Crown Heights Gentrification And The Salvation Of Oak Park

Here`s a long article at a website called Narratively:

The Ins and The Outs 

Along one of New York`s most rapidly changing boulevards, a look below the surface exposes what—and who—is really driving gentrification in Crown Heights. 

By Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing

It`s predictable for awhile, but gets interesting toward the end. 

What goes unmentioned in the article, but which all New York readers above age 40 will instantly recognize is the the significance of the name “Crown Heights.” In retrospect, the 1991 riot in Crown Heights was the Gettysburg or Stalingrad of New York City history.

My recent surmise that the Powers That Be in contemporary New York City can be summed up with some accuracy as a conspiracy to drive out African-Americans doesn`t seem too far off the mark.

You definitely want the real estate agents in your neighborhood to be on your side, whatever your side is. When I was a gentrifier in Chicago`s Uptown neighborhood in 1988-2000, the local real estate lady organized most of the neighborhood parties and encouraged residents to talk up the merits of that overlooked neighborhood. It was almost worth that she hustled you into a lowball price if you hired her to help you sell your condo. 

On the other hand, local real estate agents actively destroyed my wife`s parents` Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago from 1967 onward by stoking white panic selling in order to make fast commissions. Austin had been a terrific place for families to enjoy the benefits of urban living: safe, densely populated, excellent public transportation, tons of kids playing on the sidewalks and walking to school or to their grandparents` apartments. All gone …

I`m reminded of one of the most occluded events in recent American history: the salvation of Oak Park, IL, where my father was born in 1917, which is next door to Chicago`s doomed Austin neighborhood.

The destruction of Austin next door threatened to spread to Oak Park, with its spectacular stock of Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style homes. But the city fathers responded with a wise (if presumably wholly illegal) racial quota system. The “black-a-block” system restricted real estate agents in Oak Park to selling only one home per block to a black family. 

Yet, as James Kabala pointed out once, it`s hard to find any mention on the Internet of Oak Park`s “black-a-block” quota, presumably because it violated federal law, but was winked at because important people felt it worthwhile to save Oak Park`s architectural heritage. 

Fortunately, I discovered that The Encyclopedia of Chicago explains how Oak Park was saved in some detail:

Oak Park`s eastern neighbor, Chicago`s Austin neighborhood, had long been characterized by tree-lined streets of gracious homes and small bungalows, with residents who had lived in the community for generations. Both communities, however, also had aging housing stock and weak zoning and building codes. Over 50 percent of Oak Park`s housing comprised apartment buildings, most concentrated along its eastern border. Oak Parkers watched first-hand in the 1960s as Austin`s residents fought desperately to defend their community from a destabilizing influx of African American home-seekers, with little success—resegregation was rapid and tumultuous [i.e., most of Austin went black and underclass. There have been 450 homicides in Austin over the last 12 years.]

Oak Park devised a different strategy, which would use planning to ensure that desegregation would not lead to resegregation. The village board created a Community Relations Commission charged with preventing discrimination, forestalling violent neighborhood defense mechanisms, and setting a high standard of behavior as the community prepared for imminent racial change. 

Village officials, often joined by clergymen, visited blocks to which families of color might move and carefully sought to control the fears and rumors generally associated with neighborhood succession. They identified white families who would welcome the newcomers. They encouraged African American families to disperse throughout the village to counter concerns of clustering and ghetto formation. In 1968, after lengthy and angry debate, and the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the village board passed an open-housing ordinance allowing officials to control many aspects of racial integration that otherwise were likely to lead to resegregation. Real-estate agents were banned from panic-peddling, blockbusting, and the use of “for sale” signs. A community relations department would address rumors, monitor the quality of services and amenities throughout the village, and establish block clubs to promote resident cohesion and local problem-solving. The police force expanded by one-third, with a residency requirement whose impact was magnified because police generally lived in areas most likely to be threatened by resegregation. An equity assurance program for homeowners would reassure residents that they were financially protected against a downward spiral of property values. Leaders acted on a vision of Oak Park as a community strong enough to achieve integration, and able to challenge the Chicago pattern of block-by-block resegregation with a policy of managed integration through dispersal. 

The most controversial policies involved racial steering. A group of residents led by Roberta (Bobbie) Raymond established the Oak Park Housing Center, which retrained real-estate agents to prevent racial steering and encouraged black home-seekers to live throughout Oak Park. The center worked with the village to improve areas that white home-seekers or residents might find unattractive and steered whites towards these areas to limit the concentration of black residents in a particular neighborhood. A public relations campaign targeted white home-seekers across the country to promote an image of Oak Park as a multicultural, cosmopolitan middle-class community, close to the city, with good transportation and schools. 

Despite these programs, during the 1970s the village experienced a net loss of 10,000 white Oak Parkers, coinciding with a net increase of only 5,500 black residents. Urbanologists` predictions that the ghetto would roll over Oak Park, however, proved inaccurate. Oak Park maintained its majority white population through extensive and white-oriented planning, and has remained an integrated village. Pockets of racial segregation have persisted, but the community has succeeded in maintaining a public culture that takes pride in racial diversity.

Race quotas have been popular with the Establishment in hiring and college admissions, so why, since they worked out well in Oak Park, weren`t they encouraged elsewhere in housing?

“Who? Whom?” of course. Race quotas to increase the numbers of Designated Victim Groups are good, race quotas to limit their numbers are bad, and that`s all you need to know.