Getting to the Mountaintop: The Suburban Dreams of African Americans

In January of 2000, Ice Cube released his second movie in the infamous Friday trilogy, Next Friday. The plot loosely revolved around relocating Ice Cube to a suburban environment in order to escape his nemesis Debo, who had just escaped from a Los Angeles correctional facility. Though not as original, funny, or entertaining as its predecessor (New York Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder summarized a few of his objections early in the review: “it is notable chiefly for feeding a stereotype of blacks as shiftless layabouts interested mainly in recreational drugs and irresponsible sex”), Next Friday provided a pop culture visual for a distinct national metropolitan reality, Black suburbanization.

While Kenneth Jackson’s seminal work, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985) was not the first to examine the suburbs, Jackson’s insights crystallized a field of scholarship on suburban history. Jackson detailed the various motivations that drove suburban growth from the understandable – better sanitation, more space — to the egregious – race and class driven prejudices. Additionally, Jackson clearly documented the federal government’s role in establishing segregated suburban communities. Two years prior, in Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940 – 1960, Arnold Hirsch unveiled Chicago’s dim history regarding segregation, violence, and race based urban renewal. Hirsch shined a light on the machinations of Chicago’s business elites, working class white ethnics, and municipal government. Through urban renewal efforts, local violence, and municipal housing policy, the great Midwestern metropolis successfully created one of the most segregated urban populations in American history. Like Jackson, Hirsch’s observations influenced writers for the next three decades. Each work remains relevant and vital to practitioners of urban history. Would Sugrue have written Origins of the Urban Crisis without Hirsch and Jackson? Doubtful.

Yet for all the credit Hirsch, Jackson, Sugrue, and others deserve, in each of these works, despite being central to events, Blacks occupy secondary roles in the narrative. Readers come to know quite well, the feelings, beliefs, and prejudices of whites, but less about Black motivations, understandings, and biases. Moreover, the traditional suburban history narrative often focuses on white resistance to black suburbanization, thus, implying that Blacks remain trapped in declining urban areas and foreign to the suburban world. As San Diego State historian Andrew Wiese points out “historians have done a better job excluding African Americans from the suburbs than even their white suburbanites.” (5)

In order to eliminate this blind spot, the past fifteen years have witnessed increased attention by social scientists and historians to this once accepted line of conventional wisdom. Sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy’s Black Pickett Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (1999) serves as one example. Pattillo-McCoy’s ethnographic study of Chicago’s South Side middle class black community, Groveland pushes back against the pervasive belief that middle class blacks abandoned their economic inferiors by relocating to the suburbs. In Black Picket Fences, Pattillo-McCoy reveals a prosperous Black middle class that struggles to keep their community from tipping point as their spatial proximity to lower income areas places them at permanent risk for the very dangers their white middle class counterparts fear: lower property values, increased crime, and community dissolution. Furthermore, Pattillo-McCoy points out that many Black middle class families have extended relations that have not been able to reach middle class status. Some of these relatives remain in working class and lower income urban neighborhoods, thus, subject to the kind of forces –- drugs, crime, little medical care — that undermine economic and social mobility. This reality makes Blacks more aware of and sensitive to (emotionally and economically) the possibility of financial decline. Clearly, such circumstances affect how Blacks view middle class status and homeownership, what it means more broadly, and even how homes are valued.

A recent New York Times article provides a clear example of Pattillo-McCoy’s argument. Though Queens remains one of the most diverse and transient of New York’s five boroughs, East Elmhurst Queens has been long established as a primarily urban Black middle class enclave. Bucking the trend of constant movement, journalist Joseph Burger outlines the neighborhood’s unique permanency. Unlike New York’s countless other constantly rotating neighborhood populations, “residents of an East Elmhurst census tract stay in their homes the longest of residents of any of the more than 2,000 census tracts in New York City, according to an examination of recently released data from Census Bureau surveys from 2005 to 2009. The median move-in date for homeowners there is 1974 — more than 36 years ago.” Any New Yorker worth his or her salt know this is rarity in the Big Apple. Located near LaGuardia airport and consisting of “unfussy” two level homes, many of East Elmhurst’s early arrivals were municipal employees – train drivers and park attendants- who in Burger’s words, stitched “together down payments for their first houses — an opportunity that drew them to the neighborhood in the first place.” Though the experience of racial discrimination bonded many in the community together, as Burger illustrates much of the neighborhood promotes a vision that sounds reminiscent of traditional middle class homeowners. Making direct reference to a homeowner identity, Burger writes, “most residents, though, say they are devoted to the neighborhood for the same reasons that any homeowner might cite. They relish the pleasures of a grassy backyard, the quiet of not having neighbors piled on floors above and the views of the Manhattan skyline.” Property values remain important as well. Local resident and Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall speaking to Burger acknowledged this. Marshall surmised that long time residents “ took their last dollars to buy their house and they want to protect that house and they want their neighbors to do the same.” Solid local schools and an active civic life (numerous political organizations, homeowner associations and the like remain active in East Elmhurst) also serve as important draws. Yet in both Burger and Pattillo-McCoy’s examples, such Black communities remain located within city limits. So what about the suburbs?

Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (2004) by the aforementioned Wiese helps to answer this question. Contrary to popular beliefs, Blacks, like other groups, moved to suburbs even in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Wiese, during the early decades of Great Migration (1910-1930) hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved North and West with one in six migrants destined for northern cities settled in a suburb. Southern cities further illustrated this tendency as Blacks moved to “fringe” areas that though lacking public utilities, sanitation systems, and the like, provided a rough suburban existence. As the twentieth century progressed so to did Black suburbanization. By the 1960s, 2.5 million African Americans could call themselves suburbanites. This fails to include the “millions of others” Weisse argues that resided in the previously mentioned fringe areas.

Unlike in the postwar period, in the century’s early decades, working class blacks established suburban communities. Wiese divides them into two categories, each reflecting occupational realities: industrial and domestic service suburbs. Occupational differences resulted in sharply gendered suburbanization. Industrial suburbs featured majority male populations while the opposite was true of domestic service communities. This in turn affected leisure, local environment, work, migration, and support/kinship networks. For example, industrial suburbs offered Black women few employment opportunities, thus many, like white ethnics in the nation’s cities, took on lodgers. In contrast, Black men in domestic suburbs struggled to find work. The physical environment differed as well. Domestic service suburbs often located themselves in proximity to leafy affluent white communities while their industrial counterparts frequently featured rougher conditions as factories lacked the benefits of middle and upper class white neighborhoods. Predictably, the type of work breadwinner’s engaged in differed as well. Factory employment dominated industrial enclaves such as Detroit’s River Rouge while domestic service provided economic sustenance in places like Evanston, Illinois.

Dutifully, Wiese recounts the rise of zoning laws, racial covenants, and other forms of discrimination that arose in response to the Great Migration. Such efforts affected Black and white conceptions of space. For whites, the purchase of a suburban residence carried with it “a concept of space in which racial segregation and white superiority were taken for granted.” However, Wiese also notes the complexity of class issues. Here, Places of Their Own appears reminiscent of Becky Nicolaides’s My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920 – 1965. In My Blue Heaven, Nicolaides explores how class affected the manner in which housing was judged. One fundamental difference between white working class suburbs and their middle or upper class counterparts lay in how homes are valued. As Nicolaides points out, many working class suburbs placed value in the land use or productivity of their home rather than its worth as a commodity in speculative real estate markets. Predominantly wage earning, most of South Gate’s early citizenry constructed their own homesteads while utilizing backyard gardens or domestic industries to make ends meet. Wiese suggests that African Americans held similar though not necessarily identical viewpoints as race did intervene as did regionalism; “Looking at these aspirations more carefully reveals the outlines of a working class suburban vision rooted in settlers’ experiences in the South as well as their expectations for life in urban areas.” (84) None the less, across racial and ethnic lines, working class suburbanites utilized domestic production as a central part of their existence. Moreover, as with white counterparts, many Blacks who moved to suburban areas expressed discontent with city conditions. Additionally, the nostalgia induced by environments reminiscent of southern or rural childhoods proved a powerful draw for Blacks.

Black suburbanization occurred for economic and political reasons. Though some in the black community reached middle class status in the postwar era they could not fully share in the sensibilities and social formations of their white counterparts. Discrimination made Black social mobility, visibly represented by a home in the suburbs, a political act. In this context, not only does Wiese reevaluate African American homeownership but also the role and beliefs of Black real estate agents. This insight matters.

Often, the actions of both white and black real estate brokers accelerated the racial transition of neighborhoods. The traditional narrative follows that once a Black family moves in, agents begin pressuring white families to sell before property values drop further, often at prices that favored the agent. The agent then resells the house to a black family at a higher price. Numerous historians have documented how “blockbusting” as it is known wreaked havoc on race relations contributing to hostilities expressed by working class and white ethnics, who saw Black encroachment as a threat to the investment they had made in their home. The fact that historically working class families have held fewer diversified financial investments meant that any threat to housing values punished these families more than their middle or upper middle class counterparts. Therefore, in the 1940s and 1950s, due in part to this increased economic vulnerability, working class whites resorted to physical, symbolic, and emotional violence. Like others before him, Wiese remains critical of “blockbusting”, but his views on Black real estate brokers mitigate his argument as will be addressed momentarily.

Traditional civil rights era suburban integration narratives feature middle class black families. Wiese acknowledges this development pointing out that “most pioneers were members of an economic and professional elite, well educated and experienced with white institutions and integrated settings.” (Wiese, 13) One of the more insightful aspects of Places of Their Own lay in Wiese’s ability to illustrate the connection between this burgeoning black middle class and its working class antecedents that first established suburban footholds in the prewar period. Crediting Black pioneers for their efforts, Wiese also discusses the importance of the Black Press and Black real estate brokers in creating avenues for Black suburbanization. The press encouraged readers to conflate housing choice with basic civil rights, while reporting redlining, restrictive covenants, and private sector discrimination.

More surprisingly, Wiese explores the role of the Black real estate industry with a complexity not often seen. As discussed, real estate brokers, Black and white, emerge for many writers as, if not immoral characters in suburbanization, amoral entrepreneurs. Wiese urges readers to rethink such formulations or at least to consider them in greater depth. According to Wiese, Black real estate agents openly advertised their efforts to integrate communities. When viewed from this perspective, bringing racial transition to a community served as a “source of special pride in Realists’ efforts to expand the African American housing market.” (Wiese, 133) Black brokers saw “race progress” as a “class responsibility”. Of course, the question follows, how much of this was about racial progress and how much was an advertising ploy? Ultimately, Black brokers balanced two central motivations that need not be mutually exclusive: integration and profit. In fact, judging from the work of Wiese and others, it just so happened that the two could co-exist. Considering the rise of advocacy consumerism from the GAP to Starbucks, those modern observers wanting to condemn Black brokers, blaming them for exploiting white fears and black desperation, might want to pause and think about if buying free trade coffee is all that different. In this context, does the ability to profit or somehow financially benefit undermine the legitimacy of such acts? The odd intertwining of capitalism and advocacy/social justice raises as many question as it answers, however, Wiese’s argument serves as a provocative example of this juxtaposition.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the growing Black middle class increasingly took on suburbanization as a political statement, yet many of their reasons buying a home in the suburbs mirrored those of whites: better schools, improved social opportunities, and superior housing. Thus, through Oak Park, Illinois’s Wheeler family, black suburbanites of the period acknowledged the importance of place: “The family recognized implicitly that location was linked to inequality, that some areas, all of them reserved for whites, routinely produced the kinds of social success that they envision for their children. Like other middle class families, they wanted access to these advantages.” (242) If the Wheelers chose to move to Oak Park, they represent one form of Black suburbanization in the 1970s. Spillover represents another. Though Wiese examines East Cleveland’s difficulties through the 1970s and 80s, his example encapsulates a modern day suburban dilemma: the “spillover” of inner city residents into inner ring suburbs. “Inner ring suburbanization” occurred in metropolitan regions with smaller city cores such as St. Louis, Washington D.C. or Newark, N.J. Growing incomes, continued migration form the South, and the destruction of urban housing, most often through renewal projects, resulted in Black neighborhoods expanding into suburbs closest to the city core. Recent housing innovations like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and HOPE VI have accelerated this process as public housing nationwide has been transformed into mixed income housing featuring both affordable homes and those at market rates. While the impact of these policies remains under debate, research has shown that many former public housing residents have moved to inner ring suburbs, though the results as some writers have pointed out remain at best unclear and in some circumstances deleterious.

One of the difficulties with summarizing Black suburbanization remains the unique way in which it manifests itself in each metropolitan region. Wiese delineates between northern and southern variants pointing out that southern Black suburbanization illustrates some clear differences from its partners to the north. For example, from 1940 – 1960, though federal policies, economic changes, infrastructural development, urban renewal and local annexation by municipalities led to a decentralization of cities nationally, this proved especially true in the South. As Wiese notes, the southern Black middle class had long established a suburban existence in the fringe or expanding areas of cities. This meant some existed within city limits and others just outside. However, with annexation many more found themselves a part of the growing municipalities they abutted. Moreover, though we often think of the single family home as the epitome of the suburban lifestyle, multi family housing emerged as a common means for southern Black suburbanization. Exploiting these forms of housing, Blacks “participated to a greater extent in the decentralization of southern cities than in any other region of the country,” writes Wiese. (165) Simultaneously, many African Americans in the region developed clear ambivalence about issues of integration choosing to focus on the pragmatic or “what was possible within the existing racial system.” (165) To many southern Blacks, undermining segregation could be achieved not through integration but rather housing equality, as Wiese explains that this meant “new housing, expanded homeownership, and a residential landscape common to middle class suburbs nationwide — and they believed they could achieve it on a separate basis.” (166) Wiese’s insight helps to explain the archipelago of racially distinct, Black and white, suburban enclaves surrounding Atlanta and other prominent southern cities.

As Wiese approaches the last decades of the 20th century, he notes a peculiar development. Though poverty rates in Black neighborhoods fluctuated around 50% and crime rates rose while social capital declined, at the same time arose a wealthier and more prominent Black middle class. As of 1998, 33% of Black households exceeded the national median of $35,000. The linked fate that had long bound working class and poor Blacks with their better off peers, though still present, faded. Matthew Lassiter illustrated this tendency in The Silent Majority when he noted the response of middle class blacks to the busing efforts of Charlotte, N.C. Some middle class Blacks have openly protested busing for their children as one resident explained, “if I wanted my children to attend school with kids from the projects, I’d have moved next to one.” (Lassiter, 218)

In on the joke?

Nor has this necessarily led to greater integration. Writing in the March 2008 issue of Urban Affairs Review (Vol. 43/No.4), Mary J. Fischer employs the work of Wiese and others to explore how Black suburbanization has affected integration rates. In “Shifting Geographies: Examining the Role of Suburbanization in Black’s Declining Segregation,” Fischer identifies changes in racial attitudes, growth of a Black middle class, regional population shifts, and rising levels of metropolitan ethnic and racial diversity as the main four factors accounting for declining segregation. Fischer argues that Black suburbanization should be added to this list. While Blacks remain underrepresented in suburban areas, when they do achieve suburban status, these communities often exhibit lower rates of segregation when compared to Blacks living in the inner city. Of course, segregation levels remain significant as Fischer points out, “Blacks who have made the leap to suburban living still experience much higher levels of segregation than do other groups …” (Fischer, 478) As well, among minority groups, Blacks remain at the bottom of the housing hierarchy meaning Asians and Latinos often reside in greater spatial proximity to whites. “Differential patterns of segregation by racial/ethnic group, whereby Blacks are the most segregated from Whites and Asians are the least segregated, provide some evidence that a racial hierarchy is being played out spatially.” (Fischer, 479) Still, as previously noted, even these segregation levels are an improvement over those living in the inner city. Metropolitan areas around Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, inner cities known for high levels of segregation, have increased black white interactions for black suburbanites “relative to their central city counterparts”. (Fischer, 480) One reason for lower segregation levels in venues like historically race driven Chicago, is that suburban integration levels remain within “Whites’ tolerance limits for minority contact.” (Fischer, 480) Fischer too notes regional variation suggesting that segregation in the West and South exists at levels lower than in their Northern and Eastern counterparts. This juxtaposition means that the answer to reducing segregation in each region depends on differing solutions attuned to local conditions. Moreover, in some metropolitan areas suburbanization, the very process that had attempted to exclude Blacks for decades, provides the greatest hope for homeowner integration.

Ryan Reft