There goes the neighborhood.... Or does it?

The late community organizer Saul Alinsky once described racial integration as the time lapse "between when the first black moves in[to a neighborhood] and the last white moves out." Sadly, for those, like Alinsky, who long thought that shared neighborhoods would represent the ultimate achievement in the struggle for civil rights, his remark about "urban succession" was more than facetious. Neighborhoods did - and still do - change color.

Yet, as Ingrid Gould Ellen documents in her detailed analysis of census-tract research on the racial demography of neighborhoods in 34 metropolitan areas throughout the US, with a close-up look at the neighborhoods in and around Washington, D.C., there are notable exceptions. According to Ellen, by 1990 one-fifth of America's neighborhoods were racially mixed and quite stable.

In a book that started as a Harvard doctoral dissertation (and, despite editing, still reads like one), Ellen provides specialists with a new take on an old debate and the public with a fine example of what it means to do one's homework - and field work, too. She read the available literature, reviewed studies and theories of other social scientists, gathered and assessed her own data, and ended by challenging the conventional wisdom.

In "Sharing America's Neighborhoods," Ellen suggests that the still relatively low extent of true integration may have less to do with "white flight," (the abandonment by whites of neighborhoods that are "tipped" by African-American newcomers) than with "white avoidance," (the reluctance of whites to move into areas of heavy black concentration). She suggests this is due both to the prevalence of negative stereotypes about the financial stability of such places and to the assumed poor quality of life to be found in them.

After examining the census materials, crunching the numbers, and pointing to those exceptional neighborhoods that are truly integrated, Ellen lists a number of factors that provide clues to their success. These include:

*The lessons of tolerance that inhabitants learned from the communities in which they grew up.

*The distance of their new neighborhoods from inner-city ghettos.

*The ratio in these neighborhoods of privately owned housing to rental units, which tend to be less stable.

*The proximity to institutions like universities and military bases, which can provide an effective anchor.

I would have liked to have learned much more about the educational and occupational backgrounds, and particularly the attitudes and beliefs, of those she termed "integrationists" - or even those considered to be potential integrationists.

Ellen does comment on those in the last category. She says only that many more whites and blacks might prefer to live in racially mixed environments than actually do. "Because of a lack of faith in the harmony and stability of these areas," she argues, "these environments are more rare (despite real progress) than they should be."

It also would have been useful to hear more about other social, cultural, and economic factors that might lead to the changes that Ellen clearly favors. What could she tell us about the effects of the rise in integration on campuses and in workplaces where many old assumptions about "others" are being replaced with less stereotyped ones, where "diversity" has become more than a politically correct concern? What more might be said about the booming economy that has affected black as well as white Americans, creating new communities based more on class than race, often in old, refurbished and newly chic downtown neighborhoods?

And what might Ellen say about those poor blacks displaced by such gentrification? They are the ones who inevitably seem to remain the odd ones out.

Peter I. Rose is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College. His most recent book is 'Tempest-Tost: Race, Immigration and the Dilemmas of Diversity' (Oxford).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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