Reverse Integration - Salvation for the Cities?

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, September 14, 2010 No Comment(s)

This is how integration worked: The first black family moved into an all white neighborhood. If the whites were working class, there might be a riot. If they were more refined, someone called a neighborhood meeting and pleaded with everyone to stay calm, don't panic, be good democrats, welcome the new people, etc. As often as not, the person who called the meeting had secretly put their house up for sale, trying to be the first to escape before property values took a nose dive.

Soon most houses on the block were for sale, and within a few years the only white people left were elderly widows who could not manage a move, or families that for one reason or another - usually economic - were trapped in their homes. This was in the 1950s and 60s and it took place in cities all over the north. Visit most of those neighborhoods today, and it would seem the people who moved away had good sense. Their old houses are often shabby. Streets that were once neatly kept and tree lined now have little foliage, and amid well-maintained lawns are places filled with weeds and littered with junk. The neighborhood business streets look like third-world bazaars. Once popular stores are often boarded, and people hustle wares on the sidewalk. The local schools are dangerous places. It is the face of integration.

Fast-forward 40 to 50 years and there is a new face of integration. We saw this in Washington last week and Philadelphia this week. The inner-city neighborhoods which first went black a half century ago are undergoing reverse integration. Some call it gentrification. Or reintegration. Whatever you call it, it is the reversal of racial history.

Ironically, it began in the same once working-class neighborhoods close to the hearts of cities where residents panicked toward the suburbs years ago. Many of the reingegrationists are offspring of those who moved to the suburbs. But those suburbs are not the ideal living quarters they once seemed. Sprawl spawned fast roads, designed to make access to business sections easy. Unfortunately, they had the opposite effect. Those roads, as we see with I-95 in Florida, only generate more movement and more traffic, making the suburbs increasingly inconvenient for the white-collar professionals who often work in the downtowns. Doubly ironically, some of those suburbs, especially those right on the edge of these cities, are among the distressed neighborhoods mentioned above.

In the older downtown neighborhoods, it is a totally different story. Last week we reported on how Florida House, the only state embassy, helped launch a renewal of what was then a near slum virtually on top of the nation's capitol in Washington. Today young people (mostly white but also a mix of races) are spreading that urban redevelopment block by block, the same as years ago. But this time the black residents selling are not moving in panic of seeing their property depreciate; to the contrary they are getting handsome prices for modest houses they bought cheaply years ago. And there is little resentment of the new buyers, certainly not violence as of old. The streets in the old Capitol Hill section, originally built 100 or more years ago are, in a sense, the original American dream. Blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics and just about any group you can name, are all mixed up, and happily so.

The old institutions, churches and schools, have revived. The commercial streets are safe and alive with activity. And the people, believe it or not, use public transportation and walk a lot. Many survive without cars – using cabs a lot, renting for out-of-town trips.

We saw the same thing in sections of Philadelphia - those surrounding the downtown core. The streets of the original city, lined mostly with row houses, have seen much the same pattern as Washington - particularly near the Delaware River, where William Penn planned a place of Brotherly Love more than 300 years ago. The era of integration a half-century ago was not pleasant, not anything like old Billy's dream for a city. But reverse integration is the irony of our times, and block by block, buyer by buyer, it may just be the salvation of our cities.

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