Green Lawns, Black Neighborhoods: African American Middle-Class Suburbs and Planning

Greg Smithsimon's picture

I first visited the African American suburb of Country Club Hills, south of Chicago, as an interviewer for a research project. It seemed as though only race had been reversed: The Maryland suburbs I had grown up in were 80 percent white, these were 80 Black, but otherwise they were so utterly familiar, right down to the floor plan of the split-level ranches, that I knew the layout of every home before I went in.

In research I've begun on other Black, middle-class suburbs, however, it turns out that more than color has been reversed. In fact, race reverses many of the things planners have come to see as inevitable.

Take Wal-Mart. The company is now well-known for proceeding secretly, not announcing a new store until everything is in place, so that there's less time to mount opposition. But the planners I spoke to regretted that politicians had announced plans for a Wal-Mart in an affluent Black suburb "too early" not because people opposed it, but because they were growing increasingly impatient for it to open. Why? African American suburbs are chronically under-served by national retail and restaurant chains, so Home Depot and Wal-Mart were long overdue and welcomed with open arms. One resident noted the frustration of people living in brand new, half-million dollar suburban homes and not having a brand-name, sit-down restaurant they wanted to take their family to. "The people who live here don't necessarily want to get a fish platter or a chicken box," she observed. (The chicken and vegetables, incidentally, were good, but I concede the setting was not middle class.)

That introduces the next difference. In poor Black neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere, one community improvement strategy has been to try to limit the number of liquor licenses, because residents feel inundated by corner liquor stores. In the county I studied, planners realized that an old law limiting companies to only three restaurant liquor licenses countywide meant national restaurant chains passed over the commercial corridor of the Black suburbs. Now a fourth license is available for those who make substantial financial investments in a restaurant in that corridor. There's widespread anticipation of a planned Ruby Tuesday.

Finally, there's the cost of housing. Historically, African Americans have paid a premium to live in Black neighborhoods, thanks to exploitative landlords in a market restricted by de jure or de facto segregation. Harlem, after all, was once said to have higher per-square-foot rents than Fifth Avenue. But in the middle-class suburbs, even this has changed. Developers sell the exact same luxury four-bedroom home for $150,000 less in the Black suburbs than it costs whites just a few miles away. Maddeningly, the racial composition of these new cul-de-sacs makes it clear that a $150,000 discount is not sufficient to motivate whites to integrate into these new neighborhoods.

Granted, it's not yet clear that this is a net discount to African American homeowners: Given that residents and leaders can already identify both substandard services delivered to Black areas within the county and problems in some (though not all) predominantly Black schools, there may be costs to this initial discount. In addition, homes in African American neighborhoods have traditionally been less dependable investments than those in white ones. But in the absence of integration, that Black families get more house for their dollar is a welcome change.

Too often race is conflated with poverty. But this case shows that even among the middle-class, planners need to be ready for the ways race and racism change the means to achieve the American dream. It's also a reminder that race and class play determining roles in residents' views toward their community and toward development projects. When race changes from one community to the next, even among the affluent, plans change, too.

Gregory Smithsimon is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

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