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Urban puzzle

The gentrification of rundown city neighborhoods conjures an image of well-off whites displacing poor minorities. What's actually going on is far more complex, and the winners and losers can be hard to predict.

In the 1990s, Boston had a face lift. Gentrification arrived and proceeded at full steam in places like South Boston and Dorchester, where decades of poverty and economic stagnation had created landscapes of blighted homes and minimal commercial development. Orchard Gardens, Commonwealth, Franklin Field, Harbor Point: These new communities of town homes and condominiums replaced Boston Housing Authority housing "projects." Property values around these developments and entire neighborhoods became attractive once again. Today, these areas are attracting middle-class homeowners, small-business entrepreneurs, and others who may not have viewed these areas as worthy of investment.

As in other major American cities, gentrification in Boston is an ad-hoc process; government doesn't necessarily coordinate all of the redevelopment, nor can one predict which areas will become hot markets. Nevertheless, Boston did plan in advance by drawing on federal legislation -- most prominently, the HOPE VI Program -- to demolish its severely distressed public housing stock and then initiate a broader revitalization effort.

When government and private funds are involved, the financial arrangements supporting redevelopment can grow complex, but the objectives are straightforward: Begin by de-concentrating poverty -- that is, get rid of the projects -- and then rebuild on a smaller-scale in ways that combine multiple uses and diverse populations.

Any urban development strategy will be politicized because of the money at stake and the likely displacement of the powerless (from both the neighborhood and the money game). But in the Northeast and Midwest, revitalization is a particularly thorny process.

In post-Civil Rights era Boston, Providence, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, the situation has grown even more complicated because blacks and Latinos have made great strides -- in government and in business. The conventional view of urban politics can no longer be succinctly captured as whites dominating minorities: Those calling for gentrification are equally likely to be ethnic minorities with political and commercial capital. The long-held truism of gentrification -- namely that inner-city residents and their leadership will vocally oppose the redevelopment of their neighborhoods -- needs revision.

If white-black conflicts are no longer the most salient, what are the main lines of enmity and alliance? Several social scientists are helping to make sense of the emerging landscape of race and politics in the contemporary American city, where the old social divisions have been reconfigured. Their work reveals that gentrification is still contested and economic development does not end up benefiting everyone, but predicting the winners and losers is getting harder. Minorities may be on the winning side more often than not.

The senior and most eminent member of the group of sociologists examining gentrification is William Julius Wilson, university professor at Harvard. Wilson has been writing about the plight of the urban poor for three decades. "There Goes the Neighborhood," his most recent study (written with Richard P. Taub), analyzes four "working- and lower-middle-class Chicago neighborhoods": African-American, white ethnic, Latino, and one in transition from white to Latino. Drawing on the interviews and field notes of his graduate students, Wilson examines how ordinary residents react to urban redevelopment.

The main contribution of Wilson's book may be to simply bring us up to date on the social and political fabric of the contemporary city. For much of the 20th century, our views on political and economic development tended to emphasize racial and ethnic divisions. Scholars and journalists usually looked at one ethnic group at a time, so it was not altogether surprising that our cities began to look like ethnic battlefields, with each group fighting for a share of the political and economic crumbs. This may have been an accurate way of understanding the old urban political machines. But Wilson's work suggests that we need a new perspective when looking at the consequences of gentrification.

Wilson's focus on struggling low-income and working families is also a nice counterpoint to the academic and popular reportage of the last decade, where the city can sometimes look like a playground for the rich. In Wilson's study, you won't find the commonplace infatuation with the fancy cuisine, services, and attractions of the so-called "global city." Nor is the working class treated solely in terms of their role as a cheap source of labor (valets, janitors, nannies, etc.) for the bourgeoisie.

Wilson shows ordinary Americans trying to eke out a place in a city that is changing around them. Their concerns remain basic and their language is right out of the 1970s: Parents worry about poor kids being bused into their neighborhoods; people want better crime prevention and improved city services. Their concerns over redevelopment also remain basic -- they want affordable housing, lower property taxes, and limits on the number of public housing units constructed in their wards. But, unlike the 1970s, the racial landscape appears more complicated because no one seems quite sure exactly who to trust, who to work with, and who the "enemy" is.

In such a climate, alliances never follow predictably. In working-class Chicago, blacks and Latinos often work closely to build on shared interests and to put together initiatives that promote growth and development. On the south side of the city, white politicians are adapting by addressing the needs of the new Latino voters in their district. The only view residents of all four neighborhoods share is a concern over "prevalence of crime and other social dislocations in nearby black ghetto neighborhoods." Poor blacks get blamed by everyone.

Wilson's emphasis on the unpredictable nature of racial politics in working-class neighborhoods reframes the contemporary perspective on gentrification, which has focused largely on the stormy conversion of poor neighborhoods to yuppie enclaves. Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia, further challenges this view, taking up the question of just how stormy this transformation actually is.

Freeman's "There Goes the Hood" brings us into the homes of two gentrifying black communities in New York -- Harlem and Brooklyn's Clinton Hill. Conventional wisdom holds that politicians and the property owners buying up dilapidated brownstones will pocket the winnings of gentrification. But Freeman insists that we must listen to "indigenous residents" -- those living and working in the neighborhood before gentrification arrived -- if we want to find out who is affected (and how) by economic improvements.

Freeman shows that the commonplace view of economic development, namely that a gentrified neighborhood hurts blacks living there, is outmoded. Inner cities are diverse spaces where the poor and homeless share streets with the black middle class and the black entrepreneur. The popular lament over the horrible living conditions in the ghettos of the 1980s and 1990s failed to take into account those who were buying up property and establishing a productive presence during these tough years -- the working class, immigrants, and unionized workers who had well-paying jobs in transportation, parks, law enforcement, and other city agencies. No one bothered to recognize that the ghetto had grown diverse over that time, even while staying overwhelmingly poor.

In both Harlem and Clinton Hill, Freeman found African-American store owners who struggled to stay afloat when the areas were depressed. On the face of it, gentrification would raise their taxes and bring in economic competitors -- like fast food chains and retail outlets -- that could put them out of business. But many end up thriving on the rising demand. Many adjust well to the new business climate and their empowered stance actually helps them to improve their relations with the city government -- which comes to see the area as a tax boon, not a drain on the municipal coffers.

This is not to say that redevelopment does not create some divisions among neighbors who thought they had shared interests. Freeman tends to downplay these animosities. But it is hard to imagine that the indigenous shopkeeper and the franchise owner don't argue on occasion, or that there is not discord among the white rehabber renting out the three-story brownstone and the black entrepreneur returning to buy a home in her childhood neighborhood.

To see how diversity creates strange and sometimes awkward bedfellows, we have to turn to Mary Pattillo's "Black on the Block," an in-depth sociological study of Chicago's North Kenwood-Oakland (NKO) neighborhood, a historically poor and predominantly African-American community rapidly gentrifying.

Pattillo eschews most norms of social scientific objectivity by taking up residence in NKO. She is a homeowner and secretary of a local neighborhood association with great influence over local development -- not to mention a Northwestern University professor. Pattillo decides to stake her personal investment in a neighborhood that the city government and most financial institutions feel is still not a sure bet for short- or long-term improvement.

Pattillo acknowledges her complicated role, as both interested party and analyst. But through her experience we see how complicated life can be for the black middle class.

In her neighborhood, Pattillo and other newly-arriving homeowners, many of whom find themselves sandwiched between empty lots and dilapidated, low-income housing projects, are caught between two motivations: the wish to live in an area with decent stores, well-maintained parks, and adequate city services; and the ethical pull of advocating on behalf of those poorer blacks who might be displaced if the neighborhood continues to gentrify.

At one point in the book, Pattillo speaks up at a Community Conservation Council meeting convened to discuss the use of a proposed park. Another member of the CCC wants to prevent "barbecuing" and "selling snow cones," activities that some see as encouraging poorer residents to loiter and disrupt the leisurely strolls of middle-class users. Pattillo dissents, standing up for her low-income neighbors. But the consensus vote is against barbecues.

In this context, what is the responsible position of the black middle class? The question goes back at least to the 1890s, when W.E.B. DuBois wrote his seminal study of urban development, "The Philadelphia Negro." DuBois wrote that the indigenous and more cosmopolitan black middle class will forever oppose the newly arriving Southern migrant, unless the two recognize their conflicts only serve to strengthen the whites in power.

In some ways, Pattillo picks up where DuBois left off. She cautions that, in Chicago, we must recognize that most whites will still not move into a black neighborhood. And because they still face discrimination by financial institutions and real estate agents, the black middle class have few options of potential neighborhoods in which to live, and many of the potential sites are poor areas where they will displace their poorer counterparts.

This leaves blacks in a precarious position. They end up becoming the public face lending support to redevelopment of ghettos and public housing demolition. It is the black political leader who, when their neighborhood is on the upswing, advocates for protecting property values by demanding limits on low-income housing construction.

But although it is the black middle class moving in and buying real estate, the physical infrastructure of their neighborhoods is being rehabilitated by white-owned firms that get the lion's share of the city contracts. Thus, the net result is that middle-class blacks have become brokers, helping to ease the path of mostly white-controlled real estate firms that wish to reclaim undervalued inner-city neighborhoods. White developers and politicians no longer need to suffer charges of racism. Even though they recoup much of the revenue from construction, it is the black homeowner who will be the first to support economic improvements to their block -- perhaps not willingly, but what choice do they have if they want to live in a decent neighborhood?

Taken together, the work of Wilson, Freeman, and Pattillo offers a more nuanced picture of gentrification. Given the state of disrepair of US inner cities in the 1990s, it is not entirely shocking to find local voices supporting economic development and hoping to protect their investments. Not many general truths can be gleaned, except perhaps that the impact of gentrification depends largely on a constellation of local factors -- some concrete, like the existing makeup of minority political power, and some more abstract, like patterns of metropolitan residential segregation.

We are left with a sobering look at the modern American metropolis, one still mired in the social obstacles and challenges that afflicted earlier generations. And we find compelling evidence that race still matters in American society, although after reading these books, it is not always easy to predict exactly how.

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University, is the author of "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor."