A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is the south side always the baddest part of town?

November 5, 1999

Dear Cecil:

The other day a line from the old Jim Croce song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" was running through my head: "The south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town." I got to thinking, is the south side always the baddest part of town? Think about it. South Bronx, South Central LA, South Baltimore … for that matter, southern Italy and South America. What is it about the south that poor people always wind up living there?

Cecil replies:

Yeah, southern California, what a pesthole that is. But you make an interesting point. Although it's debatable whether the phenomenon applies on the city level (see below), it's easy to make the case on the global level that north = rich while south = poor.

Northern Italy is wealthier than southern Italy, northern Europe is wealthier than southern Europe, and Europe is wealthier than Africa. Similarly, the American south until recently was poorer than the north, while the U.S. and Canada were richer than the countries south of the border. For political commentators, "North-South" has long been shorthand for the industrialized countries versus the developing world, just as "East-West" meant communism versus democracy.

What is it with the south? Before World War II many asserted that the invigorating (read: cold) climate of the north promoted industry and enterprise while the stifling heat of the south induced indolence, apathy, etc. That's an oversimplification, to be sure; people have written books attempting to explain why northern Europeans have dominated other, mostly southern, parts of the world. But there's an element of truth in it. Surely it's no accident that the explosive growth of the Sun Belt coincided with the introduction of air conditioning.

The question is whether the north/rich, south/poor split applies to cities, where the climate presumably varies little from one side of town to the other. Surprisingly often, it does. Cities where the poor side of town lies to the south include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo (southwest), Chicago (south and west), Dallas, Detroit (southwest), Indianapolis, Los Angeles (south and east), Phoenix, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (southeast).

But you can find a lot of contrary cases too. In Philadelphia the poor side of town is on the north, in Cleveland it's on the east, and in Salt Lake City it's on the west. The situation in New York defies easy analysis. While the southern section is the poorest part of the Bronx, the Bronx as a whole is in the northern portion of New York, and low-income Harlem is on the north end of Manhattan. But low-income Brooklyn lies to the south.

What we really need is somebody to make a systematic study of the whole business. Unfortunately the last time this was done the conclusion was merely that cities have sides (that is, sizable contiguous sectors with distinguishing economic characteristics), without getting into the issue of orientation. This may not strike you as the world's deepest insight, but it came as a revelation when first propounded by land economist Homer Hoyt in 1935. Previously people thought cities developed in concentric rings, with the poorest sections in the inner city and the more prosperous neighborhoods in the outlying areas. Hoyt thought this was too simple and proposed "sector theory": early in a city's history, one side of town got established as the good side and another as the bad side, and the goodness/badness of these sectors persisted as development spread out from the center. Result: wedge-shaped high- and low-rent districts extending from downtown into the boondocks. Hoyt updated his maps in 1967 but retired before he could delve into the north/south conundrum. I can't do it personally, owing to the need to stay on top of all the world's other knowledge. But if somebody else wants to take a whack at it, be my guest.

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