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How the real estate boom left black neighborhoods behind

As Martavius ​​Jones, a Memphis city councilor, points out, construction outside the city limits was heavily subsidized by city-owned Memphis Light, Gas & Water, which provided new power lines and gas to areas that did not pay municipal taxes, generously endorsing the eastward march of rich whites fleeing integrated schools. “My maternal grandmother lived in a small old house on Josephine Street,” Jones says, referring to an Orange Mound address. “I think of all the little old ladies and little old men who were constantly paying their taxes, and those taxes were used to build the infrastructure outside the city limits of Memphis.”

Americans are not used to seeing public services and other public goods as drivers of residential segregation and inequality, says Louise Seamster, a sociologist at the University of Iowa who studies racial politics, but these obscure entities and these small decisions can play a major role in distribution. wealth and power in metropolitan areas. “So many rules of development have been built around a certain model that involves the creation of a white suburban space and building through debt, based on this promise of future growth,” she said. “Being an already existing black community does not fit this model. “

In the decades since mainstreaming, Memphis grew increasingly black but remained under largely white political control. In the late ’80s and early’ 90s, Shep Wilbun was one of three out of 13 black city council members, and he recalls that the city did not provide services to black neighborhoods in the same way it did ‘she was doing it for whites. . “The streets weren’t paved, the lights weren’t on,” Wilbun says. “Garbage was collected, but not in the same way. When garbage was picked up in some neighborhoods, they carried a broom to sweep behind the truck. In the black neighborhoods, they didn’t.

Memphis drove out its swollen suburbs, approving annexation after annexation. The result is an unusually low-density city, with a population similar to that of Detroit – itself famous for its size – only spread over an area almost twice the size. The last census showed a decline in the population, creating a context in which it is almost inevitable that some neighborhoods, like Binghampton, will win the economic lottery, while others will lose. With so much space available for so few people, private developers or home buyers have little incentive to bet on struggling communities.

Memphis’s story reflects a national approach to the city’s black neighborhoods, which Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey describes as a model of “abandonment and punishment” in which federal policy has shifted resources from people and neighborhoods to the city. criminal justice system. It’s our national approach to urban inequality, says Sharkey, for half a century.

Homeownership alone is simply not enough to isolate black families or communities from these long-standing political and historical forces. “It’s not just about owning property,” says Sharkey. “Communities that could be stable and prosperous places to live have not received the basic investments that are taken for granted in most cities across the country. And when a community does not receive basic investment, then it becomes vulnerable. Indeed, homeownership cannot only fail to create wealth; it can link people to declining neighborhoods, turning the asset most of us see as the key to financial security into an anchor that limits mobility and more deeply links individual destinies with those of neighborhoods.

In decline winter weeks, just before the start of the pandemic, I pulled up to a brick house two blocks south of Campbell’s house on Cable Avenue, not far from Beulah Baptist Church, a known Orange Mound institution. to support civil rights activism in the 1960s. The house was occupied by Karita McCulley, who liked its wooden floors and the fact that her youngest children, Keirra, 18, and Kaylob, 10, had their own bedrooms. Kaylob was doing her homework and McCulley had wrapped her slender figure in a long brown cardigan. Her 4-year-old granddaughter – the child of an older girl – pulled the sleeve of her sweater and waved a box of candy. “The eyes get me,” McCulley said, opening the box and reluctantly giving in four bittersweet. “And she knows it.”

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