Summer 2020 Archive
Welcome to the Neighborhood
By Lisa Braxton
They stepped out of front doors, proceeded down spacious brick pathways to the foot of their manicured lawns, and with the precision of a military unit, pivoted to face us. All of them were white—men and women—homeowners in a leafy enclave in Fairfield County, Connecticut suburbia anchored by raised ranches, Dutch Colonials, and split-level homes.
All eyes were on us—my mother, father, sister and me—as the realtor led us down the front steps of a well-appointed three-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a two-car garage that she’d just shown us.
It was around 1969. I was eight or nine-years-old at the time. My dad was carrying my sister, who was a toddler. I remember my parents’ stride toward our car slowed as they realized that we were under surveillance. The members of our “audience,” consisting of about a dozen people on both sides of the street, were expressionless, motionless, arms hanging at their sides. Their body language was unreadable, but their presence screamed volumes.
I don’t recall what the realtor said to my parents as she took in the scene, but I remember that she was flustered, apologetic, and tripped over her words. It was a moment that she had apparently not anticipated—the visceral reaction of white residents at a black family being shown a house in their affluent neighborhood. At my age, I didn’t think deeply about their demonstration, but I did find it odd that all of those adults were standing on their front lawns, their eyes on us. As my father put our car into gear, I scooted to the edge of my seat in the back to eavesdrop on my parents’ conversation as I often did when we were on car rides.
My mother leaned toward my father, and in a hushed tone said, “They don’t want us living here.” After a moment, he gave a slight nod and said just as quietly, “I know.” I slid back on my seat, my eavesdropping undetected.
At that age I knew a little bit about prejudice. I had a classmate who made a remark when we were in the third grade that stunned me. My class was lined up at the water fountain after coming back from chapel at the church next door that operated our parochial school. She blurted out angrily, “I wish all the black people would go back to Africa!” When I came home upset about the incident my parents sat me down for a talk and said that most likely she’d heard that remark from her parents and was repeating what they’d said.
A child in my neighborhood with whom I’d spent countless hours having pretend picnics and competing on who could swing the highest on my swing set made the statement one day as we played near the fence that divided our yards, “White people are better than black people.” With indignation I retorted, “No, they’re not!” My naïve childhood self didn’t understand why anyone would think something so ridiculous. I felt that the idea of white people being better than black people turned logic on its head. How could one group be better than another?
After we ping-ponged our positions on the matter for a while, I ran into the house to tell my mother about my friend’s unfathomable pronouncement. I still remember the pained look on my mother’s face
At the time of the silent front lawn protest, I didn’t know that this was but the latest racial indignity my parents had had shoved in their faces. They came of age in the early 1950s in the western section of Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley region, known generally for its picturesque, bucolic nature, but also for an ugliness manifested in hostility for many African Americans.
Because of Jim Crow laws, my parents attended segregated schools. They told me that whenever they came close to approaching a white person on the sidewalk, they had to lower their heads and step into the street. Taking a bus involved going to the “black” section in the back and standing if there were no seats, even if there were empty seats up front. Dining out involved going to the back door of a restaurant for takeout. My mother recounts saying nothing for fear of reprisal when white individuals would cut in front of her at retail stores when she was in line to pay for a purchase. And when she did get to the front of the line, she’d count her change to make sure she wasn’t being cheated.
My parents shared these accounts with me, and later, with my sister when she was old enough to understand, because they wanted us to have the best life possible. They wanted us to advocate for ourselves and understand that people would not always have our best interests in mind. They didn’t want us to be held back by people who used race as a means of control and disrespect.
Both of my parents knew that because of the racial climate, growing up poor in the South with only high school educations and not having connections to anyone with any level of power or influence, their prospects would be limited if they stayed in Virginia. Like a massive number of African Americans from southern rural areas during the middle of the past century, they made their way North. For my parents, “The Promised Land” was Bridgeport, Connecticut, an industrial force at the time.
Once they’d arrived, they realized that they hadn’t escaped racism, but encountered a subtler form of it. My mother would respond over the phone to a classified ad for an employment opportunity, be encouraged to come to the location to fill out an application, and then be told once she walked in the door that the job had been filled.
My parents discovered that there were only certain apartment buildings in the city that would rent to them and moved into one housing African American and Latinx renters. When they purchased their Cape Cod-style home in early 1961, they were the only non-white family on their block in the working-class neighborhood. A neighbor later told my mother that after she and my father bought the house, a man who lived around the corner from them went to every house on the block and “warned” them that a black family was moving in. She was told that one family put their house on the market in response and moved to the suburbs. It was common knowledge that at least one property owner, in possession of a large parcel of land in the neighborhood, would not sell homes to African Americans.
By the time my parents looked at that house in suburbia—one of many like it that they were shown during that period of time—my father had moved up from a machinist at the General Electric plant in Bridgeport to foreman. My parents were opening up a business, a high-end men’s clothing store. They had me enrolled at the parochial school and my mother was considering pursuing a bachelor’s degree and possibly law school. Mom and Dad were invited to join some of the African American professional charitable and civic clubs and organizations in Bridgeport. Moving out of their starter home to suburbia seemed like a logical step.
My parents chose not to pursue that house. Most likely they were concerned about hostility from the neighbors in light of the demonstration. They probably worried about my sister and me being subjected to racial taunts and remarks from neighborhood kids and classmates and also thought we’d feel isolated. Every so often on car rides near that neighborhood I’d overhear my mother, her voice catching in her throat, go back to that day and say to my father how terrible it was for, “those people to come out onto their front lawns like that.”
Mom and Dad stopped looking at houses and made improvements to the Cape Cod. They had the roof raised on the back and the attic upgraded so my sister and I could have separate bedrooms. By the time I reached my early teens, I noticed significant changes in the neighborhood. My white playmates had moved away. The white families whose homes flanked ours were gone. I heard that the property owner who refused to sell to African Americans had passed away. The neighborhood became more African American and Latinx. Recent immigrants moved in. A dramatic level of white flight occurred not just in my neighborhood but throughout the city. The white families most likely moved to the suburb where my parents went house hunting all those years earlier or to another Fairfield County suburb.
In 1958, political scientist Morton Grodzins identified that "once the proportion of non-whites exceeds the limits of the neighborhood’s tolerance for interracial living, whites move out." Grodzins termed this phenomenon the tipping point in the study of white flight, the sudden or gradual large-scale migration of white people from areas becoming more racially or ethnoculturally diverse. Economists attribute white flight both to racism and economics.
In the 1960s and '70s, "There goes the neighborhood," became a popular catchphrase, most likely originating as an expression of concern by a homeowner that a newcomer would lower property values and in many instances an expression of fear among white homeowners when the first minority family moved in.
Undoubtedly, thoughts of property values deteriorating was on the minds of the silent activists when we visited their neighborhood. Some of those residents may have lived in a Bridgeport neighborhood at one time and escaped to the suburbs when the racial ratio reached the tipping point. Our presence may have symbolized a nipping at their heels when they thought they had outrun us.
Black flight is a term applied to the migration of African Americans from predominantly black or mixed inner-city areas to suburbs and newly constructed homes on the outer edges of cities. In some ways their goals have been similar to those of the white middle class heading to the suburbs: newer housing, better schools for their children, and attractive environments, what my parents had in mind in their house hunting.
I couldn’t help but think back to that “front lawn moment” in the mid-1990s when I had a realtor helping me look for an apartment in the coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I had accepted a news reporter position at a television station there and had driven to the area ahead of my start date for a weekend hoping to secure an apartment. Toward the end of the Saturday, after not finding anything I liked, the realtor suggested that I look at an apartment that was in her building. It was a charming corner unit in the heart of the downtown and had large, old-fashioned windows that let in plenty of light, decorative moldings along the doorways and ceilings, and walls of mirrors that had me reminiscing about visiting the hall of mirrors at the Palace of Versailles when I was a high school exchange student. The apartment was less than a block from the TV station. I’d be able to walk to work, the bank, the library, church, and just about everywhere else. I knew the moment I walked in the door that I wanted to rent it.
The realtor got on the phone with the owner to let him know that she had a renter. I noticed her jaw tighten in reaction to whatever he was saying on the other end. She glanced at me and said a series of “no’s.” into the receiver. I knew what was going on and was incensed. He was asking her about race. She next responded to him with a “yes.” Then after a pause, she said, “If you won’t rent to her, she’ll do an investigative report on you.” When she hung up, her tone was apologetic. She stated that some people in the community were narrow minded. She added that the owner wanted to meet with me before deciding whether or not to rent the apartment.
I looked forward to it. I wanted to meet this man who decided that because of race I shouldn’t be rented the apartment and only reconsidered under threat. After my meeting with him, the realtor handed me a rental agreement. I had mixed feelings as I signed and dated the document, but the window of time for me to find another apartment was limited.
Sociologists are finding that now that more minorities are moving into the suburbs, white flight is happening all over again. Samuel Kye at Indiana University has documented an exodus of white residents as more minorities have entered the middle class and established themselves in healthy suburban neighborhoods. Kye discovered that white flight was particularly pronounced in areas with fewer high school dropouts, strong home values, median income levels and large numbers of professionals. Low-income whites didn’t have the means to leave. His conclusions are in line with those of other academics who’ve done similar research.
The expression, “There goes the neighborhood,” may have gone out of fashion decades ago, but the mindset persists, in spite of all of the conversations this nation has had in recent years about race through town hall meetings, academic forums, college classes, debates, discussions, special reports in the media, speeches by politicians, lawsuits, and informal talks among friends and colleagues.
Memory works selectively. We hold onto certain memories and others we disregard. What I experienced all those years ago during that house hunt was a moment I didn’t fully understand at the time but never forgot. I held the memory deep inside and developed an understanding of the incident as I matured. It echoes through experiences I continue to have of biased treatment and outright racism and reminds me that this country still has so much work to be done in terms of racial justice.