I like The Nation. I like Dave Zirin! But this column by Dave Zirin in The Nation is very, very bad.
The column is entitled: “Gentrification is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West.” This is a very bad title. But I’ve felt misrepresented by a good number of headline writers in my day, so I tried to withhold judgment until I actually read the piece.
But no: in this case, it turns out that the headline is pretty fair.
The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids… This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate.
There are levels to this.
On a nitty-gritty level, I would be interested if Dave Zirin can think of a single example on the South Side of Chicago of a) Boys and Girls Clubs that are now bistros, or b) public baseball diamonds that are now condos. Actually, I’m not that interested, because I know the answer, which is No, because a) those things did not happen and b) Dave Zirin made them up.
One reason I know that Dave Zirin made them up is that black neighborhoods in Chicago, particularly on the South Side, almost never gentrify. I know that they don’t gentrify partly because I live in Chicago, and I pay a lot of attention to neighborhoods and neighborhood change here, and I go places, and talk to people, and I see and hear that they don’t gentrify. I also know that they don’t gentrify because literally less than six months ago there was a widely-reported study by a very well-respected urban sociologist that documented, in rigorous detail, that black neighborhoods in Chicago don’t gentrify.
I also know that if you were to ask people to list black neighborhoods on the South Side that were maybe inching towards gentrification, they would list places like Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Woodlawn. Roseland, Washington Heights, and Morgan Park – the heart of JRW territory, and several miles further south – would not be on that list.
Which means that Dave Zirin didn’t just make up some fictional – but poignant! – events to more effectively illustrate a real phenomenon. He made up the entire phenomenon. Why did he do that? I don’t really know. I can observe, however, that this seems to be one of the more extreme examples of a different phenomenon, which is people who cannot discuss issues of urban inequality without using the lens of gentrification. Even where – as in the JRW neighborhoods – the fact that gentrification is completely and utterly nonexistent has already been made a national news story.
What’s unfortunate about all this is that there is an urban inequality story to tell here. Many stories, in fact. Zirin mentions the issue of school closure, and the demographic shift of African-Americans from the South Side into the south suburbs. That shift is certainly driven, in part, by the city’s failure to provide basic services and amenities to many of these neighborhoods. Many of them still appear to be losing population, and income, and jobs, and stores.
But that is not what “gentrification” means.
Moreover, Zirin’s column becomes episode one million of national (and local!) media deciding that a story about black boys from the South Side of Chicago must also, and straightforwardly, be a story about deprivation and poverty. But of course, as Pete Saunders and others have pointed out, many of these boys come from places – like Morgan Park – that are strongly middle class. The narrative of black South Side neighborhood pathology, though – the narrative that underlies the shunning of these places and the people who live there – demands their erasure, and writers on both the left and right are more than happy to oblige for their own ideological purposes.