Southern cities and Northern cities represent two very distinct flavors of culture in the United States. They share a nation, but they aren’t interchangeable.
So far, I have lived in 3 cities below the Mason-Dixon line: Charlotte, Nashville and now New Orleans. (Costa Mesa, California, while technically a southern US city, is not a Southern city.)
In all major cities, racial diversity is a norm. That is one of the main benefits of city life (the contrasting lack of diversity being the selling point of suburbs). People of all races, cultures, backgrounds and persuasions come together and mix, uneasily at times, and create an environment that expresses itself through varied outlets and appearances.
While the (mostly true) stereotype is that Southern cities are segregated, racial segregation is a fact in Northern cities as well. Chicago’s racial lines are drawn pretty heavily between South and North Chicago. In Philadelphia, West Philly (where I lived, and where the Fresh Prince was born and raised) was predominantly black with smatterings of Middle Easterners and random houses occupied by white twentysomethings who had dropped out of school and formed bands in their basements.
The Marigny in New Orleans, where I live, often gives me flashbacks to my time in West Philly.* The neighborhood is largely black, a mixture of older couples who have likely lived here for years and families with young children. In the mix are a few houses on each block where white renters (and owners) have moved in. Just like Philly, these white inhabitants don’t have any apparent interest in gentrifying the neighborhood, though that may be inevitable. Instead, these whites are largely artists, service industry workers or working class people who have moved to the area because it’s affordable and, at least, marginally convenient (a mile from the French Quarter).
The racial make-up may be more balanced, but cultural differences tend to emphasize black presence: It’s more common to see black residents sitting on their porch, talking with their neighbors and enjoying the outdoor spaces. White residents step outside their houses to smoke or to get a break from the walls, but generally they’re indoors.
Gentrification has a dictionary definition, but if we’re all perfectly frank, we know what it means in a practical sense: White people move into a neighborhood that was once primarily black (or another race) and within the decade, Starbucks and Whole Foods have moved in.
It happens in New York, it happens in New Orleans. Some people would argue that gentrification improves a neighborhood, and if you were to merely look at crime levels and median incomes, you’d be hard pressed to argue against that view. But what those stats ignore is that as the neighborhood “improves,” rents go up and poorer residents can no longer afford to live in their homes and are shuffled off to some other neighborhood (cheaper real estate that grows rarer and rarer with time).
In a city like New Orleans, such gentrification can not only usher a race out of a neighborhood, it can push out a deep cultural history. The Tremé is one of the city’s most historically significant neighborhoods, with connections to many of the city’s musical greats. Now, post-Katrina, this historic neighborhood is on the bumpy road to gentrification. And it’s being met with expected apprehension.
There is nothing wrong with a white person or family moving into a historically black (or minority) neighborhood. Despite my Hispanic heritage, I am by all appearances white. In Charlotte, Philly, San Francisco, Nashville and now here, I have lived in neighborhoods that were predominantly black or a mixture of races, with white being the minority. My presence didn’t lead to any gentrification. A single individual isn’t going to encourage the big-box stores to invest in the location (especially when that individual is only going to be there for a year).
But, I suspect in most cases, gentrification isn’t the motivation for any new residents. A family moves into a neighborhood, then another, and another. A small store opens, maybe owned by a local of the neighborhood. This little bit of economic growth feeds more growth and, along with a general aesthetic uptick, outside investors start hearing word of a potentially exploitable area for stores, restaurants, offices or apartment buildings.
And people aren’t always happy about it:
It would be a mistake to think that black residents (or whoever was there first) always oppose gentrification and white residents are always for it. I’m sure quite often long-time residents actually welcome the sorts of positive effects that gentrification brings, such as increased property value and less crime, even as they know some of their neighbors may not be able to stick around to appreciate the changes.
Alternatively, I am often witness to white people railing against other white people for their complicity in the erosion of a neighborhood’s culture. My white roommate vents about the neighborhood association whose emphasis on ‘safety’ seems to be code for ‘less black’ (or, at least, less poor). I met a white couple who told me about this apparently very cool brass band show that plays in the basement of a nearby church. It used to be an exclusively black crowd, they complained to me, but now whites are overtaking it.
They contemplated this for a second before adding sheepishly:
“Well, it’s bad that it’s losing some of it’s uniqueness, but on the other hand we get to go see it.”
And that sums up the catch-22 of the culturally sensitive white citizen. They want to celebrate diversity and hope to see these cultures thrive, but to truly appreciate different cultures one must experience them. Experiencing a culture, however, pretty much requires getting involved in it (unless you’re the Jane Goodall of Zydeco), and the moment one interacts with a culture, they have affected it (a parallel to the “Observer effect” commonly talked about in science).
The only way a person could hope to have no effect on another culture is to know nothing of it.
Can a culture truly remain unchanged throughout time? Should it? And isn’t it naive to want it to? Culture is an ever-evolving, living creature, not a two-hour documentary. In fact, it’s that very ‘China Doll’ sensitivity that can cripple a culture. To live, a culture must be lived in.
Does that mean gentrification is a good trend? Not necessary. But it doesn’t mean gentrification is a bad trend, either. It might just be an inevitable trend, though I’m sure some would argue that point. There has to be a way for neighborhoods to acquire the amenities that people of means desire while not losing the uniqueness and cultural history that defines the original residents. (Certainly no one would argue that neighborhoods improving financially is a bad thing.)
All I know, from my years in cities as a member of the minority population, is that intermingling is a necessary thing, a good thing. I don’t want to live in a town where everyone I see looks like me (I’m not that good looking).
An aside: When I started my new job, I noticed something odd: I’m working in a restaurant with an entirely white chef staff, an entirely white management staff and an entirely white (but for one) front of house staff. I’ve never worked in such a homogenous work environment before, and to be perfectly honest, it kind of freaks me out.
I have no prescription, no recommendations, because I don’t believe I’m describing a problem. Cultures, like species, are a product of time and change. We mourn the loss of dolphins hunted into extinction, but whoever mourned the dodo? My point being that the death of a culture is unquestionably a tragedy, but we aren’t facing the death of all cultures. Cultures will survive and they’ll evolve and they’ll spontaneously arise out of seemingly nothing at all, just as they always have.
In a time when racial prejudice seems on the rise again, any mixing of races and cultures that leads to better understanding is a good thing.
*In all cases, this discussion reflects my personal impressions. I am fully aware that someone else’s experiences may vary.