After years in the suburbs, many blacks return to city life
Ken Cowan grew up black in inner-city Omaha, surrounded by African-American doctors and lawyers who took pride in their community and were "the kind of people you dreamed of growing up to be."Skip to next paragraph
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That childhood molded him into the person he is today, he says, now a success in his own right. After the birth of their first child, Ken and his wife moved to the Houston suburbs and fell into that mind-set: "young couples with two kids, a dog, and an SUV. But after living there for seven years, we had a strong sense that we wanted to get back to areas that were similar to where we grew up."
Mainly, he says, it was for their children's sake. Now the 6- and 8-year-olds swing on century-old trees, play with kids who look like them, and listen to stories from their 90-year-old neighbor, one of the first African-Americans to move to the area, known as the Third Ward.
The Cowans are part of a growing number of affluent and middle-class African-Americans moving back into traditionally black inner-city areas across America. It's a dramatic reversal from the days when when many African- Americans believed a home in the suburbs was a measure of "making it."
Now, that concept is waning, replaced by the idea that roots and community are more important than new homes and manicured lives.
As a result, city neighborhoods from Atlanta to Chicago are in the throes of renewal - with all the vibrancy, anxiety, and transformation that entails. New York's Harlem is, perhaps, the most famous current example, but neighborhoods from Pittsburgh to Washington are metamorphosing, too.
And in Houston, where the downtown's redevelopment has brought a new rush of interest in urban life, and swift gentrification of the Fourth Ward neighborhood has awakened the Third Ward to the inevitable losses and change of population shifts, this reclaiming of the inner city brings a rare introspection, and a consciousness of all that can go wrong.
"For many of these African-Americans moving back in, there is a sense that they are recapturing a history," says Roderick Harrison, data-bank director for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that provides research to black elected officials. "They say, 'It's not just another house. It's making a meaningful statement about our lives and our community.' "
Here in the Third Ward, the change is dramatic. It's meant higher land values, investment in businesses and schools, and a keener appreciation for this left-behind area.
The trend - confirmed by real-estate agents, architects, community activists, and families clamoring to move in - is also clear in the numbers. Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University who does an annual survey of attitudes in Houston, found that last year 17 percent of African-American suburbanites polled said they were "very interested" in moving back into the city, compared with only 3.7 percent of whites suburbanites.
But since the city has completed the first phase of its downtown light-rail project, relocated sports stadiums here, and pumped money into urban revitalization, those attitudes are changing - at least for whites. While African-American numbers were slightly higher, 14 percent of white suburbanites polled this year said they were "very interested" in moving back into the city - four times the number of a year ago.