Black on the Block by Mary Pattillo examines the socio-economic and political aspects of class and race that define social homogeny and stratification. In a research study of the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood of Chicago’s inner city, Pattillo explores the influence of black consciousness in an attempt to create a save and economically stable haven for Americans of African descent, who felt marginalized and threatened by white dominance. However, contrary to initial expectations of achieving a perfect black community, the result was the gradual marginalization of the poor blacks who could not afford rising housing costs in the new gentrified neighborhood.
Consequently, the low class residents, previously dependant on the more affordable public housing had to pave way for the upper class bourgeoisie newcomers. In the end, the key factors that determined who really belonged in the revitalized NKO was not race as originally envisioned, but an economic order that determined one’s lifestyle (Pattillo, 15). In this regard, the author’s view on urban revitalization is both cynical and skeptical, for seldom does it achieve its intended goals. While the original aim is to improve the living standards of poor neighborhoods and their residents, the situation in contemporary urban America in general and the case of North Kenwood-Oakland in particular demonstrate that class politics always come into play in ordering social homogeny and stratification.
The significance of this research lies in the insights it provides on the supremacy of class affluence over race in the American society. Before the late sixties when racial differences between whites and blacks were more apparent, there was a tendency by the former to move away from the inner city neighborhoods, which were popular as the dwellings of the under-privileged working class who, inevitably, comprised of blacks and other marginalized groups such as Latino Americans. The affluent whites relocated into suburbs, where they formed exclusive gated communities that further distinguished the truly wealthy from the merely rich. However, with the economic advancement among some black Americans, they were able to compete with their white counterparts in purchasing power, thereby earning the right to ‘gate-crash’ into the white protected enclaves, so to speak. On the other hand, the whites became more willing to move back into previously deserted black neighborhoods that had been rejuvenated into high-end residences. The color of the skin or the knowledge that the guy next door is of ‘the inferior other race’- psychological constructs previously fed by racial stereotyping, lost relevance. In its place emerged a new spirit of interracial coexistence, which rested solely on paring economic status. A similar thread runs in the NKO gentrification process described by Pattillo in Black on the Block. If the metaphorically phrased title is anything to go by, it tells of new entrants, particularly blacks, into the realm of white affluence. They are the “new kids in the block,’ for want of an appropriate expression. Likewise with the white newcomers: once in the block (North Kenwood-Oakland), they are accepted by the truly moneyed black community, racial differences notwithstanding. As it were, both white and blacks alike are “black on the block” as far as the gentrification of NKO goes, their ticket into the ‘block’ and factor of hegemony being the depth of their individual pockets. Thus, Mary Pattillo so vividly captures the trends that characterize the process of urban gentrification not only in North Kenwood-Oakland, but also within the larger American society as well.
The chapter on “The Black Bourgeoisie Meets the Truly Disadvantaged” stands out as the most inspiring part of the book. It underlies the fate that befell the concept of black consciousness, whose spirit was gradually distinguished by the rebirth of a new one: economic status. As Pattillo notes, the original vision reflected a conscious effort by the blacks to protect themselves from the socio-economic and political dominance exerted upon them by the white majority. The residents “who acted as the new neighborhood’s symbolic midwives envisioned a revitalized, self-consciously black community” (Pattillo 10). They wanted to improve their economic status, build a high-end estate and protect it against white intrusion. However, what they could not foresee are the dangers posed by the wide economic inequalities that existed within the black community itself, the new black-bourgeoisie entrants coming back to where they belonged, and the money factor that will favor whites over poor blacks (Pattillo 82). The poor eventually had to move out, since they could not afford the resultant sky-rocketing housing costs occasioned with the influx of the dollar-loaded black bourgeoisie class and whites after a piece of the revitalized neighborhood.
It is here that a re-thinking of the gentrification agenda is needed. Does it really serves the purpose it is intended? Evidently, gentrification is not just about improving residents’ living standards. As clearly illustrated in the book, it is more of a vicious cycle of conflicting inter-class and interracial interests that the author succinctly sums as “the politics of race and class in the city.” The spirit of black community is no longer at work: it has given way to what the dollar can buy. No longer are the marginalized described by the color of their skin, since a new class of bourgeoisie has emerged from this community. The truly disadvantaged, then, is not the low class worker once confined into the poor inner city neighborhoods, but rather the underprivileged who cannot compete in the dollar-governed game of the rich. Gentrification, then, becomes a gradual process of not only bringing the races together, but most worrying- perhaps an integral part of the bargain that can be dismissed by the winners as ‘inevitable collateral damage,’- a systematic process to shut the poor out of the new urban agenda that favors only the rich. Black on the Block really calls for serious thinking in regard to the gentrification process in America, as it is inherently characterized by socio-economic inequalities.
As a process of socio-economic and racial integration, gentrification is advantageous as far as achieving social harmony and a degree of economic inter-class balance are concerned. It ushers in the renovation of deteriorated neighborhoods into better residences and the general improvement of the residents’ economic status. It basically involves investment, thus creating opportunities for investors and job-seekers. Black in the Block shows the economic progress that dawned upon North Kenwood-Oakland following the housing project to renovate existing houses and construct new ones. There was a general improvement of the social living conditions as most residents were able to access better housing facilities. As Pattillo observes in regard to North Kenwood-Oakland, “this has entailed both the mass construction of new, high-end homes and condominiums by developers alongside the more piecemeal rehabilitation of existing old homes by individual investors“(Pattillo 15). Most importantly, moreover, the middle and upper classes are attracted to the working class and poor neighborhoods. It is heralded as what cities need: the influx of tax dollars and readily disposable income from upper-class “immigrants.” The overall impact is the economic revitalization of previously poor neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, the social cost of gentrification is equally significant. As noted before, it works against the low class residents who are forced out by the influx of wealthy home-buyers. The upward trend in housing, rental and land prices creates an unfavorable situation for the poor, which greatly compromises their right to live in the renovated neighborhood. In conclusion then, gentrification has never been about improving the conditions of the poor as widely thought, but pushing them further to the periphery of society to create room for the expanding cycle of the bourgeoisie class.
Pattilo, Mary. Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 2007.
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