“When The Funk Leaves Uptown”


I love Bruno Mars. He is both a wonderful singer and entertainer. In the 2014 Super Bowl, his halftime show was the one thing that held my attention. Bruno Mars has incorporated the best of Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Prince to bring his brand of neo-funk to the party. Today, his hit song, “Uptown Funk” has become an earworm for me. I can’t get it out of my head and find myself constantly humming, “Don’t believe me just watch!” But this blog is not about Bruno Mars. It’s about what happens when the funk leaves uptown.
Because of my work I am constantly traveling and I can see the way developers, investors, and hipsters are taking over the cities, communities, and neighborhoods that were once iconic Black spaces to create upscale, exorbitantly expensive neighborhoods that displace the people whose blood, sweat, and tears created those communities. I predicted and then witnessed what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. Instead of the funky, very African place we’ve known as the Crescent City, we now have an expensive, lower density city that is clearly “less Black” than its pre-Katrina days. Its schools are run by and filled with White administrators and teachers (since all of the Black pre-Katrina teachers were fired).
But, it’s not just New Orleans that we could argue was changed by special circumstances. The District of Columbia is no longer truly “Chocolate City.” What was once a city with an almost 70% Black population now has a Black population that has slipped below 50%. It is also an extremely expensive city in which to live so fewer Black families will be moving to it.
And, have you seen what has happened to Harlem? Once the mecca of Black life and culture, Harlem, NY is fully 30% White. The rents and property costs are through the roof and the ability to maintain it as a mixed income community is slipping away. Last summer I was there for a meeting, had dinner at the “hot” Red Rooster Restaurant and could not get over how many White people were in the restaurant, strolling along the sidewalk, and lined up outside the Apollo Theater at almost 10 o’clock at night. The Funk was definitely leaving uptown!
The latest casualty of the evacuation of funk is the Motor City. Detroit was a city in crisis. It was one the largest municipalities to ever fall into bankruptcy. Because of all of its problems—crime, failing schools, unemployment, drugs, and corrupt city government—Detroit was losing population faster than any other city. Today, however, groups of White investors are swarming into Detroit and snatching up cheap properties. There is a new vision of Detroit as the Midwest Silicon Valley. There are a number of “art” colonies springing up in the city and those artists are mostly young, White middle class folks. The funk is leaving Motown!
Even in the small, formerly almost all Black East Palo Alto, CA (EPA) we can see the way powerful interests remove those who “stand in their way.” Today EPA is home to an Ikea store, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, and a Four Seasons Hotel. But, many of the Black families that once lived there have migrated across the San Francisco Bay to places like Hayward, San Leandro, and Union City.
This pattern of displacement and gentrification is not a new one. Black people have always been disposable in the plans of the powerful. And, no one seems to care that the character of Black neighborhoods and communities are radically changing to suit the desires of the elite. It seems that no one cares that the funk is leaving uptown!

Stay Black & Smart!

2 thoughts on ““When The Funk Leaves Uptown”

  1. Today is the anniversary of the first performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” penned by James Weldon Johnson while he was principal of the historic Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, and this post reminds me of instructive event in Stanton’s history. Bear with me (it’s a bit long):
    In 1901, a fire nearly leveled the city of Jacksonville, including most of the downtown African American community. The building that was constructed to replace the destroyed Stanton had major problems from the outset, including a furnace that couldn’t be used because it filled the classroom with smoke, and even started fires in the building. According to Johnson, the shoddy design was intentional, given that it was meant to serve as a temporary structure; Johnson learned that “the necessity of rebuilding” Jacksonville had given the School Board “an opportunity” to move the school from the valuable block of property where it resided, which they intended to either sell or use as the site of a white school. Johnson saw this plan as part of a common pattern in the South: as cities grew around segregated sections, properties came to be considered “‘too good’ or ‘too valuable’ for the use of Negroes; then by one means or another the Negroes are evicted and shoved farther out and back.”
    Johnson discerned that “these plans meant the destruction of a tradition and important element in the life of Jacksonville Negro citizens” and “probably meant the end of a Negro high school.” Fortunately, a records search revealed that the property did not belong to the city or county, but rather “had been deeded to a board of trustees made up of white and colored men as a site for a Negro school by Governor Hart, a Reconstruction governor of Florida.” One of the conditions of the purchase was that “if the property ceased to be used for the purpose of a Negro school, it would revert to the heirs of the Hart estate.”
    The circumstances of Stanton’s founding gave its community a degree of leverage that few if any other black public school constituencies had – the legal, documented, indisputable right to have a say in the disposition of the school’s assets. Granted, such control was limited, in that as a public tax-supported institution, governance of the school was vested in white state and local authorities. Still, it positioned Jacksonville’s African American community to exercise their legal rights, in a period when such rights had been almost completely eroded. In Johnson’s words, “the whole matter worked out for the best: the property rights of the colored people in the property were clarified and settled once and for all…” Retention of the Stanton property virtually guaranteed the continued presence of a black community in close proximity to the grandly restored downtown.

    Read all about it in Johnson’s bio, “Along This Way”


  2. Your blog speaks to the breaking of my heart. I grew up in the “Chocolate City” that is not so chocolate any more. Through out my academic preparation my one goal was to return, work and live there. As a newly minted elementary school teacher I found the disparity between my salary and the ability to live IN THE CITY was impossible. I could not reconcile what my housing options in D.C. with my beginning salary. As the years have passed, I did not give up on my dream as as opportunities would arise to apply for work in my beloved city again even with a Ph.D. and years under my belt as a professor, the salary disparity and the cost of living was outrageous. As the realtor that showed me around the city she explained, “No one LIVES in the District. Can’t afford it. I drive an hour and 30 mins to work every day hat can take over two hours with traffic.” I continued much like New Orleans, the lower income housing is gone and million dollar condos are popping up everywhere. I even heard a Whole Foods is coming to my former neighborhood in Southeast D.C.!!!!!! I decided not to take a job in a city I could not afford to live in. So yes it’s noticed that the former “chocolate” cities are demographically changing, it breaks my heart, just not sure what to do about it given it appears the train has left the station.


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