Suburban Ghettoes
The Great American White Sale
By the Cynic

Every spring, I enjoy driving about my small town and admiring all the new plants and trees sprouting back to life. The vibrant colors of the tulips and lilies and the striking whites of the magnolia blooms serving as a reminder that summer is near. I get giddy knowing that I will soon be lounging on my deck engaged in a serious discussion, with anyone in ear shot, about the virtues of a Heineken buzz.

The past several springs, however, my giddiness has been short-lived. My springtime drive now makes me concerned. This is because, among the majesty of the magnolias and the striking beauty of the tulips, there is a new regular springtime sprout which, in my area, reveals itself to be so invasive that it affects my quality of life:  the For-Sale sign.

At first it is not too threatening. You'll see a sign on one street and maybe a couple more on another. Then, like rabbits, they begin to multiply. You'll see streets with five or six houses for sale. Little wooden signs with some middle aged real estate agents picture smiling at you begging you to make your best offer. Eventually, you will find blocks with over half the houses for sale. 

And then it strikes me -- I'm gonna have to move.

It's not that I really want to move. I love our house as I do our neighborhood. If I could freeze both in their current state, I would never move. I want to raise my children in this house. I want to look forward to spending my golden years playing with my grandchildren and store 60-gallon bottles of Geritol from the Price Club on those great basement shelves. It ain't gonna happen.

You see, my neighborhood is suffering from white flight. 

I've been through this before. Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago makes one very attentive to white flight. It has been happening here for decades. You see it coming. Slowly, the neighborhood conversations switch from idle chitchat about how to properly fertilize the lawn turn to discussions about home values and moving. Not talks of if we are moving, just ones of when. 

When the city of Chicago started its public housing purge of the 70s, the south suburbs became the ideal location for these often-unemployed inner city families. The geniuses at the Public Housing Authority decided that since the south suburbs was a blue collar, low property tax community rich with low skilled factory jobs, this was the place to push all of these families to. The thinking here is that putting people into affordable housing, near real jobs, would decrease the poverty roles. Of course, it was a dismal failure.

As with any government institution the Public Housing Authority lacked foresight. They didn't consider that the American steel industry, which is where the jobs were coming from, was already dying. They lacked the understanding that the south suburbs were a very segregated community to begin with. The south suburbs were not the place where you should try and conduct a socialized-diversity program and expect any kind of success. 

It's sad to see the way white flight actually occurs. It all starts with one house sale. One black family, hard working and sincerely trying to make a better life for themselves, seek refuge from their drug riddled community by finding a home in the suburbs. Upon finding a willing seller (which, even with the housing laws in this country, can be a quite trying experience for a black family with an eye on a white neighborhood), they purchase their home and look forward to trying to pursue their American dreams of happy suburban life.

Shortly after moving in, the For-Sale signs start popping up. This is the suburban bigot factor. The suburban bigot justifies this quick reaction based on their assumption that "the town will be a ghetto in 6 years, and I want to get out before property values drop." Usually, the hard-core suburban bigots will attempt to maintain the town's "purity" by only selling to other whites. The less hard-core eventually panic and sell to anyone who meets a reasonable price. When the second or third black family moves in, the chain reaction starts and the great American white sale begins.

The first few black families can be the best neighbors you could wish for. These are people trying to get into a better school system or have a safer neighborhood for their kids to play in. They understand that all eyes in the neighborhood are on them. If they let that grass go for more then a week, more signs popup. Have too loud of a party, the neighborhood calls an invite only "town meeting." It's life in a fishbowl for these folks and as a result they do their best to keep their yards clean and the noise down.

Shortly after the neighborhood establishes a black presence, the landlords of apartment buildings and rental properties begin to get carpet-bombed with offers of section eight approval. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it is basically the government paying landlords all or part of the rent for those on welfare. (Think public housing, without the urine smell.) The lure of guaranteed monthly payments in an already changing neighborhood is often too hard to pass up for some landlords. With the section eight tenants comes small doses of the usual problems associated with public housing: Gangs, drugs, loud rap music, thug-looking youths sitting on car-hoods drinking "forty's" at all hours of the night. 

This is when the rest of the folks pack up and leave. Property values bottom out and, eventually, the town becomes the same place that those first black families were trying to escape. 

I don't want to run from my neighborhood. I don't care if black people move in next door to me. The problem is, once this vicious circle starts it is impossible to stop. Sure, I could be a man about it and stand my ground. Demand that the city regroups and works to keep its integrity in its newfound diversity. I could gather up the neighbors and sign a pledge stating that we won't leave. It's been tried. Every town around here has attempted some sort of "keep this town alive" initiative. Even though "the change" starts as a result of silly knee-jerk racists, the change completes as a result of economic circumstance. No town in this area has prevented the flight. My town will be no different.

The sad thing is that, ultimately, the suburban bigot's prophecy comes true. The town does become a ghetto. I avoid my original hometown. Yeah, I can go there in the daytime and not get shot at or robbed, but I would never hang out there at night. Too much crime, too many gangs. It's a ghetto. 

So before I start my pity party, crying "woe is me, I have to move again" I think about that first black family that moves in. That family that just wants a better environment to raise their children. White flight affects them more then it does me. It follows them. My pale-faced family always has the option of moving to an area where white flight is nonexistent. That family doesn't have that option. If they want to keep living in a safe neighborhood, they have to expect to move every 5-8 years.

That first black family knows the ghetto is just a couple of For-Sale signs away.

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