Denigrating Urban Spaces: The Working of Territorial Stigma on Chicago’s South Side

By Tilman Schwarze, University of Glasgow

In media discourses, Chicago’s South Side is often portrayed as a space of insecurity and crime, associated with street gangs and their involvement in the production of violence. In portraying communities on Chicago’s South Side, newspapers and other media outlets can build on a repertoire of discursive practices of and strategies for talking about violence and crime. This blog post deciphers these discursive practices in more details, focusing on newspaper representations of violence and crime in the South Shore community on Chicago’s South Side. Researching the defamation of urban spaces is critical for better understanding how language and discourse shape the ways in which urban neighbourhoods are perceived and how such discourse shapes trajectories of urban redevelopment.

Chicago’s South Side, Glasgow’s East End, or Dhaka, Bangladesh. Although very different in size, demography, and geographical context, these neighbourhoods share the common experience of having been stigmatised at certain points in their history through attaching such denigrating terms as ‘dangerous’, ‘blighted’, or ‘ghetto’. Within sociological and geographical research, attaching negative labels onto certain (urban) spaces has been described and analysed through the concept of ‘territorial stigmatisation’. The concept was first coined by the French sociologist Loïc Wacquant in the early 1990s. [1] For Wacquant, territorial stigmatization works through the evocation of overwhelmingly negative emotions, revulsion and condemnation towards certain neighbourhoods with the consequence that “the stigmatized neighbourhoods of the postindustrial metropolis are pictured as vortexes and vectors of social disintegration[2]   

A lot has been written on the role of territorial stigmatisation for community processes across different geographical contexts (for a conceptual cartography, see Schultz Larsen and Nagel, 2019). Less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which territorial stigmatisation is actually produced. In other words, we do not have a detailed knowledge of the causation of territorial stigmatization [3], such as what different linguistic and discursive tools and practices media outlets use in representing urban communities and how they, in turn, contribute to the reproduction of territorial stigma.

In this blog article, I provide a summary of a research project that I recently finished on how newspapers represent the South Shore community on Chicago’s South Side and how their representation contributes to the production of territorial stigma. South Shore is a predominantly African-American community of mostly low-income residents on Chicago’s South Side. As such, South Shore stands exemplarily for other low-income South Side communities of colour in Chicago and across the country about which the media mostly speaks of through references of crime and violence.

For my research project, I wanted to better understand in what ways, that is, through which discursive practices, media representations focus on violence and crime in their daily reporting on the community. To answer this question, I conducted an in-depth analysis of how Chicago’s two major papers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, represent South Shore in their daily reporting. In total, I identified 1.428 articles from a time period between 2013 to 2018  which included the name of the community. Of these articles, the great majority (1.035 articles) focused on violence and crime (see Table 1). More positive characterisations of the community were scarce. Only occasionally did I identify articles on South Shore where community voices critical of stigmatising media discourses on their community were cited as well. Yet, these were a small minority, and both newspapers did not change their style of reporting on South Shore in response to such critical voices. A small sample of articles mentioned South Shore in the context of the still ongoing development and construction of the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side, discussing the potential positive economic impact of this project on adjacent communities like South Shore, but also focusing on the possibility of gentrification and displacement (see below). One article in the Chicago Tribune talked about a small area within the community, the Jackson Park Highlands, an enclave of mostly upper-middle class residents, characterised by the grandeur architectural design of its houses which stands out in comparison to the mostly low-income areas of South Shore. Yet, I was unable to find articles which were purely dedicated to painting a more positive image of the entire South Shore community by allowing residents’ voices about their lived experiences in the community come to the fore and without reproducing the image of South Shore as a space predominantly characterised by violence and crime.

In my analysis of how violence and crime in South Shore are portrayed by the two papers, I particularly focused on words, phrases and syntaxes with the goal to identify underlying language patterns, ideological structures and power dynamics. In what follows, I demonstrate that both papers normalise violence and crime as quotidian to communal space in South Shore.

I do not mean to argue that both papers purposefully stigmatise the community, but rather that territorial stigmatisation is the result of specific discursive and linguistic practices commonly used in journalistic representation. Yet, understanding how such common, often unintended, practices can nevertheless reproduce stigmatising and marginalising representations of entire communities is crucial, particularly in the context of racially segregated and marginalised African-American communities in cities like Chicago.

Discursive practices of territorial stigmatisation

Table 1 presents the thematic focuses of press coverage on South Shore in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Table 1: Thematic focuses on press coverage on South Shore
 Chicago TribuneChicago Sun-Times
Closure of grocery store1514
Obama Presidential Center3843
Tiger Woods Golf Course2320
Violence and crime153882
Car and other accidents123
Missing person reports-69


Instead of merely focusing on how many articles were published on violence and crime,I conducted a critical discourse analysis of news reporting. For critical discourse studies, it is important to contextualise the event reported in the news media within its specific historical and socio-cultural contexts- and to scrutinise power and ideology within discourse. For Chicago’s South Side, this means that analysing language and discourse in newspapers also needs to be attentive to Chicago’s long history of racism and racial segregation. The experience of racism is inextricably linked to the history of Chicago’s South Side and becomes visible in urban spaces through, for example, public housing segregation and discrimination, or the policing, criminalisation and mass incarceration of people of colour.

It is within this context that discursive practices of territorial stigmatisation need to be studied and embedded. In the newspaper sampling that I analysed, three discursive practices of stigma production dominated. First, both newspapers frequently used various naming practices related to violence or parallel structures to label the community as ‘gang-infested’, ‘ill’, or a ‘warzone’. A second discursive practice was the use of hyperbolic and sensationalising language, referring to the community as, for example, ‘blood drenched’ or a place of ‘concentrated slaughter’. What both discursive practices achieve is not only the reduction of everyday life in South Shore to the experience of violence and crime but to exacerbate levels of crime by suggesting that the entire community is, indeed, ‘under siege by gangs’ and dictated by daily events of violent crime. The problem of generalisations from single incidences of crime and violence is that it comprises a simplification, leaving no room for those residents not involved in violent crime to express their views and opinions about everyday life. Furthermore, suggesting that South Shore is like a ‘warzone’ attaches a criminogenic character to an entire community which, in turn, reproduces racist stereotypes about African-American communities as particularly prone to violent behaviour. References to ‘warzones’ in describing urban communities follow a general tendency in popular culture to speak of Chicago as ‘Chiraq’ – a combination of the two words ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq’ to emphasise that levels of violence in Chicago are like the ones during the war in Iraq.

Third, the most common discursive practice was articles written in a short, breaking news style. Take the following example from the Chicago Sun-Times, published on 30 November 2015:

A man was shot early Monday in the South Shore neighborhood. The man, 48, was shot in the eye about 3:30 a.m. in the 7500 block of South Shore Drive, according to preliminary information from Chicago Police. Additional details were not immediately available. 

This text represents the entire article. At a closer look, this article has several distinct discursive and linguistic characteristics important for our understanding of stigma production. First, we do not learn anything about the circumstances of the shooting. The only information conveyed here is that a man was shot. Who the man was and why he was shot are not disclosed. Second, we do, however, learn about the precise geographical location of the shooting. Of the 882 articles on violence and crime by the Chicago Sun-Times, 608 (68.93%) were written in this particular style where only the territoriality of violence and crime is foregrounded, whilst information about the circumstances of crime is side-lined.

It is important to acknowledge that journalists often do not have sufficient information about the circumstances of a crime. This is particularly the case when they release a press statement like the one above shortly after the event happened. However, in the days that followed a shooting, further articles were not published that provided more contextual information about crimes committed. In fact, both newspapers reproduced exactly the same article in the following days without adding any further information. The result of re-printing the same article about particular shootings is the creation of a never-ending flow of news information about violence and crime in South Shore.

With this style of news reporting, the reader is left with only a superficial understanding of why violence and crime occur in communities like South Shore. Was it a gang-associated shooting or a domestic dispute? Why did it happen? The article does not say. Furthermore, and important for our understanding of how territorial stigmatisation is produced, foregrounding territorial details functions to create a cognitive map for the reader which is filled with dots every time a new shooting took place in the community. Yet, the sheer quantity of such newspaper reporting, particularly through re-publishing the same article several times, leaves the impression that there can be barely any spaces left in the community which have not yet experienced a shooting.

The consequence of such discursive practices in reporting on violence and crime is that a community like South Shore becomes portrayed as a homogenous space of violence and crime where violence spreads over the entire community area comparable to a large conflagration. Following Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony as also denoting the manufacturing of consent [4], territorial stigmatisation is therefore produced by newspaper discourse through the establishment of consent that South Shore is, first and foremost, a violent space. The consequence of these discursive practices is that it is not possible to think of the community outside of references to violence and crime. Violence and crime are therefore common-sense aspects of everyday life.

The power of territorial stigmatisation

What the preceding discussion has foregrounded is that power is also constituted in the realm of ideas and knowledge of space. Journalists, following Henri Lefebvre (1991), are experts and specialists in the production of spatial knowledge. [5] This knowledge about space can be perceived by residents of defamed spaces as stigmatising, misrepresenting, and hurtful. The internalisation of stigma can, for example, lead to feelings of humiliation, shame, and a loss of people’s sense of self and community identification as a result of territorial stigmatisation.

But beyond the individual repercussions for those living in stigmatized areas, territorial stigmatization “is always enmeshed with wider capitalist structures of expropriation, domination, discipline and social control” [6], so much so that “territorial stigma can become so powerful that it can shape the orientation of national housing and urban policies” [7]. On Chicago’s South Side, for example, the decision by former President Barack Obama to build the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) into a public park near the South Shore community has sparked concerns about gentrification and displacement among residents. Fear that the OPC will trigger housing speculation and the influx of real-estate capital into an area that has, for decades, not received much economic investment, but which has been stigmatised and deprived in public and media discourses, enmesh with the excitement by local residents to host the Presidential Center of the first African-American president. [8]

The defamation of urban spaces in surrounding communities like South Shore has laid the foundation for such urban redevelopment efforts because it has created an image of South Shore as an urban ‘no-go zone’ that has become tangible to a large audience. The fear of African-American communities like South Shore has become ingrained into the public image to such an extent that the community needs to be transformed through the upgrading of street blocks, properties, and economic corridors. The OPC can build on this image justifying and promoting its redevelopment agenda. And in fact, protagonists behind the OPC have framed the South Side as a space in ‘need of hope’, with the OPC being portrayed as an opportunity to reinstall hope and bring economic opportunities to an area which is undoubtedly deprived of economic opportunities. [9]

Territorial stigmatisation therefore forms part of a collection of different political, economic, and socio-cultural processes which shape the ways in which urban spaces develop and change. The power of language and discourse in shaping public images of urban spaces is crucial for a better understanding of how these spaces will develop in the future. For example, stigmatising a community as violent might detract economic investment because the community is deemed too dangerous. Alternatively, such stigmatisation and marginalisation can also provide reasons and justifications to fundamentally redevelop a community under the pretense of ‘community improvement’ which, in turn, can lead to gentrification and displacement. Thus, studies concerned with the role of spatial defamation, denigration and stigma also need to be aware of how territorial stigma is enmeshed with the wider political economy of neoliberal and racial capitalism.

This blog post builds on the article “Discursive practices of territorial stigmatization: how newspapers frame violence and crime in a Chicago community“ which I recently published in the journal Urban Geography.


[1] Wacquant, L. (2007). Territorial Stigmatization in the Age of Advanced Marginality. Thesis Eleven, 91(1), 66–77. doi:10.1177/0725513607082003.

[2] Wacquant, L., Slater, T. and Borges Pereira, V. (2014). Territorial Stigmatization in Action. Environment and Planning A, 46(6), p. 1274, original emphasis. 

[3] Slater, T. (2017). Territorial Stigmatization: Symbolic Defamation and the Contemporary Metropolis. In The SAGE Handbook of New Urban Studies, edited by Hannigan, J.A. and  Richards,G., 111–25. London: SAGE Publications.


[5] Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[6] Tyler, I. (2020). Stigma. The Machinery of Inequality. London: Zed Books, p. 17.

[7] Slater, T. (2021). Shaking up the City. Ignorance, Inequality, and the Urban Question. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, p. 160.

[8] Schwarze, T. and Wilson, D. (Forthcoming). Silencing, Urban Growth Machines, and the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities. Special issue: The Hyper-Polarized City: New Insights from Racial Economy.

[9] Obama Foundation (2018). President Obama and Chicagoans Share the Vision of the Presidential Center. Available here:

About the author

Dr. Tilman Schwarze is a lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His research explores the relationship between crime, insecurity, and urban redevelopment in gang-affected communities. His work has been published in Urban GeographyGeoforum, the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, as well as in the Routledge International Handbook of Critical Gang Studies. At present he is working on a book manuscript, titled Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space on Chicago’s South Side: Violence, Resistance and Redevelopment, which explores the production of urban space in a gang-afflicted community on Chicago’s South Side (Palgrave 2023). He also has forthcoming publications on urban growth concepts in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities and on the criminalization and policing of UK drill music in Popular Music.