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After years in the suburbs, many blacks return to city life

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Ken Cowan grew up black in inner-city Omaha, surrounded by African-American doctors and lawyers who took pride in their community and were "the kind of people you dreamed of growing up to be."

That childhood molded him into the person he is today, he says, now a success in his own right. After the birth of their first child, Ken and his wife moved to the Houston suburbs and fell into that mind-set: "young couples with two kids, a dog, and an SUV. But after living there for seven years, we had a strong sense that we wanted to get back to areas that were similar to where we grew up."

Mainly, he says, it was for their children's sake. Now the 6- and 8-year-olds swing on century-old trees, play with kids who look like them, and listen to stories from their 90-year-old neighbor, one of the first African-Americans to move to the area, known as the Third Ward.

The Cowans are part of a growing number of affluent and middle-class African-Americans moving back into traditionally black inner-city areas across America. It's a dramatic reversal from the days when when many African- Americans believed a home in the suburbs was a measure of "making it."

Now, that concept is waning, replaced by the idea that roots and community are more important than new homes and manicured lives.

As a result, city neighborhoods from Atlanta to Chicago are in the throes of renewal - with all the vibrancy, anxiety, and transformation that entails. New York's Harlem is, perhaps, the most famous current example, but neighborhoods from Pittsburgh to Washington are metamorphosing, too.

And in Houston, where the downtown's redevelopment has brought a new rush of interest in urban life, and swift gentrification of the Fourth Ward neighborhood has awakened the Third Ward to the inevitable losses and change of population shifts, this reclaiming of the inner city brings a rare introspection, and a consciousness of all that can go wrong.

"For many of these African-Americans moving back in, there is a sense that they are recapturing a history," says Roderick Harrison, data-bank director for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that provides research to black elected officials. "They say, 'It's not just another house. It's making a meaningful statement about our lives and our community.' "

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