The South Park Reactionaries

Outside the New York Times building in Manhattan, 2008. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

My fellow Americans, in the interests of soothing the worries of New York Times real-estate writers, please stop moving around. Stay exactly where you are, forever.

White people are moving into previously black neighborhoods in the cities. Many urban blacks are moving into white suburbs. There is a word for this process: desegregation. Desegregation is a good thing, no? Yet the New York Times is rolling out its customary Very Worried Tone as it looks at what’s happening to real estate near downtown Raleigh, N.C.

A lengthy piece with interactive color-coded maps and charts uses the South Park neighborhood, previously inhabited almost entirely by blacks, to illustrate nationwide trends. Between 2000 and 2012, the white population rose to 17 percent in South Park. Since then, nearly nine in ten new mortgages have gone to whites. South Park is one of many indications that white and black Americans are venturing out of their long-held enclaves and mixing more.

You might be value-neutral on this trend (since people should be judged as individuals, it doesn’t matter what demographic boxes your neighbors check), or you might read it as a positive (assuming various cultures are linked to race and ethnicity, being exposed to difference might make you a better or more well-rounded person). But it takes a crabbed and ungenerous soul to find the trend alarming, as the Times does. The paper wonders whether “the area’s sudden reinvention will erase the last remaining signs of its history,” but it cites no examples of anything of historic importance being removed from the South Park landscape. What seems to be happening is that run-down buildings and empty lots are giving way to chic modern homes. To the naked eye, this looks a lot like improvement.

“Nationwide, the arrival of white homeowners in places they’ve long avoided is jolting the economics of the land beneath everyone,” notes a subheadline. “Jolting the economics of” is a curious dysphemism for “increasing the value of.” “Gentrification” has become a loaded word, but it indicates the same phenomenon: money pouring into an area, especially an area that was previously starved of it. Gentrification is a good thing. If you happen to have home equity in a gentrifying area, you are probably getting wealthier. Maybe a lot wealthier. That is a good thing, too. Would the Times prefer that black people who own houses didn’t enjoy robust returns on their investment? To counter these happy tidings, the Times imagines that it must amount to running a sort of gauntlet to patronize a lavish new shopping and dining space: “The food hall is trying to signal that longtime neighbors are welcome, too . . . but they must walk past the new $700,000 rowhomes outside to get here.” “But they must”? I fail to see how walking past a nice house is a daunting experience, unless maybe its owner is firing cannonballs at passersby.

But I’m exaggerating. The Times doesn’t associate these houses with bombardment, merely with slaveholding. The paper sympathetically treats alarmist rhetoric from black residents such as Octavia Rainey, a 63-year-old woman whose home has appreciated considerably. She calls the new houses built by white families, “Gone With the Wind houses, beach houses, slave houses,” comparing second-story porches to “overseers’ perches,” in the Times’ paraphrase of her sentiments.

Is this really the attitude of whites moving into black neighborhoods? A white real-estate developer who is new to the area, Jason Queen, explains his thinking: “What I didn’t want to do is move to a neighborhood where all the kids look exactly the same as my kids,” he said. “I didn’t think that was the right thing to do.” This goes beyond a preference for fairness or judging people based on the content of their character; diversity today is, for a certain subset of white people, a kind of spiritual quest. Some actually panic at the thought of living in a neighborhood where they look like all of their neighbors. They view the presence of black people as a necessary element of their children’s moral formation. Call this impulse what you will, it is very far from an overseer’s mentality.

Yet Kia E. Baker, the director of a nonprofit, says, “Our black bodies literally have less economic value than the body of a white person. As soon as a white body moves into the same space that I occupied, all of a sudden this place is more valuable.” That’s a pretty rough way to describe a situation in which white people like you and want to live near you.

What has driven change in Raleigh and other cities seems pretty obvious: White people are no longer afraid of black people. That’s good news for all involved. The white-flight phenomenon that took off after 1968, and led to plummeting property values in downtown areas, was strongly associated with fears of crime. The period between roughly 1968 and 1995 now looks like a historical outlier in urban crime. Once the crime rate returned to mid-1960s levels, urban living became much more desirable and property values surged. “A single-family detached house with a yard within a mile of downtown in any other part of the world is probably the most expensive place to live,” a professor tells the Times. Just so. South Park in Raleigh was greatly underpriced and is now returning to something closer to its actual market value. For property owners such as Octavia Rainey, this is, or should be, excellent news; no one is coming to enslave her. For renters, while nobody likes paying higher prices, their enemy is basic economics. South Park is a more desirable place to live, so the price of living there is rising.

The Times piece is underlain by the same dismaying reasoning in (and even uses some of the same vocabulary as) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, in which Coates inveighs against both segregation and desegregation. The former left black people neglected and marginalized; the latter amounted to an invasion by genocidal conquistadors. Observing white kids on tricycles in Harlem arouses loathing in Coates: “The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” Remarking that “black bodies literally have less economic value than the body of a white person” is pure Coates. As Coates has done on many occasions, the Times calls attention to the past history of redlining and starving neighborhoods for funds while in the next breath it frets about the reversal of these practices. It bristles at lenders who enacted strict mortgage standards, especially against blacks, and then castigates easy lending as “predatory,” as though what a bank really wants to be stuck with is a foreclosure headache.

The Times’ story is a useful example of what you might call reactionary reporting or the Everything’s a Problem school of journalism. A Raleigh planning director says this in the story, without quite intending to: “The city is always the battleground; when it was failing, that was a problem, and now that it’s succeeding, that’s also a problem.” Failure, success: Both are problems. My fellow Americans, in the interests of soothing the worries of New York Times real-estate writers, please stop moving around. Stay exactly where you are, forever.

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