Why racial mixing eludes old cities

Jose has one memory of South Boston. It begins with his sanding some floors on a job in this blue-collar enclave and ends with his being chased out of town by a group of white teens wielding baseball bats.

That was some 15 years ago, but the incident still echoes in his thoughts. Now looking for a home, Jose, who asked that his last name not be used, passed on a cheaper house in South Boston to put a bid on a home in more-diverse South Dorchester. "Moving there is just looking for problems," he says.

The story of Jose puts an interesting twist on a familiar tale. While segregation has fallen significantly over wide swaths of America since the 1970s, the old urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest have seen their racial and ethnic populations remain largely separated.

Some of the reasons for the persisting divides are obvious. Some areas continue to be too costly for many minorities, and real-estate discrimination is not uncommon. But Jose's feelings hint at something more at work as well - history. In cities such as Boston and Detroit, decades-old turf wars and perceptions of who lives where have been slow to recede - particularly among blacks and whites.

It's a question of growth, experts say. Populations in the old industrial hubs have remained largely stagnant - and fewer newcomers means fewer people who are ignorant of past history and willing to move anywhere.

"Cities move slowly, and neighborhoods don't change quickly," says Edward Glaeser, author of a segregation report by the Brookings Institution in Washington. "These cities aren't growing. The neighborhoods were determined in the 1950s and are still there."

Statistics from the 2000 census point to the crucial role that growth has played in the decline of segregation. Of the top 10 most-segregated major cities for blacks and whites, nine are in the northeast quadrant of the US, where populations are growing incrementally or even declining. By contrast, all 10 of the most-integrated cities were in the fast-growing South and West. Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in America, is by some measures the most integrated.

No force for change

In the Northeast and Midwest, "the past history of places ... have continued over time because there isn't an in-migration of whites and blacks," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. "Growth can reshape the social geography."

That's clear in many parts of Boston. In East Boston - the only neighborhood to grow by more than 5,000 people since 1980 - the population has gone from 96 percent white to 50 percent white. In South Boston and Roxbury, which both lost population during that time, the picture is quite the opposite.

The trip from one to the other is only a 10-minute jaunt through a thicket of stoplights and honking cars. But the two neighborhoods might as well be photo negatives of each other.

Driving down Roxbury's Malcolm X Boulevard, not a single white face can be seen. Along the entire length of Broadway in South Boston, amid countless clover cutouts and cardboard leprechauns in storefront windows, a lone black woman peers out from behind a steering wheel.

As Jose's experience shows, money is not always the issue here - median rent for an apartment in Southie is actually less than it is in Roxbury, according to a recent Boston housing report. Rather, it's an ingrained sense of who lives where.

In 1980, South Boston was 99 percent white - of a population of just under 30,000, only 15 were black. Before that, it was at the center of the furor over busing black children to white schools. Roxbury, meanwhile, forged its own separatist path. In the 1970s, a group of black residents there devised a failed plan to break off and establish their own city, called Mandela.

In ensuing years, more and more Hispanics and Asians have filtered into each neighborhood, filling the air with new accents and adding their cuisines to corner restaurants. Yet whites still make up only 5 percent of Roxbury, and houses in Southie are rarely posted on the Multiple Listing Service, which gives access to agents outside South Boston.

"We have offices all over the country - including places like Atlanta and Charlotte [N.C.] - and I can tell you there's a lot less resistance to moving into white areas there than there is in the Northeast," says Bruce Marks, head of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps low-income people buy homes.

Other factors in play

Of course, not everyone agrees that stagnant growth and neighborhood histories are the primary causes of segregation. For example, a recent study by the National Fair Housing Alliance alleges widespread discrimination against blacks in Boston. Moreover, many people move to a certain area because they want to be surrounded by people like themselves.

Real estate agent Fred Saunders, however, sees something altogether more basic at work: cost. Never mind statistics, he says; experience tells him the least-expensive places to buy are Roxbury and Mattapan - Boston's other predominately black neighborhood.

"It's more economic than racial," says Mr. Saunders. "You can only afford to live where you can afford to live."

It's a pattern that was forged during the great migrations of the 1950s and '60s, as many blacks came north to fill jobs in industrial hubs such as Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit. They settled where they could, and little has changed since.

"Lots of neighborhoods haven't been integrated, and they're going to remain that way," says Michael Dady of Real Estate One in Detroit. "When 7 of 10 buyers are African-American, it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Mr. Dady, though, is hopeful for Detroit's future. He sees gradually building interest in certain parts of the city and feels that segregation is declining. That's true, even in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But recent studies showing that segregation nationwide among children is just as bad as - if not worse than - it is among adults, lead to only cautious optimism.

"It took seven decades [for segregation] to occur," says the Brookings Institution's Mr. Glaeser, noting that segregation rose from 1890 to 1960. "It might take seven decades to undo."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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