|Gateway to Bronzeville near 26th Street. Credit: Jyoti Srivastava|
Emily Badger of the Atlantic Cities does some wonderful writing for that website. I often find her to be very informative and very insightful, especially for someone without (I presume) a planning/architecture/urban studies type background. And she’s prolific – it seems she puts out a good 2-3 well-researched articles a week. Wish I could do that.
Anyway, she most recently wrote about gentrification in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. (Full disclosure: I am currently working on a project through my regular gig in the Bronzeville neighborhood). Unlike what many people typically associate with gentrification, Bronzeville’s transformation has occurred largely through the efforts of middle-class African-Americans. The transformation has been steady, but for those who wish for it to happen, it has come fairly slow. Badger cites a study by Matthew Anderson of Montana State University. I have yet to read the study but I definitely look forward to it. It examines gentrification in Bronzeville and compares it to similar redevelopment in Pilsen, a largely Mexican and Mexican-American community nearby:
… Pilsen has pulled off what Bronzeville hasn’t. And the reasons for this reveal something peculiar about the way the rest of the city views non-white gentrification. In the local media, Pilsen is now celebrated as a colorful, lively place where the sidewalks smell like Mexican baked goods and everything sounds like Latin music. Past stereotypes of low-income Latinos living there have been replaced, Anderson and (study co-author Carolina) Sternberg write, by a “new racialized subject: the hardworking, professional, and civically reliable Mexican citizen.”
Why the difference? I think Badger nails a significant piece of it:
“The city seems less willing or able to change its perception of Bronzeville. In Anderson’s interviews with white middle-class Chicago residents, it sounds almost as if they can’t distinguish between poor and middle-class blacks living there. It’s as if gentrification can’t happen without an influx of white residents, and so it must not be happening there. How can the neighborhood’s prospects have really changed if its demographics haven’t? Bronzeville’s historic “blackness” – to borrow a term from the academics – appears to overwhelm any sense of its identity as a neighborhood on the way up.”
This is not simply about the limits of black gentrification. This is about the limits of white’s perceptions of black communities. To put it more bluntly, whites have had a problem moving to communities where blacks have had a long history.
For many residents of Bronzeville, however, this is not a problem. Many do see the community rebounding on the foundation of its historical place in America’s Great Migration, and for them that means that it should forever remain an African-American community. But that idea is not universal. But in a broader historical context, this is the legacy of numerous cities, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest with a significant black population, and a huge contributor to the shrinking cities dynamic.
I think an understanding of the sociological concept of ethnic succession theory can explain this. According to the theory, immigrant groups move into older neighborhoods or communities until they are able to establish themselves, at which point they move to other areas and are replaced by new immigrants. That pattern has played itself out in thousands of communities across the country – Irish immigrants being replaced by Italians, who were replaced by Eastern Europeans, for example. However, when blacks moved into communities, that conveyor belt of immigration often ground to a halt. And when middle-class blacks moved up the economic ladder, no one was there to replace them.
In my mind, that process started long before the post-1960’s movement of middle-class blacks to other areas. It started once blacks moved in to their respective communities in the first place. More than 100 years ago, for example, the Grand Boulevard community that would eventually become Bronzeville would have been instantly familiar to the Irish and Jewish residents who lived there and in surrounding areas. In fact, they would’ve been intimately familiar with Chicago’s South Side in general. But today – well, a person interviewed in Anderson’s study says it well:
“I don’t even know where this place (Bronzeville) is. I mean, I know it’s between downtown and Hyde Park, but it’s just like empty space in my mind, I never think about it.”
Once whites moved away from the communities that became cultural hearths for African-Americans, they often wiped the communities off their mental map, and it’s an issue that looms even larger in cities that have had a fractured racial history. It’s part of the reason Bronzeville hasn’t gained the gentrification traction that other similarly positioned neighborhoods in Chicago have gotten. It’s part of the reason that revitalization efforts in Detroit are so painfully slow. Hell, it’s even part of the reason the White Sox annually draw fewer fans to home games than the Cubs.
I think it was activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel who once said, “the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” There is plenty of indifference when it comes to our inner cities.