Black on the Block

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Urban Studies – Book Review Assignment
Jessica Fuentes

In Black on the Block, Mary Patillo explores the politics of race and class in contemporary urban America. Patillo says that her intent was “to highlight the class and lifestyle fractures within black identity, while affirming the persistence of blackness as a collective experience and endeavor.” (p 297) Patillo was interested in the challenges that black middle-class neighborhoods faced, the configuration of cities, and what neighborhoods are next to each other and how over time they have grown connected to each other. But, Patillo asks what happens when middle-class blacks gentrify black neighborhoods. She moved into and researched North Kenwood/Oakland, or NKO, on the Chicago’s South Side.

In the introductory chapter, Patillo lays out the theme that black interests are not monolithic, and throughout the book she shows that rich and poor blacks often see things differently. This is true, but only to the degree it is obvious. No one disputes that money can change a black person’s outlook, but blacks are a consistent political group. Patillo admits they “by and large, vote Democratic, support affirmative action, and agree on the need for some kind of reparations for slavery.” (p )

Middle class whites are able to spatially disconnect themselves from poverty, whereas middle-class blacks are not. When thinking about the diversity within the American middle class, the term “middle class” does not mean the same for all groups. There are objective ways to define middle-class; the middle of the income distribution, white-collar employment (tech jobs, office jobs, etc…); does that person own a home or have gone to college? We also use other terms such as, upper middle-class, lower middle-class. It is not just one classification.

The history of the black middle class goes back to post WWII. African Americans had very limited opportunities because of racial discrimination and segregation. So, what is the residential situation of middle class blacks now and how does it differ from middle-class whites? Despite the fact that they are middle class in terms of income, they are experiencing crime that someone in lower-class white situations might be experiencing, and even more strongly. Patillo states that middle class blacks are more disadvantaged; still living in poverty, less well funded schools, less public investment... It’s the disparity between middle class blacks and poor whites. Wilson’s theory about “out-migration” (p 96), middle class blacks left poor black neighborhoods. Patillo argues there is not a lot of discussion about where they moved to. She also argues that the blacks left, but didn’t get very far. “The black middle class did leave the segregated black neighborhoods where they lived in the 1940s and 1950s, but they did not get very far, moving into areas on the periphery of these initial settlements both within and outside the city.” (p103)

Patillo 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.

“Gentrification”, according to anthropologist Arlene Davila, “whether called renewal, revitalization, upgrading, or uplifting-always involves the expansion and transformation of neighborhoods through rapid economic investment and population shifts, and yet it is equally implicated with social inequalities.” (p 8) “Gentrifrication” according to Patillo is the movement into a working class poor neighborhood of people who are upper or...
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