Lance Freeman: A Haven and a Hell: The Evolving Role of the Ghetto in Black America

Lance Freeman is a professor in the urban planning program at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. His research focuses on affordable housing, gentrification, ethnic and racial stratification in housing markets, and the relationship between the built environment and well-being. Professor Freeman teaches courses on community development, housing policy, and research methods. He has also taught in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware. Prior to this, Freeman worked as a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, a leading social policy research firm in Washington, DC. Lance Freeman holds a master's degree and a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


In this talk titled "A Haven and a Hell," Freeman consider the role of the ghetto in black life from the late 19th century to the present. His focus on black ghettos outside the 11 states that were a part of the Confederacy because Jim Crow and the later industrial development of the South make the Southern ghetto prior to the Civil Rights movement distinctive and worthy of separate treatment. The talk will tell the story of black agency with regard to the ghetto — how blacks reacted to ghettoization, how they perceived the ghetto, and the actions they took to flee and/or protect the ghetto. Although a voluminous literature tells the story of how whites, acting individually, collectively, and with the assistance of public policy created and maintained the modern American ghetto, this literature tends to treat blacks as mere bystanders who acquiesced to ghettoization.

Acquiescence to ghettoization, however, was never blacks' sole response. The talk considers how blacks reacted to the process of ghettoization and the resulting ghettos that endure to the present day. For much of the ghetto's history, blacks wanted to strengthen and maintain the ghetto to maintain its possibility as a haven, while having the right as Americans to live anywhere they could afford. More recently, as conditions became more hellish and the ghetto became a bastion of the dispossessed, the ghetto's role as a haven shrank, both figuratively and literally. Yet even now, the ghetto's role as a potential haven has not completely receded. At a time when middle-class and affluent blacks have more choices than ever when choosing where to live, some are choosing the ghetto aiming to return the ghetto to a historical role as a haven for blacks of all classes.

Understanding blacks' reaction to ghettoization allows for a much more complete understanding of the ghetto as an institution in American life. As such, the in this talk Freeman will argue that policy designed to address ghettoization (which has been anemic at best) can succeed only when taking this important insight into account.

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