After years in the suburbs, many blacks return to city life
HOUSTON — 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."
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.
"African-Americans were more interested in moving back because they were more likely to have once lived in the city and often retain very close connections. They come back for church, to volunteer, or to visit friends and family," says Dr. Klineberg. "But suddenly, Anglos are discovering that the city is an interesting place to live."
That's creating conflict here, as the Third Ward strives to retain its culture and character. Developers have been buying up large tracts of land to build dense townhomes like those in midtown and the Fourth Ward - areas that are already well into the gentrification process, and where, as more whites move in, many blacks are priced out.
So Third Ward activists have launched a campaign urging long-time residents not to sell out.
"We learned a lot from the debacle in the Fourth Ward. So it would be stupid not to respond to the negative byproducts of rapid development," says Texas Representative Garnet Coleman (D), whose district includes several of the wards and whose family has lived in the Third Ward for 100 years. "We want to find people who will make this community better by becoming part of its fabric, not by changing its fabric."
But that's where it gets complex, says sociologist Monique Taylor, whose recent book, "Harlem between Heaven and Hell," looks at the trend of middle-class blacks returning to that neighborhood in the 1990s.
She found that longtime residents soon realized yuppies are yuppies, whatever their race. The conflicts grew, she says, as recent arrivals insisted on changes in the way public and communal space was used - angering longtime residents by, among other things, passing laws that prohibit loitering and public urination.
"Those African-Americans, who were coming into Harlem to 'be down' with the community, had to accept the idea that their interests were at odds with how the community worked," she says. "They had to really rethink: 'This is who I am and this is why I'm here.' "
But beyond identity and conflict, Dr. Taylor says, the trend of middle-class African-Americans moving into traditionally black areas goes to the failure of integration in the US.
"Clearly, the needs of middle-class blacks are not being met by ... the typical path of integration," Taylor says. "Many said they just weren't making the friendships and neighborhood connections in the suburbs and were tired of being scrutinized. When they arrived in Harlem, they didn't have to explain the way they dressed, or talked, or the cultural practices they followed."
Back in Houston, Tanyel Bennett has moved to the Third Ward after many years away. Now, she says, there are challenges, such as finding good schools and quality grocery stores.
"We may not have all the fancy things that they do in the suburbs, but I wanted my kids to grow up with a sense of community," she says. "In the 'burbs, you don't even know your next-door neighbor." Ms. Bennett's porch is lined with reminders of her neighbors - and her roots: plants that neighbors brought over when she moved. "I love it here," she says.