With analytic precision and amiable prose, Mary Patillo renders a poignant portrait of our modern urban times with her latest work Black on the Block. The project claims to examine the general politics of blackness amidst turn-of-the-twentieth-century struggles over the city. But I think it would be fair to argue that this is an extension of her first major work Black Picket Fences, now examining the issues at stake when black middle men and women mediate the development of "black community" amidst the dominant neo-liberal logic of our urban times.
At the center of analysis stands Chicago's south side community of North Kenwood Oakland (NKO). Patillo takes us through its historical arc from an urban space of Whites-only fortification to one of Black blight and violence. While now the space is "re-discovered" as a "new frontier" of increasingly rich market value in economically austere times. While Black middle and upper-income "newcomers" to NKO do settle in the neighborhood because of the relatively inexpensive real estate, Patillo warns that this is not a story of economic determinism. They not only stay but redirect resources and model a set of respectable behaviors to underprivileged residents because of a particular sense of race pride and duty. Moreover, Patillo adds that rather than being two nations, one bourgie and one stuck at the bottom, it is precisely divergent class interests and disagreements about the meaning of shared public space, streets, housing, education, and commerce etc, that "constitute[s] the black community" (3).
Patillo offers an amazing blend of historical context, light ethnography, and urban policy analysis combined with some of the latest spatial and racial theory available. Here the social experience of class organizes black community. But Patillo pulls on pioneering sociological works like Black Metropolis to expand the meaning of class to "lifestyle," where aspirations and consumption habits cut across the variables of income and inherited wealth. Chapters in the body of Black on the Block deploy the fulcrum of lifestyle to examine blackness situated within the neighborhood struggles and interests over key social institutions in NKO.
The power of analysis lies in Patillo's dynamic interweaving of intraracial struggles and larger municipal and economic forces to render a contemporary portrait of Black community. These middle men and women serve as the blackface of capitalist interests and the black race arbiters of resource redistribution downward to benefit the "truly disadvantaged." For instance the reform initiative of school "choice," with their competition-based marketing of selective enrollment and small class size to student-clients, has principally brought better education to the central city. But at the same time, the market model of "shopping" for schools has enacted exclusionary outcomes by expecting parents to be industrious consumers with the time and networks available to connect them with information about the best educational commodities. She also considers how public housing removal confirms fears about gentrification's single family/high property value model squeezing out the less fortunate. But it also expresses a race conscious resistance against the historic Jim Crowing of citywide public housing onto the south side. Finally, as land value becomes a central issue for community value, the very meaning of crime and danger shift from drug dealing, homicides, and robberies to loud music, parkway barbeques, and other acts of public sociability.
In the end, Black on the Block powerfully captures some of the "difference, distinction, and sometimes even dislike" in present-day formations of urban blackness, while demonstrating how such dynamics remain organized around some version, no matter how [End Page 245] fractured, of racial responsibility. As a self-described participant observer, resident, and political actor in the NKO, this sympathetic portrait of "middleness" is in many ways a portrait of Patillo. I for one appreciate her candor in this endeavor that never veers too far into self-aggrandizement while providing further nuance and balance to E. Franklin Frazier's still dominant caricature of the black middle class.
This work had the potential to expand the insights of...