Who’s in Your Neighborhood?
Where do members of different ethnic and racial groups choose to settle and where do they buy land and houses when they become mobile and middle class? Is upward mobility inevitably linked to ethnic and racial discord and conflict?
Although he started out looking at immigration and ethnic history, Todd Michney became interested in black neighborhoods on the urban periphery. Most historians have focused on large, segregated inner city neighborhoods where a majority of the black population lived before World War II, but Michney takes a different approach. He noticed that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—mostly Italians and Jews—interacted with African-Americans, settling in many of the same neighborhoods in outlying areas. “There didn’t seem to be nearly as antagonistic a pattern of race relations that others had identified,” he said and wondered what was going on.
The turn of the 20th century and into the 40s saw a growing black middle class and the beginnings of the suburban dream. African-Americans who were upwardly mobile sought a higher quality of life and better living conditions. They steadily started moving out of inner city areas. “Even working class individuals went to the periphery to buy land cheaper and build homes—sometimes room by room,” Michney says. “I felt I started to uncover a whole world that didn’t fit.”
Upon examining residential patterns of the 50s and 60s, Michney says he found that all-white, middle-class ethnic neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio were “threatened” not so much by African-Americans moving in as by ethnic residents moving out. As Jewish and Italian residents achieved higher economic status and moved to outlying suburbs, their departure provided the opportunity for middle class African-Americans to improve their living conditions by moving into vacated properties. While there was some racial tension and isolated conflicts relating especially to swimming pool access, whites in these areas moved away much more slowly than has been recognized and some developed friendly relations with their new black neighbors in the meantime. But as whites continued to move further and further out, African Americans, sharing the same aspirations, followed suit.
During this later period, Michney says that intraracial conflicts arose over maintaining a reasonable quality of life in those neighborhoods that were largely African-American. As whites moved out and less affluent blacks moved in, conflicts developed over housing upkeep, how available liquor should be, overcrowding, schools, and commerce. “One really interesting pattern I am not sure I can explain is the scapegoating of southern black migrants,” Michney adds. Even though most African-Americans suburbanites were only one or two generations removed from the South, they started to place blame, saying that rural southerners did not know how to live in an urban setting. “This occurred despite the fact that most of the new black residents came from urban areas and had jobs and stable families,” notes Michney.
“We have to rethink our assumptions about how residential patterns were shaped in the early 20th century,” says Michney. The claim was that African-Americans moving into an area would cause property values to decline; they would bring in crime; they would not keep up their property. But from the perspective of the African-Americans, they were seeking good housing and good living standards—all the same goals as the white residents. “Whites did not give the African-Americans a chance in the 50s to see how they would really fit in,” Michney comments. Ironically, then, fears of losing one’s investment led whites residents ultimately to move away, even in those instances when their encounters with incoming African American residents had been benign.
In the early twentieth century, African-American Clevelanders generally lived in compact areas but in close proximity to Czech, Italian and Jewish immigrants. Their children all went to the same schools. Michney says that most of the black and white former residents he interviewed talked about friendly neighborly exchange, even though historians have emphasized that immigrants, who were not initially viewed as white, basically had to adopt an anti-African-American attitude to be accepted by the larger white population.
What historians have often seen as the problem and how indigenous residents assessed the situation were not the same, Michney explains. A shrinking industrial base in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit created a competition for jobs and economic insecurity made it harder for people to maintain their housing stock. Banks were less likely to lend to blacks and shopping malls moved further out. That is an important part of the story but not how residents typically imagined their situation, he says. Local residents were concerned with maintaining the livability of the neighborhoods—by cutting off the easy source of liquor, starting their own local businesses, and keeping money in the community.
The Community Council movement, which tried to bring together people from different backgrounds starting in the 40s, has received little press, Michney notes. These councils were somewhat successful, noting that Jews were more open to the idea, Catholics less so. “Jews were more willing to participate in the dialogue, but since they tended to be more upwardly mobile they often moved away sooner,” he says. Catholics on the other hand were less open and typically sent their children to parochial schools, although Michney found some of these desegregated before the 60s. Several observers actually noted that desegregation tended to alleviate racial tensions, especially between Italians and blacks. “In fact,” Michney states, “there was often more tension between the various white ethnic groups than between blacks and whites.”
“Racial conflicts are less now,” Michney says,” but we still see some of the same sort of reasoning on when and where to move. Today the African-American community remains split with the middle class doing quite well up until this last recession. Working class and poor blacks are increasingly alienated with some as frustrated as in the 60s. Ancestry is not destiny, but there is still a glimmer of those patterns.”
Todd Michney is an assistant professor of history. He received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He specializes in African-American history, urban history, race, ethnicity and labor. His upcoming book, Changing Neighborhoods: Black Upward Mobility in Twentieth-Century Cleveland, is a citywide study of the city’s black middle class. He anticipates using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to represent statistical data and settlement patterns in strikingly new and innovative ways.