Redoing the City of Neighborhoods

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

My children will never see the Chicago where I grew up, the only redheaded Irish American kid in a sea of brown faces. My class pictures from Darwin School include a few other white kids, mostly Polish, a few black kids, one or two Assyrians, among a majority of Latinos. The abandoned buildings on Kedzie Boulevard are now luxury apartments, and in place of El Gustito—the bodega where my mother sent me for milk—condos dwarf the block. Puerto Rican and Mexican families who survived the long winter of city neglect and built community on the Near Northwest Side now face a wild surge in local real estate values. Promoters of gentrification may explain the phenomenon as a natural and inevitable wrecking ball that leaves flowers behind, but we would be fools not to recognize that it is also about race.

This section explores the narratives of ten Chicagoans and their experiences in the “policy lab” examined in this issue of AREA Chicago. I begin with my perspective as a resident and also as an anthropologist studying Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen, three Chicago neighborhoods of historical significance to black, Puerto Rican, and Mexican residents respectively. I have lived in Chicago since 1979. My family was a part of the exodus that followed the steel plant closings in Buffalo, and we arrived here when I was seven. I grew up in Logan Square and have spent most of my life on the Near Northwest Side. There have been two major sea changes in the landscape of Chicago since my childhood, which parallels the era of the deepest deprivation and disinvestment in the history of the city. One is the rise of the Latino community, in numbers, in community development, in aspiration, creativity, and political power. The second is the gutting of the inner city and public housing, and its replacement with an amnesiac, upscale consumer paradise for outsiders with money.

“Do you know what gentrification is?” one white newcomer posed to me, as I began fieldwork in the anthropology of gentrification in Chicago in 2004. “To some people it means just plain white….Well, there were no whites living right where I lived, okay? I would say the last three years, on both sides of the street now maybe there are twenty-two, in a block of a hundred people, okay? Do they have to be white for the area to change? No. I’d like to say it’s more about economics. I don’t want to sound racist, because I’m not racist, otherwise why would I have moved in?”

Indeed. Many newcomers view their arrival in areas like Humboldt Park as an embrace of diversity.Jos√© L√≥pez, director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center of Chicago, differs. “I think that, for example, you’ve created an illusion of diversity,” he told me. “The bulk of the Latino population is obviously not in that world. So what happens is you create an illusion where, especially among this generation of young urban professionals, that you’ve overcome the problems of racism. They exist in multicultural environments, for the most part….and it’s an illusion. It’s an illusion because in the long run the society continues to be quite segregated. People continue to be judged on the color of their skin.”

When I pose questions which draw attention to race, my respondents offer knowing smirks and wry comments which often limit the discussion [for an extended example, see Chicago Reader, letters sections, 8/24, 8/31, 9/7 & 9/14/2007]. A given block was black, but what can you do? Tell people where to live? Don’t you know the Puerto Ricans pushed out the Polish, and now “their time has come”? So why are they marching and chanting, “¬°No se vende!”? [Do not sell!]

Isn’t it all just so ironic?

No. It is, however, part of the historical political economy of race in the United States. Gentrification is complex. Defined as the revaluation and reshaping of urban space by more affluent newcomers who displace lower income predecessors, gentrification is happening in every neighborhood around theChicago Loop, up and down the lakefront north and south, and, in fact, around the globe (Atkinson & Bridge 2005). A nexus of social actors transform neighborhoods through an urban growth machine that includes the state, the real estate industry, businesses, civic groups, and the new middle classes (Logan & Molotch 1987). While blaming ‘inevitable market forces,’ the state sidelines a role otherwise amenable to public outrage. The new battlegrounds of race are largely below the skin: zoning control, building inspections, tax increment financing districts, school closings, gifts of city land and money to developers.

In the present, the poorest and most marginalized blacks and Latinos in cities like Chicago now face spatial deconcentration, dispersal, and reconcentration in impoverished metropolitan peripheries (Pérez 2004). My research is based on the sneaking suspicion that this is neither irony nor conspiracy. It is part of a shift in the fabric of race implicit in the recolonization of the city. Early gentrification along the lakefront was a gamble by private speculators that the city and the bankers previously behind urban renewal would support their attempt to capitalize neighborhoods for profit, but now it is the given policy script. The new bifurcated economy is as visible in neighborhood schools through Renaissance 2010 as it is in the explosion of an uncertain and informal service economy while downtown financification proceeds apace.

But these disjuncts are also lived narratives, as this section highlights. Elites endorse neoliberal forms of privatized public engagement to consolidate power and grease the wheels of capital, but all this depends on a vista of practices I have termed intimate segregation. Newcomers develop ways to avoid, confront and structure interracial contact using repertoires with origins in the same segregated landscape they seek to transform. Black and Latino predecessors respond by deploying overt racial and cultural self-signification, all the while covertly inhabiting and transforming spaces and social life on their own terms. Famed sociologist Robert Park once described Chicago neighborhoods as a “mosaic of little worlds which touch but do not interpenetrate” (Park, 1967: 40). We have arrived at a new moment in which worlds interpenetrate—but do not touch.

What will become of us? The following statements by residents throughout Chicago offer personal insight into some of the tensions and challenges of the present. I draw attention as well to the contradictions, convictions and claims that emerge as people begin to recognize what these shifts in the fabric of the City of Neighborhoods have done to their lives. ♦

Works Cited:

Atkinson, Rowland & Gary Bridge, eds. 2005. Gentrification In A Global Context. New York: Routledge.

Logan, John & Harvey Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy Of Place. Berkeley: University Of California Press.

Park, Robert, Ernest W. Burgess, & Roderick D. McKenzie. 1967. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pérez, Gina. 2004. The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, & Puerto Rican Families. Los Angeles: University Of California Press.


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