Northwestern associate professor Mary Pattillo studies modern urban neighborhoods.

Photo by Jason Reblando

Chicago's Messy Mix — Race, Politics, Class and Community

Say African American studies and what comes to mind? Professors studying African Americans' historical and literary contributions of the past several decades or centuries.

But sociologist Mary Pattillo, a core member of the Department of African American Studies, is all about digging into present-day realities including politics, race and the creation of mixed-income communities in the laboratory she calls Chicago — a city where social change is anything but neat and tidy.

Pattillo's latest project is documenting the transformation of North Kenwood/Oakland. The South Side neighborhood has fallen from the highest levels of wealth — where the first generation of residents, most of whom were white, lived in gray stone mansions — to one of the poorest communities in the city, when it contained one of Chicago's more troubled public housing developments. Most of the development was ceremoniously imploded in 1998, and a mixed-income community is being built in its place. These are the signs of impending gentrification with which the now-predominantly black community is struggling.

The neighborhood's struggles fit right into Pattillo's focus on middle class African American communities. In graduate school at the University of Chicago, Pattillo studied under William Julius Wilson, who focused on what was dubbed "the black underclass." But when charting her own direction for academic study, Pattillo wanted to expand those boundaries and look at the black middle class, a far more understudied group.

Pattillo is writing a book on North Kenwood/Oakland. "The thrust of the book is to break apart this notion that the black community has an interest," Pattillo says. "What is obvious in North Kenwood/Oakland is that there are multiple interests in the black community. So the interest of the public housing residents was surely not at one time the interest of the homeowners."

The often-messy collision of interests when reviving a neighborhood is further complicated when race and class intersect, Pattillo says.

One of the major goals of Pattillo's work is to leave behind a truthful documentation of neighborhood transformation. Often eras of social change are viewed with nostalgia. For example, many hold the perception that African Americans were united behind Martin Luther King Jr. even though many members of the black elite did not support him.

"This [book] is trying to really be a part of that historical record so that when people are trying to be nostalgic about the period we're living in now and they come back and read my book, they won't be able to sustain that nostalgia," Pattillo says.

Pattillo also hopes that her work will dispel some of the ignorance that still surrounds the middle class. In the conclusion of her book, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class (University of Chicago Press, 2000), Pattillo recalls a bus tour through a middle class neighborhood on the South Side. She described the houses, many with fresh paint and decorative lampposts on the lawns.

"As we took in the pleasant sights," Pattillo wrote, "our learned Chicago tour guide, who was white, reported to our group of sightseers, most of whom were also white, 'From looking at it, some of you all might think this is a predominantly white neighborhood, but actually this neighborhood is all black.' He spoke as if he had let us in on a little secret."

To far too many, successful middle class black neighborhoods are still a secret. Now with Pattillo on the case, the secret is far from safe. — C.L.

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