Local resident wants journalists to do a better job of writing about the West Side

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As a relatively long-time Austin resident (10 years now), I am constantly dismayed by the mainstream media’s equivalence of Austin and “Greater Englewood” (Englewood and West Englewood combined) as neighborhoods plagued by rampant crime.

Yes, Austin has its problems. But for the most part, I have enjoyed living here, and it has felt as safe as, if not safer than, other neighborhoods in which I have lived over my 20 years in this city (Humboldt Park, West Town, even Wrigleyville). Every year I see improvements, and I feel there is an enormous, unrealized potential with the great housing stock and generous lot sizes in many parts of the community.

But yet again last week, The Chicago Tribune published a doozy of a comparison between the two places that prompted me to write the letter below to the reporters who authored it:

Dear Antonio Olivo, William Mullen, Dahleen Glanton and Tribune editors,

I would like to call your attention to yet another instance of irresponsible journalism with regard to the Austin neighborhood that perpetuates myths about the area and aids in slowing the pace of the continued revitalization that has been gradually occurring over the 10 years in which I’ve lived here.

I am referring specifically to this passage in the June 23rd article about Englewood: “Many of problems [sic] in Greater Englewood trouble a number of neighborhoods already on the brink, like Roseland to the south, where 8,100 residents left in the decade, or Austin on the West Side, which lost 19,000 residents.”

It is just irresponsible to compare one of the largest geographic-area neighborhoods in Chicago with one that is far smaller. The problems of Greater Englewood do NOT trouble much of Austin.

This is one of the biggest and most common errors when comparing neighborhoods – because population densities are different and the land areas are different, you are comparing apples and oranges.

“Austin” is a varied and mixed neighborhood – even former Mayor Daley mentioned to me when I spoke about Austin at a public meeting that the neighborhood designation spanned too great of a geographic area and that this was a root cause of a lot of the problems – he actually suggested splitting it up into smaller areas.

You mention in your article that the two Englewood neighborhoods combined are “roughly six square miles.”

Well, Austin is roughly 15 square miles, if not more, depending on which boundaries you choose.

Please be responsible and stop comparing “Austin” (or even worse “the West Side”- about which I have complained in letters to the Tribune before) to Englewood/West Englewood and other small, particularly troubled areas.

Maps, in which statistics are arrayed by neighborhood, can be particularly misleading, and the Tribune is a terrible offender in this respect (see Mark Monmonier’s book How To Lie With Maps if you want to study the issue in greater depth).

I welcome any of you to come sit with me on my front porch or take a walk around my part of Austin. It is not a perfect neighborhood, but it is solidly middle class, with little crime (lots of parts of Logan Square and Rogers Park have worse crime than my part of Austin), and comparatively few foreclosures (there are far more in most Northside neighborhoods due to the condo crash).

There are parts of Austin that are even nicer than my part, too (like north of the Green Line tracks near Oak Park) and the “Island” and the Galewood part of Austin. And yes, there are some pockets of Austin that are in trouble (probably equivalent in geographic area to the size of Englewood), but you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water – and I don’t think any part of Austin is in as bad a shape as Englewood.

Thank you in advance for practicing more responsible journalism in the future.

Sincerely, Anna Friedman Herlihy

(In my haste to get the letter off to the Tribune, I overestimated the geographic size of Austin. Wikipedia, using 2000 U.S Census data, says Austin is 7.2 square miles – although it is unclear what boundaries they are using – and City-Data.com says it’s 8.15 – although it leaves out much of Galewood. Austin also has a far, far greater population than the two Englewoods combined. According to the 2010 census, Austin’s population is 98,514 while “Greater Englewood” is 66,159, with Englewood at 30,654 and West Englewood at 35,505.)

I might also add here, that population declines are not always bad things nor necessarily motivated by negative outcomes. Perhaps, and I am hypothesizing here, one root cause could be a rise in income level in Austin over the past 10-year census period (rising incomes are usually correlated with declines in the number of household members, particularly of multiple generations of adults under the same roof since less assistance is needed to pay the rent or the mortgage).

Perhaps, hypothesizing again, it might be partially due to more teens graduating high school and going on to college, leaving empty nesters in place of what had previously been a trend toward households with adult children resident. For the Tribune to assume the worst, with any Austin statistics, privileges trite (and untrue) stereotypes over evidence-based research.

That the Tribune, in a follow up June 24th to the article mentioned above, left out mention of Austin is both a testament to the power of letter writing and a glimpse of hope that perceptions can be changed. I urge my fellow community residents to speak up when you also read such misrepresentations founded in inaccurate stereotypes!

Anna Friedman Herlihy teaches at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is close to completing her PhD in history of culture at UC.

3 thoughts on “Local resident wants journalists to do a better job of writing about the West Side

  1. Thank you for being my voice. I could not have articulated as well as you have here. I have been in South Austin for 19 years and I love it. We have some obstacles to overcome, but I don’t think we are as challenged as Englewood…..not yet anyway. With diligence and prayer “We will overcome!”.

  2. Pingback: Chicago neighborhoods – Are journalists unfairly portraying Austin?

  3. It’s wonderful that you are championing Austin. I was born and raised in Austin (as were my parents and grandparents) close to Division and Lawler. I have been extremely sad to see what has become of it, but I am glad to hear it’s getting better. This is a neighborhood that was built with pride by hardworking immigrants and others who cared about their surroundings. Perhaps these same values can be instilled in the present generation of residents. I profoundly hope that this happens and that Austin becomes as beautiful some.ay as it once was.

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