Clybourne Park is, at least in theory, an urbanist’s ideal night at the theater.
Having opened on Broadway in April, after premiering off-Broadway in 2010, the play tackles white flight and gentrification. In the three years since it was written, Clybourne Park has also been produced in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, where it won an Olivier award. Its 52-year-old white playwright, Bruce Norris, has won a Pulitzer and a Tony award for Best Play.
Prominent critics, such as Frank Rich in New York magazine, have praised it as an incisive depiction of race relations in America. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley writes, “The very structure of ‘Clybourne Park’ posits the idea of a nation (and even a world) trapped in a societal purgatory of ineptitude and anxiety.”
From a theatrical perspective, the play might tell universal truths. To an urbanist, however, it touches on them only from a very narrow perspective. The implication of Clybourne Park is that fear of change in cities is all about race, and racial animosity is only nominally less severe than it was 50 years ago. Be the latter as it may, the former is not always the case.
The play’s first act takes place in 1959, in the home of a white couple who are planning to sell their modest house in the titular Clybourne Park, an imaginary Chicago neighborhood, to a black family. This is the other side of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play that depicts a black family intending to move on up to a white neighborhood, but is instead offered a bribe from the local community association to stay put. In Clybourne Park, we meet the awkward white family that is selling their house, against the wishes of some of their neighbors. Karl, the sanctimonious neighbor who wants to bribe the black family, comes over to try dissuading the couple from selling. He even tries to enlist their black maid in the effort.
Clybourne Park picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun left off.
In Act Two, set in 2009, we meet Lena, the niece of the black woman who bought that same house. Lena grew up in the neighborhood after it deteriorated into a ghetto, and now she is watching it rebound. She, her husband Kevin and a white gay man named Kenneth come over to the house — now decayed and covered in graffiti — to convince Steve and Lindsey, a white couple who just bought it, to change their renovation plans. Steve and Lindsey intend to gut the house and rebuild a taller, bigger one in its place.
Nominally, Lena is upset about the threat to her neighborhood’s architectural integrity. But her vague rumblings about who benefits from the change coming to the neighborhood make it clear that she is really upset about gentrification and its racial implications. “Some change is inevitable, and we all support that, but it might be worth asking yourself who exactly is responsible for that change?” she admonishes Lindsey and Kevin. “I’m asking you to think about the motivation behind the long-range political initiative to change the face of this neighborhood.”
The point seems to be that black people — even educated and well-paid professionals like Lena and Kevin — resist white arrivals in their neighborhoods, just like whites resisted integration decades ago. And, Norris implies, the only thing that has changed is we are now afraid to discuss race openly.
Clybourne Park is entertaining, and its success among theatergoers is warranted. But entertaining is not the same as deeply edifying. It’s funny, but much of the humor comes from cheap comedic devices, such as having fun with a character’s (totally otherwise irrelevant) deafness in Act One, and breaking into an everyone-tells-a-racist-joke segment in Act Two. If every writer got to use these tricks, they would get old quickly. Jokes about talking loudly to the hard of hearing — call it aural slapstick — already have.
Race is a sufficiently taboo topic that having fun with stereotypes — while safe in the contextual knowledge that no one involved, including the audience, is an old-fashioned bigot — is more interesting. It’s also less played out, although the ironic race humor card should be familiar to everyone in the audience who saw the last big show on Broadway about gentrification, the much funnier musical Avenue Q. Stand-up comedians, at least non-white ones, have also been making race jokes for years.
But Broadway theater has been much slower to test the boundaries. Perhaps that is explained by the audience, which is overwhelmingly old and white for most shows. (The audience for Clybourne Park appeared younger and more diverse, although not as much as you might expect.)
Midway through Act Two, Steve grows exasperated and finally declares that they should openly discuss the elephant in the room. “It’s race. Isn’t it?” he says. Lena counters that she was only concerned about the size of his house. But are black people more opposed to larger houses in their neighborhood than white people? By presenting the resistance in the first half as purely about race, Norris seems to imply that the second half is all about race as well.
To most urban-dwellers, there is no obvious connection between home size and gentrification. In fast-gentrifying cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the process often consists of yuppies buying row houses or semi-detached Victorians and sanctifying them with historic districts, not tearing them down. And the supposed connection between race and gentrification is not always so straightforward either.
Lena makes comments implying that, for her, the home size is a synecdoche for the arrogance of interlopers, who fail to respect the community’s history. There are, of course, many different ways in which a black person watching her neighborhood turn mostly white through gentrification would see aesthetic changes as manifestations of racial change. The black couple in Clybourne Park is supposed to come from the same socioeconomic class as the white couple, yet still resents the latter as newcomers. That, of course, makes race a key issue of the play’s central plot.
But which couple am I — a middle-class white person who grew up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope before it was trendy — supposed to identify with? Class resentment has more subtle and complex roots than merely education and income. Cultural classes are different than socioeconomic ones; you have to factor in life experiences, a distinction that defies commonly used labels or measurements. If you lived in an urban neighborhood when it had high crime and no good restaurants, you may resent the people who come after it has gentrified, even if you are of the same race. It’s a resentment of the privilege of those who, for example, did not grow up in fear of getting mugged.
These feelings can exist in gentrifying neighborhoods even where the old-timers are white. In Chicago, there are white neighborhoods like Ukranian Village, and Latino neighborhoods like Pilsen, that have become hip. To state what should be obvious, but seems to elude many people, the communities that precede gentrifiers are not always black.
Even before gentrification, Park Slope was racially and ethnically mixed. Credit: Howard Walfish on Flickr
Nikkil Saval made exactly this error when he mentioned Park Slope as the epitome of redlined largely black neighborhoods in an N+1 essay on gentrification. In fact, the Slope was mostly Irish and Italian until the mid-1960s. Then it became increasingly non-white, though newcomers were more likely to be Latino than black. Not long after, the first gentrifiers arrived. By the early 1980s, it was a mix of Irish, Italians, Latinos, African-Americans, Caribbean, Asians, hippies and yuppies. Now, it’s almost all yuppies. (Incidentally, not all yuppies — not even all yuppies who grew up in the suburbs — are white.) Even though the neighborhood was never even close to majority black, this is a very noticeable change. It can make natives, even white ones, feel displaced.
The Slope is hardly the only neighborhood where gentrifiers have replaced working- and middle-class white ethnics rather than African Americans. From Brooklyn’s Italian Carroll Gardens and Polish Greenpoint to Italian South Philadelphia and Irish South Boston, this is often the case.
That does not make Clybourne Park in any way untrue. The play does not explicitly purport to be about gentrification in every neighborhood. There are neighborhoods in Chicago where rich white people are moving into black neighborhoods. Telling urban stories that are intensely unique and specific in their social conditions is of inherent value. And it is in no way of inherently lesser value than somehow capturing a national trend in all its complexities. But, at least as far as cities’ go, Clybourne Park undoubtedly does the former, not the latter.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.