by R. Asmerom
Mai Perkins remembers attending a concert at Central Park SummerStage with Cassanda Wilson, partly because of an observation the jazz singer made about Perkins’ new city. “She made a comment that I thought was so applicable to the city’s diversity. She said, ‘California has landscape, New York has people-scape!’” It was a sentiment that the native Angeleno could relate to.
Perkins is no different from the millions who migrate across the country for school or for a new job. She moved to Washington DC over ten years ago to attend Howard University and ended up in New York City to pursue her career as a writer.
So what makes New York a more complementary fit for her than her hometown? Maybe that has something to do with the creative economy, a concept much discussed by “urban expert” Richard Florida in his book “Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making the Place Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life,” which explored an interesting pattern of how one’s city environment influences productivity and creativity.
“I really think that being in New York and seeing people living and thriving outside of conventional standards has really benefitted my personal and professional trajectory in ways that would not have been realized had I remained in Los Angeles,” said Perkins. The Brooklyn resident and adjunct professor at City University New York believes that the high level of diversity in New York fosters creativity and comfort with one’s personal identity.
When applied to the Black experience, will analyzing the creative economies explain why cities like Brooklyn or Philadelphia produce so many musical artists or why Atlanta has such a high percentage of Black entrepreneurs? According to the social theory, location is critical whether you know it or not. It’s not only about infrastructure and city government but also about the atmosphere created by people themselves. For many Blacks, just having a presence within a city is a major element.
“A majority of Blacks have a strong racial identity. If a person has a strong racial identity, it matters whether they live in a city that has a sizable percentage of that racial group,” said Rashawn Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “Cities that have a thriving Black middle class, Black political representation or politicians clearly invested in issues that affect African-Americans, stable housing prices in black neighborhoods, public spaces conducive to physical activity, and an educational system that has a track record for graduating Black youth and assisting with college attendance are positive places for Blacks to live.”
And what about the impact of living in a city where there’s not much Black representation? Growing up in either Atlanta or Brooklyn/Harlem is a far different experience than living in a California city where Blacks only represent 6.6 percent of the state population according to the 2010 US Census Bureau Results. Although cities like Los Angeles have a Black population of nearly 12 percent (2000 Census), New York’s black population exceeds 26.6 percent (2000 Census) and Atlanta boasts a large 61.4 percent Black population (2000 Census).
Perkins, who appreciated her Los Angeles upbringing, admits that the East coast seems to be more conducive to various self-expressions. “I knew in 11th and 12th grade that I wanted to grow locks, but it wasn’t until I moved to DC and went to Howard that I figured out it was actually an option,” she said. “My mother has always had a sophisticated Afrocentric style of dress and had worn hairstyles ranging from naturals to fingerwaves. [It was] never an issue of feeling that I couldn’t express myself culturally. However, when I look at some of the African American teenagers coming up in LA right now, I don’t know how much they value styles and choices that are centered in African tradition like perhaps a lot of the youth in New York do,” she said, adding that the composition of New York cannot be ignored when discussing its impact on individuality. “The Black population in New York City is significantly more diverse than the Black population in LA. In New York, you are the minority if you are African American; when I meet people here, their first question to me is which African country or part of the Caribbean am I from.”
As Harlem, Brooklyn and Washington DC represent Black meccas of the East Coast, Atlanta is the Southern mecca, representing upward mobility, prosperity and of course, the Buppy culture.
Akiim DeShay of BlackDemographics.com, who is a native of Rochester New York, said that Atlanta made a positive impression on him after having lived there for a short time in high school. He witnessed the stable and middle class life of Atlanta that encapsulates the city’s image as a destination for many looking to start a family, take part in the burgeoning Black Hollywood, or just live in a stable African-American community. Maybe it’s unintentional but Atlanta has definitely reaped the rewards of being branded as the place to be for successful African-Americans.
“Atlanta has its problems but it also has a reputation of opportunity and prosperity,” said DeShay, who now resides outside of Dallas. “So even those who are living in poverty, high crime areas, and segregation continue to hear from others or the media about how booming the city is. They see folks from all over the country who broke their neck to move there with horror stories of places they escaped from.”
Despite the fact that Atlanta has its negatives like any other big city, much of its leverage and reputation comes from the fact that African-Americans can see themselves reflected as engines of everyday business.
“Go to any of Atlanta’s business centers and it is normal to see African Americans working in all sectors of the economy at all levels,” said DeShay. “Ask for a supervisor, manager, or even the CEO, and don’t be surprised if a Black man or woman appears. Majority Black middle class neighborhoods surround the city’s southern half. In an environment like this, how could anyone fail? Well of course it happens but don’t tell that to any of the thousands of African Americans who move there every month.” The attraction is evident; the Atlanta area gained 445,000 African Americans between 2000 and 2008 which is by far the largest Black population gain of any metropolitan area in the United States.
While the city has long been a destination for Southerners, California only began to experience Black migration in large numbers in 1940. Many Black residents of Oakland and Los Angeles will tell you that their parents or they themselves moved to California from various locations in the South for job opportunities in the aftermath of World War II. The period between 1940 and 1970 is known as the Second Great Migration, in which the state of California absorbed about 5 million blacks.
The longer history of Blacks on the East coast has dictated the dominant nature of East coast culture in music and history. Don’t we often wonder why certain cities over-represent when it comes to producing notables? “Cities such as New York and Philadelphia have historically been large markets for the culture and the arts. After all, the Harlem Renaissance and Du Bois’ classic Philadelphia Negrooccurred in these cities,” said Dr. Ray. “The legacy of these triumphs still lives on. These cities have also historically had a thriving Black middle class and Black political representation. These dynamics set the tone for allowing equitable opportunities for Blacks to be productive, creative, and upwardly mobile.”