Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: When black neighborhoods turn white

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a Wave column in which I noted that the block I live on in Windsor Hills was on the verge of going from majority black to majority white.

It’s no longer on the verge. My block is now majority white. In the near three-year space of time, more whites have bought homes on the block with an added twist. Some of the buyers are from out of state and out of the country.

The change was a jolt for me. As I noted then, I was born in Chicago and grew up on Chicago’s Southside in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then, it was an exclusively black neighborhood, not by choice but, for the most part, by law, custom and the threat of and actual use of violence to and against blacks who moved outside Chicago’s Southside.

During those years, the only whites I ever saw were the small mom and pop neighborhood storeowners and an occasional bill collector. It was a totally black world.

In the mid-1960s, when my family relocated to Los Angeles and rented and then bought in Leimert Park, within a short period of time it was Southside Chicago all over again. White flight quickly flip-flopped Leimert Park to an almost exclusively black neighborhood — working and middle class as was the Southside Chicago, but still black.

In later years, I bought a home in Morningside Park in Inglewood. It was the same thing again, white flight and a quick transformation of a neighborhood and my block from white to virtually all-black. Three different neighborhoods, and three shifts to neighborhoods that were re-segregated.

Now to the fourth neighborhood. With Windsor Hills, it was the same pattern again, with two exceptions. One was that there were whites who did not join the mass exodus from the neighborhood during the transition years of Windsor Hills from exclusively white to increasingly black.

The other was that Windsor Hills and adjoining View Park still maintained the gloss and allure of a chic, pricey mid to upscale black enclave.

Still, both Windsor Hills and View Park were widely regarded by both insiders and outsiders as black neighborhoods. Showcase, yes, but a black neighborhood nonetheless.

Given the hard lines of race and class in much of American society, residential segregation in America’s central cities and even areas such as Windsor Hills and View Park appeared to be a permanent feature of American life.

I’m guessing that few others in my age group ever dreamed that they would see a day when that would change. I know I didn’t. That is that whites would flee back into the same neighborhoods they fled from decades earlier. But it has happened.

The change is not unique to Windsor Hills. Some neighborhoods that were once predominantly black in the nation’s big cities have been transformed so rapidly that they are nearly unrecognizable.

Now, what does the wholesale racial reconfiguration of whole neighborhoods — once all or majority black to now majority white — actually mean? That question has been the subject of fierce debate.

One issue of contention is price. A phone book thick list of laws that bar discrimination in the sale or rental of housing ensures that blacks, for the most part, have open access to any housing in any neighborhood they choose.

But access means little if they don’t have the income, can’t get a loan, can’t come up with a down payment, and can’t afford the price. The pocketbook barrier in effect does what the old Jim Crow laws did, and that’s bar legions of prospective black homebuyers from homes in neighborhoods that were once black.

Here’s an example: Three homes went on the market on my block in the past three years. The asking price for the three was well over $1 million. Two of the houses were sold to non-black buyers.

It takes little guesswork to figure who will buy the third one. Real estate agents bluntly say that they advertise and market the homes in Windsor Hills to prospective homebuyers outside of the area; meaning whites with money who can qualify.

An area like Windsor Hills is considered a bargain for a lot of whites since they have been priced out of Westside and Santa Monica where the homes cost a king’s ransom.

The other issue of contention is cultural compatibility and racial identity. There’s a point to this given the history of residential segregation and the need of an ethnic group to put its racial and cultural stamp on an area. An area they can call their own and feel secure and comfortable in living next to neighbors who look like them and share similar views and values.

The flip side of the coin is that the new wave of whites in a neighborhood does promote neighborhood revitalization, a bonanza in home prices, better schools and neighborhood services and a diverse, racially mixed neighborhood.

The debate will continue to rage about whether whites gentrifying an area is a good or a bad thing, or both. But one thing is certain, gentrification is here to stay.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson will discuss the issue of gentrification on the weekly Hutchinson Report at 9 a.m. Sept. 15 on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.