The Legacy of Fighting Blockbusting is Residential Diversity

photoshop-not-for-sale-dissolve-blend-stamp-000New Orleans   Studies of the largest 100 school districts in the United States indicate that there is such extensive re-segregation that schools are more segregated now than they were almost 50 years ago. Research on communities indicates that racial segregation in housing is part of the vicious cycle driving continued segregation in city after city. Sadly, the contemporary realities make fights like the campaign against racial blockbusting waged in Little Rock’s Oak Forest neighborhood 45 years ago by ACORN and its leaders like Walter Nunn, who I interviewed on Wade’s World, still very relevant.

Walter told the story of ACORN organizer, and now prominent Little Rock labor lawyer, Melva Harmon, contacting him at his home after hearing from other neighbors around the Oak Forest community that they were being solicited by unscrupulous real estate agents to quickly sell their houses because “blacks were buying into the neighborhood.” The strategy behind such panic-pedaling was to convince owners to sell cheap so that they could then flip the house at a higher price by marketing to black families hoping to buy homes in a stable, quiet neighborhood of single-family residences. In the case of Oak Forest the neighborhood was the last stable residential area abutting the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and University Avenue. The whites in flight would go farther west to the sprawling suburbs that other powerful real estate interests at the time were developing into suburban subdivisions farther and farther from the core of the city.

Walter Nunn and his neighbors organized the Oak Forest Property Owners Association with ACORN and with an extensive doorknocking program to families throughout the neighborhood essentially said, “hell no, we won’t go!” Signs went up everything, house to house, that said in big letters: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE, ACORN. It was amazing to drive through the neighborhood and see the signs everywhere. It was impossible for the press to ignore. A group in Los Angeles arranged for some public service advertisements for us to run on the radio stations in Little Rock that were also big news. Carroll O’Connell, then in his Archie Bunker heyday was one of the voices on the spot. Jack Nicholson famous from Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Shining, and now an arm’s length of films was another distinctive voice warning people against blockbusters, saying it was illegal, and asking people to call ACORN, as was Ryan O’Neal.

The group proposed an ordinance to the Little Rock City Council to toughen the rules against blockbusters. Walter remembered only Jack Young and Les Hollingsworth on the City Board of Directors, both endorsed by ACORN, had supported them. Nonetheless, his highlight memory was getting up to speak and then dramatically brandishing the dozen or so business cards from real estate agents they had collected from neighbors who had personally heard the racist pitch to sell, move, and run.

Where the balance shifts to tipping points in neighborhood after neighborhood, it can seem impossible to restore healthy diverse communities. I asked Walter if he had been back to Oak Forest in recent years, and we were both proud to hear his report that Oak Forest still would qualify on such a list.

These were great fights. Maybe we need to reverse the field and have more of them that are about diversity, rather than gentrification.

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