Chicago has changed significantly over the last fifty years in some ways. In others, it’s been the same old thing – racial segregation tied to economic apartheid. But where and how this plays out has shifted. From the late 60’s through the early 80’s Chicago – like most other north urban cities still in the thralls of exercised anti-black racism in the post-Civil Rights era – experienced massive white flight.
Actually, that’s a horrible way to put it. First, white flight didn’t just happen to Chicago and second “white flight” is a problematic label that doesn’t in the least describe what was and is (still) happening. What happened to neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Ukranian Village, Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and South Loop is what happened to Detroit – white people decided their areas were too tainted, too impure, too scary. And rather than invest in them to make room for all, rather than welcoming, rather than giving back to the very people they’ve (we’ve) stolen wages, labor and wealth from, white people en masse thought it more convenient to relocate.
More to the point, not only did white people relocate to the suburbs and enclaves, but they took the resources, the investments, the capital, the wealth that was made for them by the bodies, the work and the below poverty-level wages and existence that black (and other POC) made for them. When they found that Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Black youth were enacting on the very violence that had been exacted through economic, political and housing segregation, the White patriarchy decided it important to sever ties with the city and retreat to the suburbs. All the better if they could continue to draw resources out of the city and back into the cul de sacs, of course.
White flight, we must understand, is not a problem primarily because White people and their White solutions left the city. White flight is a problem because White people took the dues owed to Black people with them. They stole and then ran.
After a generation of fleeing, they started coming back. In Chicago, they pushed Puerto Ricans east out of the lakefront territory of Lincoln Park and reclaimed it, all of it, for Whiteness. They also discovered that the beautiful buildings and centralized location of Wicker Park were too much to leave to poor black and Latin@ and even poor white folks, so they slowly reclaimed that too, beginning in the late 80’s. They brought in artists and young people, students. All white, all with a bit more disposable income than the current residents. All a little distant from the current community. All raising property value just enough to begin the displacement of the current population. The residents then begin to see their community erode as they lose grip on what they’ve worked so hard to stabilize – community organizations and resources that are mostly built in and through each other and relationships they’ve built over years, decades, generations.
When you are poor, you rely on each other. When you and your neighbors are being forced out, you lose that support. That is what gentrification is: forcing out of black, brown and poor bodies and destroying their supportive networks. But yet gentrification is often approached as a solution, as a counter to White Flight. As if the problem was that middle class and upper class White people and their White ingenuity and work ethic were what was missing. As if the neighborhoods were deteriorating because White People weren’t here. And as if their presence and their example (yes, that is the argument. Yes, that is what they say) would fix what their theft caused.
The main pro-gentrification argument is that the neighborhood improves and bringing in White people with their white money is the only viable solution to improving the neighborhood. What they mean by that is that the neighborhood wasn’t of value under black and brown management. That people of color and poor people don’t have any value to offer. That the crime and poverty is the fault of black and brown people – not their own theft. They are also assenting that property – that the buildings and lots they are referring to when they say “neighborhood” – is more important than humanity – what those of us being gentrified mean when we talk about the neighborhood. And particularly that property is more important than POC humanity.
See, gentrification isn’t the solution to White Flight. It’s the next step. When gentrifiers fill the neighborhoods and the barrios their parents abandoned, they begin a process of completing what their forebearers started – reclaiming their old homes and furthering the solidification of the permanent underclass.
This is what Detroit is about. Forcing out of black bodies so that the city can be reclaimed. To think it’s about anything else is to miss the big picture.