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No, The Jackie Robinson West Story Is Not About Gentrification

This post originally ran in slightly different form at

I like The Nation. I like Dave Zirin! But last week, Dave Zirin wrote a very bad column in The Nation.


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.

This is what makes Zirin's column so poignantly absurd. I've had the opportunity to share my concerns with him, and his defense seems to be that, even if there are no signs of actual gentrification in the JRW neighborhoods—there is no new housing construction; in most places, average income is flat or falling; the white population remains essentially zero—this is just the prelude to a storm of Starbucks and yuppies. But this is wrong not just because the JRW neighborhoods are so far from the frontier of gentrification in Chicago that, even at the furious pace of change on the North Side, it would be generations before high-priced condos arrived. It's wrong because black neighborhoods in Chicago don't gentrify. Because white people refuse to move there. Because racism. Zirin's generality that disinvestment often leads to redevelopment may be true elsewhere, but in Chicago we've had decades of disinvestment in black neighborhoods on the South Side without that second act.


And even if you really wanted to stretch and list black neighborhoods on the South Side that were maybe inching towards gentrification—where there has been an influx of black professionals, or a small handful of white newcomers—you would name places like Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Woodlawn. Roseland, Washington Heights, and Morgan Park—the heart of JRW territory, and many miles further south—would not be on that list.


Which means that Dave Zirin didn't just make up some fictional 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 yet another example 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 the Chicago urban planner Pete Saunders and others have pointed out, many of these boys come from places—like Morgan Park—that have been solidly middle class for decades. 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.


JRW territory: Pretty scary, huh?

Daniel Kay Hertz is a writer and student at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. He blogs at photo via Getty; bottom via Google Street View

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