Michael Maly profiles three multiethnic neighborhoods in Beyond Segregation.
Stories about race and diversity in America generally follow one of two scripts these days.
There is the ‘post-racial’ take.
This view points to the election of President Obama, who is at once an African American, racially mixed and the son of an immigrant, and says that race no longer matters the way that it previously did. The election of Obama in a country whose constitution enshrined slavery is a milestone and an indicator that old divisons no longer hold the same power as they once did.
On the other side, there are people who insist on the barriers to full and unfettered participation in mainstream life that continue to exist for many people of color.
Advocates of this perspective cite the enduring segregation of American cities like Chicago, where the infusion of more than 750,000 Latinos during the past 50 years has not made a significant dent on the city’s residential separation by race. While unquestionably a milestone, Obama’s election should not be a reason to drop the ongoing struggle for justice and inclusion.
Roosevelt University Sociology professor Michael Maly has a third view that he elaborates on in Beyond Segregation: Multiracial and Multiethnic Neighborhoods in the United States.
Maly studied the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago, the Jackson Heights community in New York City and the Fruitvale-San Antonio area of Oakland.
Maly places his analysis of these neighborhoods within the context of gradually lessening levels of segregation nationally.
He makes it clear both that he considers these developments to be positive-he writes in the introduction that “racially integrated neighborhoods provide the type of interracial contact that can reduce prejudicial attitudes”-and that these neighborhoods can contribute to reducing the overall levels of segregation.
In many ways, the key is housing.
Maly takes the reader through a brief history of residential policy in America, discussing both the efforts at keeping races separate-in Chicago, this took the form of restrictive covenants that formed a backdrop for Walter Younger’s character-defining decision in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun-and the different ways in which diversity has happened in neighborhoods.
In some communities, like Oak Park, a suburb just west of Chicago, the diversity has happened through consciously inclusive policies designed and implemented by people concerned with reaching higher levels of integration.
But, in other cases like the ones Maly studied intensively during the late 1990s, the diversity happened more by circumstance.
Uptown, Jackson Heights and Fruitvale share other broad similarities.
Each area is richly diverse on many levels: income; race; ethnicity; and sexual orientation are just several of the indicators.
Each community has distinct geographies and quirks to their development-Uptown had a large number of mentally ill people because of a number of facilities there, for example, while Jackson Heights has comparatively few black people because of the city’s historic practices of discrimination against black people. Immigration plays a significant role in each community.
And each neighborhood has both a cadre of people for whom its diversity is an asset they would like to retain as well as some people like real estate developers would make the area less so.
Maly devotes a chapter to each community’s development, specific character and challenges before concluding with some general thoughts about the importance of, and difficulties in, maintaining diverse neighborhoods.
Each chapter begins with a residential testimony that illuminates the chapter’s broader themes. Each chapter includes a map that illustrates the area’s geography, supplies information about the people living in different parts of the community and places the neighborhood within the larger context of the city.
Maly strikes an effective balance between similarity and difference in his discussion of the different neighborhoods. He also shows how issues of housing policy and participation in community groups and can take on larger dimensions.
While the Uptown community is grappling with development pressures and the residents of Fruitvale had animated discussions about business signage for the neighborhood’s emerging commercial area, Maly shows that both neighborhoods are having the same conversation about community composition and future direction.
In his conclusion, Maly writes that integration offers “the possibility of a more inclusive, tolerant and even multicultural society … The challenge for community leaders and policy makers is to find ways to reduce polarization and generate greater recognition of the value of integrated spaces.”
Beyond Segregation has a number of positive aspects. For a converted dissertation, the book is remarkably accessible, clearly written and largely jargon free. Maly’s analysis of three neighborhoods throughout the country, including two of America’s largest cities, gives the book a national, rather than local scope.
Maly’s description of how neighborhoods essentially became diverse through an organic process more because residents were seeking affordable housing than because they were looking for a multiethnic area is particularly effective. I also liked his point that the number of people in those type of neighborhoods is greater than those living in neighborhoods that are diverse by design. He also demonstrates clearly that, at some point for a number of residents, that diversity becomes a feature of the community and something worth fighting for in the face of challenges to that diversity.
Finally, his discussion of the most recent wave of immigration’s impact on the current and future character of neighborhoods is helpful, if not unique. On a basic level, Maly’s work pushes the reader to break through traditional ways of thinking about segregation and to deal with a new and growing set of urban communities that challenge previous assessments about segregation’s workings and deconstruction.
And yet, as useful as Maly’s work is, it does have some limitations.
How neighborhoods maintain their diverse character in the face of development challenges is not particularly well explained, and Uptown has indeed become less diverse during the past decade as condo conversions have risen and the newer residents have become more white and more professional compared with those who lived before.
The pace of the growth of these neighborhoods compared with the enduring segregation of America’s cities bears noting, too.
More basically, though, as effective as Maly’s work was, it did not completely convince me that these three neighborhoods represent a new wave of urban neighborhoods.
Rather, his description reminded me of books I have read about German resistance during the Hitler era or works that talk about moves toward inclusiveness that the Catholic Church could have taken during earlier periods of its history.
While important to note in their own right and because they give the lie to the idea of history’s inevitably and people’s powerlessness, these examples to me often demonstrate the larger direction the institution ultimately took.
Still, the wave of immigration continues in America’s cities and suburbs, Obama did win and Uptown still is by far one of the city’s three most diverse communities.
Beyond Segregation is worth reading to get a bead on a little- chronicled aspect of some American cities and what it may bode for our country’s future.