Gentrification Is Not a Solution to White Flight

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.

Myopic Books - Wicker Park

Myopic Books, Wicker Park – by MA1216 via Flickr

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.


10 thoughts on “Gentrification Is Not a Solution to White Flight

  1. Government policy is also to blame for this. Because rather than investing in Black and Brown communities and making those neighborhoods better for Black and Brown people (and the poor of all colors), they kick out Black, Brown, and poor people to make room for privileged, middle-class whites from the suburbs. They make us the problem that needs to be solved instead of correcting all the problems that came from their mistreatment of us

  2. I have to say I’m more than a little off put by this op-ed. I have whole heartedly stood behind the argument that white flight, red-lining and out-right fear of people of color is at the root cause of the current urban hardships we see in communities, this piece however does little expect blame white people again & again.

    As a white guy living in a 95% Black community, I’ve been at community meetings where increases in the property taxes & rents, were because “they [white people] were moving in”, not the middle class blacks that are really the only in coming group. Because, as I said, the census shows I help make up less than 5%. What is rarely talked about is the fact that people of color are just as interested in staying around other people of color (or maybe more so fearful of moving around whites), as white people are interested in staying around themselves.

    A neighbor of mine who is a lawyer , owns his own practice and a few rental properties, he could be in Lakeview, or Wicker Park, but he’s in Bronzeville. I know doctors and small business owners. Also, chose to live in Bronzeville, South Shore, or Woodlawn. All of them are black.

    We have friends raising kids in Woodlawn who don’t want to be the family that helps bring a burb like Naperville a little more diversity, because they’re worried about having a Trayvon Martin situation, than the drive by situation they already have every other week down the street.

    In Illinois black people make up just 14% of the overall population, so what does the perfect diversity look like? 2 in 10, 3 in 10?

    I’ve always bragged to my friends about how I love the diversity of the South Loop, yet according to this piece, “White people” Are to blame for the fact it is only 40% black

    I’m all for pointing out the fact that a large portion of white people run to the whitest burbs they can find, but this “It’s white people’s fault” blame game is not productive. It’s basically stand-offish and offers zero solutions to the overall problems. The real problem is, the people who had money, took it with them and left the people who didn’t have money behind.

    As our society changes and for the first time 50% of children born here are non-white (mine included) the real battle will be over who holds the money. If you think it’s still about race, you’re stuck in the past. Money follows money and it doesn’t care what color you are.

    • Wow. It’s not a personal thing. But once again, white people gotta center on white people…

      “f you think it’s still about race, you’re stuck in the past. Money follows money and it doesn’t care what color you are.”
      Really? Maybe that’s what it looks like in middle class communities, not what it looks like in the West Side. Not what it looks like in County Jail. Not what it looks like in Englewood. Colorblindness, what you’re advocating for here, is just a nicer form of racism. I’m sure it’s not intentional. I’m sure you’re a great guy and all. But it’s not helpful.

  3. Pingback: Ripping Apart the Chicago Gun Violence Myths, Part 1: Racism

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