An excerpt from
Black on the Block
The Politics of Race and Class in the City
On the morning of November 25, 1987, Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, broke ground for a new housing development in the North Kenwood–Oakland neighborhood. That afternoon, he died. Black on the Block, set in the black South Side neighborhood where Washington made his last public appearance, builds its metaphors from these facts of death and new beginnings. At the city level, a short-lived era of black political power was buried with Washington, and a regime of white leadership with black and Latino consent was (re)born. At the neighborhood level, what passed away were the vacant, trash-strewn lots that had marred North Kenwood–Oakland’s landscape. Before long, the neighborhood’s public housing high-rises would fall, and a cadre of community activists would rise up to tackle the social problems that had plagued the community since the 1960s—gangs, drugs, violence, and the font of poverty from which they sprang. North Kenwood–Oakland would be rejuvenated by people who rehabilitated its old houses and moved into new buildings like the ones for which Harold Washington turned the soil on that autumn day. The residents who acted as the new neighborhood’s symbolic midwives envisioned a revitalized, self-consciously black community. As a student of Chicago, of cities, and of black politics and social life, I was drawn to the transformation of North Kenwood–Oakland. In 1998, I became one of those new residents and began my research.
There is another end and beginning described in Black on the Block. Building on the work of scholars like Cathy Cohen, Adolph Reed, and Kevin Gaines, I lay to rest the notion of a unitary black political agenda. The story of the gentrification of North Kenwood–Oakland by middle- and upper-income African Americans—assisted by municipal, institutional, philanthropic, and corporate actors—makes clear the existence of divergent class interests within the black community. While blacks may, by and large, vote Democratic, support affirmative action, and agree on the need for some kind of reparations for slavery, their more immediate, daily concerns involve finding an affordable place to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools. People live locally. The most earnest political battles are played out when they face threats to their neighborhoods or try to fashion a new kind of neighborhood. Controversies then arise over control of and access to public spaces, streets, commercial ventures, jobs, schools, and housing. On these issues, the black position becomes many positions, split along lines of seniority in the neighborhood, profession, home ownership, age, and taste. Along any one of these axes, one side may launch efforts to shame, stigmatize, silence, or “disappear” the other. These struggles within the neighborhood are often waged between African Americans of different means and different perspectives, but this is by no means just a black-on-black affair. Alliances with and allegiances to whites outside the neighborhood add another layer of complexity to the ever more futile attempt to determine what course of action is in the best interest of the black community. In this way, middle-class blacks act as brokers—as “middlemen” and “middlewomen"—spanning the space between established centers of white economic and political power and the needs of a down but not out black neighborhood.
Internal fissures notwithstanding, the concept of “the black community” is not retired in Black on the Block, for while attempts to capture a single black politics, black perspective, or black agenda are dead (if they were ever really alive within the black community), I argue that the black community is forged in this engagement. The “Black Metropolis” of the 1930s and 1940s, which St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described in unparalleled detail, lives on. North Kenwood–Oakland attracts African Americans looking for a black residential space defined by institutions like Little Black Pearl Workshop and streets such as Muddy Waters Drive. White-owned real estate companies pick up on this desire and give developments names like “Ellington Court” and “Jazz on the Boulevard"—where you can choose a model home to suit your musical tastes: the (Louis) Armstrong, the (Jelly Roll) Morton. Even gang names—the Black Disciples, the El Rukns—connote black ownership of the neighborhood. But it is more than just names and symbols (and relatively inexpensive real estate) that attract black middle- and upper-income newcomers to the neighborhood. They come, or come back, to North Kenwood–Oakland out of a sense of racial pride and duty, to be conduits of resources, to model “respectability.” In this milieu, disputes between black residents with professional jobs and those with no jobs, between black families who have been in the neighborhood for generations and those who moved in last year, and between blacks who don fraternity colors and those who use sport gang colors, are simultaneously debates over what it means to be black. Choosing participation over abdication and involvement over withdrawal, even and especially when the disagreements get heated and sometimes vicious, is what constitutes the black community.
Black on the Block is also about North Kenwood–Oakland’s history and position as a black neighborhood within a larger context of urban policies and projects. A victim of discriminatory federal home appraisal practices in the 1930s and 1940s, recipient of thousands of units of public housing in the 1950s and 1960s, innocent bystander to urban renewal, and dead space on the radar screens of planners in the 1970s, North Kenwood–Oakland has been shaped by politicians and the businessmen and institutional leaders who influence them. The most recent interventions have been to undo the actions of previous generations of city leaders. Along with other U.S. cities, Chicago is in the midst of a major experiment in the provision and location of public housing, driven by federal initiatives such as the Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE) VI program, which aims to transform public housing for poor families into “mixed-income communities.” It is in this policy context that the Chicago Housing Authority developed its “Plan for Transformation,” which calls for the demolition of at least eighteen thousand units of public housing. Already, most of the concentrated public housing in North Kenwood–Oakland has been demolished to make way for row houses and apartment buildings. The hope is that these new developments—in which poor, less poor, and not poor families will live side by side—will be more palatable to the middle class than were the public housing high-rises of the 1950s and 1960s. The more pleasant design of public housing, the logic goes, will entice the middle and upper classes back to central city neighborhoods. This process, more commonly known as gentrification, is happening in North Kenwood–Oakland, but with a decidedly black flavor. Since the neighborhood is not an island, this book situates the development activity in North Kenwood–Oakland within broader urban and national political and economic trends.
The Conservation of North Kenwood–Oakland
Along Chicago’s south lakefront, a mile from the campus of the University of Chicago, and a ten-minute drive from downtown, North Kenwood–Oakland (NKO) has been rediscovered as ripe for new investment, as have many inner-city neighborhoods across the United States, and in many European cities as well. The City of Chicago is actively facilitating this process, having designated the neighborhood in 1990 as a “conservation area.” That status, legally supported in both state and federal law, enabled community residents to work with city planners to develop a conservation plan. Ongoing advising and monitoring of the conservation area and its plan is done by the Conservation Community Council (CCC), a body of residents approved by the alderman—the community’s elected representative to city government—and the mayor. Meetings of the CCC are central sites of negotiation and contestation over visions of NKO’s future.
The details of the making of a conservation area, plan, and council in North Kenwood–Oakland are complicated, multilayered, and, most importantly, intensely contested by the people who were involved, or—as some would have it—claim they were involved. There is hardly consensus about when discussions were initiated, who were the most vocal proponents, where the planning activity centered, or how the city bureaucracy was engaged and persuaded to support the designation. Perhaps the preface of a 1978 planning document by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) best presented the challenges inherent in getting everyone to share one vision of community improvement. It stated, “There has been an adversary [sic], rather than a cooperative, relationship between local residents, governmental agencies and private developers. This has either frustrated planning processes or militated against the implementation of plans. . . . It is recognized that both governmental agencies and private developers have a stake in, a role to play, and resources to deploy in the redevelopment of the community area. Local residents can’t go it alone."
The constellation of people, organizations, and institutions that ultimately got involved in the planning process is the best proof that no one person alone made the conservation area happen. There were, rather, many key players, whose names will be familiar by the end of this book: Robert Lucas was executive director of KOCO, the organization that commissioned the document quoted above. KOCO was involved early on, calling for a conservation area, rehabilitating apartment buildings, and organizing block clubs and tenant organizations that gave human force to the revitalization efforts. Shirley Newsome and her husband Howard Newsome also worked to organize block clubs, and made key contacts with representatives of the University of Chicago, members of the Hyde Park–Kenwood Conservation Community Council, and private developers. Both Lucas and Newsome formed relationships with real estate giant Ferdinand (Ferd) Kramer, whose designs for the neighborhood sparked as much controversy as the conservation plan itself. Izora Davis has been one of the most consistent public housing activists and, along with many comrades, struggled to stay at the planning table throughout the process. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle was not elected until after the North Kenwood–Oakland Conservation Area was designated, but her participation in crafting the conservation plan and her obvious role as the neighborhood’s elected representative makes her a key figure in these events. There are so many others who organized subcommittees, did research on the neighborhood’s history, demanded greater police services, and fought for decent recreational facilities. And of course there were those who were unflinchingly critical of the conservation process. “I guess I’m hopeful,” said Mary Bordelon, perhaps the most ardent and long-suffering skeptic in the neighborhood, to a reporter from a Chicago weekly. “But I see monsters. I’ve been seeing them around here for a long time.” Those monsters were the community outsiders, the big universities, the big developers, the big philanthropies, even the big social science researchers, whose enterprising overtures in the neighborhood were not always to be trusted. These diverse perspectives come through in various parts of the story. Still, I am always mindful that, because I did not live through it, I can never fully grasp all of the effort and resistance that resulted in the “conservation” of North Kenwood–Oakland.
Two years into this research, after I felt I had done enough objective observation—taking notes without meddling, listening without asking—I submitted my name to sit on the CCC, and I was appointed. This position gave me access to information on nearly all facets of neighborhood development, but it also branded me in the eyes of some residents as beholden to the desires of the mayor and alderman who approved my appointment. As one critic argued, the CCC was nothing more than a “puppet board waiting to have its strings pulled.” I discuss the complexities of this role further in chapter 4, but in short it gave me a sense of the personal and political stakes of community development and it taught me that there are no easy answers.
Given its literal divisiveness and its association with dispossession and exclusion, present-day urbanists have disavowed “urban renewal” as a planning strategy. The move, however, seems more semantic than substantive. The contemporary lexicon favors words such as “renovation” and “rehab,” when referring to specific buildings, or “revitalization,” “conservation,” and “gentrification,” when speaking of entire neighborhoods. But the ghost of urban renewal is always present. “After all,” anthropologist Arlene Dávila notes, “gentrification—whether called renewal, revitalization, upgrading, or uplifting—always involves the expansion and transformation of neighborhoods through rapid economic investment and population shifts, and yet it is equally implicated with social inequalities.” The line between revitalization and gentrification is a thin one. For some, gentrification is heralded as exactly what cities need, an infusion of tax dollars and disposable incomes. For others, gentrification suggests the kind of robbery of poor people’s neighborhoods by elites that urban renewal came to symbolize. “Revitalization,” on the other hand, often connotes a more bottom-up process, but in some respects it is just a more polite term since revitalization without the intervention or introduction of the gentry is rare. The common thread in all of these approaches is the desire to attract middle- and upper-income families to working-class or poor urban neighborhoods. In North Kenwood–Oakland this has entailed both the mass construction of new, high-end homes and condominiums by developers alongside the more piecemeal rehabilitation of existing old homes by individual investors. The result is a general upward trend in land, housing, and rental prices and the influx of people who can afford them. This sounds a lot like gentrification, so I use the term, along with words like revitalization, throughout this book.
Gentrification, however, is only half the story. Coincident with the planning and ongoing implementation of its conservation plan, NKO is making decisions about public and other subsidized housing in the neighborhood. In the 1980s and early 1990s, nonprofit groups like the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization rehabbed hundreds of dilapidated and abandoned apartment buildings as affordable housing using an array of federal housing programs. This happened relatively quietly. The more contentious fight was over the future of six public housing high-rises referred to generically as the Lakefront Properties. The buildings, built in the 1950s and 1960s, were closed for renovation in 1986. The families that lived there were dispersed across the city with the promise that they would be able to return after the renovations. Two buildings were remodeled and reopened in 1991, but it soon became apparent that the other four high rises would instead be demolished. Following protests from activist public housing residents, and after acrimonious negotiations and court proceedings, the Chicago Housing Authority was authorized to build 241 public housing apartments in North Kenwood–Oakland to partially replace the demolished high-rises. The process of getting the new public housing built in the neighborhood, placing families in it, and managing it has since been consistently on the agenda of the Conservation Community Council. Such agenda items almost always reopen the debate over the optimal socioeconomic mix for the neighborhood, and over the integration of poor families with their new neighbors, who have paid a pretty penny for their homes.
Extensive new construction is possible in NKO because of past depopulation and demolition. Between 1960 and 1990, Kenwood lost over half of its population, and Oakland lost two-thirds, following a pattern of decline and concentrated poverty experienced by many inner-city black neighborhoods across the country. In 1990, Oakland was the poorest of Chicago’s seventy-seven official community in Chicago, in terms of both median family income and the proportion of families who were poor: 70 percent of Oakland’s families had incomes below the federal poverty line. North Kenwood was only slightly better off, with 51 percent of its families living in poverty. Between 1990, when the city recognized the neighborhood as a conservation area, and 2000, the overall demographic story shows considerable upward socioeconomic change. By 2000, 20 percent of the families in the neighborhood earned more than $50,000 per year, up from 6 percent a decade earlier. During the same period, the neighborhood’s the poverty rate declined precipitously, median family income more than doubled, the home ownership rate nearly doubled, and the cost of housing skyrocketed (see table below).
Source: 1990 and 2000 U.S. census, http://www.census.gov
Despite these changes, Oakland was still the second poorest of Chicago’s communities in terms of income and had the third highest neighborhood poverty rate in 2000. North Kenwood had the twelfth lowest median family income and the eighth highest poverty rate. Part of the reason for this is that in 2000 nearly 40 percent of North Kenwood–Oakland’s housing stock—more than two thousand units—was publicly subsidized, either as public housing for families, the elderly, or the disabled or through other federal and state programs. Eligibility for these units is based on household income, with cutoffs that include some moderate-income workers and people receiving various forms of public assistance, many of whom also work. The presence of subsidized housing thus ensures the presence of poor and working-class families in NKO at least until the government contracts, which can range from fifteen to ninety-nine years, expire. When that time comes, landlords can either renew the contracts, thereby keeping their apartments affordable for the tenants who live there, or opt out of whatever subsidy program was used to finance the building. Those who opt out can then charge higher rents or convert the buildings to cooperatives or condominiums. During the course of this research, two subsidized buildings, with six apartments each, converted to for-sale condominiums.
Amid significant income flux, North Kenwood–Oakland remains predominately black. It has been so since the 1950s, and it is for the most part experiencing “black gentrification.” Black professionals are moving in from other Chicago neighborhoods, from other cities, and back to the city from the suburbs (as are whites). For some African Americans, the move is motivated by what legal scholar Sheryll Cashin calls “integration exhaustion,” the sociopsychological fatigue experienced especially by blacks who work in integrated environments or have been racial pioneers in white neighborhoods. Respondents in North Kenwood–Oakland, though, talked more about factors that pulled them toward a black neighborhood than factors that pushed them away from whites. This process is also fueled by the growing affluence of African Americans in Chicago. The proportion of black households in Chicago with incomes over $50,000 doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 14 percent to 28 percent. The share of black households earning $100,000 or more rose even more dramatically, albeit from a smaller base, from 1 percent to 6 percent over the same time period. The expansion of the black middle and upper classes outpaced the expansion of high-income earners in any other racial or ethnic group. These households (especially at the highest end) are the likely newcomers to North Kenwood–Oakland, where in 2006 a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium could cost as much as $300,000.
Some whites have moved into the neighborhood, but the discourse among black residents concerning the imminence of whites’ arrival is more extensive and more telling than their actual presence. North Kenwood–Oakland was less than 1 percent white in 1990, and 1.2 percent white in 2000. Still, residents are convinced of an impending white offensive; I choose the word “offensive” precisely because it suggests an organized purpose. “Quite frankly,” one resident asserted, “we were never supposed to be here. Black people were never supposed to be here.” Another concurred: “There’s no way in the world they’re gonna leave between McCormick Place [the Chicago convention center] and the Museum [of Science and Industry] to us. I mean, let’s face it, you know, they’re not going to leave it with us. If we don’t make the money and build up our own community within ourselves, they gon’ take it.” Low-income black residents are doubly threatened, first by the price of the new housing and second by the prospect of racial exclusion. Tying these two issues together, one public housing resident in Oakland said, “Well, the changes I see now, they tearing down all the buildings and they getting ready to build homes. You know how they say the white people moved all the way to the suburbs because they don’t want to be around us? So now they building all these homes knowing damn well most of us cannot afford them. So they trying to get the white people back in. And that’s the system. And they want this lakefront back.” Another public housing resident had a simple but bleak forecast for the neighborhood: “No more blacks.” “No more blacks?” I asked. “Couple. Coupla blacks. They got money.” From this resident’s perspective, the neighborhood’s future owners were white, or black people with money. She was not included in either scenario.
There is no way to accurately predict the racial future of North Kenwood–Oakland, but there are signs that suggest more whites will move in. For example, the University of Chicago actively markets the neighborhood and offers incentives to employees who decide to buy a home there. Rising home prices throughout the city may encourage whites to look in areas that they would not otherwise explore. North Kenwood–Oakland’s favorable location—near the lake, downtown, and the university—could recommend it to liberal whites looking for housing they can afford. Furthermore, if real estate prices continue to escalate, there will be an ever smaller proportion of African Americans who can afford to buy homes in North Kenwood–Oakland. Even though black incomes rose over the 1990s, the pool of high-income white buyers is much larger than the equivalent pool of affluent African Americans. In 2000, 47 percent of white households in the city of Chicago had incomes over $50,000 compared to only 28 percent of black households. The disparity was even greater further up the income ladder, with 17 percent of white households, but only 6 percent of black households, earning $100,000 or more. Given these factors, the anxieties of black residents seem warranted—simple math suggests that fewer blacks than whites will be able to buy in North Kenwood–Oakland. But history teaches us that figuring out where the races will live has little to do with math. In the end, the question of the racial future of North Kenwood–Oakland hangs over the heads of residents, and ultimately of this book, without resolution. For the snapshot in time that this research represents, however, the issues are decidedly intraracial.
The Silent Salience of Class
The fact of racial homogeneity does not preclude the importance of difference, divisions, and distinctions. There are many ways to categorize people in North Kenwood–Oakland: men and women, Baptists and African Methodist Episcopalians, native Chicagoans and out-of-towners, people who went to different Chicago high schools. The categories that this book is most preoccupied with, however, are those that relate to class. Technical definitions of class, as framed by academics, government officials, and other definition makers, include some combination of how much money a person has, what kind of work he does, and how far she went in school. Common, everyday practices of determining if someone is in the lower, working, middle, or upper class are likely to be based on similar criteria. But people do not wear their diplomas on their sleeves or have their net worth written on their foreheads. Because we often cannot know the “hard facts” of class position, we usually settle for observing and making sense of “soft facts” instead. We express our own class standing and read others’ class positions through signs of language, dress, demeanor, performance, and other objects and behaviors that have social meaning and that can be mapped onto the class hierarchy. This kind of stratification in the social order is what Max Weber called “status,” where status groups are stratified according to the principles of their consumption of goods. The habits and manners with which people use the things they buy (or use their free time or deploy their bodies) constitute “styles of life,” or lifestyles. Weber argues that the two spheres of class and status are closely connected. “The social order is of course conditioned by the economic order to a high degree,” Weber writes, “and in its turn reacts upon it.”
The intertwined economic and social orders are both important in North Kenwood–Oakland. But as in American society more generally, discussions about lifestyles and status are more salient, whereas there is relative silence on the topics of class and the materiality of economic circumstances. Americans talk around class by using the vocabulary of status and lifestyles. Instead of referring to how much money someone makes, we describe their overseas vacations or their fancy cars. Instead of looking at a person’s résumé to see if he or she attended college, we dismiss him because he has cornrows or her because she wears long press-on nails. Many people also call this the realm of culture. Unfortunately, the word “culture” has been overly biologized. Ever since anthropologist Oscar Lewis proclaimed, dreadfully, that “by the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their life-time” there have been academic wars over just how much a pathological culture is to blame for poverty, and black poverty in particular. As a result of those debates, and despite many attempts to rescue the term, “culture” (and “values” ) now conjures up notions of a way of life to which people are so attached that they cannot part with it or change it. Poor people’s (and black people’s) culture has been cast as a defective body part that causes compensating behaviors that ensure a constant, debilitating stress on the entire collective organism. Because people are so stuck in a dysfunctional culture, one outside the “mainstream,” they must be, goes the argument, morally deficient. From biology to morals, the word has taken on too much baggage. So while “culture” may be the more common rubric for the facets of life that I describe in this book, “lifestyle” is more analytically powerful because it avoids the preachy muck in which culture often gets stuck. The lifestyle markers that take center stage in the debates about who should be included in and excluded from North Kenwood–Oakland can always be traced back to and mapped forward onto the hard facts of economic inequality, or the silent salience of class in American society.
There are three primary axes of differentiation in the realm of status and lifestyles that emerge as ways to talk about class without talking about class in North Kenwood–Oakland: (1) home owner/renter, (2) public housing resident/non–public housing resident, and (3) old-timer/newcomer. Each has obvious connections to the economic order: home ownership requires a level of financial security, public housing has become the housing for those with little money, and newcomers must be well-off to afford rising housing prices. These dichotomies operate both as ways that residents represent and organize themselves and their interests, and as analytical categories.
Still, while these categories are about class, they are not all about class. The categories neither correlate perfectly with class divisions nor consistently predict or predetermine the sentiments of their individual members. Indeed, the thesis of this book is that the primacy of race is often reasserted to overshadow these cleavages. When being black is the most important identity, there can be cross-category sympathy, empathy, and bonding. Furthermore, these groups are not mutually exclusive. Home owners, for example, represent a mix of old-timers and newcomers. Most old-timer home owners are senior citizens who moved to the neighborhood in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, but some are young adults who inherited homes from the original residents. Newcomer home owners are mostly young and middle-aged individuals and families. In terms of actual class position, home owners represent a wide swath of working- to middle- to upper-class occupations—painters, lawyers, housewives, teachers, drugstore clerks, nurses, professors, mail carriers, bankers, and retirees—with the newer home owners clustering toward the upper end of the occupational and income spectrum. Hence, the category of home owners crosses those of economic class and neighborhood tenure. What home owners share is a financial investment in their homes and a desire to protect it. Renters can also be old-timers or newcomers. Most renters are poor or working class because the majority of rental housing in the neighborhood is supported by some kind of public subsidy program and is therefore reserved for low- and moderate-income families. The situation is continuously changing, but I first learned this when I searched for months for an apartment, trying to find one that did not put a ceiling on the amount of money I could make. The public housing/non–public housing distinction is perhaps the most clear cut in terms of its connection to class, although a variety of residents (home owners and renters, newcomers and old-timers) speak about having lived in public housing at some point in their lives. Moreover, work requirements and welfare reform rules have made it the case that many public housing residents work, but still for low wages. All of the caveats and confusion notwithstanding, these categories line up relatively neatly on the crucial dimension of class. On one side sit newcomer home owners—the newer they are, the more affluent—and on the other side, old and new renters and public housing residents. It is old-timer home owners who fall in between or outside of these categories, and whose positions on neighborhood issues are the most flexible and complex as a result.
Despite the fact that homeowners are the minority in North Kenwood–Oakland, they dominate the community organizations, and newcomers are also disproportionately represented at most community meetings. For example, when I lived on Berkeley Avenue in North Kenwood all sixteen dues-paying members of the block club were home owners (and most were women, since among the old-timers the men died before the women). Old-timers I interviewed attributed their withdrawal from the block club to the disproportionate influence of newcomers who wanted to change so much. The participation of public housing residents in the community waned once the high-rise buildings were demolished, but I have been able to capture their voices through archival research and interviews. The predominance of home owners in neighborhood organizations is related to a more generalizable point about urban processes made by sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch: “The ‘ better element’ in an otherwise disadvantaged area can function as a vanguard for change. . . . Not surprisingly, those who ordinarily join and become leaders in a community organization tend to be the middle-class (or aspiring middle-class) homeowners.” The balance of power in neighborhood decision making favors home owners. Their values and norms about appropriate neighborhood decorum are most audibly expressed, and they frequently invoke their status as taxpayers to legitimate their demands for action. Home-owning newcomers and their old-timer allies translate their economic power into political voice.