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Scratch Me, and I Bleed Champaign: Geography, Poverty and Politics in the Heart of East Central Illinois

This essay will chart the geography of Urbana-Champaign from a hybrid point of view.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #17, November 1994

Legend (Instructions on How to Read This Place)

As all maps are unreadable without a legend, I offer you mine at the beginning. This essay will chart the geography of Urbana-Champaign from a hybrid point of view: considering it from the vantage point of the local African-American community (or perhaps, more accurately, a point of view sympathetic to that community, of which I cannot claim to be a part) and at the same time from my own point of view as a white graduate student trying to make sense of this place. By looking at the politics produced in local geography, I will develop a materialist account of Urbana-Champaign. Geography is a substance — and not just an instrument — of local politics. Real (that is to say, material) local conditions themselves produce the imagined geographies that seem to underwrite them.

Local Knowledge

Urbana-Champaign is a relatively quiet midwestern twin cities located three hours south of Chicago in east-central Illinois. We're just south of Interstate 74, and the last stop on I-72. The residential population is about 100,000; during the school year, the university probably adds about 25,000 to that number. Its not simply a university town, however. There are several major local industries: it supports factories for Kraft and Solo Cup, and its an old and thriving banking center. In fact, Urbana-Champaign is something of a regional center for a whole host of surrounding smaller towns. But the economy here (as in many other places) is not what it once was, and both towns are very concerned with 'image' issues, in terms of attracting businesses and in terms of attracting tourists. Thus, the promotional literature touts each town as having its own 'personality,' an over-generalization somewhat confirmed by my own experience.

Champaign is the larger of the two towns, originally growing up around a railroad station established just to the west of Urbana in the 1850s. Politically, it's a much more conservative town, both in its local ordinances and in its appearance. Downtown business interests, as represented by the Champaign Chamber of Commerce, essentially control the city council. Of the two towns, Champaign takes in a disproportionate amount of retail business. In all, Champaign operates along a suburban logic: outside the 'historic' downtown, strip malls, service industries and subdivisions organize the town's sociology and political culture. Complementing the retail provisions are new and expensive housing developments on the southwest and west sides of town.

Established in 1837, Urbana is one of the oldest cities in Illinois, and for some years was actually larger than Chicago (which is not to say it was ever very big!). Urbana is also the county seat, so it supports a healthy civil service bureaucracy. In fact, its status as a county seat has probably enabled it to escape some of the dominance of local businesses manifested in Champaign. Sales taxes are a little higher, local ordinances are a little more liberal, but Urbana's most defining feature is its 'historic' nature.

Although historic preservation has certainly influenced both towns, it is a defining characteristic of Urbana. The downtown is only a couple of blocks long, but it is well restored and decorated. Urbana is full of streetlights, but despite their relatively recent vintage, they look old. This would not be such a problem, except that they give off very little light. According to a national survey reported in the towns' promotional literature, Urbana is one of the darkest cities in the United States. Looking down my street at night, one sees two slightly crooked rows of glowing orbs, barely illuminating themselves.

As I've painted them for you, Urbana-Champaign's identities should sound fairly familiar — one town looks like a suburb of noplace; the other playing to its own, fabricated, 'historic' character. But a distinguishing feature of both towns, one that doesn't seem to come up much in the promotional literature, is the durable segregation of a significant number of their residents. According to the 1990 Census, roughly 13,000 out of just under 100,000 Urbana-Champaign residents are black. African-Americans, while clearly a minority in town, comprise a sizable segment of the population — and the largest 'minority.' Yet, despite a visible presence, the legacy of segregation remains — the majority of black residents live in a concentrated section on the northern end of town. Other kinds of poverty are similarly segregated — there are several trailer parks on the outskirts of town.

One could understand this segregation of race and poverty as perfectly consistent with the towns' economic strategies — both have moved toward service economies. Urbana must commodify itself: historic preservation is about commodifying public space in the service of selling an affect called 'history.' Unfortunately, in this model of history, poor street lighting appears to be more historic than any visible African-American presence. Poverty is never historic, it seems; at least, the tourism industry hasn't figured out how to market it. Champaign, for its part, is run by (mostly retail) business, and poverty is never good for a business image. So the city is busy passing ordinances to manage the homeless population and running drug busts. The county ran a referendum in the last election for the renovations and enlargement of jail space. There was no parallel referendum for an increase in funding for local schools. You figure it out. This is urban renewal in the heart of east-central Illinois. But despite these marketing strategies standing in for substantive social policy, the towns can neither wholly deny the existence of a significant local minority population; nor can they ignore a rich local history.

Becoming Black Urbana-Champaign

African-Americans have been a visible and active presence here for most of the towns' histories. The black migration began with the completion of the north-south railroad in the 1850s. This railroad connected Chicago with all points south, and Urbana-Champaign turned out to be a convenient stopping point along the way. According to a 1934 University of Illinois Master's Thesis by Janet Andrews Cromwell, most of the towns' early black residents settled here by default — they'd run out of money, or they were taking jobs along the way to Chicago. The flow of African-Americans into the county was slow but steady at first. The 1850 census listed 2 'free coloreds' in the county. By 1860, there were 41 blacks in the cities; by 1870, the population had grown to 163; and by 1880, that number grew to 462. Initially, this population was not clearly limited to one area: an 1878 survey shows black residents scattered throughout the towns. But by 1904, African-American residents were clearly concentrated in a northern part of town, bisected by the border between Urbana and Champaign.

Conditions in town were certainly better than in the southern United States, but not much better. Many blacks found employment through the University's Fraternity/Sorority system, and other low-paying service jobs. There was little industry in either town, and those higher paying jobs went mostly to whites. Thus, low rents attracted black residents to the northern part of town, and explicit segregation policies kept them there. At the time of Cromwell's research — in 1934 — many black residents lived without electricity, indoor toilets, or even running water. Industrious residents would obtain water from hydrants. In federally funded public housing, segregation was a matter of official public policy. Like many other towns, Champaign-Urbana had exploited Plessey v. Ferguson for all it could: movie theaters, restaurants, schools, and stores were segregated. Blacks were not allowed into Urbana's public Crystal Lake Park. As late as 1960, according to Esther Patt (Urbana City Council and Tenant Union Member), there were still segregated lunch counters in downtown Champaign.

The local black community has certainly made efforts to advance its cause. In 1951, the first family moved into Carver Park, a subdivision north of Bradley Avenue (a street now located in the heart of the black community). According to the Urbana Courier, the development was the first large-scale residential development here to be initiated with private capital entirely through black families. It's prime mover, Charles E. Phillips, was a black insurance agent and savings and loan executive who was frustrated with the poor living conditions of northeast Champaign (and by extension, northwest Urbana). By 1963, the Champaign County NAACP and the Champaign-Urbana Improvement Association were holding demonstrations against local discrimination in housing and employment. That year, three well-established and respected real estate firms each sold a home in a formerly all-white area to a black family. 1965 marked the first sale of a newly constructed home in a 'white' area to a black family. The first major effort at desegregating commercial establishments was in 1954, when there was a sustained — and eventually successful — struggle on the part of local blacks to desegregate barbershops, especially around the University of Illinois campus. Despite lauding the significant formal and legal advances made during the civil rights era, a 1968 League of Women Voters report tempered their enthusiasm by noting that such improvements in status of local African-Americans were, on the whole, 'largely illusory. The majority are confined to housing which is old, overpriced, overcrowded, and often below minimal standards.' It reported that despite the majority of local black families being renters, there was 'a critical lack of standard low-cost housing available to them.' Public housing was underfunded, substandard, and insufficient.

By 1981, the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette reported that although 'black families can now be found in all parts of the two cities,' the heaviest concentration of African-Americans — that is to say, the majority — still live in what the paper euphemistically called 'the traditional neighborhood.' Although redlining had long been illegal, the paper reported real estate agents steering black families to the black community. In 1985, the Champaign Public Housing Authority came under federal investigation for steering black families toward prefabricated public housing, while steering whites toward 'Section 8' programs where rent in privately owned housing is federally subsidized. African-Americans seeking public housing reported not even being told about the Section 8 programs.

Today, the community remains largely segregated. Public housing, and especially Section 8, are still riddled with problems. Esther Patt said that Section 8 has been a boon to private developers, who deliberately overcharge for so-called low-income housing. Since residents only pay 30% of their income toward rent and the government picks up the rest, rents soar. A 'low-income' 1-bedroom apartment is listed at $395 per month. A 3-bedroom apartment goes for over $900 a month. It is well known that landlords and realty firms overprice student housing, and students can find good quality 1-bedroom for considerably less that $395. I know these prices may seem cheap to readers residing in larger coastal cities, but consider that my partner and I pay $435 for a modest 2-bedroom duplex (and my rent's not particularly low). A big, old, beautifully remodeled 3-bedroom house one block north of me was up for rent at $750 a month. So-called 'low-income' housing is no bargain.

But there are no easy answers. Currently, the waiting list for Section 8 housing is 600 families long, and it is closed. Desegregating public housing presents its own conundrum at this point: (again, according to Patt) 90% of applicants for public housing are black. Achieving a racial balance in public housing at the point would literally mean discriminating against black applicants. For blacks not quite as poor, housing remains a problem. Rents take up a large chunk of family income, and if families earn enough to look into housing, problems persist. Both cities have uniform housing codes dictating up-keep, lawn-care, and the like; but a quick drive around town will make clear that said codes are selectively enforced. Housing conditions remain quite variable in the northern community. Well kept, modest sized houses will stand next to decaying structures that barely remain standing, but still house occupants. The building boom in southwest and west Champaign is mainly in privately owned subdivisions, which carry with them very clear demands for income level — the lot and the house have minimal size and maintenance requirements that effectively exclude lower and lower-middle income families. There have been about 8 new houses built in the northern/black community since 1990.


There is much to make one pessimistic about possibilities for positive social change here — not the least a somewhat depressed local economy composed mainly of professionals, students and service workers. Champaign county has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Illinois. Such an arrangement does not provide much in the way for upward mobility. Furthermore, the answer to poverty's problems for the black community and for the community at large is not simply a matter of desegregation or more equitable policies, although they would help. Consider that local realtors still hold seminars on how to spot if you're being inspected for racial steering.

Meanwhile, a significant faction within the black community seems to be moving toward a different kind of politics. Patt pointed out to me that there is now, more than ever, resistance in the black community to desegregation efforts. The line of thinking is that families who 'make it' — who can afford nicer housing — should remain settled in the community and help give it an economic boost. In other words, the geographic condition of the community becomes more important that the history of segregation. This idea is not new — after all, this was the net effect of the Carver Park development — but it is animating local policy in new ways.

Things could well improve for residents by their staying together at this point. Even though the geography of local blacks might appear determined by a history of segregation, the geography itself can be the raw materials for an economically vital and invigorated black community. This is a source of hope, and stands as a feasible alternative to the dispersion that a more rigidly historicist politics would rely upon. Integration at this point might well be disintegration. The point is not to spread out and disperse the black community, but to bring it together, keep it together, and make it strong. There never was an organic past when people lived happily integrated in east-central Illinois. There's nothing to say that a utopian future can't begin with the strength of a local community brought together by common interest, and perhaps by other common bonds. Given the contours of local social life, this is no easy task — but then, real social change never is.

Social space becomes an instrument in an historically-based politics, such as in the fight against segregation. But space can also take on a much more vital role as the substance of a geographic politics, one based first on the needs of place and belonging; a politics where history itself becomes one among many scarce materials. This is spatial materialism. The strategy of the local elite has been to market an imagined local geography to a real market, under the guise of 'historic preservation.' It makes sense that the disadvantaged elements of our community should devise their own spatial strategies to effectively combat a corrosive local geography.


I would like to thank the staff of the Urbana historical archives for their generous assistance in this project. I would also like to thank Carrie Rentschler and Joe Sartelle for their stimulating conversation and useful comments. This essay draws on a diversity of sources: newspaper clippings, first-person accounts, research reports, interviews, and a Master's thesis.

Jonathan Sterne is a graduate student in Communications Research and Critical and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently working on an historical geography of early American television, among other things. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1994 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.