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Aug. 23, 2021, 11:11 a.m. EDT

‘You shouldn’t just let them go without a fight’: Why the U.S. can’t lose its Black middle-class neighborhoods

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By Andrea Riquier

The Value Gap  is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

The Black neighborhoods of older American cities — where people like Michelle Obama grew up, generations of Black families achieved middle-class homeownership, and small local businesses thrived — are in trouble, says Alan Mallach.

Mallach is a lion in the world of inclusive, progressive housing and urban development issues. He has been a writer and researcher, perhaps best known for his book “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America,” as well as a practitioner, serving as director of housing and economic development for the city of Trenton, N.J., among other things.

In February, Mallach published a working paper titled “Making the Comeback: Reversing the Downward Trajectory of African American Middle Neighborhoods in Legacy Cities,” which documents in detail the challenges of “Black middle neighborhoods” in six cities, and suggests strategies for stabilizing and reviving them.

“When you have these spaces and they have provided value for generations of families, you shouldn’t just let them go without a fight,” he said in an extended interview in July.

Mallach, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and a visiting assistant professor at the Graduate Center on Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute, spoke with MarketWatch about the paper’s big ideas, and what they may mean in practice.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

MarketWatch: Alan, would you mind defining, in your words, “Black middle neighborhoods,” and tell us why you thought it was important to take a look at them in such deep detail now?

Mallach: A middle neighborhood is basically a middle-class, working-class neighborhood — the kind that if you go back 60, 70 years, most Americans lived in, before we started to separate and become more rich and more poor.

But it’s still a very important part of America’s cities, near suburbs, and so forth. Probably anything from 30% to 40% of Americans live in what are basically middle neighborhoods, a lot of them in cities like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, you name it.

Black middle neighborhoods, by definition, are middle neighborhoods which are predominantly African American. For the [working paper], I set a cutoff point of 80% or more Black. And what’s important about Black middle neighborhoods, or middle neighborhoods in general, is they are still in many respects the backbone of cities. This is where the city’s middle class lives, this is where people move up to for greater opportunity, this is where the civic and political leadership of the city lives, this is where it all develops.

They have been the backbone of Black communities in the United States — certainly since the ’60s and ’70s, when most of them came into being. I don’t know if you’ve read Michelle Obama’s autobiography , but this is the kind of neighborhood she grew up in in Chicago, the South Shore. 

And what’s happening — and this is why I have been studying this and wrote the paper — is they are in trouble. They are seriously in trouble. In the last roughly 20 years, they’ve been losing ground steadily.  Either we focus on preserving these neighborhoods — and there are a lot of people doing that, but not enough — or these may be the poverty neighborhoods, the disinvested neighborhoods, of the next generation.

In some cities like Detroit, I hate to say it, but I think a lot of neighborhoods that were solid middle class 20 years ago are no longer, and are seeing large-scale abandonment and poverty and all the other ills that come with that. I think that if we’re going to save these neighborhoods, we have to focus on them, we have to understand what’s going on, and we have to come up with strategies that make sense.

MarketWatch: Do you mind talking about why you look at what’s happening now and not just see that as part of a cycle — that American life is transforming, the way we live is changing?

Mallach: I think it’s certainly tempting to look at that. But first, I think you have the question of, are these places disposable? Should we be thinking, especially in an age when we’re at least supposedly more conscious of the environment, energy and so on, should we be thinking of neighborhoods, houses, parks, streets, schools and so forth, as being disposable? You know, “Been there, done that, let’s move on,” let’s move another 10, 15, 20, 30 miles out into the countryside? Or should we start looking very differently at neighborhoods and say, if we have a neighborhood that is basically sound, we should work to try and preserve that?

The second issue, I think, goes to the nature of race in this country. And this certainly came up consistently with people I talked to. When the immigrants — like my parents — moved out of immigrant neighborhoods and kind of “mainstreamed,” you might say they became white.

Black people don’t have that option. One of the most powerful books you can read about that, that really brings this home, is Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste.” And a lot of the people, especially Black people who are leading the efforts to preserve these neighborhoods, there are a lot of people for whom being in what you might call a safe Black space really matters. And when you have these spaces and they have provided value for generations of families, you shouldn’t just let them go without a fight. They’re important. 

Just one other thing: A lot of these neighborhoods are in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, that in many cases are becoming increasingly polarized. You have upscale neighborhoods full of well-to-do people and up-and-coming young techies. You have desperately poor neighborhoods that are falling apart. Not that much in between. In many cities, this is what’s in between. And if this goes, I think that’s going to be devastating to the future of a lot of these cities. 

MarketWatch: I actually have a question about gentrification. You wrote about how many homeowners in Black middle neighborhoods are likely to have a hard time finding a buyer when they go to sell. This is striking because there is this other concept of gentrification, young people, white people, gay people , coming into neighborhoods that were traditionally considered Black. It’s sort of a yin and yang, right?

Mallach: That is one of the biggest misconceptions about what’s happening in American cities. By and large, Black neighborhoods are not gentrified . The most common neighborhoods to gentrify are white working-class. … Consistently, gentrification follows race, not in terms of singling out Black neighborhoods, but in terms of avoiding them.

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