Gentrification is a boogeyman on Chicago’s South Side. But in reality it’s a phantom.

The term is bandied about whenever people experience or anticipate neighborhood change. Gentrification has become a proxy for feelings of unsettlement or uncertainty about whether those changes are meant to benefit black folk.

Gentrification is one of the most misused words I hear. By definition, gentrification is rooted in class, not race. It’s the displacement of lower-income households replaced by higher-earning ones. But because race and class or so intertwined, the sight of a white person walking a dog in a south lakefront community stokes fears about black folk losing land.

OPINION

I get it. City policy has been unfriendly to black Chicagoans for a century. Urban renewal often meant “Negro removal.” The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and high-rise public housing most impacted black neighborhoods. We’ve seen gentrification in other parts of the city: black families displaced on the North Side with the revamping of public housing developments Cabrini-Green and on the West Side with Henry Horner.

The South Side is a different story. The research belies notions of gentrification. The University of Illinois at Chicago created an updated gentrification index in 2014 to understand housing and market forces in the city. The major takeaway is that a shrinking middle class and population loss is more of an issue overall in the city than gentrification. (While families in Logan Square, for example, may have a different experience, it’s not spread uniformity.) For black neighborhoods, there’s been serious decline.

For six years I lived in Bronzeville. I owned a condo that ended up being a financial bust – from a purchase price of $172,000 to an appraisal years later of $45,000. Cars cost more than my place. I had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom unit replete with stainless steel, granite and gated parking. While there are many renters and homeowners trying to better the neighborhood, change has been slow, with race at the center of paralysis. Even with new rehabbed housing, Bronzeville doesn’t qualify as gentrification because there wasn’t wholesale replacement of people despite improvements to the neighborhood. Just take a look at the State Street corridor where high-rise public housing once stood. It’s mostly empty. There’s been displacement but no replacement. And major investment did not follow despite the impression that green (capitalism) trumps everything.

Bronzeville also still has a lot of low-income households, and former public housing residents living on vouchers enjoy some of the positive changes such as Mandrake Park on Cottage Grove, which hosts a mix of people with varying incomes on its benches, tracks, playground and tennis courts.

Furthermore, Harvard University investigated whether black South Side neighborhoods felt gentrification. The answer was no. Racial discrimination and stereotypes around perception of race dominate, according the scholars’ 2014 findings. Similarly, a 2012 study by Montana State University compared Bronzeville to Pilsen. The latter has experienced gentrification. Why? Because, the study found, Pilsen was treated as a more viable site of ethnic consumption – a la tacos and margaritas – while Bronzeville struggled to redevelop because of stereotypical conceptions of blackness.

I get these facts and figures mean little to people who worry about affordability and sustainability in their neighborhoods. Past racial practices in this city, whether public or private, probably echo louder for black households who remember land grabs. Still, I caution that we consider various market forces. In times of insecurity about the future of black neighborhoods, people should clamor for smart economic development and make their voices heard at City Hall, foundations and universities and among any other players they don’t completely trust.

We also must remember that Chicago is a different animal. Gentrification severely plays out in black neighborhoods in cities such as Washington D.C., Oakland and Atlanta. One of the biggest differences between Chicago and any of those cities is the scope of geography. Our city is so vast. Neighborhoods like Washington Heights, West Pullman, Pill Hill, Avalon Park and Roseland are not primed for gentrification.

Black neighborhoods are still climbing out of the housing crash. Data has shown that Chicago-area black homeowners have been slower to rebuild their share of mortgage borrowing than any other racial group. The deleterious effects of mass incarceration and de-industrialization inflict pain on many low-income black neighborhoods. The visible signs of foreclosures dot once-stable middle-class neighborhoods like Park Manor. Boarded-up businesses and lack of economic development, a big cause of high unemployment, stymie dozens of black South Side communities. And, of course, there’s violence.

In short, the South Side has much more pressing issues to worry about than gentrification. Our urban challenges require thoughtfulness and intentionality. We can’t get distracted by the boogeyman.

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