Monday, June 19, 2006

Real Estate Prices and Martin Luther King, Jr.

MartinlutherkingjrWhat Martin Luther King, Jr. was unable to completely accomplish during the Civil Rights Marches of the sixties is happening now, in cities where segregation was most problematic. The strange thing is that inner-city blacks are now coalescing on the other side of the issue. Their complaint? Whites buying them out of black ghettoes at big prices.


Unintended consequences have turned the housing boom (or bubble) into a de-segregator. I wonder what King would have thought of that?


EvanstonWhen I was a kid in 40’s and 50’s Evanston, Illinois, the city boasted the outstanding amenity of being home to Northwestern University, which kept it from being a mere bedroom suburb of Chicago. It also had a ‘black belt,’ which had nothing to do with karate and much to do with who was allowed to live where. The balconies of its many movie theatres were reserved for blacks and, although restaurants were not officially segregated, a well dressed black family could wait a very long time to be served.


Evanston Township High School was integrated, as were a most of the grade schools, but the (all white) Swimming Team practiced at the YMCA (also ‘restricted’) because white parents had repeatedly turned down referendums to build a high school pool. Not hard to draw a conclusion from that, yet Evanston seemed a racially uncomplicated city, at least to my young, growing-up self.


CharlesfordSo, here we are, sixty years later and Seattle and Portland, Oregon are in the news. Their crime is not segregation this time, but desegregation. Blaine Harden’s WaPo article quotes Charles Ford, five years older than I am and a self-described Portland black activist; "The heart of the black community is gone. There ain't no center anymore."


Well, of course there is. But it’s not the center Charlie Ford knew and loved and, from what he seems to be saying, one of the things he loved was its blackness, its more or less exclusive and comfortable blackness.


Charlie has a point. The pleasures of place revolve around inherent comforts, whether we be black, white, Asian, Hispanic or Muslim and that has a lot to do with the ease of association, food, backstory and lifestyle.


It’s not chic to talk about what Charlie Ford brings up, but it’s very real and I don’t quite know how we get over it or if getting over it is even a useful mind-set. King didn't want us to get over it, he preferred that we get on with it and set about the business of valuing one another.


Speaking for myself, I haven’t a single black friend and I can’t go looking for black friends any more appropriately than I can any other color. I can only have a friend and, if he is black, I am fortunate in that additional dimension. I have two Muslim friends, both Iranians. Thus I know, personally, the very people we threaten to bomb. I don't know, at least not personally, the friends Charlie Ford is losing within his neighborhood.


Normanrice"I am concerned and I am frustrated because I don't know what the alternatives are," said Norman Rice, who in the 1990s was Seattle's first and only black mayor. "It clearly isn't racist; it's economics. The real question you have to ask yourself is: Is this good or bad?"


I think it’s probably good, Norman. I have a hunch there’s an inverse proportion between mixed-race friendships and age. My gut tells me whites half my age have twice the exposure to friends of other races or ethnic backgrounds and those half their age, twice again. It’s possible that was what King hoped for as well. We have got it (or some of it, more of it every year) by the unintended consequence of an inner-city housing bubble.


At the end of Blaine Harden’s article,

Charlie Ford takes a reporter on a tour of his gentrified neighborhood and discovers a not-so-handsome house for $400,000, a price that astonishes him, especially because the house was considerably smaller than his own. "When I see prices like that, I wonder who . . . of my race can continue to live here," he said.

Ford began ruminating about the price -- and the profit -- he might be able to get for his house, which he has owned since 1968 and which sits on a fine corner lot near a fixed-up city park. "I have said I would never sell," Ford said. "But who can resist these prices?"

Harden’s piece points out, “as white gentrification accelerates in Portland and Seattle, where the percentage of black residents was already the lowest among the nation's largest cities, it is erasing the only historically black neighborhoods these cities have ever had.”


That’s the nature of cities, as Chicago’s Pilsen loses its Czechs and its ethnic areas become less Danish and Italian and Chinese, more Hispanic and (dare I say it?) even white. Pilsen was a section of Chicago named specifically after the famous brewery city of Pilsen, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The only historically Czech neighborhood in the city and it is now lost as well.


I can easily imagine Evanston becoming a better city for the loss of its ‘black belt.’


Let me know how it works out for you, Charlie, if you elect to cash in.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.