EVANSTON, Ill. — Grey Avenue explains everything.
Start at the southern end and walk north, through three blocks of working-class families living in weathered houses. Some hold one family; others squeeze in two or more. The streets are clean, the yards tidy, the faces all Black. It’s the type of neighborhood where the cracked cement steps wait to get fixed because the foundation needs work, where flowers bloom next to chain-link fences and the cul-de-sac is too small to turn around your car.
Grey Avenue stops at a baseball field and the low-income Hill Arboretum Apartments, formerly the Evanston Community Hospital, which once was a haven for Black patients in this Chicago suburb. Across a footpath from the apartments is the North Shore Channel, a greenish-blue waterway dug more than a century ago to carry sewage from the Chicago River.
This stretch of Grey Avenue is in Black Evanston, also known as the Fifth Ward. For about a century, city policies and laws confined most Black residents to the Fifth Ward, which was hemmed in by the canal to the north and west, railroad tracks to the east, and Church Street to the south.
Today, although those racist policies have been eliminated, walking across the canal into white Evanston can feel like a journey back in time.
When Grey Avenue resumes a few dozen steps north of the canal, the four blocks of single-family homes look like a suburban paradise. There are stone walls instead of chain links, immaculately painted stucco, bees attending to landscaped flower beds. On the Black side of Grey Avenue, the most valuable home is worth about $650,000 and most are under $300,000, according to the Zillow website. On the white side, the most valuable house is worth $1.3 million, and only three are under $400,000.
Another contrast is the signs. On the white side of Grey Avenue, Black Lives Matter signs are everywhere. So are signs declaring that Love Wins or Hate Has No Place Here. The signs help explain why this liberal, wealthy city of 75,000 residents is the first jurisdiction in America to offer reparations to Black people. And when you look at all seven blocks of Grey Avenue, it explains why Evanston’s reparations might serve as a national model for compensating Black people who endured government-sponsored systemic racism — discrimination that hinders us to this day.
“This street is an example of how the entire city works, and the issues that brought us to reparations,” said Robin Rue Simmons, a former city council member who led the effort in Evanston. “It shows how differences in race are dictating our opportunities, our wealth and access for everyone in the community. The canal is that divide where you can see the drastic economic differences, the differences between the aesthetics of neighborhoods and community assets.
“This program alone in Evanston, if we do nothing else, is not nearly enough,” Rue Simmons said. “My hope is this is a spark, an instigator to do more.”
In March, after two years of research, proposals and community meetings, Evanston’s city council voted 8-1 to launch a “Restorative Housing Program.” The application period began on Sept. 21. In November, 16 applicants will receive $25,000 each in housing reparations.
To qualify, people must have identified as Black on an official document, be at least 70 years old and have lived in Evanston at some point between 1919 and 1969. The program defines these applicants as “ancestors.” The children and grandchildren of Black people who lived in Evanston during that time period, called “descendants,” can apply for future payments. The money will not be given in cash, but paid directly toward a mortgage balance, down payment on a home purchase, property taxes or home improvement contractor. The property must be in Evanston. It’s all funded by a tax on recently legalized marijuana sold in Evanston.
The first payments, totaling $400,000, are part of $10 million Evanston has pledged over a decade to begin repairing the damage caused by official city policies — the kind of racist damage that makes the divisions on Grey Avenue in 2021 look not that much different from 1961.
“When I bought my house, they only had certain areas we could buy in,” said Charles Henley, 75, who purchased a home on Grey Avenue in 1983 for $28,000. “That’s how it worked.” His house has two bedrooms, one bathroom and is 1,087 square feet, with purple-flowered plantain lilies lining the side of his property and a three-inch gap between his front door and the concrete top step. It sits on a corner, with a double lot and tiny detached one-car garage. The house is worth $188,600, according to Zillow.
A seven-minute walk away, on the white side of the canal, a Grey Avenue house with two bedrooms, one bath and 1,080 square feet is worth $398,200.
This type of contrast is evident throughout Evanston, a gorgeous, tree-lined city with abundant parks and Lake Michigan beaches, home to world-class Northwestern University, where the median home price is $391,400 and 13% of people live in poverty. The population is 67% white, 17% Black, 12% Hispanic and 9% Asian. The average Black household’s income is $46,000 less than that of white households.
I met Henley at a September reparations information meeting attended by about 30 people. He grew up in Evanston and qualified to apply for the program, which he’d like to use to repair his foundation and install new windows.
“If I get the loan, it would be great,” Henley said. I told him it would not be a loan. “Do I have to pay taxes on it?” he asked. No, the $25,000 would go straight from the city to his contractor.
Also at the meeting was Candis Murphy, a 36-year-old schoolteacher who plans to apply as a descendant. Her grandmother lived in Evanston before 1969. “Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and some people are not,” Murphy said. “Even though I didn’t experience the discrimination, it affected my parents and my grandmother, which means it affected me.”
Questions flew during the meeting, and the answer was usually yes: You can use part of the $25,000 to pay down your mortgage and the rest on repairs or improvements. Up to two recipients can use $25,000 each on the same property. You don’t have to already own a home, just be in the process of buying one. Ancestors can transfer benefits to a direct descendant. You don’t have to have owned property in Evanston between 1919 and 1969, just have lived within the city limits as an adult, or have a parent or grandparent who did.
“I’m not trying to create new barriers,” deputy city manager Kimberly Richardson told the gathering. “The whole point of this process is to remove barriers. When you think about it, it’s like, it can’t be true! This is too easy!”
Yet the road to this moment has been hard.
Reparations for Black Americans have been debated since the end of slavery, but the only people compensated were slaveowners, and the federal government reneged on a promise to provide freed slaves with 40 acres and a mule. In 1989, U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to create a commission to study reparations. He named it H.R. 40, after those vanished 40 acres. The bill went nowhere. Conyers reintroduced it, unsuccessfully, every year until his death in 2019. In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a powerful essay, The Case for Reparations, which brought new attention to the debate.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidates addressed the issue, then-President Donald Trump said, “I don’t see it happening” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared it was not a good idea. After the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the massive racial upheaval of 2020, the existence of systemic racism became more widely acknowledged, and the idea of addressing it with reparations inched further into the mainstream. The concept remains unpopular among white people, with only 10% supporting it in a recent poll, compared with about half of Black people — but it’s no longer on the fringes of possibility.
Especially now that Evanston is showing it can actually be done.
Rather than reaching back to slavery, the city examined its 20th century laws and customs that segregated residents by race — forcing most Black people to live in substandard housing, denying them equal access to home loans and depressing the value of real estate in Black neighborhoods. This was in addition to segregation in schools, hospitals, stores, beaches, Northwestern University dormitories and many other places.
Evanston commissioned a report documenting how city officials used allegedly race-neutral zoning laws and “land clearance” for explicitly racist purposes. Local banks would not make home loans to Black people. For those who secured other financing, real estate agents would not show them homes outside the Fifth Ward, builders would not sell them property and white landlords would not rent to them. White homeowners included covenants in their deeds that prohibited selling to Black people. The few historic Black neighborhoods outside the Fifth Ward were suddenly zoned as commercial, forcing residents into segregation.
In 1946, seeking livable housing for Black folks who fought in World War II, Evanston’s first Black city councilman, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., noted that the veterans housing supervisor was appointed by the council, which meant the city was upholding segregation. Jourdain cited a decorated veteran seeking to live on the white side of the North Shore Channel: “He has battle stars for battles all the way from southern France to Germany, and a special star for crossing the Rhine River, and if he was good enough to cross the Rhine under that German shellfire, he’s good enough to cross that little piece of canal out there, and live on the side with the most houses,” Jourdain told the council.
These restrictions created a shortage of housing for Black people, despite numerous vacancies in white neighborhoods. The shortage forced them to pay higher prices for worse accommodations, and to divide homes built for one family into multiple units. Without equal opportunity for jobs, they had less money to maintain the properties they had, which combined with overcrowding to further depress property values.
Since homeownership is the primary source of wealth for most Americans, Evanston can draw a direct line from its racist practices to the current racial wealth gap.
“For each generation that encountered discrimination and segregation in Evanston, there was another that followed, and another,” two historians wrote in the report. “While the policies, practices and patterns may have evolved over the course of these generations, their impact was cumulative and permanent. They were the means by which legacies were limited and denied.”
Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission and president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, said that Evanston is the first municipality in American history to offer Black people reparations. He noted that Japanese people confined to camps in the United States during World War II received reparations from the federal government, and that some say the term applies to a current federal program aiming to repay thousands of Black and Hispanic farmers who experienced racial discrimination.
“But what’s happening in Evanston is an incredibly powerful moment,” Daniels told me. “The whole country is looking at Evanston. The whole world is looking at Evanston.”
Rue Simmons declined to run again for alderwoman in 2020, instead founding a nonprofit, First Repair, to take her local reparations model national. She meets with leaders from other cities almost daily. Places taking the early steps toward reparations include Detroit; Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; and the state of California.
Evanston’s initiative does have critics. There is only enough money now for 16 people to receive reparations. Even if the full $10 million is funded, that would compensate only 400 people over 10 years, out of tens of thousands of eligible people. The one Evanston council member who voted against the program is a Black woman named Cicely Fleming, who said it’s patronizing to give Black people what amounts to vouchers instead of cash, and that the program doesn’t help those who rent instead of own. Her arguments echoed those of Duke professor William A. Darity Jr. and his wife, A. Kirsten Mullen, who say that Evanston’s effort should be called a housing voucher program, not reparations. “The cause of justice demands proprietariness about the meaning of ‘reparations,’ and we object to these kinds of piecemeal and misleading labels,” they wrote in a column for The Washington Post. “True reparations only can come from a full-scale program of acknowledgment, redress and closure for a grievous injustice.”
But the local train has already left the station.
“There’s no amount of money and resources that can ever compensate for the damages inflicted upon our people,” Daniels said. “However, programs like Evanston become an important complement … local reparations help make the case for the need for federal legislation. So Evanston, therefore, is extraordinarily significant.” Evanston also has provided an example of how the past remains present for Black folks. For every dollar of wealth possessed by white Americans, Black citizens have about 13 cents. Many people resist the fact that racist housing policies are largely responsible for this wealth gap — policies enacted and enforced by governments at the local, state and federal level.
For those willing to open their eyes and see, the seven blocks of Grey Avenue make that responsibility clear.
“It’s overdue, and it’s justice,” said Rue Simmons, “and it’s the only path forward.”