A diary of my attempt to make an ethical housing choice in Chicago.
The following is an excerpt from GENTRIFIER by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill. The book seeks to push the limits of the dialogue relating to the theory, policy and lived experiences of gentrification. Sociologists Mary Pattillo and Michael Eric Dyson called the approach, respectively, “definitely fresh” and “a brutally honest reckoning.” One of the strands of this approach is to bring personal biography into the conversation, as this adapted excerpt about Schlichtman illustrates.
“Did you end up moving to Bronzeville?” urban sociologist Mary Pattillo asked me upon finding out that I had arrived in Chicago. “‘Did you end up moving to Bronzeville’ is one of the most loaded questions you could ask me right now,” I replied.
Finding a new place to live is never easy. For an academic who, like me, studies urban transformations such as gentrification, the baggage that comes with the decision could fill a moving truck.
We relate to social structures — and our own respective place within them — differently. Monique wants our daughters to be safe from gun violence and educated in schools that are challenging. I want both of these things as well, of course. But I carry a sense of unease that our family could, in the din of everyday life, turn our backs — residentially speaking — on Chicago’s greatest challenges, namely, its deteriorating public schools and the escalating violence among its youth that touches people all around us. I came into our housing decision perhaps overly self-conscious (and academic) about our choice but I could not help but frame it within a binary: were we part of the problem or part of the solution?
In some respects, that opposition burrowed inside of us. As a middle-class Black woman, Monique understood herself to be a part of the status quo or — often — the solution. And as a middle-class, white male, I often felt that my housing decisions were potentially reinforcing the problem. In segregated Chicago, this would certainly be an enduring theme within our household during all of our housing deliberations. Part of this related to what I called the “blood in the soil”: histories of immoral housing policies that demarcated, devalued and defunded Chicago’s Black neighborhoods.
The First Offer
Like most people, we began our housing search with criteria. There was the practical pull of being on transportation lines, the community pull of being in a diverse or mostly Black neighborhood — and there were financial concerns. We also had aesthetic considerations: We liked living places with architectural integrity. These constraints pointed towards neighborhoods that were gentrifying or had already gentrified.
There are blocks on the South Side on which I had friends who have since moved away. Had those friends still been enmeshed in their neighborhoods, we would likely begun our search by looking for a home in one of them. Kinship, a basis for community, would trump other facets. This had been our living situation in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where we lived after getting married. There, social capital provided not only the joy of dwelling amid relationships, but also the benefit of a shared neighborhood knowledge. In Chicago, we didn’t have this option.
We began looking further north in Bronzeville, a historic Black area of Chicago’s South Side. Using a real estate listing site, Monique found a home for sale near the heart of the neighborhood and asked me to visit. Built in the early 1990s, the home lacked aesthetic appeal inside and out. It had neither the look nor the material quality of its early 20th-century neighbors. But despite being a hodgepodge of old and new, the block radiated an architectural warmth. The home was affordable, its centrality to the “L” train made it practical, and it was in a predominantly Black community within which we felt our family could comfortably integrate. We decided to put an offer in on the house.
The days passed and the offer was being processed.
“What, exactly, are the values we are clinging to by insisting that we live in the city?” she asked in our kitchen one night after the school’s packed classrooms had made the news. “We live in an apartment without a yard, our school is overcrowded, our daughter may start first grade in an overflow annex, and yet our property tax has doubled.”
We continue to wrestle with our options, grateful that we have them. Our West Loop location has appreciated in value at the same time as properties in other parts of the city, including in Bronzeville, are declining. Had we gone through with buying the house in Bronzeville, we would be in an entirely different place financially, as (like most Americans) our primary asset is our housing.
In her recent book “The South Side,” Natalie Moore notes that “failed political leadership, back-burner city status, racial perceptions and the capricious ways of capitalism have left Bronzeville as empty as some of the greystones along King Drive.” Not long ago a Black, 49-year-old city 311 operator grabbing an afternoon coffee at the aforementioned Bronzeville Starbucks was shot in the chest and killed. The target is believed to have been an employee at the neighboring Jimmy John’s sandwich shop.
Like my memories of Wishbone and the new West Loop park I visit with my daughters, this horrific loss of life and the resulting images of police tape and news vans draping a Starbucks are also artifacts of this current moment in American urban history.