Mapping Racial Capital: Gentrification, Race and Value in Three Chicago Neighborhoods

By Jesse Mumm (DePaul University) and Carolina Sternberg (DePaul University)

“Every one of you that comes into this neighborhood, it ups our property rate ten thousand dollars,” one Black woman on the West Side of Chicago tells two white newcomers walking by where she sits on her front porch. How is gentrification racial? In our new UAR article, we look at race and gentrification in three Chicago neighborhoods: Garfield Park, Pilsen and Humboldt Park, where we map changes in demographics, property value, and material conditions. Garfield Park lies at the heart of the supermajority Black West Side; Pilsen has been called the cultural center of Mexican Chicago, and Humboldt Park hosts Paseo Boricua—the Puerto Rican Promenade. We know that gentrification is not always linear, and its multiple causes not universal, but enacted through urban phenomena as disparate as toxic loans, planned gallery districts, and subway restoration. Yet this does not diminish their meanings as racial projects, and our findings here destabilize the notion that material improvement in the built environment largely determines increases in property values. While urban scholars generally recognize today that abandonment and disinvestment were socially produced and politically organized racial projects of midcentury capitalism, we owe the same critical assessment to gentrification – the major urban racial project of the present day.

The notion that material improvement drives up rents and taxes is often rendered in racially neutral terms: affluent people may invest in previously devalued places, and perhaps they happen to be predominantly white – due to previous histories of racial exclusion. But we found that material improvement does not directly lead to increased property values, particularly when practiced by people of color. Inversely, we demonstrate in our maps that the mere arrival of white newcomers leads to surges in property value with or without upgrading of homes and new construction (see Figure 1.1). The higher property values that result become equity and future capital for those buyers, but we should understand it as an investment of whiteness that pays racial dividends.

Figure 1.1.  Property Value and Material Improvement in Pilsen

Popular narratives might lament displacement but still identify gentrification as bringing needed stability and investment, turning abandonment into rehabbing and new construction. Yet in Black and Latino Chicago neighborhoods, we found the greatest stability on blocks with the least gentrification pressure, larger proportions of people color, and fewer white newcomers. Gentrification not only coexists with abandonment, but abandoned parcels more often proliferate blocks surging in property value – specifically when the white population rises as well. This is starkly illustrated in our maps of Pilsen and Humboldt Park, where their eastern edges show a nexus: high rates of abandoned parcels, rising property values, and white population increase (see Figures 1.1 and 2.1).

Figure 2.1.  Property Value and Material Improvement in Humboldt Park

The opposite holds true in the furthest western half mile of Pilsen: the lowest proportion of white newcomers, the largest proportion of Mexican and Latino population, and high rates of home improvement that do not translate into rising property values. While ‘stability’ is a relative term, these blocks host the least amount of abandonment and the longest tenure by local Mexican residents. But Mexican families repairing their own homes simply does not lead to rampant real estate speculation, and has never been construed here as gentrification, while by contrast, the areas of white newcomer concentration tend to be the least stable. Gentrification moves unevenly, advancing in pockets, as the case of Garfield Park illustrates (see Figure 3.1.). This neighborhood has not intensively gentrified due to entrenched preconceptions of Black poverty and danger to potential white newcomers. This situation is outstanding considering it has a huge public park, two CTA train lines, vacant land, the largest rent gap of our three cases, proximity to downtown, and twenty years of city policy overtly proclaiming and even funding its redevelopment.

Figure 3.1.  Property Value and Material Improvement in Garfield Park

Gentrification moves distinctly in neighborhoods racialized as Black, Mexican or Puerto Rican. This does not mean that centrality, amenities, housing availability, affordable housing stock, public transportation access, or rent gaps do not matter. But in segregated US cities, they depend on the generation of a white market investing its racial capital in order to transform the landscape. We illustrate that in Chicago, the presence of white residents affects property value regardless of the built environment changes associated with material improvement. Conversely, material improvements and repair on majority Black and Latino blocks are not equally reflected in large gains in property value compared to blocks with white newcomers. In our racialized narratives that determine value, the presence of Black and Latino residents signifies disinvestment and abandonment to outside speculators and potential newcomers regardless of local conditions. Gentrification then depends less on the number of properties upgraded than as it does on the social value ascribed to the upgraders. That value rests today inordinately on the social construction of race.

As we write, Chicago neighborhoods are in serious contention regarding the viability of participatory budgeting, affordable housing, rent control, community oversight of zoning, moratoria on luxury development, and the prevention of evictions.  Proposals to halt further displacement once considered marginal have become the focus of entire campaigns for City Council seats and were the subjects of a public forum featuring all of the 2019 candidates for mayor of the City of Chicago. Mapping gentrification through the lens of racial capitalism makes clear the relations between gentrification and race in the political economies of neighborhoods. Racial capitalism embodied in segregation, redlining, white flight, deindustrialization, ghetto formation and all the previous regimes of racial subjugation continues as gentrification. Our hope is that the lens of racial capitalism aptly applied to police violence and the carceral state, and to the industrialization of the US through capital generated by slave labor, will be extended to everyday spaces and places of racial subjection – like Chicago neighborhoods. A history of land devaluation that made the “inner cities” of the midcentury US is incomplete without an assessment of the process of symbolic revaluation of these same terrains newly inhabited by white newcomers. In our view, gentrification represents the visible progression of white supremacy across the urban landscape. 

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo of Pilsen: Andrew Jameson, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Author Biographies

Jesse Mumm grew up in Logan Square in Chicago, taught high school at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and has worked in critical pedagogy, anti-racism, migrant rights, and resisting displacement for decades. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University and teaches in Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University. He has published articles on how gentrification reveals and constructs race and racism, based on his award-winning multimethod ethnographic fieldwork in three Chicago neighborhoods.

Carolina Sternberg is an Associate Professor at DePaul University. Her main areas of research and teaching combine urban studies, Latin American studies, and urban policies in both U.S. and Latin American settings. She has published in renowned journals on the relationship between gentrification and race in African American and Latinx communities in Chicago. Her current book project examines the dynamics of neoliberal urban governance, through a comparative analysis of Buenos Aires and Chicago, from 2011 to the present.