Bicycle Diaries: There goes the neighborhood?

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There goes the neighborhood?

an urban puzzle

The Boston Globe, 31 March 07:
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University, reports that urban gentrification is much more complicated than well-off whites displacing poor minorities.

In post-Civil Rights era Boston, Providence, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis ... blacks and Latinos have made great strides -- in government and in business. The conventional view of urban politics can no longer be succinctly captured as whites dominating minorities: Those calling for gentrification are equally likely to be ethnic minorities with political and commercial capital. The long-held truism of gentrification -- namely that inner-city residents and their leadership will vocally oppose the redevelopment of their neighborhoods -- needs revision.
For much of the 20th century, our views on political and economic development tended to emphasize racial and ethnic divisions. Scholars and journalists usually looked at one ethnic group at a time, so it was not altogether surprising that our cities began to look like ethnic battlefields, with each group fighting for a share of the political and economic crumbs. This may have been an accurate way of understanding the old urban political machines. But [a recent study by William Julius Wilson, "There Goes the Neighborhood"] suggests that we need a new perspective when looking at the consequences of gentrification.

Wilson's focus on struggling low-income and working families is also a nice counterpoint to the academic and popular reportage of the last decade, where the city can sometimes look like a playground for the rich. In Wilson's study, you won't find the commonplace infatuation with the fancy cuisine, services, and attractions of the so-called "global city." Nor is the working class treated solely in terms of their role as a cheap source of labor (valets, janitors, nannies, etc.) for the bourgeoisie.

In such a climate, alliances never follow predictably. In working-class Chicago, blacks and Latinos often work closely to build on shared interests and to put together initiatives that promote growth and development. On the south side of the city, white politicians are adapting by addressing the needs of the new Latino voters in their district. The only view residents of all four neighborhoods share is a concern over "prevalence of crime and other social dislocations in nearby black ghetto neighborhoods." Poor blacks get blamed by everyone.

In this context, what is the responsible position of the black middle class? The question goes back at least to the 1890s, when W.E.B. DuBois wrote his seminal study of urban development, "The Philadelphia Negro." DuBois wrote that the indigenous and more cosmopolitan black middle class will forever oppose the newly arriving Southern migrant, unless the two recognize their conflicts only serve to strengthen the whites in power.

But although it is the black middle class moving in and buying real estate, the physical infrastructure of their neighborhoods is being rehabilitated by white-owned firms that get the lion's share of the city contracts. Thus, the net result is that middle-class blacks have become brokers, helping to ease the path of mostly white-controlled real estate firms that wish to reclaim undervalued inner-city neighborhoods. White developers and politicians no longer need to suffer charges of racism. Even though they recoup much of the revenue from construction, it is the black homeowner who will be the first to support economic improvements to their block -- perhaps not willingly, but what choice do they have if they want to live in a decent neighborhood?

We are left with a sobering look at the modern American metropolis, one still mired in the social obstacles and challenges that afflicted earlier generations. And we find compelling evidence that race still matters in American society, although ... it is not always easy to predict exactly how.

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