Jim Crow Nostalgia: Reconstructing Race in Bronzeville
Through the lens of what she calls "Jim Crow nostalgia," Michelle Boyd begins to untangle the knot dwelling at the heart of metropolitan development and transformation in our neo-liberal times. After decades of "White" flight and urban disinvestment, various interest groups, including economic developers, young family frontiersmen and community preservationists, are asserting an almost militant "right to the city" thereby making us rethink the meaning of metropolitan life and history.
For her part, Boyd describes how black community leaders in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood are marshalling a nostalgic vision of the neighborhood during the segregation era as a means to direct present-day urban development projects around a vision of black gentrification. Here tales about the times when "we took care of our own," or "doctors lived next to and uplifted the deviants" trump any moments of intra-racial conflict. These reconstructed memories of segregation-era Bronzeville silence the very real class struggles over the meaning of public housing and urban renewal. Boyd charts a range of ways in which challenges to this overall urban development vision are effectively delegitimized as discordant with the "authentic" Bronzeville and its "real" history. As the book sharply retorts, this nostalgic memory of the past was just one of many histories that "leaders could cultivate and draw on in their community leadership class" (xiii).
The first two chapters make an attempt at historical analysis by powerfully highlighting the non-romantic realities of residential segregation and the ineffectual nature of race uplift politics. Yet, Boyd's book really takes off in the third chapter where she offers a nuanced examination of the "Restoring Bronzeville" land use plan. She highlights how the "making, marking, and marketing" of the black neighborhood as a tourist destination is part of larger trends in the economic revitalization of disenfranchised communities (68). However, Boyd expands the conceptual terrain of place marketing by interrogating how the commercial development of a specifically "black" neighborhood re-organizes physical space while also re-imagining race. The idea of a single racial vision allows black communities to profit from a marketable vision of their neighborhood. Yet, it also helps rationalize the displacement of populations and experiences that don't fit the market plan. Boyd points out that the certainty of a collective (read: one) racial vision was most contested regarding the demolition of buildings within the proposed Black Metropolis [End Page 296] Historic District and public housing replacement with a mix of market rate and affordable units. According to Boyd, community development leaders claimed to speak for the entire community but their class interests encouraged a focus, almost singularly, on the threat demolition posed to historic preservation and tourist development interests. Leaders remained relatively silent about the needs for public housing because it brought down the property value of Bronzeville™.
Michelle Boyd chronicles a story of neo-liberal urban development that is both compelling and disconcerting. Her use of history here is in some ways as oversimplified as the community leaders in this study. A political science focus on state-power dismisses almost all forms of "racial politics" as illusory, ineffective, and evasive of class analysis. The historical record certainly confirms many of Boyd's insights and even the contemporary consequences of a narrative of nostalgia. Yet, her concentration on the present also encourages the work to ignore the class politics of the larger New Negro world of the 1920s and 1930s and the far-reaching grassroots, state-engaged, and internationalist vision of Black anti-fascism surrounding the World War II era. Boyd poignantly warns us of the limits of a "race" politics but she may go too far in the other direction to limit our understandings of what a "race" politics has been and can be. An insular focus on race leadership we get no sense of how market-based notions of black community are situated within the "racial politics" generated by the larger heritage tourism economy and its consumer expectations for "racial authenticity." In the end, Jim Crow Nostalgia is a powerful work of intervention that helps us to begin rethinking the meaning of race in the twenty-first century by bringing together the politics of memory, racial formation, municipal power, and urban development. Through the lens of racial heritage tourism, this slim volume makes important contributions by pushing the boundaries of political science. In the process it offers a provocative index of one of the most pressing issues concerning metropolitan reconstruction today.