Articles Issue #29
BY Preston Smith IISeptember 9, 2019
BY Preston Smith IISeptember 9, 2019
A number of scholars including Derek Hyra, Lawrence Vale, Janet L. Smith and Edward Goetz compare similarities and differences between two periods of urban renewal in American cities.1 According to these scholars the first urban renewal period occurred after World War II and ended in the early 1970s.2 The second period began in the early 1990s and continues today.3 The early urban renewal period was fueled by the 1949 and 1954 Housing Acts. The latter period commences with the evolution of the federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program in the early 1990s. The HOPE VI program provided federal authority and funds to demolish distressed public housing and replace it with mixed-income housing developments.4 Perhaps the most debated issue in the comparison of the two periods is the impact of urban renewal on African Americans. Edward Goetz has argued that one of the major consequences of both old and new urban renewal was the fact that black people were massively displaced in both periods.5 Derek Hyra counters that one of the main factors distinguishing the old and new urban renewal, however, was the fact that not all blacks were harmed in the new version unlike post-World War II urban renewal. According to Hyra, the old urban renewal caused mass black displacement and harm regardless of class. In the new urban renewal, he argues, some blacks due to their class position, property ownership, and political connections benefited while lower income blacks suffered.6
It is important to acknowledge that there were different material outcomes for different black strata under contemporary redevelopment. At the same time, better material outcomes for black property owners and real estate professionals did not come from a change in how they defined their interests in the recent period from one that prioritizes the racial group over their specific class. In this article, I argue that the benefits that black professionals received from their investments and participation in redevelopment was less a change in how they define their interests than a change in opportunities to pursue those interests.7 In other words, there has been an underappreciation for the role of class interests in driving black housing professionals and property owners’ politics during the postwar urban renewal period. Middle-class blacks’ interests may be harder to detect in the earlier period, but just because black professionals were not largely able to realize their interests does not mean they did not aspire to achieve them in the postwar period. Many of their earlier aspirations are being fulfilled in the recent flurry of urban redevelopment some fifty years later. That lack of recognition has caused some scholars like Derek Hyra to exaggerate the differences between the two urban renewal regimes and their impact on African Americans. Hyra does this by counterpoising middle-class blacks engaging in racial uplift which purports to advance the racial group versus this class pursuing the narrow interest of enhancing their property values through reinvestment even though it will displace their lower-income neighbors in the process.8 I argue that a closer examination of the earlier period would have given us clues about the political behavior of black professional-managerial stratum in the more recent period of urban redevelopment. In this instance I will draw upon examples from Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, and Oakland in the early 1960s to show the continuity between the two periods by first highlighting black property owners and real estate professionals pursuing their class interests in the postwar period, and second, underline the class content of racial uplift ideology particularly evident in the more recent instances of black gentrification in Chicago. I will examine both postwar and contemporary redevelopment to illustrate the continuity of black professional-managerial class interests between the two periods and the consequences for the study of black politics.
Comparing Old and New Urban Renewal
There are many factors that are similar and different between the postwar and contemporary periods of urban redevelopment. The main similarity between the two periods is the facilitative role that the federal government plays in authorizing and subsidizing the revitalization of neighborhoods that border the central business district.9 The redevelopment of downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods was initiated by public-private partnerships in both periods. Both the interests of public officials and private businesses benefited from these arrangements. Whether the municipal government played an entrepreneurial or simply a supportive role, private developers still set the priorities, the timetables, and the likely outcomes of the redevelopment activity. Municipal government gained in property tax revenue, and in commercial and residential upgrades in and around its downtown, which led to mayors gaining prestige and enhancing their electoral opportunities. Private developers, real estate brokers, and mortgage lenders gained in profits from sales and rentals, and the fees that come from increased real estate transactions. These public-private partners often constituted the governing coalitions in cities in the post-World War II era and today. These local public-private partnerships were instrumental in jump-starting and then managing revitalization in both periods. Moreover, the benefits that accrued from this redevelopment activity was key to the partners’ willingness to continue to participate in the city’s governing coalition.
A key difference between the two periods was the source and amount of capital available to private developers to redevelop properties after federal dollars were used to clear away public housing in neighborhoods bordering downtowns in the recent period. The deregulation of the financial industry, which featured financial product innovations, created surplus capital looking for new investment outlets. For instance, the development of mortgage-backed securities traded globally created a huge influx of capital in the redevelopment of inner cities.10 Also, the role of public housing changed between the two periods. In the first period, public housing was approved and built to house those income-eligible residents who had been displaced by the demolition of old slums. In the second period, public housing, after decades of real estate industry opposition and governmental neglect, was considered the new slums to be cleared for mixed-income and upscale housing developments in targeted neighborhoods. There is broad agreement about these differences in the two periods.
In contrast, both the role of black professionals in the process of urban revitalization and the impact on black residents are controversial among scholars. What underlies both the role and outcomes is the charge that broad racial group interests dictated politics in the first period while narrow class interests motivated and guided the political behavior of black professionals in the second period.11 Hyra argues that most blacks suffered from postwar urban renewal.12 It is true that mostly blacks, regardless of class or housing tenure, were displaced by postwar slum clearance. Not only were their homes displaced, but businesses and social institutions were also displaced. Furthermore, many commercial strips of establishments that were either owned by and/or served black people were devastated and never recovered.13 However, black property owners did not suffer to the same degree as black tenants. While they were often displaced along with black tenants, they were compensated, although often unfairly, for their property.14 Although constrained by lingering restrictive covenants and other segregative practices, due to their income they were able to buy or rent in more select neighborhoods.15 When black tenants were displaced their only option was to find available housing in nearby segregated and declining neighborhoods.16 How much individual blacks were harmed and what limited opportunities were available to them was based on their class and housing tenure. In some respects, these differences were overshadowed by the common experience of being displaced by white politicians and real estate developers for the expected benefit of middle-class whites who worked and shopped downtown. Few blacks benefitted from, or were in the public-private partnerships that underwrote postwar urban renewal.17 The lack of black participation in public-private partnerships with some notable exceptions also contributed to the narrative that the loss was largely a racial one.18
During the more recent urban renewal period, the neighborhoods that have been targeted by HOPE VI and other redevelopment programs were segregated by race and class, therefore those displaced were poor, working class and mostly tenants. Since the point of government intervention was to use public funds to leverage more private investment in low-income neighborhoods, after public housing residents were displaced private housing tenants followed as more buildings were either converted to condos or demolished to accommodate an upscale clientele. As a result middle-class blacks benefitted from the urban redevelopment in 1990s and 2000s in two ways. First, unlike the earlier period where they were largely displaced, the focus of current inner-city redevelopment is to attract and retain middle-class homeowners. Second, due to holding onto re-valued property, making strategic investments, and participating in new public-private redevelopment partnerships, middle class blacks benefited from contemporary urban renewal. Whether they were black homeowners who never left, the children of previous residents who took up a family property, or black professionals looking for a good investment all have cashed in the escalating property values, at least until the Great Recession.19 Black property owners, realtors, developers and insurance brokers benefited by rising property values in inner-city neighborhoods subject to HOPE VI-spurred revitalization. Black professionals in the real estate industry nonetheless are active in enhancing land values that garner fees, commissions and profits. Hyra commented that middle-income blacks followed their class interests by choosing to participate in redevelopment partnerships instead of practicing the collective politics of racial uplift.20 He considers black professionals following their class interest as a novel development in urban redevelopment politics in contrast to the earlier period. It will be clear from what follows that black property owners’ interests have not changed from one generation to the next, but urban revitalization in the 1990s afforded this stratum unprecedented opportunities to realize those interests.
Black Elites and Postwar Urban Renewal
In Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis, I show that black policy elites in Chicago in the postwar era were engaged in debates over urban renewal, public housing, and housing discrimination that reflected a racial democratic ideology which promoted racial group interests that hid, but largely privileged the class interests of black elites.21 For instance, at least as early as 1942 there was widespread “fear of Negro clearance” on the South Side when the Chicago Plan Commission declared a twenty-three square mile area was blighted or near-blighted and would need to be cleared and rebuilt. Despite the fact that five years later the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council talked about redeveloping the area for both black and white “Loop workers,” black Chicagoans assumed they would be displaced by white professionals and clerical workers who were employed downtown.22 This fear was palpable given the fact that at the time few blacks worked downtown who weren’t passing, and people understood the locational value of their neighborhood’s close proximity to both the Loop and Lake Michigan. Nevertheless, Lake Meadows, the first urban renewal project, was slated for interracial occupancy, which should have called into the question the rhetoric that urban renewal created an injury to the whole racial group.23
Despite the widespread fear of Negro Clearance not all blacks opposed the Lake Meadows project. The debate among blacks over slum clearance in Chicago did not break down along class lines as much as residential and sectoral lines. Factions of black property owners and institutional leaders opposed urban renewal whereas regional black federal housing policymakers supported it. The opposition was led by The Champions, a neighborhood homeowner organization led by Alice Browning and other black middle-class women.24 Aligned with this group was an assortment of black property owners, politicians, ministers, and business owners who stood either to lose property, votes, congregants, or customers if the “captive” black ghetto was broken up by urban renewal.25 The support for urban renewal was led by George Nesbitt, a black regional federal housing official based in Chicago, who argued that if blacks wanted residential integration on the periphery of the ghetto they needed to be willing to allow integration via urban renewal on the mid-South Side.26 There were also black notables like Irene McCoy Gaines and Truman Gibson, Jr. who were members of the South Side Partnership which supported the Lake Meadows project.27
Although there wasn’t a vote taken on the Lake Meadows project by black residents directly affected by it, it appears, unsurprisingly, a majority of them opposed the redevelopment project. While poor working class black tenants stood to lose a great deal, they were not active participants in the intraracial debate, but were nominally represented by progressive middle-class property owners.28 The result of slum clearance was a little more mixed for black property and business owners. They did lose property and businesses, but were compensated in ways that non-property owners were not.29 Furthermore, some blacks living in the neighborhood could afford to rent an upscale apartment in Lake Meadows.30 I point to these differential costs and benefits in the postwar period because they would be missed in an evaluation that simply tried to determine whether urban renewal was good or bad for the race as a whole. It is also further evidence that black property owners had options, however limited, that were not available to poorer tenants in postwar urban renewal.31
It was clear that the opposition to urban renewal represented the “majority opinion” when Supreme Liberty Life and other black-owned insurance companies pulled out of a plan to build single family homes as part of the city’s first urban renewal project. Insurance company executives like Earl Dickerson of Supreme Liberty Life cited two related reasons for their withdrawal. First, they were concerned that they would not be able to sell their exclusive single family homes in a timely enough fashion to recoup their investment. They were not sufficiently capitalized to not realize a return in a relatively short time frame. Second, it was also clear from their comments that their participation in the plan was considered racial disloyalty, which of course jeopardized their ability to attract the small number of affluent blacks as potential home buyers who either agreed with this sentiment, or at least did not want to experience racial shaming by their peers. Because many middle-class blacks as property owners and organizational elites opposed the city’s redevelopment plan, they were in position to shape that majority opinion and discipline members of their class that did not follow the race line they established. They determined who was loyal to the race and who was considered a sell-out.32
Some of the same people who were initially opposed to Lake Meadows were involved in trying to redevelop the mid-South Side in ways that did not further displace black Chicagoans, at least the property owners, from prime real estate. They viewed slum clearance as not just an attack by city hall and downtown on the black community, but more specifically, an assault on the prerogative of their class to determine the land uses in segregated black neighborhoods. Through hard work, ambition, and exploitation they had carved out nice, middle-class blocks in neighborhoods that overall suffered from both private and public disinvestment. There is a long history of black place entrepreneurs including such notables as Oscar DePriest, Jesse Binga, and Carl Hansberry accruing large holdings, subdividing apartments, and charging blacks the same exorbitant rents charged by white landlords in the process of building “the Black Metropolis.”33 Black publisher Claude Barnett responded to the city’s first urban renewal project by utilizing his position as a board member of Supreme Liberty Life to advocate raising enough capital to redevelop their adjoining affluent enclave.34 Barnett instructed the Supreme Liberty insurance company agents, “Let’s build a pool of money here so big that this desperate housing condition which exists here and in other cities where we operate can have big dents made in it because [of] the fund of money which Supreme Liberty has.”35 After 1953, he and others attempted to take advantage of the changes in state and federal laws that emphasized conservation over slum clearance.36 There was a consensus among black property owners in neighborhoods surrounding the Loop that they would rather have the city rehabilitate select homes than indiscriminately clear the whole neighborhood. In other words, black property owners wanted to see their houses spared while the city’s bulldozer knocked down decrepit tenement buildings, especially those owned by white absentee landlords.37 While the historical record on this score is limited, from at least 1944 to 1955, Barnett along with his fellow homeowners initiated various attempts to control redevelopment of their neighborhood which bordered the Lake Meadows project area. Apparently, none of Barnett’s schemes were successful due to the lack of capital.38 In one instance, the city backed one of the schemes though they expressed concern about the lack of capital coming from the black-led neighborhood development corporation initiating the plan.39 So while there was opposition to the city’s first urban renewal project that produced Lake Meadows, black property owners, business owners, and politicians were not opposed to redevelopment which entailed some clearance as long as it was under their control and spared what they considered “the highest and best use” of the land, single-family homes and upscale apartment buildings.
Beyond the interest of black property owners to conserve their middle-class blocks in the institutional ghetto, there was consistent interest on the part of black real estate brokers and lenders in joining the public-private partnerships cobbled together to redevelop the mid-South Side. Black insurance companies, along with Illinois Federal Savings and Loans, underwrote many mortgages for black property owners on the city’s South Side.40 Supreme Liberty-Life Insurance Company, which was the largest black business in northern United States, had expressed their interest in joining the first urban renewal project only to withdraw after strident opposition to their participation emerged from those in their professional and social circles. There were other attempts by ambitious black real estate brokers such as Bolin V. Bland who sought national and local black capital to start a mortgage company to underwrite mortgages in the black community.41 In fact, one black director of a savings and loans in Ohio went as far as to appeal to white capital to jumpstart a black-led “self-help” scheme to fund a black-owned mortgage company.42 It was clear that national and local schemes for controlling mortgage capital never got off the ground due to insufficient capital. In the context of red-lining and land contracts, issuing mortgages to black homeowners, even at high interest rates due to perceive risk and limited capital, was considered progressive given the structure of urban land markets.43 The point here is not to praise or condemn, but only to reveal what black real estate professionals sought to accomplish with the limited opportunity they had during the postwar urban renewal period.
The Case of Oakland
Unlike Chicago where black elites only aspired to participate and benefit from redevelopment partnerships, black property owners and black real estate professionals were able to realize this goal in Oakland, California. In the early 1960s, the city’s first two urban renewal projects was the Acorn project and Oak Center located in West Oakland. The plan for the Acorn site, one of the poorest parts of the city, was to have mixed residential and industrial land use.44 The population of the site was 78 percent black, and nearly half of the households were dependent on some form of public assistance. It was estimated that at least 500 low-income families would be displaced from land clearance.45 Much of the opposition to the plan was not against land clearance or revitalization, but whether to house those displaced in public housing.46 Sociologist Chris Rhomberg sees Acorn as noteworthy because the city’s black middle-class leadership in confronting the city on the behalf of black residents “gained a foothold in the urban renewal process” even though they were not successful in preventing displacement.47 Rhomberg points out that this leadership did not live in the Acorn neighborhood, and this fact seemed to make a significant difference with the fate of the next urban renewal project.48
The second project targeted the Oak Center neighborhood, a fifty block area north of Acorn. The differences in the predominant class and organization of the residents between the two redevelopment areas determined different outcomes for each neighborhood. Black homeowners led by Lillian Love, whose family unsuccessfully fought an earlier displacement due to public housing construction in the 1930s, created the Oak Center Neighborhood Association (OCNA) to fight the city’s plans.49 The black homeowner association sought rehabilitation over total clearance, which was the plan for the Acorn neighborhood. In 1964, during the negotiations over the plan for Oak Center the executive director of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency resigned and was replaced by John R. Williams, a black former redevelopment official from Cleveland. Under Williams’ leadership the redevelopment agency worked with an advisory committee of OCNA to come up with a plan to preserve many of the homes of middle-class black neighborhood residents. Rhomberg argued that these middle-class black homeowners had earlier distinguished their interests from the low-income tenants in the neighborhood. He concludes, “through their organization and sophisticated use of strategic allies in the federal government, they compelled the regime to incorporate their interests as middle-class property owners in a majority black neighborhood.”50 In future redevelopment projects, both in the downtown and nearby neighborhoods, Williams established affirmative action programs which ensured that minority construction workers, minority building firms, black developers and community institutions got their fair share of employment and building contracts under the urban renewal regime in Oakland.51
It is clear from the historical evidence in Chicago and Oakland that black property owners, investors and developers sought to maximize their property values in the segregated ghetto during the old urban renewal regime. They resented their exclusion from white real estate associations and partnerships with downtown capital and city government, especially in redeveloping black neighborhoods. In Chicago, they attempted to counter their exclusion by drawing up self-help schemes that never got off the ground due to limited capital. Black business owners needed black people to “buy black” by funneling their wages and income into purchasing the goods and services of black owned companies when available in order for those companies to accumulate capital to compete with white businesses. Black insurance companies regularly complained about black policy-holders purchasing insurance from white companies. The implication was if they had all the “black dollars” they could compete with larger white companies.52 Black elites reasoned that if they weren’t allowed or were unable to compete with white companies in larger markets at least they should dominate the housing and commercial markets within the ghetto. They felt they should have had proprietary control of the segregated black community. This was where the battle with white capital was most fierce. Due to the growth of the black middle class after 1970, gains made through the civil rights movement and Great Society programs, and a prosperous economy for black baby boomers, the aspirations of a prewar generation of black property owners, investors, brokers and lenders came to fruition in the 1990s.
Black Middle Class and HOPE VI Redevelopment
Derek Hyra, Mary Pattillo and Michelle Boyd have all produced useful studies of black participation in urban redevelopment that commenced in the early 1990s. All of the studies are set in former poor black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago – Bronzeville and North Kenwood-Oakland – that are in the process of gentrification. The novel development compared to other studies of gentrification is the fact that both the longtime residents and the newcomers are black. Each of the scholars used ethnographic methods to collect data on the political behavior of black property owners, business owners, community planners, and real estate developers.53 Each study is focused on the following questions: what motivated the black newcomers to invest in poor black neighborhoods; what do these newcomers think about and how do they relate to poorer longtime residents; in what ways have they contributed to the displacement of these residents; and what is their relationship to the growth regimes that dominated politics in Chicago during the 1990s and 2000s?
Their studies focus on members of the black professional-managerial class who chose to invest, revitalize and/or reside in poor black neighborhoods. Sociologist Mary Pattillo’s study mostly focuses on the attitudes and practices of affluent black homeowners who chose to reside in North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood.54 Political Scientist Michelle Boyd’s study analyzes long-time black residents, business owners and community planners’ nostalgia for an elite-ruled segregated Black Metropolis. These long time black homeowners were active in community planning organizations that reviewed developers and developments who wanted to build in the Douglas-Grand Boulevard neighborhoods in Chicago. Her study concentrates on the role of black heritage tourism as a vehicle of black-led economic development.55 Sociologist Derek Hyra’s comparative study of Chicago and New York focuses on the way black property owners, politicians and developers all contributed to enhancing property values.56 All of the studies illustrate the new opportunities that black property owners, developers and investors have gained to produce exchange values in gentrifying black neighborhoods. Where they disagree is whether racial uplift distracted their black subjects from pursuing their class interests, or in fact, provided a racially acceptable rationale for those same interests. Hyra sees how racial uplift diverted black property owners from following a strict adherence to the logic and structure of property markets. Pattillo and Boyd show how the ideology of racial uplift which purports racial group solidarity behind black elite-led redevelopment of black neighborhoods represents a way for black subjects to pursue their class interests while professing their linked fate with poorer blacks. These disagreements are often posed as black elites either engaging in racial uplift or pursuing their class interests.57
In his conceptualization of the “new urban renewal,” Hyra emphasizes the benefits that middle-class blacks gain from gentrification and the harm that lower income blacks experience. He is to be commended for bringing a class lens to the issue of neighborhood change, but he is not alone in featuring this lens in his analytical framework.58 In particular, his study explains “how more contemporary class distinctions translate into specific political actions influencing property values in revitalizing black neighborhoods.”59 He felt the need to point out the role differential class interests played in neighborhood revitalization given the fact that earlier studies of black gentrification by John Jackson and Monique Taylor deemphasize class differences in the interests between black middle-class newcomers and poorer longtime residents in Harlem.60 Hyra also correctly takes aim at political scientist Michael Dawson’s idea of linked fate. Hyra points out that Dawson’s argument that middle-class blacks identify with the racial group is based on “perceptions of racial solidarity rather than actual behaviors grounded in black communities.”61 In his critiques, Hyra aligns himself, correctly, with Mary Pattillo, since both seek to introduce the idea of class interests in tension with racial solidarity in black professionals’ decisions about what was necessary to revitalize formerly poor urban neighborhoods.
As a way to dramatize the choices confronting middle-class blacks Hyra counterpoised racial group uplift with the interests of enhancing property values. He draws on St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s definition of racial uplift as elevating the profile of blacks through individual achievement as well as engaging in practices that help the group as a whole. Hyra argues that black gentrification raises the race’s profile while failing to achieve group advancement.62 He also attacks the implication made by William Julius Wilson’s critique of black middle class flight that they would strengthen economic and social institutions if they had remained residing in, or returned to inner-city neighborhoods. Middle-class blacks’ positive influence would come from their superior resources and their ability to model behavior conducive to personal success in the marketplace.63 For Hyra, the choices that middle-class black-led block clubs, community development corporations, and planning boards made every day, which aim to change the class demography of inner city neighborhoods, necessarily entail displacement of lower-income blacks. In other words, the practices those entities adopt to elevate property values will be the same actions that end up displacing poor longtime residents regardless of middle-class blacks’ motivation or intention. He argues that middle-class blacks have chosen to align themselves with the urban growth machine rather than with their low-income neighbors.64
Hyra attempts to build on the insights of Michelle Boyd and Mary Pattillo when it comes to understanding the complexity of racial uplift. He follows Boyd when he criticizes the “contradictions” of racial uplift espoused by black gentrifiers.65 Both Pattillo and Boyd show how black property owners’ and community planners’ belief in racial uplift allows them to pursue their interests while thinking in doing so they are helping to elevate less fortunate members of the racial group.66 Both scholars argue what makes middle-class blacks different as gentrifiers is that they don’t want to displace lower-income black residents.67 It appears that they reject white gentry’s “revanchism” wanting instead to reconstruct their idealized vision of a harmonious class-integrated black community.68 However, according to this vision, and the practices that it informs, poor black residents cannot outnumber or “overshadow” their middle-class counterparts and they must consent to having their behavior modified by their middle-class peers.69
Hyra found in his research that despite the fact that middle-class blacks might have felt sympathy toward their poor neighbors, mentoring and assisting them was not a “major priority” for these homeowners.70 Pattillo counters that some of the black middle-class homeowners she interviewed and observed felt public housing residents who had been “left behind” represented the “incomplete project of black advancement.”71 She thinks black newcomers interpret “linked fate” as a personal obligation to help needy blacks.72 Following this logic middle-class blacks tended to use “environmental” rather than “structural” explanations for the poverty of their black neighbors.73 Pattillo explains that the preference for environmental explanations stemmed from middle-class blacks’ feeling they can only be effective when they intervene through role-modeling and mentoring in the neighborhood or community environment. Furthermore, she chides, “It takes concerted and collective action to redirect the economy or politics at the local or national level, whereas it only takes parking your BMW in front of your house to be an example of financial success for your less well-off neighbors.”74 She finds tellingly, but not surprisingly that her middle-class subjects reject economic redistribution as a remedy for black poverty.75 Hence, they express their linked fate with their lower-income neighbors by providing personal assistance and advice, something that requires them to volunteer their time, but not pay more taxes.
Michelle Boyd goes one step further in her critique of racial uplift. She saw the updated ideology of racial uplift live and well among her middle-class black informants who were longtime residents. These informants believed that since poor black neighborhoods had been disinvested by white political and business elites, it was up to them to reinvest in inner-city neighborhoods. This means, as Boyd points out, black gentrification became a strategy for racial uplift.76 She observes that her middle-class black informants were not against gentrification as much as their own displacement by wealthier whites.77 Their redevelopment strategy now, which was rehabilitation rather than demolition, was the same stance taken by an earlier generation of black property owners in the Douglas-Grand Boulevard neighborhoods.78 In this modern version of racial uplift it was imperative for affluent blacks to purchase expensive homes, and create and attract new businesses, in order to establish a tax base that would purportedly benefit all neighborhood residents. Accordingly, black property owners were essential to “stabilize” the community. They were being counted on to take on more responsibility than just provide for their personal financial well-being. Their investments were meant to benefit the group as a whole.79 A key assumption of this strategy is that individual investment is considered to double as a communal investment since “all blacks share a common set of racial interests” in black neighborhood improvement.80 As Boyd points out, racial uplift ideology does recognize class differences, but these differences are not considered “meaningful divisions” because they were overshadowed by the similarity of racial identity.81 However, this ideology tries to paper over the fact that affluent and poor blacks have not only different, but conflicting interests in urban revitalization. Boyd writes that this ideology is particularly pernicious because while it does acknowledge inequality among black strata at the same time it minimizes the political implications.82 The major implication is that following their interests in rent intensification will threaten the interests of lower income residents.83 Boyd concludes, “in their attempt to be attentive to the needs of poor blacks, Mid-South members become limited by an ideology that obscures the conflicts of interest implicit in gentrification.”84
While Hyra agrees with the contradictions of racial uplift outlined by Boyd and Pattillo, he does not get the extent to which it represents an updated version of a durable class politics. To be fair, Hyra says his wide-ranging work is not an examination of black politics.85 However, this admission also reveals an insufficient appreciation for how the theoretical lens of class has been applied to the study of black politics.86 According to Pattillo, the study of black politics has been far more critical of middle-class blacks than the field of urban policy, which she thinks privileges middle class actors as crucial for community cohesion and neighborhood revitalization.87 She argues that in the field of black politics there is a critique of the black middle class for contributing to the “marginalization, if not subjugation, of poor blacks.”88 By counterpoising racial uplift with class interests, Hyra does not convey the extent that the politics of racial uplift in its many iterations was and is a class politics.89 It is not accidental that racial uplift reappears when middle-class blacks reoccupy inner-city neighborhoods.90 As I have outlined above, racial uplift is a politics that helps to rationalize middle-class leadership in an intraracial, mix class setting. Pattillo talks about the fact that middle-class blacks can only recognize their class status in contradistinction to “unadjusted” poor blacks. She writes, “(t)he virtuous behavior of the black middle-class required the depravity of the black poor as its counterpoint.”91
Hyra’s work does not convey the continuity of black property owners’ and professionals’ class interests in different periods of urban redevelopment activity. A broader examination of earlier middle-class blacks’ interest would have indicated the continuity of those interests in a political setting which now provides far more opportunities to realize those interests in the recent bout of urban revitalization. Moreover, a recognition of continuity may have allowed Hyra to better convey the class content of racial uplift politics which never deviates from the bourgeois interest in rent intensification. It is refreshing that Hyra finds among his subjects a more naked expression of class interests without the varnish of racial uplift. It may be significant that such a stark expression indicates a new willingness among black real estate professionals to openly and unapologetically align themselves with urban growth interests. If racial uplift is now interpreted as black gentrification, then there is no contradiction with the real estate capital standard of “highest, and best use” of land as long as it is black-owned. However, given the prolonged shelf life of the obfuscating concept of “linked fate,” it is imperative to still show the often hidden class content under the announced racial group interests. The continuity between a sometimes hidden and sometimes more open expression of class interests by black property owners, investors, developers and politicians calls into question how new is new urban renewal supposed to be. The durability of class interests among all the members of the growth coalition, including its newer black members, speaks to unprecedented opportunities to build the kind of biracial public-private partnerships that were only imagined in the postwar period.