There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meani ng for America

There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meani ng for America

by William Julius Wilson, Richard P. Taub

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From one of America’s most admired sociologists and urban policy advisers, There Goes the Neighborhood is a long-awaited look at how race, class, and ethnicity influence one of Americans’ most personal choices—where we choose to live. The result of a three-year study of four working- and lower-middle class neighborhoods in Chicago, these…  See more details below


From one of America’s most admired sociologists and urban policy advisers, There Goes the Neighborhood is a long-awaited look at how race, class, and ethnicity influence one of Americans’ most personal choices—where we choose to live. The result of a three-year study of four working- and lower-middle class neighborhoods in Chicago, these riveting first-person narratives and the meticulous research which accompanies them reveal honest yet disturbing realities—ones that remind us why the elusive American dream of integrated neighborhoods remains a priority of race relations in our time.

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Chapter One Race and Neighborhood  Social Organization This book is an investigation into ethnic, racial, and class dynamics in four neighborhoods in Chicago, a city that has experienced a steep drop in its white population and a sharp rise in Latino residents. Chicago’s Latino population grew by nearly 38 percent between 1990 and 2000, while its white population declined by almost 15 percent (see Figure 1). Whites constituted just 31 percent of the population in 2000, down from 38 percent in 1990.1 African Americans remained Chicago’s largest single group at 36 percent, but their share of the population had also dropped slightly—by 1.9 percent—after rising steadily through most of the twentieth century. To fully capture this ethnic diversity, we felt that the  most representative neighborhoods would be those that were neither poor nor affluent. We chose neighborhoods that  consisted mainly of the working and lower middle classes— neighborhoods, in short, that best represented ordinary Americans and that were more likely to be the destination of outside racial and ethnic groups seeking desirable and affordable places to live. We selected areas that were populated by different ethnic groups to capture variations in responses to neighborhood change. In 1992, after much preliminary investigation, four were chosen—Beltway, Dover, Archer Park, and Groveland—on Chicago’s south and west sides. Because some of the materials used in this study are quite sensitive, the names of these four neighborhoods are pseudonyms.2 Beltway was chosen as the white neighborhood, Dover as the white neighborhood in transition, Archer Park as the Latino neighborhood, and Groveland as the African American neighborhood. The choice of neighborhoods represents what sociologist David Willer calls theoretical sampling; that is, the selection of natural cases that include the necessary conditions for the application of theoretical assumptions, assumptions that steer the research and that are used to interpret the findings.3 The field research in this study enabled us to examine certain theoretical assumptions involving race and the social organization of neighborhoods, including Albert Hirschman’s general theory of exit, voice, and loyalty—which in this instance is applied to neighborhoods.4 Chicago, like several major American metropolitan cities, experienced a number of intense racial eruptions in the second half of the twentieth century, as working-class whites responded angrily to the civil rights movement, proclaiming that the government’s call for integrating schools and residential areas had gone too far.5 The democratic promise of equal opportunity rang hollow for these residents, who viewed civil rights as promoting blacks at the expense of the limited financial security that working-class whites had worked hard to achieve. These ordinary white Americans saw themselves as victims of the government’s attempt to legislate a particular way of life in their homes and neighborhoods. Many white Chicago residents noted that integration did not occur at schools for the children of the wealthy and powerful, nor did the elite have to worry about declining property values. These residents also often asked why the government created policies that seemed, in their eyes, to benefit blacks alone. For Emily Nolan, who grew up on Chicago’s southwest side, there was no question that civil rights’ time had come. But as a mother and the young wife of a Chicago police officer, she watched the battles over busing and housing engulf her neighborhood throughout the 1970s, and she resented that “outsiders” had targeted law-abiding residents of south-side neighborhoods in their efforts to bring about racial change. Nolan, watching the civil rights marchers come to the southwest side, remembered people saying: “Here we are keeping up our neighborhood and following the rules, living our lives. We’re not hurting anyone, and these people from the University of Chicago and Martin Luther King . . . were telling us how to live our lives.” She continued, “Now, I agreed with what Dr. King was saying . . . but then here were people coming to our homes and our neighborhoods telling us we had to change things.” With the threat of desegregation, white ethnic working-class neighborhoods became embattled fortresses. By the late 1970s many whites had fled these neighborhoods for the suburbs, redrawing racial boundaries as African Americans and, later, Latinos filled the resulting vacancies. Although most white migrants moved to the suburbs, some relocated to predominantly white working-class neighborhoods on the northwest and southwest sides of the city. During the past two decades, Latino entry into southwest-side neighborhoods has further spurred white movement to other Chicago neighborhoods and to the suburbs. This investigation was undertaken partly to better understand the factors that produced or prevented what social scientists call “the tipping point”—rapid ethnic turnover.6 In many neighborhoods, an infusion of minorities prompted whites to leave and discouraged other whites from replacing them. Thus the proportion of minority-group members grew quickly, particularly after the minority group became a major force in the community. Real estate agents have historically abetted this process by “steering” purchasers to “live with their own kind.” Why do some neighborhoods experiencing an in-migration of outside ethic groups reach the tipping point more quickly than others, and why do other neighborhoods never reach the tipping point at all? In addressing such questions we can reflect on economist Albert Hirschman’s theory of exit, voice, and loyalty, a theory that was applied to firms and organizations but that is relevant to understanding ethnic changes in neighborhoods. Hirschman argues that when people become dissatisfied with changes in their surroundings they can exit—move or withdraw from further participation—or they can exercise voice. Hirschman defines “voice” as any attempt “to change, rather than to escape from,” an undesirable situation.7 The more willing people are to try to exercise voice—that is, to change, correct, or prevent a particular situation—the less likely they are to exit. In situations where both exit and voice options are available, past experience will largely determine whether people overcome their biases in favor of exit, the easier option. The view that a neighborhood is on the path of inexorable change, even when these changes have yet to occur, can trigger an exodus. Indeed, Americans maintain a strong bias toward the exit alternative when confronting ethnic and racial changes. “When general conditions in a neighborhood deteriorate,” writes Hirschman, “those who value most highly neighborhood qualities such as safety, cleanliness, good schools, and so forth will be the first to move out; they will search for housing in somewhat more expensive neighborhoods or in the suburbs and will be lost to the citizens’ groups and community action programs that would attempt to stem and reverse the tide of deterioration.”8 The late sociologist Hubert Blalock suggested that when minorities penetrate a neighborhood, existing residents are more likely to remain if new residents bring attractive resources such as high social status, as when in-migrants include actors, sports celebrities, or other highly prized professionals.9 But such neighborhoods are more likely to be affluent to begin with. Minorities who move into neighborhoods populated by ordinary white citizens usually lack high-status social resources. And given that such new residents represent a larger group of people with similar occupational and educational levels and similar language skills, white residents fear that a small trickle could unleash a major invasion. Of course, in a democratic society people are free to move. However, as Blalock pointed out, some residents might find it too difficult or too expensive to retreat to areas where few or no minorities reside.10 Thus, when residents view exit as problematic or costly, they are likely to turn instead to voice. Hirschman offers another explanation for why residents decide to exercise voice: the more they are loyal—that is, attached—to an organization or, in this case, a neighborhood, the less likely they are to exit. Loyalty reflects the extent to which residents are willing “to trade off the certainty of exit against the uncertainties” of improving local conditions.11 Loyalty becomes particularly important when it reduces the likelihood that the residents most concerned about neighborhood quality will be the first to depart. Such residents tend to be those with superior social resources and more options; they are also likely to be influential. The longer these residents stay, the less likely it is that other residents in the neighborhood will leave. Our investigation explored to what extent—and why—residents in selected urban neighborhoods reacted to looming racial, ethnic, or class changes, and how those actions affected neighborhood stability. How residents reacted in turn reflected the dynamics of ethnic, racial, and class tensions—themselves indicative of larger forces at play. A crucial question that we ask in this book is: To what extent are our findings consistent with the assumptions of Hirschman’s theory? Our findings led us to augment his theoretical formulations—that is, to broaden the theoretical sketch and thus provide clearer direction for further research. The neighborhoods of Beltway, Dover, and Archer Park have one attribute in common: a growing Latino population. In 1980, Beltway—a neighborhood of some 22,000 residents featuring carefully manicured lawns and gardens dotted with statuary—was 95 percent white. However, by 2000 the white population had declined to 76 percent and the Latino population had risen to 21 percent. Dover, with almost 45,000 residents, had experienced a remarkable ethnic transformation: in 1980, 83 percent of the population was white; in 1990, 60 percent of residents were white. However, by 2000 the white population had plummeted to 19 percent, and some 79 percent of Dover’s population was Latino. Indeed, the selection of Dover provided us with the opportunity to observe intergroup tensions in a neighborhood undergoing rapid ethnic change at the time of our research. Archer Park, a once exclusively white and largely Bohemian neighborhood, had been a Mexican enclave for several decades, and in 2000, 83 percent of the neighborhood’s residents were Latino. Because its Spanish-speaking population included a high number of recent immigrants, Archer Park was poorer than the other neighborhoods (see Table 1, Appendix B). Yet even though the Mexicans who arrived in all these neighborhoods reported lower incomes, on average, than the whites they replaced, their influx shored up a sagging real estate market, and the population in these three communities grew despite white flight. The only one of the four neighborhoods to register a population decline was Groveland, which experienced virtually no rise in its small number of Latinos, while losing almost 5 percent of its overall population since 1990. A community of close to 12,000 residents and neat single-family houses featuring trim yards, in 2000 Groveland was 97 percent African American and featured a high percentage of long-term residents. In scrutinizing these communities, this book documents the residents’ relationships with and perceptions of other racial and ethnic groups. Surveys cannot capture nuances of behavior and attitudes, so our research relied on an ethnographic approach, using researchers trained to record subtle aspects of social and institutional behavior, including informal conversations with residents over extended periods of time (see Appendix A). We captured what sociologists call the “contextual aspects” of behavior—that is, information on the broader social environment in which the behavior occurs, including background information relevant to the behavior. To investigate the myriad dimensions of ethnic and racial identity, we documented the extent to which the residents of each neighborhood shared modes of behavior and outlook, including values, preferences, aspirations, and worldviews.12 We also observed how residents defined and handled collective problems, and to what extent they organized to maintain effective social control—for example, curbing deviance in public spaces, keeping out undesirable populations, channeling public resources toward local collective goals, and so on. The purpose here was to collect data on neighborhood social organization, defined as the extent to which the residents of a neighborhood are able to maintain effective social control and realize their collective goals.13 Effective neighborhood social organization depends on residents who collectively supervise community activities, take responsibility for addressing problems, and actively participate in voluntary and formal organizations, including parent-teacher organizations, civic and business groups, block clubs, churches, and political groups.14 Our ethnographic team consisted of nine graduate-student research assistants at the University of Chicago who immersed themselves in these neighborhoods for almost three years, from January 1993 to September 1995. Three of the research assistants covered Archer Park, while two conducted research in each of the three communities of Belt- way, Dover, and Groveland. The races of the investigators matched those of the neighborhoods: African American graduate students carried out field research in Groveland; white graduate students covered Beltway. Although whites conducted the ethnographic research in Dover and Archer Park, which included substantial numbers of Latino residents, all five of these graduate students spoke at least some Spanish, and two of the three field-workers in Archer Park were fluent in Spanish. The study of racial, ethnic, and class tensions in four Chicago neighborhoods has implications for the future of the country as a whole. In the latter half of the 1990s the United States enjoyed an incredible economic boom that lessened social tensions across the nation. During that period crime and poverty were reduced and the fiscal condition in many cities improved significantly.15 However, the recession of 2001, followed by a jobless recovery, undermined this brief period of economic progress. Furthermore, the Bush administration’s sharp cuts in federal aid to states aggravated the problems of providing basic services, including public education, in central cities dependent on state funds.16 And the huge tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and the war against terrorism have further siphoned off monies that could be used to address social problems in urban areas, including inner-city neighborhoods. The combined result of these political and economic changes is that many central cities and inner suburbs are left with vast concentrations of poverty, “without the fiscal capacity to grapple with the consequences: joblessness, family fragmentation, and failing schools.”17 Many financially secure urban residents are therefore encouraged to move to the suburbs, and those who remain find themselves competing along racial and ethnic lines for limited resources, including housing, desirable neighborhoods, schools, parks, and playgrounds. These actions give rise to decisions that affect neighborhood stability and racial and ethnic tensions, and these decisions are played out in various ways among the neighborhoods featured in this study. Given the diminished federal and state resources, it is important to be familiar with the forces at work in urban neighborhoods, to understand why people react the way they do, and to address a major national challenge: the development of intergroup harmony in an era of rapid ethnic change.

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