Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When the TL's Cross: Wrestling with "Black Gentrification" Part 1

I had a fascinating experience this past weekend on the magic twitter machine when my timeline became all aflutter over a recently published a post by Emily Badger over at Atlantic Cities looking at the Bronzeville, an historically black neighborhood, in Chicago and its ongoing gentrification due to a large influx of middle class black residents. What was unique was that this post made its way over to my particular section of "black twitter" precipitating two parallel conversations on my timeline that were quite fascinating. I hope to try and add another voice to this and maybe, if successful, better synthesize some of the disparate threads of the conversation.

Badger's post compares the perception of Bronzeville's change with that of the Pilsen neighborhood, a gentrifying primarily Mexican neighborhood that has become something of a city destination known for its colorful "Latin culture" and fun atmosphere. Bronzeville, conversely, has not become a city destination and seems to be largely invisible to many non-black residents, even though it is "gentrifying".

Badger cuts to the heart of the issue when she observes that Bronzeville's blackness makes the neighborhood less "marketable" than Pilsen and discusses how black neighborhoods have difficulty not uniformly being seen as violent ghettoes. She also makes an interesting statement that developers in Bronzeville have marketed the neighborhood to middle class blacks partially to keep the black character of the neighborhood but also due to anxiety that white residents would not be interested in living in a black neighborhood.

The post offers some interesting points but it is a bit scattered. Its biggest gap lies in its ambiguous definition of gentrification. This looseness in definition I think obscures some of the points Badger was trying to make. Gentrification has many meanings and and interpretations depending on who you talk to, but there are some commonly held understandings that should be mentioned whenever you write on gentrification. First, gentrification is more than the economic development of a neighborhood or an influx of new residents who happen to be of a higher socioeconomic class, and those who insist on a "pure" economic definition of gentrification fundamentally misunderstand the term. Neil Smith, citing Ruth Glass the creator of the term, defines gentrification explicitly as a process of displacement and the wholesale transformation of the social character of the target neighborhood/district. Displacement is the central characteristic of gentrification. Badger, unfortunately, does not actually mention whether or not there has been significant displacement of residents from Bronzeville and she gives conflicting or contradictory accounts of the neighborhood as still suffering from intense vacancy and a desire of existing residents to bring in new residents. Highlighting stubborn vacancy and the desire of existing residents to bring in newcomers without mentioning neighborhood opposition or displacement pressures leads me to believe that Bronzeville should not be called a gentrifying or gentrified neighborhood. Or if it is gentrifying, then highlighting vacant, developable land and resident desires for more people to come in is not a great way to bolster this argument.

Assuming that Bronzeville is gentrifying, the comparison to Pilsen and examining Bronzeville's "blackness" offer some other interesting ideas, but I fear Badger does not go far enough in her critique. Pilsen is apparently a favored destination for many white residents from other parts of Chicago to come to and consume the Mexican culture of the neighborhood. Lively cafes, Mexican bakeries and entertaining music all combine to help make Pilsen one of the destinations in the city. Badger contrasts this with the fact that Bronzeville, which has a rich black history concerning the blues and multiple literary and cultural figures, seems unable to attract the kind of attention that Pilsen does. She cites a study in Urban Affairs that says that Bronzeville's invisibility compared to Pilsen's is because the neighborhood has been and continues to be majority black and has a history of poverty and violence. Badger gives some quotes from different white residents across the city that speak of Bronzeville as a literal black hole in the city that they never think about or see. The neighborhood is invisible.

While the invisibility of black life and black neighborhoods is certainly not new in America, the statements that Bronzeville's "blackness" somehow overwhelms the positive aspects of the neighborhood plays into a frankly racist narrative of neighborhood identity. Bronzeville's blackness does not overwhelm anything. The insistence of white people to ignore black neighborhoods is the only thing that makes Bronzeville "invisible". Linking white resident disinterest in the neighborhood to some overwhelming blackness naturalizes incredibly troubling unequal social relations and leads to uncomfortable conclusion that Bronzeville needs to overcome this blackness handicap in some way as opposed to saying that maybe white people should hold such racist notions. Second, the idea that neighborhood value is, at least partially, based upon the desire of other (read:white) residents to visit your neighborhood and voyeuristically consume your culture is incredibly limiting for a variety of reasons, but two big ones stand out to me: it encourages developing neighborhoods not for the betterment of residents but for the consumption of a preferred outside spending group, it does nothing to address existing unequal social or economic relations but instead turns responsibility back onto target neighborhoods (i.e. Bronzeville's blackness somehow overwhelming its positive neighborhood characteristics).

We can discuss non-white gentrification. I think this will be a growing concern in some larger, historically blacker metropolitcan areas and the issues that arise from it will test traditional political relations in cities with large black populations and can potentially exacerbate existing social divides of many ethnic groups. But using Bronzeville and Pilsen as comparative examples obscures these deep issues. Bronzeville, whether gentrifying or not, is invisible because many white Chicagoans could not give a damn about the lives of black people. And I, for one, say that if white Chicagoans ignore a growing, positive neighborhood because they're too racist to care, then let's do what we black folks have always done, survive, prosper and enjoy our own company.

As always, keep it surly.

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