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Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the first academics to study the black middle class.

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by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the first academics to study the black middle class.

In her latest book, “Black on the Block: the Politics of Race and Class in the City” (University of Chicago Press), she focuses on North Kenwood-Oakland (NKO), a Chicago neighborhood that has been gentrified by black professionals who, she says, operate at the center of complex urban politics. 

The book highlights the black professionals' crucial but often conflicted engagement with white elites, other black professionals and poor blacks in NKO to maintain an environment that reflects their values as well as those of less affluent neighbors.

The black middle- and upper middle-class professionals in North Kenwood-Oakland act as key brokers in politics involving city bureaucrats and developers, who wield electoral or financial power, as well as residents -- new and old, formally educated and not, owners and renters, rich and poor.

“The black professionals span the bridge -- to benefit white elites sometimes and poor blacks other times,” said Pattillo, also a faculty associate at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research, during the following question-and-answer session. 

Your book points out the complicated relationship that the black leadership in NKO has with less well off neighbors.

Yes, class schisms continually challenge attempts at racial solidarity. But those class tensions are greatly mitigated by the residents' recognition of a shared history of oppression and the lingering effects of racism today. The gentrifying black middle and upper classes tend to be more grounded by upbringings and socialization in more humble black surroundings. They recognize the short shrift that African Americans have been given by the wider society and, for example, continuously insist that black construction workers be included in neighborhood building. A deep sense of racial responsibility is the most important distinguishing feature of black gentrification relative to white gentrification.

Yet, class differences cause fissures that put great stress on racial solidarity.

Yes, for example, black leaders in NKO have called for the demolition of public housing and have been critical of the lifestyles of working-class and poor neighbors --  including loud barbecues on a public boulevard and porches and fixing cars on the street. 

Those attitudes seem to reflect middle-class values everywhere.

Yes, they do. But partially what I want to do with this book is make people aware of the economic rationales that contribute to differences in class behavior. People don't barbecue on Drexel Boulevard because they want to be flamboyant. It has a lot more to do with not having their own backyards. Their lifestyles reflect the realities of stratification. Renters and public housing residents are particularly vulnerable to the discriminating tastes of newcomers. And the differences have to do with capital resource status -- employed versus unemployed, homeowner versus renter, etc.

What are the larger consequences of those class tensions?

In general blacks in increasing numbers have moved into schools, institutions and occupations from which they were once barred. They have alliances with powerful white elites and can consequently dominate more marginal groups. While the black leadership is more able and definitely more willing to deliver resources to black communities in need, they also are more able to translate distaste for certain class-related behavior into action that hurts poorer blacks.

How do such class biases play out specifically in North Kenwood-Oakland?

North Kenwood-Oakland offers a microcosm of boundary making among African Americans. Black newcomers are moving into the neighborhood and aligning with some old-timer homeowners to resist the building of public housing and reinforcing attempts to control the behaviors of low-income neighbors in and out of public housing. Many established poorer residents have been displaced and those left behind are supervised and disciplined consistent with new residents' desires. That begs the question: For whom are we developing these neighborhoods?

The city of Chicago designated North Kenwood-Oakland as a “conservation area” and revitalization has entailed mass construction of new high-end homes and developments alongside existing homes rehabilitated by individual investors. That type of gentrification always entails displacement of the poor and related changes in the community.

Increasing opportunities for wealthy families to move in neighborhoods and decreasing the number of public housing units in those communities indeed is a national policy approach. Middle- and upper-class families are hot commodities. They raise tax revenues. They increase property revenue. They shop. They fund political coffers. But what about the residents who work in our grocery stores? The constant discounting and displacement of poor residents from gentrified areas has real consequences. Only about a third of those displaced are able to move back into their communities.

Please summarize how housing for the poor has played out in NKO.

The number of public housing apartments in the neighborhood has declined by roughly one half. Most of the affordable housing is still available and is not in danger of being lost for another five to 10 years, and there is a community organization that is monitoring to make sure that those apartments stay affordable for working families in the neighborhood. None of the new buildings or houses being built are for poor families, and only a small percentage is for moderate-income families. The goal of new development in the neighborhood is to decrease the poverty rate from the 40 percent that existed in 2000.

Please explain the fragility of the black middle class, a focus of most of your work, within the context of the research you did for this new book.

My research shows that middle-class blacks are more likely than their white counterparts to come from poor families and to suffer the high economic, social and political costs of living near poor neighborhoods. This particular burden was manifest in North Kenwood-Oakland during the controversy over public housing. Middle-class newcomers argued against new public housing, because they saw such concentration as racist, leaving most white neighborhoods completely devoid of public housing. That is, part of the fight against public housing has to do with the reality that middle-class blacks live with and near a greater proportion of poor families than do middle-class whites. That makes it difficult to attract businesses, generate tax revenues and lobby for infrastructure investments for such neighborhoods.