There was a time when blacks were so closely tied to their communities that adult neighbors were almost like a second set of parents to children. From hulking high-rise housing projects in Detroit to single-story houses on tree-lined streets in Gary, Ind., neighbors would inform parents what time a child arrived home from school and with whom, as well as how long a visitor stayed — especially if it was someone of the opposite sex!
Retired men and women manned windowsills like neighborhood watch commanders, gossiping and watching out for mischief. Neighbors were veritable support systems for one another in the same way that family members were.
But such communities have been fractured by industrialism and post-industrialism, and eroded by the Great Migration of African Americans from about 1910 to 1930. That river of humanity swept blacks from the agrarian culture of the South to the industrial culture of the North and Midwest, said C. Jama Adams, chairman of the department of African American studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
The changes didn't end there. The aftermath of World War II ushered in a new way of living for all Americans, with New Deal policies and a booming economy. The abundance of manufacturing jobs turned the sharecropper or craftsman into guy No. 6 who put wheels on the car on the assembly line, Adams said. Small-town life gave way to big-city living, with low-rise and high-rise housing projects providing housing to burgeoning working- and lower-class African-American families, eventually giving birth to impoverished ghettos in the 1970s.
"The naked oppression of blacks started to decline in the 1960s, so people had a bit more breathing space to be individuals," Adams told The Root. Having more freedom to pursue the American dream led many blacks to turn their backs on their formerly close-knit enclaves and the need to invest in those communities. "In the industrial culture, we wanted what the white folks wanted. We wanted the car and the house. The problem with getting those things was it destroyed the community. You no longer had to buy at the local community store, or at the local farmers market."
Today blacks are less attached than ever to their communities, for various reasons, including poverty, lack of economic opportunities, lack of social offerings and not feeling welcome, according to Katherine Loflin, the lead consultant on a three-year study, called "Soul of the Community," which was recently released by the Gallup-Knight Foundation. The study found that blacks are also less attached to their communities than are people of other ethnicities.
"The reason for the study was the Knight Foundation wanted to understand if place still matters or are communities just collections of buildings and streets that really don't matter," Loflin said. "I think in earlier generations, it was pivotal. It's where your job was. It's where your neighbors lived. In today's society, that's not necessarily true, especially in African-American communities."
Emotional attachment is almost always connected to local economic growth, a factor lacking in predominantly African-American communities like Detroit, which is 81.6 percent African American, and Gary, which is 84 percent African American, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics for the year 2000, the most recent available.
Alternately, communities with the "highest levels of attachment had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth," according to the introduction of the report.
That being said, the qualities that truly attach residents to their communities don't change much from place to place, the report indicated. While it would seem that expectations in Miami would differ from those in Macon, Ga., or San Jose, Calif., the attachment drivers are essentially the same. They are social offerings — places for people to meet; openness — how welcoming the community is to different types of people; and aesthetics — the physical beauty of the community. In both Detroit and Gary, social offerings and openness were among the areas seen as needing improvement.
A takeaway from the study for African Americans who live in those cities is to seek communities that are much more open and welcoming to all different kinds of groups, Loflin told The Root. "The other thing I would bring to the surface," she added, "is minorities know the difference between tolerance and welcomeness. And we are really pushing communities to strive for welcomeness, which means we specifically want you here.
"Tolerance means that we put up with you. I think our communities in general need to do a better job of pushing the envelope toward not being satisfied with tolerance."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.