The Suburbs as Dorian Gray: Segregation and Why We Should Care

From the 1945 film of the Oscar Wilde novel,  The Picture of Dorian Gray

From the 1945 film of the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray

In Jim Mall’s Kenilworth barbershop, one has a choice of perusing magazines devoted to yachting or flying, or you can pass the time watching the stock market roll by on TV. At the barbershop in Ford Heights, well, there is no barbershop in that weary south suburb. Mostly there are liquor stores and check-cashing places. Forty-eight miles and $182,501 in median income separate the two suburbs.

–  “Only miles away, but worlds apart,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 15, 2002. Kenilworth, a northern suburb, is 97.4% white, and Ford Heights, a sourthern suburb, is 95.6% Black.

Ford Heights, a southern Chicago suburb 

Ford Heights, a southern Chicago suburb 

Kenilworth, a northern Chicago suburb

Kenilworth, a northern Chicago suburb

Neighborhoods and nations are shaped and not born. Affluent and white areas become so from a socially-sanctioned political and economic system that deprives some communities and enriches others. We find a powerful metaphor in Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde’s 19th century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, who achieves eternal youth and beauty while a life-like enchanted portrait he ultimately sequesters bears the lines of his actual age and evidence of every one of his evil acts. His logic – “What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything.” – is precisely the logic of the gated community. In this morality tale, a social system based on greed and buttressed by fear and repression renders no one, whether within or outside the gate, truly safe.

The reigning public policy paradigm is only to see one side of the equation and tackle “the problem of poverty.” The well-meaning urban planner, philanthropic entity or social justice activist will pour resources into self-help place-based strategies, or incentivize public and private investment. But this approach ignores the fundamental problem of wealth and of the racial underpinnings of economic segregation. This is why decades of attempting to “raise the floor” in low-income neighborhoods have achieved so little. One also has to “lower the ceiling.” A high school does not need three swimming pools while a few miles away, another has a leaking roof and no arts classes. It is futile to paint over Dorian's canvas when the living Dorian Gray continues to embellish the "coloured image." The entire structure must change.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. correctly pointed out in Stride Toward Freedom (1958) about the Montgomery bus protest that “the ultimate tragedy of segregation” is that “it inflicts the segregated with a false sense of inferiority while confirming the segregator in a false estimate of his own superiority.” Imagine that Dorian Gray and his portrait begin as two equal human beings. But when Gray begins to desire all beauty and wealth for himself, the price is the exploitation of the other Dorian. Just as when any race, class or nation ruthlessly mines value from the lives, labor and dignity of others, the result is unnatural luxury and poverty at once.

It is time to redefine what makes a community desirable. All communities cannot be Kenilworth in the same way that all people cannot be Dorian Gray. Nor should they aspire to be so because to achieve this so-called perfection is through inhumane means. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?,” as Gray himself reads in the Bible. Beauty is to be found not in artifice but in the presence of truth and justice. 

When they come together to address the underlying causes of segregation in a spirit of reconciliation, the people of communities like Kenilworth and Ford Heights and those in between recast all communities around common values and bring wholeness to the metropolitan region.

How do we shape desirable communities for all people?

First, civic leaders must explicitly value justice and equity for all, including those beyond its borders.

City neighborhoods and suburbs should not be evaluated based on their worth as a commodified “brand” but instead by the extent to which all policies or programs promote individual fulfillment and harm no one at the expense of another. In the 21st century, suburbs are no longer simply the spokes to the urban hub but “a series of interconnected places, a metropolitan constellation” (Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City (2001)). As immigrants settle directly into suburbs, seniors stay put, and dollars and jobs widely circulate, suburban areas must consider themselves part of an overall region instead of sentimental and isolated hamlets that are independent of one another.

Second, we must acknowledge that free choice has virtually nothing to do with the makeup of a community.

Understanding history, we can repudiate canards about personal responsibility over environmental conditions such as this from New York Times columnist David Brooks in "The Nature of Poverty": “The real barriers to social mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” In fact, as Doug Massey and Nancy Denton documented in their research on the history of racial segregation in the United States, American Apartheid (1993), over the first half of the twentieth century, explicit government policies at all levels forbade African Americans from living in particular neighborhoods regardless of income. This was aided by “redlining” by financial institutions (that is, refusing to make loans in Black neighborhoods while investing heavily in areas that were only open to whites) and racial discrimination by real estate professionals.

Employment discrimination also put African Americans at a disadvantage and de-industrialization in the latter half of the century was a blow. In 1970, 70% of Blacks held higher-paying blue collar jobs but this declined precipitously to 28% in 1987, according to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow (2010). These are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that Dorian Gray’s alter ego bears.

Third, we need to change systems that support segregated communities such as reliance on the local property tax, and favor regional structures such as tax base sharing.

While suburbs are part of the regional web they act as free agents, facilitated in many states by the ability to be a “Home Rule” government if the population is large enough or by plebiscite. Since 1970, Illinois public schools are primarily funded by the local property tax. This facilitates inequality because wealthy areas can afford to pay for the quality education that poor communities cannot. To fuel yet more affluence, municipalities will limit multifamily housing or favor housing for “young professionals” and “empty nesters” at the expense of families with children or anyone else perceived as bringing down property values or increasing property taxes. By contrast, regional revenue and expense sharing, including cooperation in areas such as public school education, housing, transportation, and environmental policy, allows all communities in the “metropolitan constellation” to benefit.

Fourth, we need to shift our values about beauty.

Dorian Gray initially declared that “unselfish people are colorless. They lack individuality.” Yet over time, while the “picture had taught him to love his own beauty” it led him to “loathe his own soul.” Individual beauty is to be found in creativity, nuance and complexity – and likewise in community. To Jean Vanier, theologian and advocate for integrated living, in his book Community and Growth (1989), “Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share. If a community is closing its doors, that is a sign that hearts are closing as well.” What is beautiful is neither what is adorned nor embellished to meet a dominant standard but what is authentic.

Finally, we must recognize that integration benefits our children.

Racial isolation breeds violence, whether it is among disaffected white middle class or affluent youths like those who gunned down students in Middletown, CT and Columbine, CO schools, or young poor people of color in gangs who target one another and bystanders in the streets of impoverished neighborhoods. Racial and economic isolation causes the fear that leads to violence, making segregation a public health issue that affects poor and wealthy areas alike.

Numerous studies, from as far back as The Levittowners (1967) by Herbert Gans, have shown that students benefit academically and in their problem-solving abilities from learning with others of different backgrounds. They also have a better appreciation for different cultures and ways of life.

Beauty: The Absence of Exploitation and the Presence of Justice

In the end, justice comes to the murderous Dorian Gray when he stabs his “painted image” that is “seared with the lines of suffering and thought.” In doing so, he is the one who is destroyed, assuming his true tortured form and dies while the painting itself reverts to its original image of pre-Fall innocence and beauty. 

Polar opposite communities likewise cannot be sustained in a universe that constantly moves toward balance. The fulcrum of life longs for reconciliation. Without it we are consumed, as is Dorian Gray, by fear: of one another, of ourselves, of loneliness, of what is missing. As Dr. King has said, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." It is in that very drive toward wholeness that we find the solution to the problem of poverty and the problem of affluence.

We find hope in the fact that a critical mass of young people have no desire to live in segregated communities, whether the hyper-affluent suburb or the depleted city neighborhood.

We find hope in the fact that a critical mass of people in every suburb and city neighborhood from Kenilworth to Ford Heights recognize that while they were not personally responsible for creating the racial or economic makeup of the community in which they live, they can support one another within and across boundaries to reshape their communities, ultimately co-creating an equitable region for all. 

To be a good steward of community as of the self is to understand that beauty and desirability are grounded not at the expense of others but in honesty, generosity, connection and justice.