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White Flight/Black FlightThe Dynamics of Racial Change in an American Neighborhood$

Rachael A. Woldoff

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449185

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449185.001.0001

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Ken Wilkinson

Ken Wilkinson

Striving for the Next Generation

(p.111) 5 Ken Wilkinson
White Flight/Black Flight

Rachael A. Woldoff

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the link between white flight and black flight in Parkmont by focusing on the story of Ken Wilkinson, a forty-seven-year-old pioneer and one of the first black residents on his block. Like many black pioneers, Ken is an active community member who is frustrated with the way that the neighborhood's social character has declined, even as he acknowledges that Parkmont remains far better than the other residential neighborhood options available to him in the city. This chapter examines Ken's concerns regarding the values, norms, and behaviors of the incoming black second wavers and his belief that there are major values differences between the pioneers and second wavers. His narrative offers important insights into the conflicts within Parkmont's black community, the affinity shared by white stayers and black pioneers, and the pioneers' experiences from the time of racial integration to resegregation and the era of black flight.

Keywords:   white flight, black flight, Parkmont, Ken Wilkinson, black pioneers, black second wavers, white stayers, racial integration

Ken Wilkinson, a forty-seven-year-old pioneer, represents a linkage between Parkmont’s two major stages of change. His narrative provides insights into the community’s transition from white to black by illuminating the pioneers’ reasons for selecting Parkmont as a destination, their perceptions of white flight, and their relationships with elderly stayers. Ken’s story explores black flight by portraying pioneers’ discussions of sources of dissatisfaction with the school and neighborhood environment as black flight began to set in, their conflicts with the second wave residents, and their hopes and plans for the future. As one of the first pioneers to arrive, and as an especially informed and active community member, Ken’s framing and detailed interpretations of events add to the voices of other pioneers and provide access to an insider’s perspective on the specific cultural dimensions of neighborhood change that have troubled so many of Parkmont’s pioneers.

Ken and his family invited me to spend some time with them on Halloween to observe the neighborhood on a busy night when children and parents were on the streets and neighbors were expected to open their doors and participate in the festivities. As Ken sat on his patio giving out candy in the evening, it was clear that he viewed this time as an important opportunity to build community and reinforce high standards of behavior for the families in Parkmont. At one point, a little boy who was trick-or-treating unaccompanied by parents, siblings, or friends came up to ask Ken for candy. He told us that he was dressed up in a costume called “dead gangsta.” Ken grimaced, but took this episode as an opportunity to teach the child a lesson. He said to the boy, “Dead is right. That’s how (p.112) gangstas end up—dead.” The child just stared uncomfortably at Ken, politely thanked him for the candy, and solemnly moved on to the next house. A few minutes later, as we talked outside, I asked Ken why his patio was so dark when other residents left a light on to signal that they were hosting trick-or-treaters. He told me that he had unscrewed the lightbulb to improve his supervision of the people on his block:

I can just sit out here, and nobody will see me. I pretty much see what’s going on. Who goes in when, what time they come in. I know who lives where. I know what car belongs on the block and which one don’t. I recognize everybody. I’m pretty much familiar, but sitting up on the porch, people walk by and they don’t even see me. It’s convenient. Plus, I’m out, constantly watching.

Ever since Ken and his wife, Jill, moved to Parkmont with the goal of improving their quality of life, they have been model citizens. Residents commend them for their parenting and many neighbors praise the couple’s two teenage sons, who are unusually mature, polite, and smart for their age. Several neighbors called Ken “the mayor,” referring to his vigilant efforts to keep his property, as well as the entire block, in order. Ken did have a few critics who expressed the belief that he could sometimes go overboard in his efforts to monitor the block. For instance, one resident told me about a time when his car was towed after Ken reported it to the police’s abandoned vehicle unit. But on the whole, it was plain to see that Ken exemplifies the goals and values of Parkmont’s pioneers and that his fundamental roles as a father, spouse, homeowner, neighbor, and community organizer contribute very much to his little corner of Parkmont.

Ken and Jill live with their sons, Ken Jr. and Marc, in a Parkmont row house. Ken was recently promoted in his municipal job doing waste and snow removal, and Jill is teacher who has been taking night classes to earn a graduate degree in education administration with the ultimate goal of becoming a school principal. In addition to his regular job, Ken is an entrepreneur. He designs and sews window and patio awnings for people in Parkmont and is an equal partner with his sons in a lawn care business that serves the neighborhood. The boys attend science-focused magnet schools across town and both have plans to study engineering in college. Although Ken and Jill are in their forties and are known for their strict parenting style, they somehow manage not to come off as nerdy or square. They both wear contemporary clothing styles and enjoy popular music, movies, and dining out, and have come to enjoy annual cruise vacations.

On the night of one of our taped interviews, Jill was dressed in a velour track-suit as she made hot dogs for dinner before heading off to one of her graduate school classes. She has a fun and light-hearted temperament, which helps (p.113) to balance Ken’s more intense and serious demeanor. Wearing a Tupac Shakur T-shirt, baseball hat, and gold chain with a cross, Ken is a tall and imposing figure. He speaks in a low, deep voice, and though he has a tendency to drop one-liners and burst out laughing, these more carefree episodes take you by surprise. As one child on the block observed, “Mr. Ken don’t play.”

Before Parkmont

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Ken returned home to live with his parents in a low-income neighborhood in the city. When he obtained a highly sought-after civil service job with the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, he decided to move to a neighborhood that was located closer to his assigned work area. His new job, which involved long hours, including overtime and emergency snow removal in the winter, also carried with it the status of “emergency worker” and the associated requirement that he reside within the city limits. However, because the job paid well, was relatively secure, and offered a generous pension, Ken was willing to contend with the fact that it would limit his freedom in choosing where to live.

Soon, Ken met and fell in love with Jill. It happened in a way that many people dream about: “A guy I worked with in the city, I was in his wedding. We were both in the wedding party.” After a brief courtship, they moved together to a densely populated neighborhood on the south side of the city. According to Ken, money was tight, “times was tough,” and they lived there “more for convenience,” since the community was close to both of their city jobs. In fact, Ken said that Jill’s teaching job “was right around the corner.”

Time passed, and Ken and Jill felt fortunate, grateful for their recent engagement, their secure jobs, and the birth of their two sons. However, the neighborhood in which they lived was another story. Their two-bedroom rented row house was all they could afford at the time, but it was located in a drug-infested area. Ken became alarmed when he noticed an increase in violent crime and drugs in the community. Yet the serious crimes were not the only problems that drove him and his family away; the more minor problems of disorder plaguing the area also contributed to the couple’s dissatisfaction. Ken explained the mix of crime and disorder that motivated the decision to move:

To move to a better neighborhood, and basically, to own my own home. My old neighborhood, it’s a little closer in to the city. It had a lot of crime, people breaking in cars a lot, and it was pretty much a drug area—people selling on the corners. Every couple months I was putting (p.114) a new mirror on my car, or I’d get up and my car wasn’t there. My car was stolen twice. Right off the block. And then you have to park on the pavement because another car would come in and take your mirror off. It was awful.

As a sanitation worker, Ken is extremely sensitive to the way a neighborhood is maintained, and he found the physical appearance of the last place he lived to be revolting. He never planned on making it his long-term home. Although now he prides himself on his leadership role in improving Parkmont, Ken was not one for calling the police when problems would arise in his previous neighborhood. In fact, Ken told me that he felt completely unsentimental about leaving his old neighborhood to come to Parkmont. So, without a single regret, Ken, Jill, and the boys packed their bags.

Moving to a White Neighborhood

In 1996, when their sons were turning ages five and seven, Ken and Jill embarked on a house search. Ken had grown up in a different region of the city, so he had never even heard of Parkmont at the time that they started to house hunt. In contrast, Jill was more typical of pioneers in that she had been raised in a black neighborhood near Parkmont and had a strong preference to limit the scope of their home search in order to relocate near her family. Ken told me that that if not for their city jobs, he would have moved the family into a detached house in the first-ring suburbs, which are located close to work and family. Still, Ken retained a sense of humor about his situation, joking about the bright side of his job: “There are no problems with snow removal here because I am snow removal.”

Ken and Jill began to look for housing in and around Parkmont. They briefly considered a row house in a middle-class neighborhood located very close to Jill’s family, but they felt discriminated against by the realtor, who was black:

I went to Century 21 on the other side, where Jill’s family lives. I guess it was because I was black, but the house they were showing me was tore up. It had some structural problems. They were row houses, but they seemed like they needed too much work. I wasn’t willing to settle. I think the realtor was just trying to unload it.

After this negative experience with subpar housing, Ken and Jill decided to constrain the search for their first home to the boundaries of Parkmont: “We got in the car and drove around here and looked for signs.” They fell in love with their block after seeing the backyards of the homes, which face a wooded park area. As (p.115) Ken said, “Right here, the back of our house is to the woods. Step out back there, and it takes us away from all that stuff in the city.” With white flight beginning to take hold, it was not difficult to find a house on their favorite block, where several homes were for sale. The family was excited by the move, and soon after settling in, Ken and Jill got married.

Although many of Parkmont’s second wave black residents, as well as a nontrivial number of pioneers, financed their homes through subprime mortgages, family loans, or low-income housing programs, Ken and Jill purchased their home in a more traditional way: “We saved up. I checked out the house, and I came by from time to time. And ’cause I’m a veteran, they approved it. I have a guaranteed amount of money with the VA.” Even so, Ken believes that they would have been able to afford the home without his veteran status: “I probably would. I still had a good job. They guaranteed the mortgage. They just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t paying too much or making the wrong decision.”

When they selected their house, Ken and Joan knew that Parkmont was a predominantly white neighborhood, but unlike many pioneers, Ken said that he mostly chose it for the amenities that he associates with white communities. Ken attributed his generally positive views about white neighborhoods to his very memorable childhood experience of moving from a segregated public housing complex into a white community. However, he told me that soon after his family moved, his white childhood neighborhood resegregated and became all black. Decades later with a family of his own, Ken feels disappointed that Ken Jr. and Marc are now having the same experience that he did.

Regardless of whether it was mostly white or mostly black, Ken chose Park-mont because he wanted to move to a place where residents possess a strong sense of ownership about community life. In his opinion, neighborhoods like this are more often found in white parts of the city. He elaborated on the non-racial nature of his neighborhood research process, which focused on a sense of order and pride in the appearance of homes:

It was not necessarily that it was white. It’s that it was clean and relatively quiet. I took the time to come around and sit during the day and come by during the evening and check it out and make sure it was what I was looking for. You can go to certain areas where it is predominantly black, and you can see—like a certain block in my old neighborhood—every place around it is in chaos. But there’s this one particular block that has this attitude. Everybody has plants on the porch, and everybody has an awning. Attitude.

Still, given his previous experiences with white flight and neighborhood decline, Ken is not naïve. He has remained sensitive to racial change and its causes (p.116) and costs and told me that racism was the driving force behind the rapid population change that occurred in Parkmont shortly after the pioneers arrived. To provide an example, Ken told me that they purchased their home from a middle-aged Irish American couple whom they believed were typical of the kinds of whites who were eager to sell: “She was a crossing guard and her husband was a cop. I got a good idea why they moved. Because of the neighbors’ being black. The other neighbors told me that he kind of reminded them of Archie Bunker.” Even though he thinks the leavers fit this profile, Ken said that the older white neighbors who stayed in Parkmont were different; they made special efforts to reach out and get to know his family: “When I first arrived, they were nice. Especially next door. They were really welcoming and had us over to dinner and stuff like that.”

Trouble Brewing: Problems with the School

In their old neighborhood, Ken Jr. and Marc attended the school where Jill worked as a teacher, and which Ken rated as “pretty good.” However, Ken and Jill place education as an extremely high priority and wanted more for their sons. They arrived in Parkmont thinking that Lombard was superior to many city schools, and they expected an improved learning experience for their children. Perhaps that is why I was so surprised to learn that even though Jill is a teacher, neither she nor Ken had formally researched the quality of Lombard in recent years. Instead, they based their evaluations of the school on word of mouth and on personal experiences. When I asked for more details about this, Ken admitted that Jill handles school-related affairs in their family. Jill told me that she largely relied on information from her brother, who graduated from Lombard back when the integration busing program was in effect. Knowing the area was white and that Jill’s brother had a positive experience at Lombard, they decided the school would be suitable for their children.

However, by the time of the family’s arrival, Lombard had long been a black segregated school, and it was struggling in terms of students’ academic success and safety. Ken explained the couple’s realization that the information gleaned from Jill’s brother was out of date and not accurate:

Back at that time, I don’t think that Lombard was that bad, because I think her brother was recently graduated from there. In ’96, it was still relatively on its way. But lately, you know, with the uncooperation [lack of cooperation] with the parents and the kids, it’s declined. It’s out of control.

(p.117) After a brief time at Lombard, Ken and Jill transferred their sons to magnet schools. I asked Ken whether the boys feel socially separated from the other neighborhood children because they attend school all the way across the city:

No. They’re pretty much grounded. A lot of the parents want to get their kids out of Lombard ’cause of the things that’ve been going on. I’ve talked to a couple of parents. Right now, Ricky, down the street, his kids aren’t going to Lombard because of the lack of control. That’s in Lombard, but that’s in other schools, too. But the thing with the way the system is set up, there’s not too much they can really do.

Ken and Jill have come to understand that they made a difficult trade-off when they chose to relocate to a safer community. In order to gain access to relative safety from crime and a better quality of community life, the family actually left behind a neighborhood school that was better than Lombard. Feeling hopeless about the future of Lombard and eager to protect their children, Ken and Jill believed their only option was to send the boys away from Parkmont for their education.

Signs of Decline on the Strip

In discussing his perceptions of Parkmont as a living environment, Ken seemed especially critical of changes in the quality of businesses on the strip, such as the increase in “Chinese” stores, which he and many other pioneers resent and view as low class, unattractive, and exploitative of black neighborhoods. Ken told me that he actively works to prevent further decline in the retail district:

It’s changed. … The beauty supply place? That used to be a restaurant, and after that, they tried to make it a “Stop and Go” where they would sell malt liquor or whatever, but we weren’t having that. It ended up being a Chinese hair place. But overall, I mean, how many Chinese stores can you have? It’s just these little shops that’s on the strip now. They tried a lot of restaurants. Any new restaurants that come in don’t survive.

Parkmont’s pioneers take the neighborhood’s appearance very seriously and fear that the influx of downscale businesses are a form of “broken windows” or a slippery slope of neighborhood decline.1 To make the owners of businesses more (p.118) accountable for maintaining their properties, Ken has worked with the civic association to pressure business owners on the strip to address the graffiti problems that he has observed. However, Ken told me that this so-called minor problem is very difficult to eradicate and is an uphill battle that requires great persistence from residents:

We had somebody that wrote graffiti on the bank, and we talked to the bank, and the bank had it removed. ’Cause in Parkmont, we try to have a zero tolerance for that. They said that they had to go through corporate. They had to go through a certain chain. It’s not like they can just go ahead, and somebody in the bank is going to come out. They have to get people to do that, but they took care of it after we kept complaining about it.

Ken’s concerns about Parkmont’s physical appearance and beautification also extend to forms of social disorder that current residents, visitors, and potential buyers are likely to find threatening. For instance, Ken is distressed by the drug dealers whom he sees hanging out on the strip. He believes that it is up to the residents to stay on top of this problem:

The dealers still have their crowd here. I guess they’re doing their thing, selling their wares or whatever. Selling something that they shouldn’t be selling. You can tell. They’re standing there, and they’re watching the cars go by, and they’re meeting the cars and all that kind of stuff, so we pretty much know. At one time, they had the police came up and put them all up against the ground, it was probably about a year ago. They had ’em, and that’s when people were calling. I would call, and Ricky would call, and someone else would call. But then it stopped, but they’re not quite as flagrant as they used to be. So I pretty much know where they are. They’re teenagers into their early twenties.

Like most pioneers, Ken places an extremely high value on two dimensions of community life that are tied to the attitudes and behaviors of residents: a sense of ownership and an orderly environment. When asked what he likes most about Parkmont, Ken talked about the simple, often taken for granted, pleasures of living in a neighborhood where residents adhere to basic standards of respect for each other and where they maintain the appearance of the properties. Ken still (p.119) acknowledges many of Parkmont’s virtues, but he has grown increasingly tired of feeling alone in his efforts to maintain and improve the community:

What do I like most about the neighborhood? At this point in time? When I do have my peace and quiet. The other morning, I was out, and I was like, “Wow! This is really, really nice. Just being able to sit out. Me and my wife were sitting out front until everybody got up. … Most of the time it’s okay, but I used to like to go back into the woods. I don’t go back there anymore, ’cause I was overwhelming myself with keeping it clean. I’d come out with two or three bags of trash. Trash drives me nuts, so I had to, for my own self. I used to walk. I had the fisherman’s boots, like wader boots, and I would start at the very beginning, and I would walk all the way down to the falls. And I would pick up the trash and stuff like that, but then it got too much. And I used to have help, and then after a while, it wasn’t like that.

Sources of Cultural Conflict between the Pioneers and the Second Wave

Ken told me that it has been impossible to ignore the fact that a large number of the pioneers have either moved away or are planning to move. He discussed the changes that have taken place in Parkmont since he first arrived, complaining about the constant population shifts that have affected the neighborhood’s age, race, and family structure profiles. Ken clearly disapproves of the second wave of black residents and said that if he had to do it all over again today, he would never have chosen to move to Parkmont:

When I first moved here, there wasn’t as many kids. The new people are younger, and they’re coming with a lot more kids. If I came now? And I seen across the street? There is usually about eight to ten kids. I’d rather it’s all old people.

Differences in Parenting

Ken explained that part of the decline in Parkmont’s quality of life is caused by the second wave residents’ divergent values about raising children. Ken believes that parenting differences between pioneers and new residents cause conflict between the two groups, which also contributes to a milieu of social disorder. To illustrate (p.120) his point, Ken described what happened when a very young group of rowdy boys decided to use his patio as a hangout on a weekday evening:

I confronted them. There were a few kids that were hanging out. It was about 11:30, 12:00 at night. They couldn’t have been no more than about ten. I told ’em, “If you’re going to stay out, go out in front of your house, and make all that noise.” And then the parent wanted to confront me on it. I was pretty much like, “You’re supposed to be watching. I shouldn’t have to watch your kids.” They should be down there in front of their own house. Plus, I gave out the fliers as far as the curfews and concerns. What it is, on Friday and Saturday and stuff like that. They told the mother that I hollered at them. The mother came here and said that I shouldn’t talk to her kids like that. That I shouldn’t tell them nothing. That if I have anything to say, I should come down and tell her. I disagree with that. I should be able to say, “Why don’t you go home? Go down to where you livin’ at.” I was hollering, but just: “Why don’t you go down the street?” You know, “You making all that noise. Why don’t you go down the street and make all that noise?” Who’s raising who? You know? The kids were ten or twelve, but I guess the mom might have been twenty-seven. Who’s raising who?

Ken’s views about the negative effects of poor parenting also address the issue of physical disorder in the neighborhood, which he directly links to weak family values. He complained about neighboring children’s habit of littering in their own community: “I would think that if the parents would make them clean it up, then they wouldn’t throw it down. Just make them come out on Saturdays, and clean it up.”

Ken’s parenting philosophy is far more strict than most modern parents, a partial reflection of his military background. However, he is also a loving and supportive father, encouraging his sons to be independent and responsible citizens. Ken takes a preventive approach to both the community and his children, which shapes his definition of what constitutes a bad influence or a sign of larger problems. He feels his strategy for parenting in Parkmont is effective, and he is proud to say that, unlike many of the newer residents, he has never received a single complaint about his sons: “People pretty much say good things about them. They seem to be making pretty good decisions. Plus, for a long time I wouldn’t let them go anywhere. I wouldn’t let them go past the strip.”

Thus, in contrast to many of the second wave residents, Ken sees the roles of proactive parent and resident to be inextricably linked. He reported that he takes many precautionary measures to keep his sons on track, which often means insulating them from too much unsupervised contact with neighborhood children. (p.121) For instance, Ken prefers that his sons stay home and have friends over in their basement family room, rather than go to other people’s homes or spend time outside in the neighborhood at night where “things happen.” Ken thinks that his sons’ friends actually prefer to be at their house, especially the ones with family problems and fewer resources: “They come here. I think they may be a little more comfortable here. Plus, they may have a couple of things going on. The kids they hang around—I like them. They’re pretty much good kids. They hang out, play their games. So far so good.”

As Ken spoke to me about how much time he puts into teaching his children the values of respect and discipline, I recalled an early evening in late November when Ken was sitting on the couch listening to a what I thought was a fairly common request from teenagers: to order pizza for dinner. In a calm tone but with a bit of exasperation, he explained why ordering out was not an option on a week-night: “Mom made dinner and that’s what I’m having.” He told them pizza was for weekends, and that if they wanted to have it on a weeknight, they would need to pay for it themselves. They complained that they did not have enough money between them; plus, they could not finish a whole pizza by themselves. Ken just said, “Oh well, then.” Ken told me that he adheres to set rules, even for small matters, in order to help his sons understand how they are different from the other children around them. All of this is part of Ken’s strategy to meet his larger goals of keeping his sons safe, successful, and respectable as they navigate the problems that have arisen in Parkmont:

I think it’s being consistent and trying to give them good values. I try to make them be the best people they can be as far as being honest, being helpful, and not looking at race. It’s just being helpful and caring about the community. ’Cause they go out, and they have to clean up outside, and all the other kids may be out there. Having them see the differences. ’Cause they see the kids that are walking down the street without an adult, showing their underwear, and being disrespectful. It’s nothing but disrespect.

I asked if his sons would like to dress in those styles if they could, since they are a popular trend, but Ken thinks that his children have come to accept his values, some of which come from being an “older” parent:

I don’t think it would be comfortable for them at this point in time, and before, we wouldn’t have it. I think a lot of that goes with me being older. We were thirty-one and thirty-six when we had them. A lot of the other kids, their parents are almost as young as they are, and they’re wearing their pants like that, too.

(p.122) Although Ken is extremely tired after work and does not have the educational background to help his sons with some of their homework from advanced placement science classes, he prides himself on “being there” for them when it comes to school: “Some days I don’t get a chance to check their homework, but if they’re having a problem at the school, I’m definitely there for them. If it’s either a problem with a student, a problem with a teacher, or a problem with their grades. That’s what’s important.”

Clashes over Block Parties

Ken’s ambivalence about Parkmont stems from his knowledge that it is relatively safe, yet he emphasized that he strongly disapproves of the way the second wave residents conduct themselves in the neighborhood:

Overall, I’m still pretty much satisfied with the neighborhood, but it has changed. There are a lot of things that I don’t like, like the attitudes of uncaring. My new neighbors may play the music a little bit too loud or they may pull up in their car and it’s still blaring. And I’m sitting there on the porch, and they’re not paying a bit of attention. They’re just sitting there in the car, and they are just blaring with the music. It interferes with my peace.

Ken clearly views the second wave residents’ attitudes about disorder to be a serious matter and believes that their nonchalance sends a strong message about how different their core values are:

It’s the change in attitude. You meet people, nice people, but you don’t find a lot of people that’s willing to do what you’re willing to do. They just want to live. I think the neighborhood’s more than that. I like to be comfortable. I can’t sit back and watch that paper flow down the street. [Laughs] I just can’t do it. I say, “Hey, pick that paper up.”

Ken pointed out the recent appearance of block parties near his home as the type of conflict in values that epitomizes contentions between pioneers and the second wave. These parties symbolize a way of life that Ken was trying to escape when he chose to move to Parkmont. He told me that he would prefer that the new residents were more mindful of the elderly stayers and the ways that noise and blocking off main streets affect all residents. In contrast, Ken said that the pioneers’ “get togethers” on the block tend to be more inclusive of the older people and more respectful of all residents:

I don’t like their attitude. I’m not one for a block party. We have a driveway for that. We may have a barbeque. Every Labor Day, we just block (p.123) off the driveway and choose to come out. It’s all well and good, but it’s not no big DJ. And it’s real disrespectful to the neighbors. Certain neighbors don’t want to. They might be ill or like that. Like what we did, we blocked the driveway off and had a little peace here and there. Even Dolores [a stayer] came out and had a couple of snow crabs.

I was familiar with the specific DJ event to which Ken was referring, a loud block party that took place on the street perpendicular to his. Loud rap and hiphop with a heavy bass blared from large speakers, while a huge crowd gathered. Ken said that his block’s driveway party is more of a planned event. While one goal of Ken’s party is to have fun for families, there is also a clean-up component, a lunch, and an emphasis on community organization. Residents on the other block did not clean up after their party, leaving food, empty plastic bottles of “Little Hugs” brand fruit drink, and other trash scattered on the streets and sidewalks for weeks. To Ken, this is evidence that the other type of block party fails to adhere to, let alone teach, the community values of order, civility, and respect.

I noticed that Ken especially disapproves of holding block parties on streets rather than in the driveways that face the back of homes. His fear is that the traditional block parties held out in the open, which are common to many urban black neighborhoods, would attract the wrong types of people to Parkmont:

Oh, out front? Then it wouldn’t necessarily be a block party; it would be a people-party. ’Cause a majority of the time, when people come up here, it’s people that we don’t even know. People from all the other places. They come when they hear the noise. They’re inviting family, friends, cousins, and people from the other side. It’s nice and quiet up here, and those people may want to come back. I just don’t agree with the block party.

Ken told me that he realizes that some people think a block party is “like, unity and all that stuff,” but he strongly disagrees that the typical city block party is a productive avenue for community building: “I think it’s just a time to ‘show out.’ Just get loose or whatever. Have a little bit too much fun.” Ken elaborated and said that the emergence of block parties is the result of some of the newer people bringing the “hood” mentality with them to Parkmont: “They bring it right with them. That’s what they do.” Ken believes that the main difference between pioneers and second wave residents is cultural. He described a fundamental divergence in attitudes between the two groups:

It’s just a way of thinking. I enjoy the neighborhood. I enjoy where I live at a lot. A lot of the people that are moving here, they’re here just for the moment. Stepping stone, starter home, no matter where it is, you (p.124) still have to do what you have to do to live here. They think ‘We’ll just go ahead and throw our trash and destroy whatever’s here and keep on moving.’ ”

Differences in Personal Commitment to Dealing with Disorder: Formal and Informal Social Control

Ken is the “block captain” of his street. This title is an official neighborhood activist designation that is part of a citywide program to encourage leadership in civic tasks, such as monitoring one’s block, welcoming new residents, circulating information about rules and meetings, and involving neighbors in beautification efforts. However, Ken views his activity in the neighborhood as emblematic of his sense of personal responsibility, not a by-product of his official title.

Because of his role as block captain and his visibility as a local landscaper, many whites and blacks recognize Ken and know him by name. Ken keeps tabs on his elderly white neighbors and talks to other residents about how the older people are doing. Almost every white resident on his block mentioned him by name to me, but Ken held a special place in his heart for Dolores and Warren Duskin, the stayers who live two doors down from him. One day, from inside of his house, Ken peered out his window, and told me that he is often on the lookout for Dolores to come home:

I talked to Mary [a pioneer neighbor] ’cause I was wondering where Dolores was. Dolores had a problem and went to the hospital. She hurt her back, and then her husband, Warren, went to the rehabilitation center by himself ’cause he couldn’t stay here by himself. I talked to her daughter, and she told us to keep taking care of the property, and she’d let us know when Dolores got back, but they’ll have home caregivers staying with them now.

Personal Acts of Informal and Formal Social Control

Ken’s attitude about getting involved in maintaining Parkmont’s standards of decency can be summed up in this sentence: “If I see something that is uncomfortable for me, I pretty much am going to say something.” Ken described a time when he organized residents on his block to purchase speed bumps after he noticed that dune buggies, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and motorcycles were speeding down the driveway that runs along the back of the block of row houses where (p.125) children play. He seemed extremely fed up with newcomers bringing undesirable values and behaviors with them to Parkmont:

They’re desensitized. It’s just like the people who ride the motorcycles around. That drives me nuts. If you want to ride that thing, take it out to the park. But they don’t feel that they’re bothering anybody. I ended up putting speed bumps down there to slow them down. I purchased them. I paid for mine and the other neighbors paid for theirs down the street in driveways. The driveway is our common driveway, but if anything goes wrong we have to pay the repairs. I talked to the neighbors and they agreed to pay for theirs. I purchased my own, and I put it out there. $146. It slowed things tremendously. Before, a lot of people would use the driveways to get around the lights. But after that, people got tired of going over the speed bumps, so now the people that really come through the driveway are the people who live here. It deterred them.

On many occasions, Ken has directly confronted people who are responsible for problem behavior in Parkmont, as when some boys were riding ATVs down his one-way street, in the wrong direction:

They come from wherever they come from and decide that they’ll keep doing that. That’s what they did before they got here, and they come here and do the same thing. I have went out there and said, “I’d appreciate if you stop riding that thing up and down here ’cause I’ll just have to call the police.” And it has worked, but then you have those ones that zoom right past you, and if you don’t get out of their way, they might run you over.

Ken thinks the general attitude among the second wave is “hands off” when it comes to personally intervening or taking a proactive role in preventing community problems. I asked what he has seen other adults do to intervene in such cases: “Nothing, pretty much. They let ’em do what they’re going to do. They’re afraid of confronting the parents. I think that I’d be afraid of the kids. Pretty much, when I say something, they listen.”

However, at this point in the interview, Ken’s son, Marc, interjected and provided an example of the kinds of problems that have occurred in the past when neighbors have confronted each other. Marc told us that he had recently witnessed two residents on a nearby block who were loudly arguing outside about their children’s cell phones. He said the argument almost escalated into a physical fight but a neighbor phoned the police. When Marc finished his story, Ken made a gesture of incredulousness as if to suggest that people like the ones Marc mentioned are clearly not whom he had in mind for neighbors when he moved to Parkmont.

(p.126) Still, Ken insisted that people like these should not deter residents from getting involved, especially where children are concerned. He provided an example of a time when he watched his neighbor ignoring a group of kids who were playing baseball in the street across from his home, an activity that he viewed as a realistic threat to property in dense and narrow row house communities like Parkmont:

They were out here playing baseball. And the lady just walked into her house. I had to explain to them that you don’t play baseball out there. You break the windows, and who’s going to pay for it? They stopped for a minute. I came in the house, and I came back out, and they were doing it again. So I explained it to them again. They live down the street, which is where they were probably chased from. They just moved down to the middle section, so that they could play. I notice they respect me.

Ken takes the appearance of the neighborhood very seriously and believes that many second wave residents are not malicious but simply ignorant, having no idea how to live in a decent community. He wishes that all residents would behave as he does and speak up when even minor norm violations about neighborhood appearance are displayed:

Some people just walk down the street, just throwing things. A guy just moved in. He pulls his car up, starts vacuuming out his car and throwing the garbage on the street. Taking the papers and stuff and just throwing them on the ground. So, I walk over to him with a trash bag, and I said, “You’re cleaning out your car? I would appreciate if you just put it in a bag, and don’t throw it on the ground.” And he was like, “Well, all right.” I guess he didn’t recognize or realize what he was doing, but he hasn’t done it since.

I asked Ken whether he ever felt afraid to walk up to strangers and have confrontations like this. He replied, “I think I kind of said it in a loving and caring way. I don’t think he realized what he was doing. They think it doesn’t matter. I did make a difference.”

Though Ken is comfortable handling local problems informally by speaking to neighbors about their behaviors, he recognizes that many people are not willing to do this. As an alternative, he strongly urges residents to take on a sense of community ownership by reporting any suspicious behaviors to the police, no matter how minor. Ken told me that he, personally, has called the police at least (p.127) five times about a range of nonviolent crimes and disorderly events. When it comes to contacting the police, he said, “I don’t hesitate”:

I call them. People were sitting out there smoking weed. I guess they were adults. A guy down the street? Basically, the same thing. Somebody broke into a car. Somebody sitting here in the back that didn’t belong. They just drove back there and parked, like they were going to do something. And back there by the park? I think the local prostitute was back there. I guess everyone expects me to solve the problems, but it’s not necessarily like that. Somebody was breaking into somebody’s car, and they come and tell me. Why tell me? Call the police. They’re not willing to participate. I like a safe neighborhood. I enjoy peace. And I believe that if you’re doing something, I’m going to turn you in.

Unfortunately, Ken’s has developed a sense of despair about his new neighbors, finding them to be desensitized to all but the most violent crimes. His low opinion of them is not only tied to his belief about their lower standards for community behavior, but to his observation that they are only willing to get involved when their own personal property is damaged or when they are directly victimized. Ken has concluded that people in Parkmont have become far too dependent on block captains to handle their problems and conflicts regarding crime and disorder.

I noticed that Ken seems especially frustrated with residents who fail to share his views about contacting the authorities and with those who dismiss the importance of so-called quality of life crimes, also known as “nuisance crimes” or “livability crimes.” These are relatively minor illegal acts that involve no violence and have no direct victim, but interfere with a community’s sense of public safety and well-being (e.g., crimes against property, public use of drugs and alcohol, noise violations, and loitering to buy and sell drugs).2 I asked Ken about the validity of some residents’ assessments that Parkmont’s quality of life problems are minor, but his opinion on this topic was unwavering and absolute. For instance, when I mentioned that several newer residents told me that they disagree with Ken’s sentiment that smoking marijuana around the neighborhood is a big deal, he rolled his eyes and said: “It breeds crime. No matter what it is. It breeds crime. The person might run out or might be under the influence and might decide to go over and knock Dolores in the head. Things like that. They aren’t thinking straight as it is. I’ve heard of home invasions.”

(p.128) Ken explained that Parkmont’s reputation as a relatively safe community actually places residents at a disadvantage in terms of crime control because the police refuse to take their concerns seriously. Ken said that the neighborhood’s low levels of violent crime combined with the failure of the police to prioritize Parkmont means that residents need to take on an especially active and organized role in preventing the escalation of both disorder and serious crime. He described tactics that he and others use to get the police to take their concerns seriously:

There’s not really that much [serious crime] going on up here. It’s a few things that may not be conducive, but overall this neighborhood is pretty safe. Just pay attention. … It’s frustrating, but if anything does go on, I have Reverend Jones who I can call. He’s on Town Watch. They say that if you call the police, if one person calls, then they don’t necessarily respond. But the more people that call. … If they’re having a problem over there, he’ll call me, and I’ll call the police. That way we get the response. The police have the fliers, and I have all the information. But the police don’t come as far as that’s concerned ’cause that’s not, quote-unquote, a high priority. They may send one car here, and they send four cars over to worse places. The only way you can get the car over here is if you have five or six calls. You have to call. That’s where someone else calls me, and I call them. And you can’t call from the same number ’cause they have caller ID. Otherwise, they’ll say, “We’ll be out as soon as we can.” They not going to tell you they’re not going to come out.

When residents call Ken “the mayor,” they are referring to his special efforts to observe and watch out for people’s homes and safety. Ken is always on the lookout for suspicious behaviors and wants to let people know that Parkmont is an area where people like him are watching:

One time, there was a couple who was sitting on the steps, and I was wondering, “Why are you sitting out here?” They were like, “We’re waiting for somebody.” And I was like, “Why you waiting for the people out here?” I find out that what they were doing was watching the mailman. And they were looking at certain doors that have mailboxes, and they were sitting there and stealing the mail. But I know that they finally did catch them.

In the same manner that he talked to the man who was cleaning out his car, Ken takes the initiative to socialize new residents into the norms of the community:

It’s more about attraction. I go out there and do what I do and hope that someone else will say “I can do that too.” In years past, at the beginning (p.129) of the summer, I would put out a flier. “It’s going to be a hot summer. We have a nice neighborhood. You see a paper on the ground? Pick it up. Don’t just walk over it.” I haven’t done it this year, but in the past, I made that flier, because I, personally, was the block captain, and I still am. And it would give them some sort of insight. A lot of people get the house and don’t know how to take care of the house. Maybe it’s a learning process.

Organizational Participation in Social Control

According to Ken, Parkmont’s white flight and subsequent black flight have resulted in a critical loss of residents who took an active role in the community. On several occasions, Ken raised the topic of the neighborhood civic association when describing his frustration with the lack of involvement among the second wave residents and the remainder of the pioneers. Ken explained that the timing of arrival to Parkmont had an impact on second wave residents’ desire to get involved in the community. In contrast, he believes that the pioneers arrived at a time when neighborhood activism was on the rise:

It was in the paper. It was in the Parkmont Press, and they talked about the Parkmont Civic Association, and there were a lot of people who were involved. Back then. And it was something to do every second Wednesday of the month. And we pretty much joined, and I joined beautification. And the guy Sy Bender, he passed about a month ago, he had skin cancer. Him and his wife, Jenny, moved to Maine to get closer to the grandkids, because they didn’t think he would be around too much longer. So, he and I pretty much headed up beautification, cleaning up. He was head, and all he had to do was tell me when to show up. And that was fine. We scheduled cleanups all throughout Parkmont, and we had a locker where we kept brooms and trash bags. The civic association would sponsor trash bags and anything that we needed. At every meeting, we would tell people about it. We gave out a flyer that had the schedule of the places where we would meet, like a cleanup on the strip.

According to Ken and other residents, the civic association was once quite active, with involvement from whites, blacks, men, and women from almost every block in the neighborhood. Ken reported that this period of time stands in stark contrast to more recent years when the organization’s efforts have been more limited, intermittent, and scattered:

Before, what it would be is the Parkmont Civic Association, a collective effort of people all over. As far as beautification, about maybe thirty were (p.130) in it, but the association had much more than that. Maybe more than one hundred. They still have a lot of people who just pay dues, but who just don’t show up. They’re not active, but they still send their dues.

But to Ken, dues are not enough to keep the neighborhood orderly and safe: “People have to come out and do some things. That’s the thing. That’s the key.”

Ken told me that participation in the civic association is now at a low point. For instance, he mentioned that only twenty residents attended the last meeting. Ken was incredulous when he told me that the president of the association at the time, Sam Wilson, was not even a resident anymore, but was a former pioneer who had left Parkmont as part of the black-flight exodus. Ken also complained about the limited male presence at civic association meetings: “A majority are women because the majority of people who live in Parkmont are women. The majority of people who live here are women ’cause I find that to be true when I landscape. There’s a lot of people, and it’s a lot of women.” Ken asserted that Parkmont’s male residents, although small in number, have been a disappointment. He thinks that if the men showed a greater presence, then community efforts would be more effective: “It would work. ’Cause it’s more people who don’t take the active role than the ones who do. There are a lot more men here than you see. They just choose to stay in the house and watch the satellite picture.”

These days, even Ken has scaled back his involvement in the civic association because he has become demoralized by his neighbors’ apathy. He admitted that he resigned from the beautification committee a year and a half ago, refocusing his attention away from the larger neighborhood to the smaller world of his own block. Once a leader within the civic association, Ken has since lost the motivation and incentive to expend energy on the anonymous residents who reside on other blocks. Yet Ken still considers himself to be far more involved than most people:

I still go to the meetings. I still get into the organizational Town Watch. They still call me. Town Watch is where they patrol Parkmont. I don’t do it any more ’cause I have my own Town Watch right here. My involvement, it’s way down because I’m still interested in the neighborhood, but it’s a limit to everything. I go to the Town Watch meetings, and there are only three or four people there, and they expect you to patrol all of Parkmont. And that, I’m not necessarily willing to do. Everyone knows that the Town Watch is right here. They know not to sit on my walk.

When Ken first moved to Parkmont, white flight had already been set in motion and stayers and pioneers were actively working together to maintain a sense of community stability. Since then, the organizational structure of the (p.131) neighborhood has fallen apart, and the reasons for this are threefold. First, the long-term white residents moved, became ill, or died. Second, pioneers have become disillusioned and dissatisfied, and many of them have also moved. Third, second wave residents have either been too busy or too complacent to take on a leadership role. Indicators of the loss of organizational activity in Parkmont are numerous. For instance, by 2004 the Parkmont Press had ceased publication because of the loss of advertising from businesses in the neighborhood and surrounding suburbs. Important public sites and services in the community, such as playgrounds, parks, and ambulance stations, have become blighted. As Ken mentioned, the civic association meetings are now poorly attended, and he believes that eventually the organization will become defunct:

I can see the lack of participation. I think that everybody wants the association to exist, but they don’t want to participate. They think that the civic association is here to police the neighborhood for everybody else, when in reality it’s all volunteers. It’s a struggle. Everybody around is like, “When’s there a meeting, remind me when the meeting is.” It’s not my job.

The Future: Stay or Go?

Like many pioneers, Jill and Ken have had numerous debates about the pros and cons of moving away from Parkmont to another neighborhood. Ken explained the reasons to leave, his misgivings about saying good-bye to Parkmont, and his desire to stand his ground and fight off the undesirable elements:

Because of the change, Jill wants to move now. I’ve talked to my wife, and I said, “We can continue to keep running away from them, and eventually they’ll have as much money as we do. And then they’ll come, and they’ll do the same thing there.” Eventually, you have to go ahead and stay and say, “Okay, this is the way it’s going to be here.” Everyone can get on the same page. And, “If you come here and think you are going to do this here in this neighborhood, then we’re not going to tolerate it, and you have to leave.”

Yet Ken finds that his resolve to stay is often undermined by his aggravation over the lack of neighbor participation and the rapid population change that has left people like him in the minority. Like many city employees, he is eagerly awaiting the pension and relaxation that he hopes will accompany retirement. Ken looks forward to the time when he can finally have the option of living in his ideal location, the place he has aspired to since his youth: the suburbs. He told me (p.132) that he dreams of retiring in seven years and living in a detached home in a suburban area named Arbor Hills, a borough that happens to be 93 percent white:

Me and Jill were talking about that the other day. I was over there looking at a couple of properties for when I retire. It won’t be long. I’m not sure exactly where, but I’ll probably be able to move where I want to move then. If I could move outside the city now, I would. I could afford it now, but my job keeps me here, and for a matter of convenience.

Again, Ken considered whether he would have moved to Parkmont years ago if it had been in its current state, and he did not hesitate for a moment when he said:

No. Maybe because I’m more set in my ways. I don’t want to be going through a whole bunch of crap. I want to be around people that want the same things as I want—peace, safety for my kids. I don’t mind somebody telling ’em that they are doing wrong. Today, it seems like they don’t want you saying anything to ’em.

Ken’s views about community have changed along with Parkmont’s transformation. His experience buying his first home and moving to a safe neighborhood once brought him joy and a sense of accomplishment. However, Ken has also learned some harsh lessons about the ways in which population change can leave neighborhoods vulnerable. He can only think of one solution for gaining access to a home that is acceptably distant from the kinds of people who do not seem to share his values:

I pretty much want a detached house. I can put my fence up. More privacy, less noise. Like now, when they decide to play their music, you can hear it. My neighbor here, he’s pretty much coming in the morning, coming in from work, and he might sit out there in the car for like five minutes, listening to his favorite record or whatever really loud. “Look, I’m trying to get my sleep.” You know what I mean? Be mindful.


Ken Wilkinson represents a bridge between Parkmont’s past and future. On one hand, he symbolizes the continuity between stayers and pioneers in terms of beliefs, values, and behaviors in the community. In this sense, he has tried to be optimistic in the face of rapid population transition, believing that the rising levels of disorder in Parkmont could be contained if only the residents would demonstrate an interest in keeping up the neighborhood. However, Ken also (p.133) personifies a harbinger of further change, as he and his family contemplate joining the pioneers who have left in a wave of black flight.

As a husband and father, Ken perceives the gap in values and behaviors between Parkmont’s two groups of black residents as real and threatening to his family. He feels a social distance from the second wave because of their attitudes about parenting, their norms about what constitutes community order, and their lack of personal commitment to informal, formal, and organizational forms of intervention in neighborhood problems. These differences are a source of conflict, as well as dissatisfaction with community life for pioneers such as Ken. In general, Ken empathizes with Parkmont’s black families and their struggles to balance community with work, family, and finances, but he does not excuse their apathy. As a result, Ken is nagged by ambivalence about how much more he can invest in the neighborhood:

In the long run, I know involvement has benefits. It lets you know what’s going on and what we can do to keep it as nice as it is. But I’m just as busy as everyone. So, it’s all about how much they’re willing to go ahead and do. ’Cause I know the little bit of effort I go ahead and put forth around here, it pays off. Because the minute it gets too trashy or too overwhelming, then it’s really time to move.

Ken pointed out a banner that was prominent on Parkmont’s strip when he had first arrived. He told me that now the banner serves as a painful reminder of the loss of community that he has witnessed as white and black flight have taken hold:

I know that on the banner, it said, “Parkmont, the Neighborhood That Cares.” Right? But now they don’t necessarily care, as far as keeping it up. They’re not willing to put forth the work. They think that maybe they purchase a house, and that’s it. But you purchase a house, and you have to do work at it. You have to keep it clean. Then, when something goes wrong in it, you have to fix it.

Finding a community that is close to both work and family, safe from crime, peaceful, and orderly is a goal of most American families, but for black pioneers in the city it is one that is almost impossible to achieve. As if it had not been enough of a challenge to watch rapid white flight descend on Parkmont, pioneers have had to deal with adjusting to new neighbors who seem to hold vastly different values about community life. Many pioneers have chosen to leave, but for others moving is not an option. For pioneers who must remain in Parkmont, the search for ways to maintain an enriching environment for raising children continues. Chapter 6 explains in detail the ways in which black flight has transformed (p.134) Parkmont. It distinguishes between the pioneers and second wave residents and the distinct circumstances of each group’s arrival in Parkmont. Chapter 6 also highlights the nature of the cultural conflicts that have emerged between the two groups, and shows the ways in which strained neighbor relations over daily disturbances can translate into neighborhood dissatisfaction and mobility thoughts among even the most dedicated residents.


(1.) See Wilson and Kelling (1982) for a full explanation of “broken windows” theory, which asserts that a community must target small problems (i.e., disorder) in order to prevent further deterioration and to deter more serious or violent forms of crime. In Parkmont, disorderly behavior has primarily triggered pioneers’ mobility thoughts and behaviors not because it leads to violence, but because disorder interferes with pioneers’ quality of life, symbolizes degradation in the values of incoming residents, and represents a decline in neighborhood’s status.

(2.) These examples are only a subset of behaviors that are considered to be “broken windows,” but they are the ones that are most relevant to Parkmont.