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What Is Lost When Our Historically Black Communities Fade Away

Gentrification’s pressure on homeownership is threatening a rich history and culture while worsening the racial wealth gap. There are some steps governments should take to preserve as much of it as we can.

Washington Park in Atlanta
Atlanta’s Washington Park was the city’s first public park open to African Americans. Its neighborhood two miles from downtown dates from the early 1900s, built on land donated by African Americans, but its history and culture are threatened by gentrification. (Photo: The Conservancy at Historic Washington Park)
(Photo: The Conservancy at Historic Washington Park)
Politicians have long extolled the importance of diverse, mixed-income communities. People of all races and incomes living in harmony sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? But most of my life I haven’t seen many places like that. What I have seen plenty of lately is gentrified communities. They have both strengths and weaknesses. I know firsthand; I live in one.

My home is in Atlanta’s Washington Park in a historical Black community named for Booker T. Washington. I moved into this two-story brick home two miles from downtown 42 years ago. The neighborhood and the park from which it takes its name were built on land donated by African Americans in 1919 and used to be home to college professors affiliated with the Atlanta University Center and teachers and staff at nearby Booker T. Washington High School.

For many decades, the area remained predominantly African American with mainly single-family homes and a nearby thriving commercial corridor called West Hunter. Today, the history of this important community is facing a threat of evaporating into thin air because the new residents don’t seem interested in the neighborhood’s rich past. Sadly, this is too often the case with newcomers moving into historically Black communities.

The story of the growth and development of Washington Park, followed by a two-decade dry spell in the 1990s and 2000s and then a renaissance following the Great Recession, is similar to that of other neighborhoods like Biddleville in Charlotte, N.C., Bronzeville in Chicago and Fourth Ward in Houston. These and other predominantly Black communities began as segregated neighborhoods because of Jim Crow laws or practices, but later, because of the quality of housing and their proximity to their downtowns, they became attractive places for diverse residents to live, work and play.

When I first moved into Washington Park, college professors lived next door to postal carriers, clerks and city employees. Everyone owned their homes, and that made a difference in terms of neighborhood upkeep. Today, as I go on a daily walk with my daughter’s dog, I notice a distinct difference between the upkeep of owner-occupied homes and the growing number of rental properties. I don’t blame the tenants; I mostly blame landlords and real-estate management firms.

They charge exorbitant rents, but often do a poor job of keeping up their properties. Many landlords don’t even take the time to visit the neighborhoods where they own housing. Property management firms serve as a buffer between them and tenants. If more landlords would take the time to visit their properties, they might discover that the neighborhoods where they own rental housing are special to the residents who live there and deserving of greater upkeep on their part.

Today, Washington Park is whiter than at any time during its history, and the property values have gone through the roof. The physical environment has changed a lot too, with mixed-use facilities being constructed along a trendy trail called the BeltLine, and of course this has brought along rising taxes, upgraded roads and even requests for converting a historical Black tennis center into a citywide pickleball facility.

There is an upside to gentrification, such as more shops and restaurants that have long eluded the Black community, but there is also a downside: the loss of history and wealth. My neighborhood contains the city’s first Black voting precincts, its first public park open to Blacks, and a high school Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended. It is a marker that indicates just how far Blacks have come. But unless legacy residents pass this history down to newer residents, it will be forgotten.

The same problem is occurring all over the United States. Charlotte’s Biddleville, founded in 1871 as a neighborhood for the historically Black Johnson C. Smith University faculty and staff, is undergoing gentrification. In 2000, the neighborhood was 96 percent Black; by 2016, whites made up a quarter of the residents and one can guess even more today. According to Zillow, some homes there are selling for as high as a million dollars. Much the same is happening in Houston: A recent article in Houstonia Magazine calls Fourth Ward gentrification “a viscous and unruly force that’s reshaping Houston’s social fabric.”

The larger problem with gentrification, one that is rarely discussed, is how it leads to huge transfers of wealth from African Americans, who already lag in most economic indicators, to whites. Data collected by the Pew Research Center on changes in wealth since the Great Recession show that the median wealth of white households in 2016 was $171,000 — 10 times that of Black households and a gap that had grown since 2007. No doubt much of this can be attributed to the many foreclosures during the Great Recession and gentrification that followed.

Dealing with the negative effects of gentrification won’t be easy, and it can’t be adequately addressed without tackling the larger issue of affordable housing. But there are immediate steps public officials could and should take.

First, freeze property taxes for all who are on fixed incomes until a home sale occurs. Next, state officials should develop tougher laws to punish predatory lenders and unscrupulous landlords who exploit tenants, are quick to evict them for the smallest violations and refuse to keep their properties up to code. Finally, local governments should hire more planning staff to work with neighborhood block clubs, associations and other groups to educate them and promote the importance of keeping alive the stories of historically Black neighborhoods. African American urban communities, and the residents who refused to leave them for the suburbs, deserve credit for playing a critical role in sustaining cities through rough times like the era of urban renewal, when so many in-town communities were divided if not destroyed and when downtowns and inner-city communities were abandoned by businesses and even their own governments.

As America becomes more diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods will be the future of our cities. But keeping them truly diverse and affordable will take tremendous effort on the part of many, especially public officials. The foundation of all strong neighborhoods has and will always be homeownership — a reality that is becoming more elusive each year and used to be the primary hallmark of the American dream. My favorite poet, Langston Hughes, once wrote: “Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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