Driving home from Florida last weekend, I was fascinated by a This American Life podcast called "Human Resources." You cannot beat that show for sheer weirdness in nonfiction. The episode was broadly themed around the shadowy forces that control our lives or "the uneasy interaction between humans and their institutions." Act 2 was an epiphany for me and probably for a lot of white listeners:
American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. To some people, it's not a natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but a plot, by rich, mainly white people, to take over the neighborhoods of poor, mainly black people. This American Life producer Jon Jeter reports on how, in neighborhoods all over the country, the plot has a name, "The Plan," and most people you talk to know about it.
Jeter talks to black people in Oakland, DC, Chicago and New Orleans, but he certainly could've found the same sentiments in Atlanta. The Projects get torn down and replaced by loft condos. When white people show up - inevitably walking their dogs - there goes the neighborhood. When long-neglected sidewalks and streets and public parks are suddenly the focus of repair and revitalization, look out. "It's not for us," they said. It's for the white people who are moving in, gentrifying the neighborhood. "Hey, I walk my dog," I thought. And, "So this is why Stumptown's city council fought so hard against restoring the Velodrome!"
On the other hand, I was reminded of the same stories I've grown up with about "blockbusting." My parent's generation still mutters about how some powerful institution- the housing authority or the federal government - starting moving black families into white neighborhoods to force integration. The culprit was some heinous mashup of institutional racism and the "natural ebb and flow of the real estate market."
Only so much of this can be written off as "conspiracy theory" talk. Whether there's a well-funded, sinister "plan" or not, the myth and the net effect are the same. Poor tribes, black or white or indian, always get pushed out. We occupy ourselves with racist theories about the cause while real estate developers laugh all the way to the bank.