Last week, I briefly shared some thoughts on code language and how such language (words and terms) make meaningful discussion of some racial and political issues next to impossible. The words “gentrification and “urban” are two examples of the sort of code I’m talking about here.
Looking at the latter word first, “urban” has a dual meaning, which means it is a form of doubletalk. It can mean either an entire city (metropolitan area) or the portion of it that is predominantly African-American and impoverished (ghetto or inner-city). In this sense, it becomes synonymous with crime, poverty, inferior schools, and, by linguistic and psychological babble, the places where lazy, slovenly, government freeloaders live.
The first term, “gentrification,” is a nice-sounding word that has gained popularity in the last two decades or so. In large, mid-size and small cities across America, it refers to the ongoing process where more affluent individuals and families are moving back into inner-city areas. Usually, the gentrifiers, black or white, claim that it is not their aim to displace less well-off residents, usually African-American, who have been in these communities for decades. It is urban renewal.
It is useful to consider how these communities became predominantly African-American and poor in the first place. To the point, I recently consulted with a wonderful group of young community leaders in Chicago’s south side Woodlawn area. In the 1960s, Woodlawn was home to nearly 90,000 mostly black residents. Prior to that time, it was occupied by Poles, Czechs, and other working class white ethnic groups.
As in many other cities, however, as African-Americans began to move into Woodlawn in larger numbers (this was a national pattern), whites left. They left for nice homes in suburban areas, ahead of unscrupulous real estate brokers’ forecast that the presence of black folk would mean higher crime rates, lower property values, and other social and economic woes. In this way, they precipitated what is known as “white flight.”
The real estate opportunists’ forecast was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As blacks crowded in, vital city services were withdrawn or reduced. The streets were not cleaned. The schools became inferior. Crime levels rose as street gangs such as the Disciples began to pop up. Street violence became commonplace as police services were withdrawn, and unemployed men (barred from decent jobs) turned to drug trafficking and other illicit behaviors to support themselves and their families.
Today, the Woodlawn community is an unsafe place in which to live. Shootings are commonplace, almost weekly or daily occurrences. Residents are afraid. Children are not allowed to play in the streets. Automobile thefts are frequent. The area is infested by raccoons. (As a side note, shortly after I left the area to return to Anderson, a 68-year-old woman was attacked by two large, roaming dogs, and nearly killed).
The community’s 1960s population of 90,000 is now at about 30,000. Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings give the area a snaggle-toothed look. Garbage is everywhere (the main attraction of the raccoons). For the most part, for nearly 50 years, there has been a consistent pattern of disinvestment throughout the area. The community is a food desert.
On the other hand, Chicago’s Woodlawn is 15 minutes or so from the Loop. It is 10 minutes from the shores of Lake Michigan. It is positioned for easy access to interstate highways. The housing stock is made up of beautiful, historic greystone buildings, mostly of the two-flat variety.
The area is made more attractive by the plan to construct the sprawling Barack Obama library in adjacent Hyde Park. Tiger Woods is reportedly investing millions to make the area’s Jackson Park Golf Course one of the finest in the nation. The University of Chicago is nearby. And Bill Gates is investing $135,000,000 in the construction of a loft live-in workspace at the edge of Woodlawn.
Because of these factors, and the elegant greystone residential buildings within the Woodlawn area, there is a slow, but steady creep of middle class whites back into the community. It is easy to predict that, within a few years, greystone buildings that can now be bought for less than $200,000 may be valued at five times that much. This is what gentrification looks like.
Some say it is urban renewal. The leadership group I met with calls it urban removal, and it is happening all over America.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.