A review of The Divided City

Alan Mallach, The Divided City:  Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America (Island Books, 2018, 326 pages).

Before you head out to the beach or mountains or wherever your summertime plans take you, grab a copy of Alan Mallach’s new “Divided City.” It’s a cogent analysis of the current state of play of the nation’s urban challenges and opportunities, and will give anyone who thinks about cities a wealth of new information, a powerful perspective on cities and neighborhood change, and some inspirational words that will guide you when you return to work.

Divided City is national in scope, but Mallach’s primary focus is on the plight of aging industrial cities, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and others, who suffered most from the decline of manufacturing, and who have struggled most to adapt to the new knowledge economy. Mallach acknowledges that the recipe for wealth creation has shifted from the traditional view that production produces wealth, to one that is more complicated, and where the presence of amenities and their ability to attract and retain talent both drive immediate success and trigger greater productivity (pages

There’s some good news: Cities are coming back back. Mallach reminds us of the litany of urban obituaries written in the 1970s and 1980s: cities had become unlivable, their populations were doomed to unending decline, and would become reservations for the poor and the blacks surrounded by heavily guarded middle class suburbs. (page 26). Yet the narrative of urban decline from the 1970s and 1980s no longer holds; there’s a genuine renewal of urban life.

The locus of urban economic prosperity has shifted from manufacturing prowess to knowledge creation and the quality of life. This shift, while it has worked to the advantage of cities, relative to rural reas, has systematically disadvantaged the industrial cities of the midwest, relative to coastal metropoli.

The urban revitalization has been spearheaded by a generational change in attitudes toward urban living; young adults, especially well-educated ones are increasingly choosing to live in cities.

The red herring of gentrification

The highly visible movement of young adults to cities–and the growth of emblematic businesses (bars, coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques), draws media attention to “gentrification”. There’s a fair amount of pearl clutching and hand-wringing among many self-styled progressives that gentrification is somehow making the plight of the poor even worse. Mallach critically examines this view, and shows why it’s a poor diagnosis and leads to even worse prescriptions when it comes to urban policy.

As Mallach notes, gentrification is surprisingly rare, especially in these older cities. The growth that is occurring tends to be limited and centered near downtowns. This strongly makes the case that the obsession with gentrification obscures the big economic challenge facing cities and the poor. The big, un-reported trend that really explains the plight of the poor is occurring slowly and steadily outside the media spotlight–the steady growth of concentrated poverty.

The poor are increasingly concentrated in neighborhoods where a high fraction of their neighbors are also poor. These neighborhoods are also disproportionately people of color.

Although racial segregation has eased somewhat over the decades, it has declined primarily for families with means. As a result the economic segregation of African-Americans has skyrocketed. At the height of segregation, the entire black community was effectively forced to live in the same neighborhoods, so doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals lived side by side with laborers, clerks and the unemployed. The advent of civil rights laws allowed upwardly mobile black families to move elsewhere–which they did, with the result that those continuing to live in historically black neighborhoods were disproportionately poorer than those who left, concentrating poverty. Mallach’s analysis of Indianapolis-often touted as one of the more prosperous cities in the Midwest-shows that the growth of high poverty neighborhoods has dwarfed-by a factor of twelve-the number of neighborhoods that have “gentrified.”

We appreciate Mallach’s clear-eyed analysis of the rhetoric around gentrification. The term was invented as polemic slogan: “it was never meant to be an objective description of a neutral phenomenon, but a politically charged and indeed pejorative term.” (page 98) In effect the word gentrification has come to be a universal epithet for describing the powerlessness of those living in poverty to control their own destinies and those of their communities. “the utter and complete lack of control the poor and the nonwhite have in where they are permitted to live.” (page 120, quoting Jake Flanigan)

It’s understandable that gentrification is the flash-point of urban controversy. Gentrifying neighborhoods sharply juxtapose poverty and prosperity-which are usually widely separated in most metropolitan areas. But as Mallach’s careful analysis points out, it is the growth of concentrated poverty, not the exceptional instances of gentrification, that are truly behind the worsening plight of the poor.

Our obsession with gentrification reflects the narrative simplicity and power of the “gentrifier as villain” story-line. Gentrification defines the enemy’s face and the front-lines of the struggle far more neatly than the complex and multi-faceted forces that are increasing and concentrating urban poverty. Mallach is spot on here:

“. . . gentrification is widely seen as something that’s being done by someone to someplace or somebody. In an increasingly tribal world, young white people with money and the members of the gentrification industrial complex working behind the scenes, are Them–a visible enemy on which to unload one’s frustration and anger . . . By contrast, neighborhood decline is painfully diffuse and impersonal. It is the product of a complex interplay of factors, many of which are difficult to tackle or even in some cases to define.  Those include global and national increases in economic inequality, demographic shifts, changes in employment, aging of the urban housing stock, suburban out-migration of middle-class black families and the continue fallout from the foreclosure crisis and housing-market collapse of the mid 2000’s. (page 142)

As Mallach argues (page 115), gentrification brings benefits that are often discounted: these neighborhoods become cleaner, safer places; new businesses provide more jobs and more consumption options. These neighborhoods become more integrated and public services improve. These are, in Mallach’s words “not insignificant benefits, and there is evidence in legacy cities that they are shared by many gentrifying neighobrhoods’ longtime residents.” (page 116)

Urban Economic Development

Mallach makes the case that too much money has been wasted on subsidizing stadiums, arenas, convention centers and the like. Nearly all of the benefit has been captured by the wealthy (and often absentee) owners of professional sports franchises, and the net economic effect of sports and related activities on regional economies is widely estimated to be close to nil.

While heaping hundreds of millions of dollars on shiny projects, cities have generally short-changed the investments in human capital that would make the biggest difference for those living in poverty and in poor neighborhoods.  Cleveland spent more than $600 million on three sporting facilities; by his calculation, a fraction of that amount invested in training and placement programs could have lifted thousands from poverty.

Mallach’s diagnosis of the edifice complex driving these choices is spot-on. Spending on big projects meets the needs of powerful interests in the community (developers, the chamber of commerce, construction labor unions), and provides the kind of showy ribbon-cutting opportunities politicians crave:

“development strategies, which are basically about building things, whethere stadiums, housing developments or corporate offices, are both easier and more visible than fostering more fundamental economic growth or improvement.” (page 243)

There’s much, much more in this impressive book. Mallach touches on the accomplishments and limitations of community development corporations, on the spread of poverty to first-tier suburbs, the challenges confronting rural communities, and the now pivotal role that anchor institutions play in shaping development in many cities.

There are compelling tales of how the process of neighborhood decline unfolds, step by step, with one small erosion of a communities assets triggering further losses.  The book concludes with a chapter considering what policies might most make a difference to the future of cities. Mallach isn’t waiting or wishing for the federal government to ride to the rescue; while there are some things the federal government might do much better (notably assuring that housing subsidies were more universally available and targeted to low income households), success will depend heavily on local leaders who aggressively pursue building communities that work well for and are inclusive of everyone.