Sunday, August 18, 2013

Segregation in My American City

There's been a bunch of maps showing the ethnic geography of America America and it's cities lately.  This one is the latest.  And this makes me think about my own city, and its own history of segregation.

3 weeks ago my wife and I and I bought a mattress from a lovely local place. I got to talking with the owner about living in the historic district. Back in the 90's, like 20(!) years ago, she had lived on our old street, College Avenue, on the same block I did from 2008 to 2011. I had known that at one time the many of the houses on the street had been owned by African-Americas. I learned from her that when she lived there there were still some older people (they all sounded like retirees), mostly black, living on the block. By the time I moved in the street was nothing but white folks and vacant houses (like 3 vacant properties on my block, which isn't terrible but still kind of jarring).

Now some background. Annapolis was segregated on a house-by-house basis. I don't know if there were legal covenants or not, but during Jim Crow there were just houses that were rented to or sold to black people and other houses that were rented to or sold to white people. Thus Annapolis was segregated (and I'm sure white people screwed the black population of Annapolis out of a decent deal on houses), but on a block by block basis people were fairly mixed.

Fast forward 50 years. These days there are virtually no African Americans living in the historic district -- there's one nearby street that's still mostly black, and that's about it within walking distance of downtown. Even in the historically black suburb/neighborhood of Eastport, much of the African American community now only lives in the cheaper housing stock from the 60's on the edges of the neighborhood. Mostly the black population of Annapolis lives in apartments (including some housing projects manged by a tight-fisted and tyrannical private contractor) and houses far from the city center, in neighborhoods that are quite homogenous.

This is part of a larger shift in Annapolis. Back in the day, Annapolis was a working town for waterman and boat-builders. I feel like the conventional image of the Chesapeake waterman is probably a white guy (probably by analogy to New England) but a disproportionate amount of crabbing and oyster-harvesting was done by African Americans, from the antebellum era to the collapse of the fisheries from the 50's through the 70's. So while before Annapolis had a very vibrant and pretty diverse population of working people and small business owners (including a big Greek-American community), since the 70's it's become a playground for rich people and their boats, and a place for wealthy retirees to find 'peace and quiet.' And so the sons and daughters of crabbers and oystermen and small business owners have either left for greener pastures (the DC suburbs, Baltimore county) or they've taken up marginal jobs and moved into marginal housing. The death of the bay was, for cities like this one, what closing factories were for many other towns.

This is a long way of saying this -- Annapolis is now more segregated, in terms of housing, than it was during Jim Crow. It's a grim thought.

NB: there's a book on my reading list called 'the Other Annapolis' about the history of the African American community of Annapolis, from the founding to the present.

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