- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007


By Mary Pattillo, The University of Chicago Press, $29, 388 pages, illus.

Few topics stir the race and class pots as gentrification does. Black and white, rich and poor — pick your poison.

But Mary Pattillo’s “Black on the Block” asks what happens when middle-class blacks gentrify black neighborhoods. The Northwestern University sociologist researched North Kenwood/Oakland, or NKO, on Chicago’s South Side.

Same-race gentrification is no cure-all: Tensions over economic disparities, education, lifestyle and public housing persist. The newcomers morph into “middlemen” between the community and the outside world.

The book does a terrific job of documenting gentrification, but it provides less in the way of useful analysis. This is most clear in the author’s discussions of class conflict. In the introductory chapter Ms. Pattillo lays out the theme that black interests are not monolithic, and through the book she provides an impressive array of quotes showing that rich and poor blacks often see things differently.

This is true, but only to the degree it’s obvious. No one disputes that money can change a black person’s outlook, but blacks are a consistent political bloc. The author admits they “by and large, vote Democratic, support affirmative action, and agree on the need for some kind of reparations for slavery.”

The book also shows that rich neighbors are a mixed blessing. As demand for NKO land rises, so do prices. Most landowners love the increase in value, but renters have to pay more. Longtime homeowners who don’t want to sell face higher property taxes.

Similar tradeoffs apply to education. The new residents bring clout, so the schools improve. However, some schools do not guarantee entry, demanding kids who can pass tests and parents who can complete lengthy forms. Gentrifiers jump at the chance, but the system tends to exclude their poorer neighbors.

The author also addresses crime and disorder.

In one interesting debate, a police officer complains that residents barbecue on a public parkway, tying the practice into the larger fight for order. This evokes the “Broken Windows” theory, which posits that disorder causes crime. The author says the idea is “all but discredited.”

Ms. Pattillo is right that barbecuing is harmless, but she goes too far in dismissing “Broken Windows” entirely. It played a part in New York City’s successful 1990s war on crime, and William Bratton, who led the NYPD during the improvement, destroyed some of the studies the author cites in a recent National Review article (co-written with George Kelling, a longtime “Broken Windows” proponent). One of those studies even conceded “Broken Windows” might be right, “indirectly.”

Gentrifiers also complain about public housing projects. This debate is inter- as well as intraracial.

NKO was once home to six high-rises (the “Lakefront Properties”). The government emptied them in 1986, promising the residents could return to renovated structures. Five years later, only two reopened.

High-rise units had gone out of style, giving way to low-rises for people of varying incomes — that way, poverty is less concentrated. Officials demolished the remaining high-rises without building many new units. The author observed discussions about whether the Chicago Housing Authority (and its partners) should create more units.

Critics object not so much to more housing as to more housing in NKO, a step back for gentrification. In Chicago as elsewhere, public housing often ends up in black neighborhoods because the land is more affordable, public housing residents are disproportionately black and whites protest attempts to build nearby. Thus a liberal move — providing housing — becomes “racist aggression” (the author’s words) on black neighborhoods. She discusses one civil rights lawsuit in detail.

The whole issue shows how the government cannot solve social problems or manage any economic venture well. There’s a way around this, seeing some success through Section 8: Give the poor housing vouchers instead of government buildings. Landlords compete for business, and the living conditions aren’t so bad. No “racist aggression,” no ignoring the needy, no concentrating poverty.

Ms. Pattillo addresses Section 8 mainly through its project-based vouchers, which only apply to specific buildings. She does not look at tenant-based vouchers — where individuals pick the units — in depth or ask residents how effective the program is.

It’s possible Ms. Pattillo didn’t come across these vouchers much in her reporting, but that’s a shame, because the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities once concluded they “appear to be working well in most areas.” Since 2004, funding changes have cut 130,000 vouchers nationally, the Center estimates.

All told, “Black on the Block” is often tough reading, and political bias hurts it. But it’s worth a skim, with a grain of salt.

Robert VerBruggen is assistant book editor at The Washington TImes.

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