died exponentially from Covid-19. Many only saw young Black men on the nightly news portrayed as menaces to society and wondered what’s going on.
The following are stories I compiled of three young Black men in a violence intervention program called Peacemakers. I spent the summer of 2014 working with them at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side. Some of these young men were former gang members who turned their lives around to become positive role models and disrupt the trauma that they were once a part of.
Meet Christian, Corey and Eugene.
The interviews with Christian, Corey and Eugene were originally published in St. Sabina Church’s newsletter, The St. Sabina Times in 2014. More on The Peacemakers violence intervention program was printed in the October 2013 issue of Ebony Magazine as a part of Shirley Henderson’s 6-part series “The Village Keepers” copied below.
With the recent reevaluation of racist images throughout American culture, from confederate statues to Aunt Jemina syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice, I took a look in my own closet to see what racist ghosts might still live. When I first graduated from college and got my first real job in Chicago, I set out to establish a professional business wardrobe. Like most young professionals, I wanted something that would set me apart with a certain sense of style. I thought — what’s more stylish than Brooks Brothers. The oldest clothing brand in the United States that’s outfitted presidents (Lincoln wore a Brooks Brothers suit to Ford Theatre the night he was assassinated and Barack Obama frequently stepped out in their brand – Figure 1). Brooks Brothers defined the look of diplomats and millionaires for generations, so of course I wanted that look. I later found however that the ageless style I was seeking was built on another tradition in American vogue — racism and slavery.
“Some of the ‘educated’ Negroes do not pay attention to such important matters as the assessment of property and the collection of taxes, and they do not inform themselves as to how these things are worked out.”
– Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
“…reorganizing the tax systems in the counties…that kind of thing’s pretty dry to most men”
– Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
The Kerner Commission report, released in 1968, studied the cause of massive race riots that disrupted cities across America in places like, Newark, Detroit and Chicago. The report concluded that, “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro cannot forget — is that where society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The report goes on to say, “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white –seperate and unequal.” Much has been written in recent years about the policies that led to the creation of the Black ghetto. Numerous books and panel discussions have illuminated the scaffolding that upholds the system that keeps Black families isolated in homes that fail to appreciate and generate the wealth of White households. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of the constellation of causal factors frequently kicked around like redlining, restrictive covenants, contract buying, and urban renewal that laid the foundations for housing inequality, spatial segregation, and the racial wealth gap today. The financial cost of these policies combined with the otherwise taxing low-wage jobs available to Black families that struggled to make ends meet in cities has been aptly coined “The Color Tax“. Continue reading “Hidden in Plain Sight – The Cook County property tax system and racial equity”→
Certain concepts in the planning sphere can be hard to make tangible for residents, but property taxes is not one of them. Kelwin Harris knows this reality well. As the director of outreach and engagement for the Office of the Cook County Assessor — which is responsible for valuing 1.8 million properties for tax purposes in and around Chicago — he and his team have been eagerly getting out the word that the the office, with all its political baggage, is changing. It’s committed to transparency and efficiency, including seeking better, more accurate data through SB1379, or the Data Modernization Bill, which would eventually reduce the backlog of appeals currently burdening the system.
Before he went to work for the Office of the Assessor, Kelwin worked in various capacities at the city and regional levels and in grassroots neighborhood economic development. He is a former senior outreach planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and prior to CMAP, he worked on Chicago’s South Side in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood as director of social services with St. Sabina Church and Catholic Charities. He held numerous roles in this community, directing programs and interventions to improve job skills, address food insecurity, combat violence, expose youth to colleges, and provide financial assistance for thousands of residents. He even served the City of Chicago as assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and acting chief of human infrastructure. Many lessons he learned in his previous roles and through his previous experiences make their way into his conversation with podcast host Courtney Kashima, AICP: how communities get the development they actually want, why the South Side of Chicago is far more multifaceted than its media portrayal, and how the Wu-Tang Clan helped a young Kelwin plug in to the world beyond his window. Continue reading “American Planning Association “People Behind the Plans” Podcast 11/14/2019″→
Chicago Fellows from The RSA recently hosted a panel discussion at North Park University in Chicago. The panel was moderated by RSA Fellow, Kelwin Harris, a Senior Outreach Planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and included the Provost of North Park University, Dr. Michael Emerson, along with community psychologist, Dr. Tiffany McDowell and sociologist and gentrification expert, Dr. John Joe Schlichtman.
The purpose of the discussion was addressing inequality and inclusive growth in Chicago in the backdrop of the city’s recent election of the first female black mayor. The Chicago region faces serious threats. Growth in uneven. Downtown is booming while many neighborhoods are struggling. Many black residents are giving up altogether and leaving. More than ever Chicago must address challenges to inclusive growth and provide strategies for prosperity for the good of everyone.