An obsession with gentrification obscures the urban problem: concentrated poverty

Editor’s Note:  We’re again pleased to offer a guest commentary from Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy, who  has some keen insights on cities, poverty and neighborhood change. Like City Observatory, Segedy puts great stock in the longer argument made in Alan Mallach’s book “The Divided City.” Jason calls it a must-read, and we put it on your summer reading list for 2018. In a series of tweets last month, Segedy reflected on his experience, the state of the debate around cities, and Mallach’s book. With his permission, we’ve edited his tweetstorm into the following commentary.

by Jason Segedy

The national urban policy conversation, particularly with regards to affordability, housing policy, and gentrification, is completely dominated by voices from the superstar cities on the coasts.

Mallach’s book reminds us that while downtowns and some favored close-in neighborhoods may be thriving, the vast majority of urban neighborhoods in our older post-industrial cities are getting worse, and experiencing visible, potentially irreversible decline.

There are articles and blog posts aplenty focusing on the (very real) improvements in a small handful of revitalizing neighborhoods; running the ideological gamut from mindless chamber of commerce boosterism, to far-left gentrification hand-waving.

But it is all-too rare to read anything about the equally very real, and worsening, problems of poverty, disinvestment, and segregation that affect exponentially more urban residents in these cities.

We obsess about revitalization, while ignoring “displacement by decline”

We hear a lot about the potential evils of hipsters, coffee shops, and bicycles, along with murky allegations of displacement by gentrification, levied by activists and academics.

We hear far less about the primarily black middle class residents fleeing previously stable urban neighborhoods for the suburbs each year (displacement by decline), while the poor are left behind in crumbling communities, trapped in concentrated generational poverty.

Cities are dynamic, fluid, and geographically diverse places, which are revitalizing in some areas and declining in others. The relative proportion of resurgence to decay varies greatly from city to city. In this part of the country, that proportion is less than 0.10.

Not enough people are connecting the dots between the woeful and declining state of many urban neighborhoods, and our nation’s economic future: not just trends like globalization and automation, but traditionally stable sectors like eds and meds that have kept cities afloat. How will the “Eds and Meds” economic base fare as the 21st century wears on, particularly in light of demographic changes, and spiraling, out-of-control education and health care costs? Is an economy that runs on these sectors really enough to sustain equitable economic growth? It is nice to see someone (Mallach) ask, and at least begin to wrestle with, these questions. Too few people are.

How about race and concentrated poverty? The untold urban story of this still-young century is how segregation, urban decline, abandonment, and disinvestment has never been worse in the hundreds of neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black and poor.

Our society has largely given up on even talking about racial integration and the importance of mixed-income neighborhoods, let alone actually doing anything to create them.

And I’m not just talking about people on the political right. Today, there is a palpable cynicism and fatalism, even among left-leaning urbanists, which simply believes that it cannot be done. Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. Across the political spectrum, we seem to have resigned ourselves to racial segregation. And many of the people who say they believe it is important, don’t live it. Integration for thee, but not for me.

People on the neoliberal center-left have largely given up on any type of economic integration that involves creating opportunities for the poor to live in better housing, closer to jobs, in more affluent suburbs.

Meanwhile, people on the far-left are increasingly hostile to the notion that the affluent should move back to the urban core to live near the poor. It’s getting harder and harder to know what leftists actually want to see happen in our cities – other than unhappiness.

Gentrification has become a useless word

Which brings us to gentrification. It has become a useless word. Words lose their value when they no longer have an agreed-upon meaning. No one knows what the hell that word even means anymore. But we know this much: neighborhoods described as “gentrifying” are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain.

And, as Mallach points out: “predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods.”

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black avoidance. People like @petesaunders3 make the point that black neighborhoods continue to be bypassed by reinvestment, and that displacement by decline is a far larger problem than displacement by gentrification.

And there’s this. . .neighborhoods change. They always have. They always will. The Nepali neighborhood used to be the Italian neighborhood. The black neighborhood used to be the white neighborhood. The poor neighborhood used to be the middle-class neighborhood.

Neighborhood change should be managed in ways that promote justice and equity, but the change itself will not stop. Physically and socioeconomically speaking, most neighborhoods are somewhere along a continuum between getting better and getting worse.

The way forward

So how precisely do we build stronger, more equitable neighborhoods and cities? Mallach is smart enough and pragmatic enough to acknowledge that neither he, nor anyone else, has all of the answers. But he leaves us with some solid and wise thoughts about a path forward for our older post-industrial cities.

He addresses the “U-Haul” school of urban policy, which gives up on our foundering places altogether, encouraging everyone to abandon their friends, family, and community, and head for greener pastures. While this can be a solid course of action for an individual, it is suicidal as a urban development strategy. When people with more opportunities leave, the rest of the population, now poorer and more uneducated, and the place, with its worsening problems, remains. Mallach:

As a nation, we must decide what we want the future of the cities to be. Our present course relegates many cities to a sort of limbo, where, despite their best efforts, they drift gradually downward, losing jobs, becoming gradually poor, and offering progressively less hope for those who live there. Is that the only thing that we have for the hundreds of small cities and towns of the American heartland?
That would be, in my opinion tragic. These cities are not disposable places, roadkill on the highway of capitalist creative destruction. They are real places with Rich histories, full of real people they have real assets.

How do we harness these assets? How do we create more of them? Mallach counsels a kind of focused, visionary pragmatism that avoids the two extremes of timid incrementalism, and radical utopianism.

Of the two extremes, given the history of urban policy in this country, he makes the case that utopian thinking may be worse, arguing that incrementalists, for the most part, do no harm. Utopians often do, or would if they could. Mallach (his quote is worth reading):

I have little tolerance with the line of argument that holds that all efforts are in vain as long as the underlying economic or political system falls short of the ideal. Representative democracy and the capitalist economic system, for better or worse, are two conjoined frameworks that have defined the reality of American life for well over a century and are likely to do so for the next century as well, assuming Western Civilization survives. Moreover, should they be replaced by anything fundamentally different, whatever that is will probably be much worse. Finally, although I share many people’s beliefs that thing many things about American society needs fundamental change, including the racism that remains so resistant to change, I see radical change as being at best a distant prospect. I do not believe that we should forgo the opportunities that exist to change the lives of people in communities in important ways, even while Injustice and racism may continue to exist, in the interest of a far-off and most probably illusory better society. That posture is a luxury of the affluent that the poor cannot afford.

In order to become effective change agents, Mallach argues that city leaders must step back from daily crises, difficult as that sometimes is, and think about systemic issues and power structures in their communities.

Lack of money and federal support are not the primary impediments to their success; lack of strategic thinking, and lack of willingness to change the status quo are. Top-down solutions from Washington are neither forthcoming, nor desirable. People who believe that massive federal programs are the solution are making the mistake of thinking that money equals progress. All money equals, he says, is money.

Change will only happen if the networks of people who make local decisions want it to happen, or can be persuaded to let it happen, regardless of what the federal government does.

The ideological fluidity and freedom of thought which “The Divided City” exhibits is like a breath of fresh air in today’s toxic and stultifying political environment. Most of us recognize that the political right checked out of the urban conversation a long time ago. With a few notable and laudable exceptions, the right vacillates between calculated indifference and unabashed hatred for cities.

The political left, meanwhile, spellbound by the Dada performance art that bills itself as “The Resistance” in this absurd age of Trump, staggers drunkenly between a wonky and bloodless urbanism, and an increasingly strident and unhinged leftism.

As with so many other vexing issues, neither of these approaches are what our cities need. This book doesn’t have all of the answers, but it will cause you to rethink what you know to be true about our cities and their neighborhoods, and about how best to help them.