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How Black Gentrifiers Have Affected the Perception of Chicago's Changing Neighborhoods

How Black Gentrifiers Have Affected the Perception of Chicago's Changing Neighborhoods
Flickr/Laurie Chipps

The neighborhood of Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago has been gentrifying now for more than a decade. Formerly boarded-up beautiful brick homes along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive have come to life. New construction has gone up on land where high-rise public housing projects were spectacularly imploded starting in the 1990s. Median incomes and property values have soared.

Gentrification, though, means something different in Bronzeville than it does in other neighborhoods. In most U.S. cities the word has generally come to imply the gradual taking of a place from one group (usually poor people, usually minorities) by another (usually middle- or upper-class whites). But in Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood – once Chicago’s version of Harlem, the city’s “Black Metropolis” – the gentrifiers are black, too.

Some of them have been there for years, ascending the income ladder as the black middle-class nationwide has dramatically expanded. Then there is the sense that others are "returning" 30 or 40 years after the black middle-class left Bronzville. Either way, there seems to be space enough in the neighborhood amid the vacant lots.

"The idea of gentrification as necessitating displacement – that understanding changed in this particular neighborhood," says Matthew Anderson, who teaches at Montana State University in Billings and grew up not far from Bronzeville. "Gentrification became a positive word."

Non-white gentrification is still a relatively new phenomenon in American cities, and an even newer one in the academic literature on urban neighborhoods. Some of Bronzeville's experience stretches our conception of the word. Anderson’s research in the area raises some curious questions about what happens in a community when the gentrifiers aren’t white – and what this means for a neighborhood’s public perception.

Community leaders in Bronzeville want middle-class outsiders to come in, at least to consume the redeveloped neighborhood as a quasi-tourist destination on par with the city’s Chinatown or Greektown, as a mecca for black history and culture. Bronzeville was the final destination in Chicago for many southern blacks on the Great Migration in the 1920s and '30s. The neighborhood claims close connections to Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. For a while, local residents were hoping to recast Bronzeville as a historic "Blues District." The rest of the city, though, has largely declined to come by. Why is that?

Anderson and colleague Carolina Sternberg published a study, in the journal Urban Affairs Review, comparing Bronzeville to another gentrifying neighborhood on Chicago’s near southwest side. Pilsen has been a historic point of entry for immigrants into Chicago, most recently for Mexican migrants over the past half-century. Like Bronzeville, community activists in Pilsen have managed to keep the neighborhood’s historic identity intact. Pilsen is both gentrifying and becoming a draw for residents across the city in search of Mexican food and culture. It has successfully turned itself, as Anderson and Sternberg put it, into a site for “ethnic consumption.”

In this way, 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 Sternberg write, by "a new racialized subject: the hardworking, professional, and civically reliable Mexican citizen."

Their culture seems somehow more marketable. As a former Bronzeville resident put it to the researchers:

Mexicans, I feel, to folks I know, seem more festive . . . the culture I would say is perceived as more fun and mainstream . . . you think of good food before anything else… If anything, they get flak for stealing our jobs . . . but people are still gonna love drinking margaritas and eating burritos.

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.

"That perception of urban black neighborhoods that have been poor and violent and ghetto-ridden, that has just been very difficult to crack, particularly in Chicago," Anderson says. "That image of the Robert Taylor Homes when you’re driving down the Dan Ryan [Expressway], it’s still so embedded in people’s minds. I don’t think we’re far enough removed from that image."

Bronzeville’s gentrification is almost invisible outside of the neighborhood. Literally, this is how tourist maps of the city often treat the area, glazing over the long patch of land between the South Loop and Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago and Museum of Science and Industry are located. One of the white, middle-class residents interviewed by Anderson put it this way:

I don’t even really 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 even think about it.

Those who did have a mental image invariably offered a negative one:

When you think of Blacks in Chicago the first thing that comes to mind is poverty . . . kids getting killed by other kids.

Developers who have gone into Bronzeville have explicitly marketed housing there to blacks, both because the community wanted to keep its historic identity and because there were doubts whites would have moved in. But the hope was that even if whites did not arrive with moving trucks, they would come down to hear the Blues.

Instead, the neighborhood hasn't been able to shake the perception of its previous poverty, which is still visible on some lots. "From the outside looking in, you still see that history there," Anderson says. "People can’t get away from that, even despite the fact that it has changed drastically. They still see those spaces of neglect. Those are still reminders, signifiers of the past."

Gentrification in Bronzeville not only has a different meaning; it has a different set of limits. The neighborhood needs more sit-down restaurants, but outside of the immediate community, who will patronize them? How would things change if whites did move in? Or what would happen if middle-class blacks gentrified a part of town that wasn’t associated in the city’s memory with housing projects and gang violence?

Bronzeville is an entirely unique neighborhood (the particular redevelopment there is further colored by the irony that locals want to return to the heyday of a “Black Metropolis” that was created through forced segregation). But many of these questions will crop up elsewhere. Some cities, Anderson adds, simply don’t have a sizable pool of potential non-white gentrifiers. But others – New York, Atlanta, Washington – do. How will neighborhoods there change what we mean by the word, as the very act of gentrification diversifies?

Top image: Bronzeville rowhouses (Flickr user Laurie Chipps via Creative Commons)

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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