(Administrator's Note: This piece was written by guest blogger Steven Brown, an incoming graduate student in Harvard's department of sociology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
San Francisco is currently engaging in an effort to keep black folks from leaving in droves. But apparently, this is now a new trend. According to this article published last Wednesday on TheRoot.com, this has been happening for quite some time.
The basic argument is two-fold. First, the author describes a common story of gentrification and under-resourced black folk getting pushed out by eminent domain, rising home prices, and shiny new luxury high rise condos. Secondly, and more interestingly, the author briefly mentions a sense of cultural alienation that black San Franciscans may feel.
Gentrification is happening, but that argument seems a bit too tidy. Just look at Philadelphia, New York, and especially Chicago where gentrification has displaced minorities on a very large scale for decades. Black people may be moving out, but they still represent significant percentages of those cities and most other major cities in the U.S. Using census data, a comparison between Manhattan and San Francisco highlights a few interesting points. Both are cities by the water of similar physical size and similar costs of living. Manhattan’s median home value is over twice San Francisco’s, and the cost of rental property for both places is about same, relative to cost of living. And the percentage of black people living in Manhattan remains steady, despite the fact that the percent of black people in poverty there is a lot higher than in San Fran (31% vs. 23%).
So why would Manhattan retain so many black folks even though may be financially just as hard, if not tougher to live there? Cultural and historical relevance. Harlem USA is right there at the northern tip of Manhattan, and Harlem will forever be associated with black cultural and political relevancy. And it's not just Harlem; there’s the Southside in Chicago and West Philadelphia (born and raised, on the playground is where…no?...okay, nevermind). To be clear, the numbers of black folks in all these places are steadily declining, but that cultural identity – one that is distinctly black – still strongly affects how we continue to think of these places.
Not to say San Francisco doesn’t have a black cultural center, but it’s not nearly as pronounced as in other places. This is complicated by the Bay Area’s history as a place where tolerance is more broadly defined, and not just so black and white (literally and figuratively speaking). And I imagine it would to difficult to establish such a strong presence when competing for resources, space, and attention with Latinos, the LGBT community, and Asians (Asians make up 31% of San Francisco’s population).
It can be lonely as one face in the midst of the crowd. And in such a small space, with a number of cultural and ethnic groups vying to establish their own thriving community, some groups will fail to be as strong as others, making the lonely face even lonlier. This isolation could be a pull factor exasperating the push factor of gentrification. Given the situation in San Fran, Oakland is looking pretty good nowadays.