A few weeks after I moved into my condo in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, I saw a group of black men—ages from 20s to 50s—standing in front of my building. As I unloaded my groceries, I introduced myself as the new gal on the block.
They seemed genuinely shocked at the neighborly overture. The other newcomers seem to forget that they and people like them were there first, the men told me. "We got your back."
Our community has a proud history dating back to a time when the Black Arts Movement thrived and Gwendolyn Brooks and Nat King Cole held court. Black-owned banks and funeral homes catered to everyone, rich, poor, white-collar, blue-collar. But when wealthier residents fled, the neighborhood eventually disintegrated.
Now that many black professionals are moving back to Bronzeville, it is creating new kinds of tensions—and a new opportunity.
For decades, the South Side has been the proving ground for various theories on how to house black people. In the mid-20th century, the government erected miles of public housing such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green (of Good Times lore). In recent years, politicians finally realized that decades of vertical living and concentrated poverty wasn't the best way to house poor black folk. So the projects are being slowly demolished or overhauled, and replaced with "mixed-income" housing. (The goal is to build communities that are one-third market rate, one-third affordable and one-third public housing.)
Throw in a little gentrification in neighborhoods like mine and a new picture has emerged: Across the South Side, we are trying to figure out how people of different social classes, of the same race in most cases, can get along.
Some critics decry the "mixed-income" movement as social engineering. Others believe it puts low-income families on a path to self-sufficiency. In reality, it's somewhere in between.
I recently spent time at a new development called Oakwood Shores, a few minutes away from Bronzeville. It replaces the Ida B. Wells low- and mid-rise housing project. A few buildings remain and the open-air drug market quickly reminds a lost driver of Hamsterdam, a la The Wire.
Oakwood Shores is now an urban cul de sac. Virtually all of the residents are black. Regardless of their economic bracket, every renter has a yearly housekeeping check and drug test. "Loitering" is discouraged, and in the summer, the development is quiet as a suburb.
I saw longtime public-housing families being told how many times to mop floors and make up an unkempt bed. I listened to people complain about being written up for "hanging" in the hallway instead of at the bus stop on a cold winter day. I also heard public-housing families speak about wanting a safe place to live—free of impudent drug dealers on stoops and corners.
My own neighborhood has a similar mix of incomes (roughly half the block is converted condos), but I have never once heard any of my neighbors use the term "mixed income." And we do have challenges of our own.
Class tensions do rear their ugly head. Before I moved in, I was at a house party talking about starting a block club in Bronzeville. A former Bronzeviller said I needed to make sure that "Pookie living at Grandma's" didn't join. The conversation then turned to how people loiter on the street. Don't they have jobs like the rest of us, they asked? Maybe they work nights, I thought. I actually like the idea of what Jane Jacobs called eyes on the street. Every person hanging outside isn't engaged in nefarious activity. Apparently, "hanging out" is "loitering" to the middle class.
There is a lot of work for us to do. On my street, trash is as ubiquitous as the weeded lots. There's broken glass everywhere. Prostitution and drugs are rampant.
Even my own sense of inclusion was recently challenged by a murder that I heard on a sweltering summer night. It happened directly across the street from my freshly painted, granite-countertop condo. It was in front of a greystone that gets a lot of, um, traffic. The bullet-ridden body bled on the curb for hours. Here's an instance where hanging out led to gang violence.
At a recent police-beat meeting, the room was filled with displaced public-housing residents and professionals. In this "mixed-income" setting, all of us believed we could make an impact. The concerns were the same: reducing crime, booting the drug dealers, improving city services.
Now all we have to do is start that block club.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter at Chicago Public Radio.