The play presents two different opinions on who “owns” a neighborhood, and who should be allowed to dictate who will move in and how the neighborhood will grow and change. The first argument is that the people already living in a neighborhood should have some agency and control over who moves in next. This is the stance favored by longstanding members of the community who are keeping their houses as others move in and out. The other stance is that no one owns the neighborhood, demographics change with time, and there’s nothing to be done.
Both white and black characters in the play argue for their neighborhood to remain as it is—predominantly white or predominantly black. Karl, who is white, is a member of this camp, basing his argument for continued segregation on racist ideas that black and white people don’t eat the same foods and prefer to live separately. He’s doubtful that Francine, who is black, would even be able to shop at the same grocery store as her white employer, Bev. Jim argues that black and white churches are so different they wouldn’t be able to integrate. He explains it’s “Not a value judgment. Apples and oranges. Just as how we have our organ here at Saint Thomas, for accompaniment, where at First Presbyterian, they prefer a piano and, occasionally…well…tambourine.” In act two, Lena uses her personal connection to the neighborhood as an argument against Lindsey and Steve’s renovations, which will change the look and feel of the house, and make it stand out. Her opposition turns out to be partially against a house she worries will be lacking in taste, and partly against the encroachment of a white family upon the now black neighborhood. Lena explains that this neighborhood is “just a part of my history and my parents’ history” and she wants to make sure she honors “the connection to that history”. The neighborhood’s history, she implies, resides partially in its architecture and partially in its demographic makeup. Lena remarks, “When I was growing up I really don’t remember seeing a single white face in the neighborhood,” a reversed version of the same argument Karl made fifty years earlier.
The other argument regarding the ownership of the neighborhood is that no one owns it: people move in and out, and there’s nothing one can do to stop it from changing over the decades. By this logic, people’s feelings about the neighborhood’s personal or historical significance are not a basis for determining who should live there. Lindsey and Steve, who are eager to move into their newly purchased home, think they should be allowed to do so regardless of how their presence will affect the neighborhood. Presumably the Younger family, who planned to move into the same house fifty years earlier, felt the same way. Russ and Bev also subscribe to this point of view. Russ, in an explosion during an argument, tells Karl, “I don’t care if a hundred Ubangi tribesmen with a bone through the nose overrun this goddam place.” Russ and his wife are leaving Clybourne Park in part because they did not feel it was a supportive community, and therefore they feel no obligation to help maintain the demographic of said community.
At the climax of Act II, Lena presents a third choice for who should feel a sense of ownership over the neighborhood. She argues that perhaps no one can really control a neighborhood, but that decades of institutional racism have shaped them to be the way they are, and therefore even if no one can tell anyone else where they can or can’t live, it’s up to individuals to consider how their behavior impacts a community, and whether they are contributing to a broader pattern of gentrification. Lena understands “The area is changing,” and that “there are certain economic interests that are being served by those changes and others that are not.” In other words, she understands that white people coming into her childhood neighborhood will benefit from the relatively low property value and the proximity to downtown, but she also understands that they’re bringing an end to a fifty-year history of black families living in the neighborhood.
After the play’s first act, readers might assume that the play advocates for a free market, supporting the viewpoint that a black family should be able to move into a white neighborhood if they want to. In the second act, however, this view becomes more complicated when a white family wants to move into a black neighborhood, and the reader’s allegiance switches to the black families who have been living in the neighborhood for generations. Readers might expect the play to come down strongly on one side or the other of the argument—perhaps arguing that gentrification is a universally bad thing, or focusing in on race-based housing discrimination. Instead, Clybourne Park shows the nuances and complications in both sides of the argument, suggesting that race and racism are issues homebuyers have to consider—but that in the end neighborhoods change, and a single family cannot prevent these changes from occurring.
Neighborhoods and Ownership ThemeTracker
Neighborhoods and Ownership Quotes in Clybourne Park
But that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.
Now, Russ, you know as well as I do that this is a progressive community.
Karl: It’s a colored family.
Jim: Sorry, don’t we say Negro, now?
Karl: I say Negro —
Jim: Well, it’s only common courtesy, and I’m —
Karl: — I say them interchangeably —
Jim: — not trying to tell you how to conduct your business.
Karl: — and of course I said Negro to them — No I think we both know what you’re doing.
Karl: Bev, they are one hundred percent. And if I don’t know how much time any of you have spent in Hamilton Park, but Betsy was waiting in the car and I can tell you, there are some unsavory characters.
Karl: But in the case of Gelman’s: I think there was some mistrust at first, having been Kopeckne’s Market for such a long time, but in the end of all Murray Gelman found a way to fit in.
Bev: And they hired the Wheeler boy.
And fitting into a community is really what it all comes down to…Now, some would say change is inevitable. And I can support that, if it’s change for the better. But I’ll tell you what I can’t support, and that’s disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community.
Karl: And what happened to love thy neighbor? If we’re being so principled.
Bev: They would become our neighbors.
Karl: And what about the neighbors you already have Bev?
Bev: I care about them, too!
Karl: Well, I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways.
Bev: Francine and I have, over the years, the two of us have shared so many wonderful—remember that time the squirrel came through the window?
Francine: Yes, I do.
Bev: That was just the silliest—the two of us were just hysterical weren’t we?
Karl: I think that you’d agree, I’m assuming, that in the world, there exist certain differences. Agreed?
Francine: What sort of difference?
Karl: That people live differently.
Karl: From one another.
Francine: I agree with that.
Karl: Different customs, different…well, different foods, even. And those diff—here’s a funny—my wife, Betsy, now, Betsy’s family happens to be Scandinavian, and on holidays they eat a thing known as lutefisk. And this is a dish, which I can tell you...is not to my liking at all. It’s...oh my goodness, let’s just say it’s gelatinous.
Jim: —You do find differences in modes of worship. If you take First Presbyterian. Now, that’s a church down in Hamilton Park and I’ve taken fellowship there and I can tell you, the differences are notable.
Jim: Not a value judgment. Apples and oranges. Just as how we have our organ here at Saint Thomas, for accompaniment, whereas at First Presbyterian, they prefer a piano and, occasionally…well, tambourines.
Bev: What’s wrong with tambourines?
Bev: And for all we know this family could be perfectly lovely.
Karl: Well, that’s hardly the point, is it?
Bev: Maybe it’s a point to consider.
Karl: Bev, I’m not here to solve society’s problems. I’m simply telling you what will happen, and it will happen as follows: First one family will leave, then another, and another, and each time they do, the values of these properties will decline, and once that process begins, once you break that egg, Bev, all the kings horses, etcetera—
Russ: If you honestly think I give a rat’s ass about the goddamn—
Jim: Okay. Okay.
Russ: —what, ya mean the community where every time I go for a haircut, where they all sit and stare like the goddamn grim reaper walked in the barber shop door? That community?
Karl: My wife is two weeks away from giving birth to a child.
Russ: Where, Bev stops at Gelman’s for a quart of milk and they look at her like she’s got the goddamn plague? That the community I’m supposed to be looking out for?
And Francine walking in at nine in the morning to find him there. You be my guest, Karl. You go ahead and tell those people what kind of house they’re moving into and see if that stops ‘em, because I’ll tell you what, I don’t care if a hundred Ubangi tribesman with a bone through the nose overrun this goddamn place, ‘cause I’m through with all of you, ya motherfucking sons of bitches. Every one of you.
Lindsey: Can I say? We talked about renovation. We discussed it. Because these houses are so charming and I know it’s a shame — but when you figure in the crack in the sub-floor and the cost of the lead abatement — and in a market like this one? It just made more sense to start from scratch.
Tom: Right. But: the Owners Association has a vested interest — Kevin and Lena call me up last month, they say Tom, we’ve got this problem, these people are planning to build a house that’s a full fifteen feet taller than all the adjacent structures…and I think we’d all agree that there’s a mutual benefit to maintaining the integrity — the architectural integrity…of a historically significant…neighborhood.
Lindsey: And you know, the thing is? Communities change.
Steve: They do.
Lindsey: That’s just the reality.
Steve: It is.
Lena: And some change is inevitable, and we all support that, but it might be worth asking yourself who exactly is responsible that change?
Lindsey: I’m not sure what you—?
Kevin: Wait, what are you trying to—?
Lena: I’m asking you to think about the motivation behind the long-range political initiative to change the faith of this neighborhood….I mean that this is a highly desirable area…And I’m saying that there are certain economic interests that are being served by those changes and others that are not. That’s all.
Steve: The history of America is the history of private property.
Lena: That may be —
Steve: Read De Tocqueville.
Lena: —though I rather doubt your grandparents were sold as private property.
Steve: Ohhhhh my god. Look. Look. Humans are territorial, okay?
Lindsey: Who are you?
Steve: This is why we have wars. One group, one tribe, tries to usurp some territory — and now you guys have this territory, right? And you don’t like having it stolen away from you, the way white people stole everything else from black America. We get it, okay? And we apologize. But what good does it do, if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?
Kevin: You know how to tap dance?
Steve: See? See what he’s doing?!!
Lindsey: Maybe quit while you’re ahead.
Steve: No. I’m sick of — No. Every single word we say is — is — is scrutinized for some kind of latent — Meanwhile you guys run around saying n-word this and n-word that and whatever. We all know why there’s a double standard but I can’t even so much as repeat a fucking joke that the one black guy I know told me —
Lindsey: Well, I want to say this: I want to say I feel angry. And I’m basically kind of hurt by the implication that’s been made that, just because we want to live as your neighbors and raise a child alongside yours, that somehow, in the process of doing that, we’ve had our ethics called into question. Because that is hurtful.
But you know, I think things are about to change. I really do. I know it’s been a hard couple of years for all of us, I know they have been, but I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.