The city of Atlanta, reports the Wall Street Journal, will soon no longer have a black majority of residents — and maybe doesn’t have one right now. This comes almost exactly half a century after Atlanta first had a black majority, a landmark that the municipality reached in the 1970 Census but had probably crossed a few years before.
Atlanta is not the only city to undergo, first, a rapid increase in black population, and, more recently, a sharp decrease in black percentage. There has been a similar phenomenon in Washington, D.C., which became majority-black in the 1950s and was 71 percent black in the 1970 Census. That percentage fell to 51 percent in the 2010 Census and has fallen since. And there’s a similar phenomenon far away, in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, as noted in the Los Angeles Times.
The Journal story and the L.A. Times column are both, in part, laments about the plight of longtime black residents of central city neighborhoods into which increasing numbers of whites are moving. Gentrification is presented as a problem — residents who rent their homes may find their rents rising and longtime residents may find familiar local stores and services priced out of the neighborhood — to which the two candidates for mayor in Atlanta are proposing what they think of as solutions.
Largely unmentioned are the benefits of gentrification, including the fact that current homeowners find their home equity substantially increased. This may present choices about which they’re ambivalent — cash out and leave familiar surroundings, stay put and forego capital gains — but it's hardly the stuff of oppression.
In any case, the rising black percentages of central cities a half-century ago and the falling black percentages of central cities recently are not mirror-image phenomena. The central cities in question had their boundaries pretty well fixed 50 years ago and, at the end of World War II, tended to contain solid majorities of their metropolitan areas’ population. As metro populations increased in the prosperous postwar years, increasing percentages of residents moved into newly built suburbs. This was in the midst of the 1940-65 quarter-century in which about one-third of American blacks moved from the mostly rural South to the big cities, mostly in the North but also Atlanta and a few other cities in the South. Given the lamentable attitudes of the times, few whites would live in a predominantly black neighborhood and blacks tended to cluster in increasingly large areas of central cities (and a very few distinctly black suburbs). This produced the increasing black percentages that made Washington and Atlanta black-majority cities in the late 1950s and late 1960s, respectively.
Things are different today. With few exceptions, most major metropolitan area residents live in suburbs and only small minorities (8 percent in Atlanta, 11 percent in Washington) live in the central cities. A large percentage of metro area residents who are black (about one-third in Atlanta and one-fourth in Washington) now live in the suburbs rather than the central cities.
Fair housing laws and changing attitudes have made it possible for blacks with the financial wherewithal to buy homes just about wherever they want. They still face some risk of encountering unpleasant and disheartening rebuffs. That’s not an ideal situation, but it’s a whole lot better than what black Americans faced fifty years ago. Drive around metro Atlanta or metro Washington, and you can find many comfortable and productive suburban communities with predominantly black populations; the hundreds of thousands of people choosing to live there far outnumber the tens of thousands potentially under pressure from gentrification.
Another phenomenon of the last quarter-century has changed central cities and made them more prone to gentrification: the sharp decrease in violent crime. You can find some formerly crime-ridden neighborhoods which have largely emptied out, in southwest Atlanta or east of the Anacostia River in Washington. But you could also find neighborhoods with good housing stock and close proximity to office job clusters which had largely black populations, but which in the last decade or so (contrary to very widespread expectations) have attracted white newcomers — Kirkwood in Atlanta, Petworth in Washington, Inglewood outside Los Angeles. The central cities of Atlanta had become homes of the very rich (Buckhead, west of Rock Creek) and the very poor, with the biggest differences among million-plus metro areas between the high degree of economic inequality (as measured by Gini coefficients) in the central city and a much lower degree of economic inequality in the metro area as a whole. To the extent that gentrification is replacing very low-income residents with those with incomes well below those in the highest income neighborhoods, it is probably reducing economic inequality within the city limits.
Gentrification, like any demographic development or neighborhood change, can be seen as a problem. And it is the natural tendency of politicians seeking votes and journalists seeking clicks or column inches to treat it as such. But it’s a positive development for most of the people directly affected by it and its immediate causes. And if most metropolitan area residents, with their invariably different needs and preferences, have an array of attractive or at least palatable alternative places to live, it is not, on balance, a tragedy.
And it is, in any case, pretty much inevitable. Read widely in the demographic history of cities, as the writer Joel Kotkin has, and you will see that neighborhoods have seen their functions and character changed over time. Gentrification is far from the worst such change.