April 5, 2011

Demographic Inversion: White City Center / Black and Brown 'Burbs

I live in Harlem.

That is to say, I live in what was fairly recently Harlem. Now the real estateniks, eager to sell or rent all the new "luxury apartments" that have sprung up like multi-story toadstools around here, are striving mightily to rename this patch SoHa (short for South Harlem, geddit?).

I thought the arrival a couple years back of a Starbucks within a couple blocks of my house signaled the victory of gentrification, but my 'rade Daniel points out that at least they hire young folk from the 'hood. The three-week-old $4-per-cookie bakery, an outpost of the Upper West Side shop Levain, is even closer to me--and staffed mainly by white hipster kids. Adding offense to injury, it's in the space occupied just a couple years back by an under-capitalized coffee bar cum African art gallery called Tribal Spears.

At any rate I am able to watch, up close and personal, the tide of young educated folks with professions or well paid jobs, mainly white, that is surging back into many city centers. This article, by my friend Dr. Mark Naison, of the African and African American Studies Department at Fordham takes a deeper look at the other side of the phenomenon, the increasing concentration of people of color into the ring of the oldest and most densely populated suburbs built around the cities. (It is crossposted from his blog, With a Brooklyn Accent.)

One political lesson from all this, by the by, is that revolutionary socialists or other activists working to develop a base among the folks in poor and oppressed communities should keep a weather eye out. You can see that whole base that you've worked so hard to build up dispersed in half a decade.

Jeffrey’s Story: A Tale of Demographic Inversion

Dr. Mark Naison
Fordham University
March 25, 2011

During the 15 years I spent coaching and running sports leagues in Brooklyn, one of my favorite players was Jeffrey A. Jeffery was a tall, muscular, incredibly sweet Puerto Rican kid who was one of the best rebounders his age I ever saw. During the four years he spent on the CYO basketball team my friend Ed McDonald and I coached, our team always came in somewhere between 2nd and 4th in Brooklyn, in large part because Jeffrey so dominated the backboards. He also left a trail of bruises and broken limbs on opposing players, not because he was mean, but because he was so strong and hyperactive that he sent bodies flying whenever he hit the boards

But the reason I am writing this is not primarily to laud Jeffrey’s basketball skills, though he did go on to play high school and college ball, but to talk about the bittersweet residential odyssey of Jeffrey’s family, which epitomizes a phenomenon now taking place in Urban America which scholars call "demographic inversion"-- the displacement of poor people and working class people from the inner city to the suburbs. This pattern, quite common in Europe, especially Paris, is now become the norm in the US as wealthy people migrate from the suburbs to the inner city and take over many communities which were once working class and minority.

Jeffery’s family turned out to be an exemplar of this trend. When we recruited Jeffrey for our team in the mid-'90s, his family lived above his grandfather’s liquor store on Smith Street near Bergen in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. During those days, Smith Street was a pretty rough place. Only four or five blocks from the Gowanus Houses, it was a tough gritty shopping strip that was an occasional gathering place for crack dealers and stick-up kids who made life tough for the working class Puerto Rican and Dominican families who made up the majority of the neighborhood’s residents.

Jeffrey’s father, an electrician for the city who was a member of Local Three of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wanted to get his family out of the neighborhood, fearful that his children would be victims of violence, or drawn into negative activity, so he saved all his money and bought a beautiful home in a suburban community, Brentwood, on Long Island. The family moved while Jeffrey in 10th grade and still on our team, and he actually commuted in from Brentwood twice a week so he helped lead our team to another 2nd Place finish in the Brooklyn CYO Championships.

This should have been a happy ending for this hardworking Puerto Rican family, but no sooner did Jeffrey’s family leave Smith Street that it began making a transition into Brooklyn’s hottest restaurant district, filled with chic cafes which served French, Spanish, Italian and Caribbean cuisine to a population of mostly white brownstone owners and apartment dwellers which swelled the population of adjoining blocks. And as for Brentwood, the arrival of Jeffrey’s family coincided with a wave of white and middle class flight which turned Brentwood into a majority Black and Latino town plagued with violence and gang problems which Jeffrey’s father thought he had left behind in Brooklyn.

This transition did not take place overnight. It took a full ten years for Smith Street to evolve into a place where wealthy young white people live, shop and eat, and it also took that amount of time for Brentwood to deteriorate to the point where it was a place upwardly mobile minority families wanted to avoid, rather than migrate to.

But this transition was not idiosyncratic. It mirrors a trend that can be found not only in neighborhoods like Harlem, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, but in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other post industrial cities where the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and health care sectors create high paying jobs in the Center City that attract wealthy people back while causing rents to rise in ways that drive working class people out.

More and more, American cities are going to resemble Paris, where the wealthy people live close to the center, and poor people live in the suburbs. Social policy, and urban policy, had better adjust to this transition.

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