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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community. by Steven Gregory (1998), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 282 pp.

 

Reviewed by Michael Jones-Correa, Harvard University.

One of the disturbing aspects of the contemporary discourse on African-Americans in American cities is that the debate on the black "underclass" has subsumed all other idioms for discussion. This is the starting point for Steven Gregory‚s rich and stimulating book Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community, which seeks to re-introduce the complexities of history, politics and class into the analysis of blacks in urban America by looking carefully at political mobilization in a working- to middle-class African-American neighborhood in New York City. 

In particular, Gregory wants to get beyond the prevalent view in the underclass debate of African-Americans as passive, de-politicized clients of the welfare state, rather than as actors in their own right. Gregory argues that African-American political mobilization is conditioned on the formation of collective identities, and that these identities are maintained, in large part, by local activists. One of the roles of activists is to recollect and re-work history "to provide meaning and context, as well as narrative authority, to interpretations of contemporary social conditions" (p. 14) Activists‚ recollections of the past shape the collective identities which make community mobilization possible: agreement on the past makes possible agreement in the present.

Local activism, however, takes place in the context of the state and society at large, and these broader institutions impose certain constraints - while also opening other avenues - for mobilization. Just as racial exclusion - housing segregation, red-lining, unequal schooling - prompted political mobilization during the Civil Rights era, the diagnosis in the 1960s of poverty and neighborhood deterioration as the basic, underlying social illness channeled local mobilization into the organizations managing federal funds - the Great Society programs. The role of the state in framing mobilization continues, Gregory notes, through the present. He portrays the Port Authority‚s plans to build a light-railway link between Manhattan and the Queens airports, cutting through Corona and other neighborhoods, as a classic example of Œdivide and conquer‚, with the regional authority using Œthe politics of place‚ to break down the opposition to the plan into manageable neighborhood politics.

There is considerable tension between the framing of urban problems by the state, and the frames advocated by activists. Gregory highlights these conflicts well in his discussion of Lefrak City, a largely African-American high-rise housing complex, where debates about safety and crime pitted activists‚ calls for youth programs against the official discourse on Œjuvenile delinquency.‚ Grassroots groups and the state are always engaged in a struggle to define the terms of contestation. To Gregory‚s credit, this struggle over definitions is not portrayed simply as the state vs. the grassroots. One of the complexities he introduces into his narrative is that some components of the African-American community fare better than others under the state‚s framing of the issues. In particular, the state is disproportionately responsive to black middle-income constituencies in Corona. It is middle-class blacks, both as homeowners and as activists, who benefit most--they run the community groups, they staff the city‚s service agencies, they have access to representatives and are themselves elected to office.

Gregory, however, sees class itself as the creation of the state. The state favors "formulations of neighborhood problems and needs that obscure their origins in wider processes of racial and economic subordination" (p. 141), and in doing so, shapes the process of class formation. The state‚s distinctions between clients of the welfare system, and those outside it hardened the boundary line between middle-class and poor African-Americans. Like William Julius Wilson, Gregory sees the lack of contact between middle-class and poor blacks as problematic, but unlike Wilson, he ascribes the cause for this estrangement to political, rather than economic or social, factors. Curiously, in doing so Gregory seems to absolve the black middle-class of any responsibility for their own positions. 

In his case study of the Port Authority‚s planned light-railway link through Queens, for example, Gregory argues that black homeowners (who were the principle opposition to the plan in Corona) were motivated not by concerns over property values and neighborhood quality of life, nor by NIMBY-ism (build a train line anywhere else but here)-- the usual motivations for the mobilization of middle-class homeowners elsewhere-- but rather by worries over the environmental impact of the rail line and the uneven benefits of urban growth strategies. He argues that the Port Authority adroitly fragmented this principled opposition by addressing concerns neighborhood by neighborhood, avoiding addressing the broader issues raised by its antagonists. However, in doing so Gregory overlooks the arguments he himself makes earlier in the book. Black homeowners' response to the Port Authority, and the Authority's tactic of addressing issues at the neighborhood level both fit with his description of the organization of interests and resources among the black middle class. The black middle class are the primary constituents of the homeowners' associations, block groups, churches and other local institutions which are at the core of neighborhood organization, and Gregory acknowledges that the main agenda of these organizations is to protect neighborhood "quality of life."  Gregory is reluctant, however, to admit that black homeowners might have acted to protect their economic interests, and that the Port Authority would have sought to respond to their concerns. While Black Corona, on the whole, presents African Americans not as political subjects but as agents in their own right, this impulse falters in Gregory‚s discussion of the black middle class. 

Black Corona, like every good book, ultimately raises as many questions as it answers. First, although Black Corona fits in the classic tradition of urban ethnography, based on fieldwork in a single neighborhood, Gregory's discussion is a fundamental critique of neighborhood-based mobilization. Place-based identities, he writes, bound by administrative designations of "community" offer politically ineffective positions from which to oppose regional and global development strategies. Broader, more systemic inequalities are de-politicized and ignored because most issues re-defined as "local" in nature. Even if residents wanted to organize around more systemic issues, the avenues for mobilization which are available to them are entirely place-based, so again, every issue is seen as "local." In spite of being a book celebrating neighborhood politics, Gregory argues that neighborhood strategies are insufficient. So what is the relationship between local political mobilization and broader political movements?

Second, as discussed above, Black Corona raises, in a conflicted kind of way, questions about the nature of class. Is class shaped by the political structure surrounding it, or by individuals‚ economic interests? The question of class, in turn, comes back to one of the central tensions in the book, the tension between the role of activists and the role of the state. On the one hand, Gregory would like to laud activists, particularly their role in molding identity, thus creating the basis for community mobilization. On the other hand, this mobilization, he argues, is decisively constrained by the state‚s definition and creation of acceptable avenues for political action. In the end, what is the relationship between activism and the state? 

Third, there are some questions to be raised about activism and activists themselves. One of the primary roles of activists is to shape a collective understanding of history that can serve as the basis for action in the present. In Corona this was possible because a core group of activists already had a great deal in common: experiences of migration from the south, histories of activism in the civil rights movement, and decades of interaction in neighborhood organizations. Mobilization in the present was predicated on these shared experiences. However, the very fact of this shared past may have had an unintentional exclusionary effect, both for younger generational cohorts and other racial/ethnic groups residing in these neighborhoods who may not have had these same experiences. In a neighborhood changing as rapidly as Corona, which, among other things, has seen a rapid influx of new immigrants over the last twenty years, this may seriously handicap neighborhood mobilization. It is significant that in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Queens, immigrants are practically invisible as actors in Gregory's Black Corona - reflecting their invisibility in the neighborhood's African-American institutions as well.

Black Corona is an intelligent, provocative and wide-ranging book. It will find a wide readership across a number of fields in the social sciences and history. The questions it seeks to address-- on the role of history, class and race in neighborhood politics-- are engaging and important. In the course of an absorbing ethnographic portrayal of local African-American mobilization in New York City, Gregory makes it clear why these questions should remain on the agenda of future scholarship.