Tag: Chicago

gentrification

Gentrification is a jedi mind trick where (mostly) black people conclude entire communities have no value, although everyone else can see it. Gentrification is generally unpopular among black people but in fact we bear some responsibility for it. When we refuse to see the value in our communities and others do, that’s on us. I’m tired of hearing black people complain about gentrification while refusing to invest in black communities — even middle class black communities. Real estate is finite and if we don’t buy it, someone will. If we really despise people who are wholly unconnected to the culture of a neighborhood moving in and displacing the population, then damnit start seeing the worth in black communities before everyone else does.

Gentrification — as we understand it — is not completely inevitable. Washington was about 70 percent black just a generation ago but today the city no longer has a black majority. Masses of white people did not come in the night and wipe out the black population. The dramatic loss of affordable housing is significant but the unwillingness of black homeowners to stay put cannot be ignored. The decline in federal funding to house the poor is exacerbating yet black people and organizations — while admittedly challenging — made few sustained, organized efforts to collectively invest in black communities while the real estate was still at giveaway prices. Whether the communities in question were legitimately unsafe or simply decent neighborhoods that lacked desired amenities, many made the choice to walk away.

It is curious that communities we so often deem wholly undesirable are consistently valued by everyone else. It tells me that our valuation is off, in many respects. If a developer can see the potential of a community filled with poor black people, so should we. If investor X believes there is money to be made on a block with 8 homes — of which 4 are boarded up — maybe we should, too. Why couldn’t our churches and local organizations organize families to collectively buy that block and fix up those homes? Why couldn’t families looking for starter homes put their money together and buy multi-family homes before they were swooped up by an investor and turned into swanky apartments that rent for $2,000 monthly? Why can’t our local Urban League and NAACP chapters organize citywide initiatives to pair our people together to buy communities, raise the property values and in doing so attract all the amenities we seek out in other neighborhoods?

I live on the South Side of Chicago now, having recently relocated from DC. Chicago is now in the process of gentrifying in much the same way DC has. But it doesn’t have to be. I live in a condo building that has three units and two apartments on the basement level. The units are very nice — hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances and a secure entry system. The unit directly under me was just recently renovated and it is gorgeous. It is 1,700 square feet and features three bedrooms with two full baths. It is also a duplex unit, a bonus. While such a unit in DC would easily cost half a million dollars or even more in wealthier neighborhoods, that unit just sold last month for $150,000. Seriously, that’s it. The reason is my neighborhood is just outside of the gentrifying zone and while my street is nice and quieter than a street in the city should be, the neighborhood is still quite black and that is a turnoff for many buyers and thus values are suppressed. That unit, while only $150,000 today, will easily be worth 3 times that in 10 years and too many of us will lament that we didn’t simply buy it while it was easily affordable.

To be sure, there are many forces at work far beyond any personal decisions we might make. In far too many places older residents on fixed income are priced out of the homes they own because property taxes have skyrocketed. Even worse, many cities unfairly advantage newcomers. In Philadelphia, for example, new buyers qualify for a 10-year property tax abatement while older residents are often without relief. There are many challenges and yes, organizing as a community is far more difficult than being a private investor with cash who can develop entire blocks overnight (not to mention the federal and local tax incentives many of them utilize). This is not easy but it is not inevitable, either. There are still many communities in cities around the country where property values are very modest. They will eventually be developed, the only question is by whom.

Perhaps you think losing black presence in American cities is not problematic and if so, there’s nothing to worry about. If you do find it problematic, however, there are solutions. We must organize, buy and stay. If you find that too difficult or if you have an aversion to investing in black communities — poor, working or middle class — then please stop complaining about gentrification.

Chicago_Theatre

My great-uncle left central Georgia to serve his country abroad and never returned to the Deep South. He eventually chose the greener pastures of the South Side. After 60 years in Chicago he told me, “Chicago has the best of everything…but it also has the worst of everything.” Chicago is unmatched in beauty and splendor. Chicago is also plagued by a sense of hopelessness. Chicago is America: a nation first in ideals but ranked last in health care, among comparable nations. America produces Nobel Peace Prize winners like Dr. King, who in turn called this country the “greatest purveyor of violence” on the globe. If America is the world’s greatest nation, Chicago is undoubtedly its most accurate reflection.   

I gave up everything to be with my love — her name is Chicago. She is reviled and scorned by many and yet known by so few. She is strange to masses who only know her through the narratives of distant strangers motivated by politics and racial resentment when they speak her name. Stop and listen for although I am not her native son, I gave everything to be held in her embrace. 

I know my love’s immeasurable beauty and I’m aware of her fatal flaws. The authenticity and forgiving nature of her people scarcely exists elsewhere and yet those people are often burdened by pain. I hear what others say about my love yet their words stray from what I have observed with my eyes. When I mention my lover’s name others are filled with terror. How can this be, especially when most of the terrorized have never been to the city? The nation has been taught to fear Chicago but not by statistics. Yes, of late there has been a surge in violent crime but you are twice as likely to be killed in St. Louis than in Chicago. Indeed, the city’s murder rate was significantly higher in the 90’s and plunged thereafter. Why the fixation now on Chicago violence? 

My love is large, in population and mass. This makes her wonderful but also a target for political posturing. It is easier to say her name than another. But my love also satisfies a national appetite for black pathology, giving life to narratives absent critical analysis. As always, race rears its ugly head. Race prohibits others from seeing my love as she is. Social analysis is never precise when race is introduced. The Moynihan report of the 1960’s told us that out-of-wedlock births indicated black families were entangled in “pathology.” That is, black families were utterly abnormal and defective. As Dr. Andrew Hacker pointed out in his book Two Nations, white families have since surpassed those same numbers Moynihan cited for black families and yet there is no mention of the pathology of whites. 

In the same way we fail to see Chicago clearly today. When 468 were murdered in the city in 2015, we were told the world was ending. That 468 pales in comparison to the 619 killed in 1925, a period when the city population was on par with today. As the South and West Sides of the city bleed today, Chicago was a bloodbath in the 1920’s, ruled by gangsters like Al Capone. We were able to do objective analysis during that period when the gangsters were white but we seem incapable today.

Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard scholar, asserted in a 1999 paper that violence– and homicides specifically– peak most when prohibition of drugs or alcohol are vigorously enforced. The alcohol prohibition and the Drug War eras, naturally, have the most pronounced homicide rates. In the 1920’s and early 30’s we were able to see that bad public policy –prohibition– pushed Eastern European immigrants, who lacked economic opportunities, to accept the working conditions of the illegal alcohol business and carnage ensued. Today 47% of black men in Chicago between 20 and 24 are neither working or in school. Naturally, the illegal drug industry recruits from that demographic and carnage ensues. Unlike in the 1920’s, however, we now conclude that the people are bad and not the policies. Narratives of black pathology are far more desirable. 

Accepting these narratives robs us from seeing my love as she is. Have you ever seen the city from a perch along Lake Michigan? Have you ever learned a second language within the English language, like those spoken on the South Side, and experienced the richness of a black culture unrivaled in North America? Such literary wealth can be heard on a number of street corners, conveying more meaning than all of Shakespeare’s prose. Have you seen the fusion of an untold number of architectural traditions all singing in harmony across the city sky? Have you dined in the fine restaurants of the loop? Have you eaten rib tips from Lem’s or cupcakes from Brown Sugar Bakery on 75th street? If you haven’t, you have not yet seen the best of America.

body-cam

18-year-old Paul O’Neal was shot in the back and killed while fleeing from police in Chicago recently– yes, shot in the back while running away. Chicago police have released video of the incident but conveniently, that little part of the actual shooting isn’t available because the camera belonging to the officer who fired the shot was off. All too often the cameras are off or “malfunctioning” during these critical moments and yes, we think it’s intentional. Every. Single. Time. Last year in Oklahoma a cop was was caught on a body camera saying to his colleagues, “turn it off” before they commenced beating a suspect who stole from a Dollar General. Yes, Dollar General. We believe every instance is just as shady. Why wouldn’t we? Our history with law enforcement leaves us no other choice.

harambee

This past Saturday Harambee, a 400-pound silverback gorilla, was killed at the Cincinnati zoo. Over the same weekend 27 people were shot, within walking distance from where I’m currently staying on Chicago’s westside. I knew all about Harambee but absolutely nothing of those 27 shootings because they occurred across an imaginary line of gentrification, where even the city streets appear to be maintained radically different. I’ve heard much about how Harambee’s life could have been spared, even as he violently dragged a child around his enclosure. But not much has been said about how we could have saved 27 of my neighbors and that’s the discussion which should be prioritized. I guess they and their shooters are just considered, ironically, “animals.”