TOPICS > Arts

Comeback Cities

July 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

CLARENCE PAGE: For those who were not familiar with the nation’s capital, the front-page “Washington post” headline probably caused some double- takes. “More Whites are making D.C. Home,” it said. For members of my generation, the headline brings back special memories. The mind races back to 1975; back before Bill Clinton came to Washington, there was George Clinton, a wild man leader of a funk band called Parliament, and a hit song, called “Chocolate City.” ( Parliament’s “chocolate city” playing )

GEORGE CLINTON: What’s happening, C.C.? They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too. Can you dig it, C.C.?

CLARENCE PAGE: Washington, D.C., Was C.C.– Chocolate City– 70% black in the wake of white flight to the vanilla suburbs. Let them flee, this song said. With a mix of post-’60s exuberance and defiance, the song became an instant anthem of a new urban political empowerment in cities across the nation.

Three decades have passed. Something unexpected has happened. Chocolate City is getting more vanilla, and the vanilla suburbs are getting more chocolate. Freed at last by open housing laws, new waves of middle-class blacks are following middle-class whites to the suburbs. Census figures show more blacks live in the D.C. suburbs now than live in the city, and whites are moving back to the city. The black percentage of Washington’s population has fallen from 70% to 60%. Property values have soared. Coffee shops and nightclubs have returned to “U” Street, where riots raged in the ’60S. And the D.C. City Council, since the most recent election round, now has more white members than black members.

D.C. is coming back, the local people say, and D.C. is not alone. Cities across America are boasting of rebirth. Race relations have gotten a little more relaxed, and old assumptions about hopeless cities are getting turned on their heads. You could see it in Harlem when that other Clinton– Bill Clinton– moved in. Why not? The neighborhood already had a Starbucks. Why not an ex-President? Nobody calls Cleveland “the mistake on the lake” anymore. With a rock and roll museum, a football team, and a revived lakefront, Cleveland is cool again. After decades of decay, the rust belt is looking better. When Boeing, the aircraft giant, decided to move its headquarters after many decades in Seattle, it passed over the boomtown of Dallas and the mountain majesty of Denver to choose that jewel of the prairies, Chicago. The city’s old image, shaped by Al Capone, was crowded out by a new image: Oprah, and the Bulls. On the South side, a ghetto is being revived as Bronzeville, a magnet for new real estate developers. (Explosion) On the North side, they’re slowly tearing down the old housing projects like Cabrini Green to make way for more middle- and upper-class housing. If the rust belt is indeed reviving, it is because Americans can’t stay put.

“Comeback cities” is what one urban reinvestment expert, Paul Grogan, calls the trend. In his book by that name, he describes how old cities from Boston to Oakland are showing what he calls a surprising convergence of positives. Neighborhood organizations that used to picket downtown leaders now form partnerships with them to build new housing and shopping areas. A new wave of immigrants has opened new shops the way past generations did. Dropping crime rates and a booming economy have bought new confidence. In cities like Boston, where police and community groups have learned to work together, youth violence has gone down, and so has urban fear. “Take a new look at old cities,” Grogan says, “and you begin to regain your hope.”

Still, cities have problems– big problems. The riots in Cincinnati showed us that. A lot of black residents worry that returning middle-class whites will take over. That’s the paradox of being black in America. We worry when white people leave, and we worry when they move back in. America spent the first half of the 20th century building its cities up, and the second half tearing them down. Now, slowly, our cities are getting another chance, trying to be what George Clinton wanted us to be, “One nation under a groove.”

GROUP SINGING: One nation under a groove…

CLARENCE PAGE: Maybe this time we’ll get it right. I’m Clarence Page.

GROUP SINGING: One nation and they’re on the move…