Arts & Culture » Book Review

The Mixed-Income Myth

Northwestern prof Mary Pattillo on why even the black middle-class can't save a poor black neighborhood in Chicago




Mary Pattillo

When Sat 6/16, 2:30 PM

Where Chicago Public Library, West Englewood Branch, 1745 W. 63rd

Info 312-422-5580

More Public Square discussion with journalist Natalie Moore

Mayor Daley's brave new Chicago doesn't work for everyone. Eric Klinenberg tried to make this point five years ago with Heat Wave, his examination of who suffered and how during a 1995 natural disaster. Now Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo nails it with Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City--though she doesn't begin to bring the hammer down until about halfway through the book.

Pattillo's participant-observer study of slowly gentrifying North Kenwood-Oakland began in 1998, when she bought a house at 4432 S. Berkeley. The house provides a point of entry into the history of the neighborhood; she traces NKO's fortunes from late-19th-century prosperity to 1970s poverty and back to relative prosperity, then focuses on the uneasy position of the growing population of middle-class black professionals, who often find themselves acting as brokers between "the Man" downtown and the "littlemen" back in the hood.

This thorough, fascinating account would be a feat for most authors, but for Pattillo it's only a warm-up. The second half of Black on the Block examines NKO's schools, housing, and crime in dispassionate detail. After two decades of gentrification the neighborhood has three new schools, less public housing, less crime, and a booming real-estate market. But most of its low-income kids still attend the old, underachieving schools. Former residents of the demolished public-housing high-rises have seen their promised right of return demolished as well. And the new black bourgeoisie is as enthusiastic about stopping the old timers' sociable practice of boulevard barbecuing as it is about fighting crime. Through the lens of this neighborhood Pattillo depicts a city where liberty and justice for all is being transformed--ever so slowly, ever so reasonably--into order and tranquility for some.

Black gentrifiers usually say they want their presence to benefit long-time neighborhood residents, who are usually poor and working-class. And sometimes it actually does. In NKO early-arriving middle-class blacks had to pull out all the stops to get mortgages from redlining financial institutions, and their success forced financial institutions to play fair with those who followed. But the benefits aren't so clear when it comes to education.

In 1995 NKO was served by Martin Luther King Jr. High School (with a 58 percent graduation rate), Florence Price Elementary (with more than 90 percent of students scoring below national norms), and Jackie Robinson Elementary (slightly less than 90 percent below national norms). A third elementary school, Shakespeare, was closed in 1993 due to low enrollment. Today King has been turned into a citywide magnet school. Shakespeare has been replaced by two new schools--Ariel Community Academy and the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School. Most low-income children in the neighborhood attend Price and Robinson and Dyett Academy High School, but the old schools offer less education--in Dyett's case, much less, with fewer than one student in five achieving at national norms.

The three new schools are technically public schools. There's no tuition, no signs saying "only our sort need apply." But they're selective all right. The devil's in the details, and Pattillo has them. Applications to attend Ariel are due in January for the following September, but siblings and family members of current students get priority. The charter school's three-page application isn't due until March, but there are almost no spots available for grade schoolers who don't already have an in. Like all Chicago magnet schools, the admission process at King College Prep is even more arduous. "It begins in November or December with an application that can only be obtained from a school counselor and which requires a letter from the counselor, test scores, attendance records, and additional student information. Students who qualify must then sit for a separate test. It is more like applying to college or graduate school than to high school."

Once a struggling parent's main job was to make sure the kids attended school. Now parents face the catch-22 of having to negotiate a maze that favors those who already have writing skills, verbal assertiveness, and knowledgeable friends. This is the Daley way--the neoliberal, Clintonian way. "The model has changed," writes Pattillo, "from one in which cities 'deliver' public services like education, health care, and protection from crime, to one in which residents 'shop for' these goods in a service landscape that includes more nongovernmental, private subcontractors."

Pattillo quotes a woman who was born in the CHA's Ida B. Wells development in Oakland, moved out of the area, and returned in 1982 with a nursing degree: "There are kids in this neighborhood that will be bused or shipped out of their neighborhood in order to turn King into a magnet school. That's not right. If education is to be improved, it's to be improved for everybody. . . . If something is public, then ain't I the public?"

Real school reform would offer a better education to all the kids attending NKO schools. But that takes longer and costs more than putting in a few schools that target the middle-class and leave other kids behind. It's not a question of villainy; the reformers are just following the path of least resistance. "The imperatives of gentrification," explains Pattillo, "demanded some good schools now, even if only for a few, rather than good schools later for all."

Pattillo's take on housing is more complicated but equally unsettling. She cuts through the clutter of the ongoing 41-year-old Gautreaux desegregation lawsuit, identifying the 1981 concession that in effect ended the original crusade to reverse decades of planned segregation with planned integration. In that year the plaintiffs' lawyers, desperate for results, agreed to allow some new public housing in so-called revitalizing areas that were mostly black. That shifted the battle to places like NKO and pitted middle-class blacks (who said their neighborhood was overburdened with public housing already) against poor blacks (who didn't want to be pushed out) in a cage match while everybody else pretended the cage hadn't been constructed by white racism in the first place.

In 1985 the CHA closed the six NKO high-rise buildings known as the Lakefront Properties, promising to rehabilitate them and give displaced residents the right to return within months. Instead, the buildings were left empty for years while neighborhood residents and changing CHA administrations fought over what to do with them. In 1995, after two years of hard negotiating, tenant representatives got the CHA to agree to build some replacement housing. Four years later, CHA got out of the deal when the Gautreaux judge ruled that because the agency had been in receivership during negotiations it had had no authority to negotiate in the first place.

Public housing residents, Pattillo writes, "were from the very beginning fearful that the announced plans . . . were nothing more than a front for actual designs to reclaim now-prime lakefront land for the wealthy, including wealthy African-Americans. . . . In each case, what was regarded as paranoia on the part of public housing residents was actually keen foresight."

Pattillo also reconstructs the informal, unpublicized meetings of elite string-pullers like Gautreaux attorney Alexander Polikoff and Habitat Development managing director Valerie Jarrett, during which, between 1991 and 1994, they turned then-CHA head Vince Lane from a public-housing advocate to a man "brokering a deal for the demolition he had once vociferously denounced and had often promised would never happen."

"Mixed-income communities," the current CHA mantra in whose name the Lakefront Properties residents were screwed, have become the popular solution to segregation and related urban ills. That's not because they're known to work--the evidence is thin--but because they're easy. Like "reforming" King High by sending most of its students to Dyett, mixed-income communities parade as a liberal reform but accomplish little for those who need help most. A century from now, when today's sociologists and journalists are dust and their books are too, those who want to understand what the hell happened to Chicago will be finding the answer in this one.

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