Monday, July 20th, 2009

Race and the City

In my recent blog survey, someone made a comment that really made me pause and think: “I respect that it’s one of the few urban planning blogs to talk about black people and their roles in the community.

It is unfortunately true that so much urbanism discussion is about things – buildings, transit lines, roads, etc. But cities are first and foremost about people.

Our Midwestern cities have large African American populations and a robust black cultural life. Being from this part of the country, it is impossible for me to imagine a city without black people on the street. Whenever I visit a city with very few black people, it just seems “off” to me, like there is something missing or wrong.

The first black president in history is from Chicago. Incidentally, he’s the first president of any race from these parts in quite some time. Right now in Indianapolis, the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration is wrapping up. This is possibly the largest ethnic or cultural festival of any kind in the entire country. Michael Jackson, arguably the world’s greatest entertainer at one point, was from Gary, Indiana. Detroit is famous for its Motown legacy. Halle Berry is from Cleveland. Langston Hughes was born in Missouri and also spent many years in Cleveland. The list of distinguished African Americans with Midwestern roots would probably fill up one of my mega-long blog posts.

Yet African Americans tend not to feature prominently in urbanist discussions of our cities and their future, save perhaps in hyper-segregated Detroit. I can understand that people are hesitant to forthrightly discuss race because it is a subject matter that is sensitive. But perhaps there is nothing more important to talk about.

Race has arguably been the most powerful force shaping our cities. Racism, the Great Migration, civil rights struggles, fair housing, busing, block busting, white flight, riots, public housing, the emergence of black political leaders and especially mayors, red lining, and so much more. There is a long history there, much of it we can’t be proud of.

We can’t roll back the clock and start over. We are where we are. It’s about how we move forward. Institutionalized racism has been significantly eliminated. Social attitudes have changed a lot. But clearly race is a subtext in almost any discussion of urban issues, from transportation, to crime, to education, to neighborhood redevelopment, to regional governance. Anyone who thinks we are totally beyond racism should spend some time reading the comments on articles of their hometown newspaper web site.

In nearly all of our cities we see a black community that has not shared in civic success or which has disproportionately been hit by civic failure. This is not only a disgrace, it will block those cities from finding urban success properly so-called. No city that leaves an entire segment of its community behind can truly claim success, no matter how many gleaming towers or swanky restaurants it might have.

I will make two arguments for cities with significant black populations. One, those cities will never be truly successful or achieve their aspirations if their black populations do not share in civic progress. Two, one of the strongest predictors of urban success is how a city engages its black population.

Consider Atlanta. It has been one of America’s fastest growing regions for a long time. It has a heavy rail subway system, significant urban infill development, the busiest airport in the country, many corporate headquarters, a strong entrepreneurial culture, and a core city population boom that puts any Midwest city to shame, including Chicago. It should not be surprising that Atlanta has long been a major African American center, was known as the “city too busy to hate”, and today is arguably America’s premier city for African Americans. Good for black people has meant good for white people too. Contrast with nearby Birmingham, Alabama and see the difference. Once those cities were about the same size, by the way.

Or consider Houston. Another massive Sunbelt boomtown. This is the city that opened its doors to tens of thousands of New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, mostly black. Many of them decided to stay on in Houston. Houston sees attracting these new African American residents not just as charity, but as good for Houston’s growth.

I think it is time for Midwest cities to step up to the plate. You always see these civic strategies that talk about “building on assets”. Well, one of the greatest untapped assets of our cities is their African American populations. Why not look there to find not just a group that needs help, but rather a potential growth engine for the community? I won’t claim this will be easy to figure out. But it is imperative that we start.

It starts with education. There is nothing more important to success in the modern economy than a quality education. I am reminded of research Richard Longworth cited in “Caught in the Middle” about how even in economically ravaged Michigan, most white people still don’t see education as critical. The Midwest has never put a priority on education, even for its white majority. Hence its educational attainment levels. Imagine then the priority that has been put on urban districts with majority black populations? I think we are all familiar with the state of our inner city schools. I won’t claim this is a Midwest specific problem, or that the school system is entirely to blame, but clearly education is the absolute first step on the road to success for anyone, black or white.

I’ll have more to say on this topic in the future. But to wrap up this post I thought I would provide some data to give some perspective on our Midwest black communities. The data below is the percentage black population in the core county of a given metro area. For comparison purposes, the United States is 12.3% black. This data is as of the 2000 Census.

  • Chicago (Cook County) – 26.1%
  • Cincinnati (Hamilton County) – 23.4%
  • Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) – 27.4%
  • Columubs (Franklin County) – 17.9%
  • Detroit (Wayne County) – 42.2%
  • Indianapolis (Marion County) – 24.2%
  • Kansas City (Jackson County) – 23.3%
  • Louisville (Jefferson County) – 18.9%
  • Milwaukee (Milwaukee County) – 24.6%
  • Minneapolis (Hennepin County) – 9.0%; St. Paul (Ramsey County) – 7.6%
  • Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) – 12.4%
  • St. Louis (independent city) – 51.2% ; St. Louis County – 19.0%

As you can see, other than the Twin Cities, every large metro in the Midwest has a sizeable black core county population. A lot of places seem to have a core county population of around 25%.

It strikes me that it’s pretty hard to have a successful city if a quarter of your population isn’t coming along in the journey. So it is important for urbanists and those who love cities to be focusing on this in addition to (not instead of) things like attracting people who are already highly educated, drawing the middle class back to the center, downtown redevelopment, etc.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture


24 Responses to “Race and the City”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There is nothing more important to success in the modern economy than a quality education. I am reminded of research Richard Longworth cited in "Caught in the Middle" about how even in economically ravaged Michigan, most white people still don't see education as critical. The Midwest has never put a priority on education, even for its white majority.

    ^Very good point.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The biggest stars (if that's the right word) to come out of Chicago in the last generation are what Barack, & Oprah were black. The white equivalent are Rod Blagojevich and Jerry Springer?

    White flight is still going on in Chicago by the way, though gratefully it has slowed down. I think its contemptible that the civic leadership hasn't tried to at least say some soothing platitudes about getting along with one another, or support the few people who were trying to keep some hoods on the SW side integrated.

    The biggest thing to come out of here is a mixed race guy from an integrated neighborhood, hmm might that not be a path to pursue in developing the city?

  3. thundermutt says:

    FYI, Springer is a former mayor of Cincinnati, not Chicago.

  4. Ashley James says:

    Funny, my wife and I were having this exact conversation about 2 weeks ago while visiting the African American exhibit at the Indiana State Museum.

    It amazes me how much positive African American history we have in Indianapolis, yet we have not tapped into it as a means for economic development and branding.

    Crispus Attucks HS, RFK-MLK, Freddie Hubbard, Madam Walker, our Muslim Congressman, Expo, Circle City Classic, and this is just the start of the list.

    Why this isn't a greater part of Indianapolis' identity baffles me.

  5. John says:

    I don't think it's fair to say that "The Midwest has never put a priority on education, even for its white majority. Hence its educational attainment levels."

    First, Census stats show that the Midwest slightly outperforms the South in percent with a Bachelor's degree or better, and greatly outperforms the south for those with a HS degree or better. The Midwest does trail the Northeast and West though.

    Second, the Midwest is way too diverse to say that the whole region doesn't value education. Clearly, a huge majority of people in some places – such as wealthy suburbs – do value education highly, are willing to pay higher taxes for it, and send most of their graduates to college. However, a smaller percentage of the residents of some places – such as large urban districts and some rural districts – don't graduate as many students or send as many to college.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I too would appreciate more discussion of this topic. For Detroit, Cleveland, and possibly St. Louis, this is the life or death issue.

    Class overlays this obviously. Few people have objections to working, shopping or living near people of the Black middle class, but the Black lower class is a whole different story.

    If you look at where middle class people choose to rent, buy homes, open businesses, shop, dine, etc., they all fall into two categories. Place where there never were lower class Blacks (Madison, Iowa City, Exurbs), or places that lower class Blacks are being definitively crowded/priced out of (i.e. near west side of Chicago).

    In Cleveland, cheap housing and various housing programs (down payment assistance, section 8, public housing, etc.) are moving low income African Americans into every redeveloping neighborhood, every working class neighborhood, and every suburb. Only the exburbs are exempt if they zone for McMansions and ban multifamily housing. If you wonder why there is sprawl without growth here, this is the main factor. People are scared.

    We would all like to see low income African Americans rise out of poverty and turn away from crime and violence. If that takes a generation or more, how do we (and our cities) survive in the mean time?

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  8. John says:

    I think this graphic illustrates a big part of the problem in poor inner city neighborhoods.

    As a new father myself, I can't imagine having to do it alone. For most of the 71% of black women in Cleveland raising children alone, I imagine that making enough money to put food on the table is hard enough. How can they find time to play with their children, read to them, take them to baseball practice, force them to do their homework, etc…? Based on the results, I'm guessing that they don't.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Springer gained national notoriety for his talk show, which he films in Chicago.

    There are home equity insurance programs on Chicago's south west side that were supposed to halt white flight but I think they're the work of local activists, not higher political leadership. They really haven't worked from what I can tell. Look into that if you want I'm just anon on the internet.

    I think most whites don't want to live around blacks, middle class or no. There are huge pockets of middle class, in Chicago at least that are at least 95 percent black.

    I should write a book.
    "Oh no it's on the south side!"

  10. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post.

    Indianapolis has two wonderful family oriented events that are centered around the black community, IBE and Circle City Classic. Those events have a regional draw often bringing in people from surrounding states.

    But it has never felt to me that the city has capitalized on those events to create a case to the black community that Inidianapolis is a great place to live.

    It has always seemed a lost opportunity to me.

  11. Anonymous says:

    In the policy and academic circles, we've gone around and around about how to break the cycle of poverty. Everyone's got an opinion about where to intervene – early childhood, mentoring, scholarships, job training, prison recidivism programs. I have my own favorite program, but none look like they'll be getting substantial resources in the forseeable future.

    But at some point, we have to talk about alternate strategies to survive as cities. For example, can a municipality set a limit on the percentage of subsidized housing units in a census tract?

    I understand the arguments for deconcentrating poverty – the poor are supposed to have access to jobs and emulate pro-social behaviors of the non-poor. But in practice, deconcentrating just tips one marginal neighborhood after another. Within five years, the relocated families are surrounded by blight and poverty again.

    For non-poor people who want an urban lifestyle, this is a coordination problem. If they can all head for a neighborhood at approximately the same time, they bid up the rents and home values so that they are above the HUD definitions of affordable for various programs.

    Has anyone seen strategies to overcome the coordination problem in non-booming cities?

  12. thundermutt says:

    "It amazes me how much positive African American history we have in Indianapolis, yet we have not tapped into it as a means for economic development and branding.

    Crispus Attucks HS, RFK-MLK, Freddie Hubbard, Madam Walker, our Muslim Congressman, Expo, Circle City Classic, and this is just the start of the list.

    Why this isn't a greater part of Indianapolis' identity baffles me."

    You mean, "why this isn't a greater part of WHITE Indianapolis' identity baffles me"?

    I think all those things are a supportive part of black middle-class culture in Indianapolis, and probably help keep home-grown middle-class African-Americans from fleeing to Chicago or Atlanta.

    And to the anon who thinks white people don't want to live around black people…how sad for you. We'll all have some grandchildren or great-grandchildren in various shades of brown, and I sure want them to live around me.

  13. Radarman says:

    I'd be curious to see if other cities share a longstanding Cincinnati complication of racial issues, i.e its strong but very separate parochial school system. The white people who did not abandon the city in the mid-century tended to be Roman Catholics whose schools did not have to deal with the great migration from the south. That left the city with a lot of new voters needing services that the long settled voters took a grim pleasure in underfunding.

    This situation is slowly changing as young Roman Catholic families have settled in newer suburbs with more up-to-date housing. The public schools get plenty of money, but their task – teaching many disadvantaged children – remains much more difficult that facing the parochial schools.

    For the record, official Cincinnati falls over itself talking up black cultural contributions, but the officials never really seem to have a grasp of the subject. Imagine the Chamber of Commerce honoring Bootsy Collins, and you get the picture.

  14. Kirsten says:

    Great post & great comments. I'd also assert that urban planners often ignore another key group (and a group whose opportunities are critical for a community) – non-affluent youth, particularly teens.

    While many urban-planning topics like green space, transportation, and walkability directly link to youth opportunities, I seldom see discussions about these topics that reference young people. And, more significantly, I see little or no discussion WITH young people. If we want our cities to be livable and (thanks for your point) livable for diverse communities, we have to include youth and their needs in our efforts.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Someone who wants an urban lifestyle but who blanches at living in some proximity to poor people is confused. You're gonna see poor people in almost any city even if you don't live near them if they want to hurt you they can cross the tracks and get you anyway, and cities attract poor people so maybe Austin can keep them away for a while but not forever, sorry.

    Growing up a white kid around a lot of poor blacks the most trouble I encountered were ethic white kids beating me up for being a "n****r lover" so I guess I see the problem as less coordinating, and more giving it a shot.

    The last time I can recall a member of the "gentry" being killed at random in a marginal area in Chicago is a long long time ago, and having your car broken into is offset by the lower rent you pay.

    That's what my father said after 20 years of living in the same area we suffered the monumental crime of someone breaking into the car and stealing a camera, my mother also had her bicycle stolen.

    Furniture in our back yard was taken too.

    Though that happened after the area started getting nicer, and prosperous non blight folks started leaving bars to fight one another and throw up on the street.

    If they were black and playing "Work It" while having a cook out past nine at night they would've been _ghetto_ or _sketchy_ and my cousins would've been afraid of them.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Urban areas without poor people is what most young professionals are looking for – even if they deny it. That's why they are moving to Portland and Des Moines and not Detroit and not Crawford County. That's why they move to Lakeview and not South Shore, and why they get out of Hyde Park as soon as they're through with school.

    If you think anything is true about Florida's thesis of amenities attracting entrepreneurs, then you have to pay attention to the dis-amenity created by anti-social behavior.

    Yes, some college freshman and hipsters get a kick out going into the hood and seeing the wanna be pimps rolling just like in the videos, but sooner or later, it gets old. You want to be able to walk to the corner store without looking over your shoulder. If you have to drive everywhere for security, there is no point in living in the city.

    In my neighborhood all the teenagers walk around with one hand on their waist because if they let go, their pants fall off.
    In their other hand they hold their cell phone while they scream profanity at it.

    Why on earth do I want to see this every day? I could move to the Twin Cities where these people are limited to one corner of town, and the rest of the MSA is a sea of friendly, smart yuppies.

    Look at the migration numbers. Millions of people are revealing their preferences. Given the choice between urban areas with a lot of poor and urban areas with few poor people, they choose the later. How can my city offer that attractive product?

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    I'm sad to say, but the "tipping point" research shows that with even a modest amount of race preference – ie., people are ok with mixed race neighborhoods but want to have a certain minimum percentage of their own race – racial distribution is unstable and tends to segregation.

    Chicago, which is in reality one of America's most segregated cities, has a tipping point value of 7%. That is, once the percentage of blacks in a neighborhood hits 7%, the percentage of whites will drop by more than 20% in short order. You can see that last finding here.

    The good news is that other cities aren't nearly as bad as Chicago, and I think that attitudes are changing over time.

    I lived in a South Evanston neighborhood that was very racially integrated, and stably so, for several years. It wasn't just black and white either, noticeable numbers of Latinos and Asians were around too. The examples of places like this show that it is possible.

    Today in my Fountain Square neighborhood, I believe the population is majority white but about 15% African American. This has not caused any problems whatsoever in terms of tension that I can see.

  18. Elaine says:

    This is interesting. I live in Washington, DC (which, along with its neighbor Baltimore is arguably the east-coast poster child for concentrated urban poverty), and have just finished a big study on my own neighborhood, northern Columbia Heights.

    CH used to be a heavily African-American community, was decimated by the riots in 1968 and basically abandoned by the city for 30 years until a new Metro station opened in 1999. (Lesson One: Access to transit is a huge asset.) Between 1999 and 2007 the real estate boom in northern CH was astronomical, and it became the next up-and-coming housing market since Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Logan Circle had all become too expensive. The population mix shifted from majority-African-American to a 30-30-30 percent distribution of white, AA and Hispanic. Everyone, old-timers and newcomers alike, was terrified that gentrification would make it a majority-white neighborhood.

    And then the recession hit. Housing development came to a screeching halt, housing prices stopped escalating, and the neighborhood is in some kind of economic and ethnic stasis that everyone really seems to love. We all hope it can be maintained.

    Two problems: Property crime is rampant and the schools suck, so families that can afford to move usually do so in order to get their kids out of the 'hood and into a decent school. So the neighborhood is missing that crucial "middle" demographic stripe that can be the bridge between the old-timers and the newcomers. Right now the old-timers have no one to whom to pass on community values and responsibilities.

    Additionally, the neighborhood immediately to the south (still CH) boasts the highest concentration in the city of project-based subsidized housing. That neighborhood is definitely NOT divided 30-30-30 along racial/ethnic lines; it's heavily minority. It has also become a place of concentrated gun violence, much of it drug-related. Many people see a strong correlation between the concentrated poverty and the crime and school problems, and because the face of that poverty is overwhelmingly black, they turn it into a racial issue.

    So we're still a neighborhood that takes more resources from the city than we return, and I'm not sure how we're going to address that without taking on the race-poverty connection directly. And I don't see too many people willing to do that. Especially when we get all wrapped up in Marion Barry's ex-girlfriend drama (for those who have been following).

    So — another data point for conversation. Thanks for raising this.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Even sadder is the fact that Chicago's segregation has made it possible for it to become the global city it is. If there weren't some predominantly white neighborhoods, the movement of young professionals into the city would have been much, much slower.

    I agree that the tip points across the country are no doubt higher now than in 1970. They may be as high as 30% depending on the level of inequality.

    In Cleveland, the East Side neighborhoods and one nice suburb (East Cleveland) flipped very quickly in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Several other eastern suburbs have been almost stably integrated for a few decades including Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and Shaker Heights.

    Now I'm afraid there is white flight by attrition. The aging boomers aren't necessarily leaving, but not enough young couples planning to have children will buy a single family home in these cities. So the home prices drop until they are affordable for people coming out of Cleveland.

    The result is that when we interview candidates, and they ask about lively, reasonably safe options for buying a home, we have fewer and fewer offerings. Now we have to find people who are talented, willing to shovel snow, and have a very high tipping points (50% ?). Its one more constraint we have to deal with in the global competition.

  20. AmericanDirt says:

    Like any truly solid pontification on race, this raises more questions than it can hope to answer. When dealing with a supremely complicated consideration, this is an asset to Urbanophile's writing and observations.

    I agree with John that it is a bit unfair to say the Midwest never put a priority on education. I can scarcely think of an athletic conference that surpasses the Big Ten in terms of national and international reputations, with all public schools (sans Northwestern). These days even the Northeast kids are clamoring to get into Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin, while Purdue has long been an established international destination. That the educational attainment levels of the Midwest fall behind the West or Northeast has more to say about the Midwest's ability to retain college graduates than anything, which has only become a policy priority of Midwest states/cities in recent years. From what I gather you've discussed brain drain at length with amazing insight.

    I also agree that Atlanta seems to have plugged into something that completely escapes most other cities, in terms of its assimilation of the African American community into the cities broader civic culture. Suburban DeKalb County is majority African American, with median household incomes that surpass both the state and the nation. However, I'm not confident that the city doesn't remain highly segregated, with a black middle class on the outer southside where a white face can scarcely be seen. Also, recent demographic estimates predict that the city's demographics could shift it back to majority-white status within a handful of years; most of the influx of white professionals has taken place on the north side, in such widely known neighborhoods as Bucktown.

  21. AmericanDirt says:

    Washington DC is another often highly regarded example of a city that has engaged its African American majority. Having lived there briefly (unlike Atlanta), I can attest to the abundance of "buppies" and married African American professionals; the demographics of suburban Prince George's County are similar to those of DeKalb, with a black majority and a generally wealthy population. That said, the dividing line is fierce, with only Elaine's Columbia Heights neighborhood and a few others showing any sign of integration. Otherwise, the northwest of DC is white and the northeast is black, and this extends into the suburbs of Maryland: Montgomery County is white and Prince George's is black. Despite its prosperity, Prince George's County, from what I learned last year living nearby, suffers a homicide rate on par with most major urban centers and its schools have the second lowest test scores in the state of Maryland.

    Houston presents a similar picture to Atlanta, not emphasizing its African American heritage as much (it comprises a much smaller percentage) but the "growth for growth's sake" boosterism of the city seems distinctively Texan. Having lived in New Orleans in the past, though, I'm less convinced that they welcomed the Katrina evacuees with open arms; the entire city was significantly poorer as a result, and many of the stats by which Houston prided itself–high homeownership, better than average urban public schools, upward mobility of immigrants and newcomers–suffered because it took in a population that had never benefited from that culture: the entrenched, generational African American poverty of New Orleans. I think within a year, most Houstonians I were aware of only avoided saying "send them back to New Orleans" to avoid sounding racist, but few cities in the developing world would know how to handle such a generally educationally deprived population.

    Spacialization of racial preferences seems to be what this blog post (and the ensuing comments) touches on most effectively. It's a hydra of a problem that plays out differently across the country. Some cities have been better at recognizing minorities on the same civic level as their white population, instead of cornering them into gerrymandered districts that become islands of sociopolitical hyperconcentration: the south side of Chicago and, perhaps, Prince George's County demonstrate this well. More effective have been Houston, Atlanta, and, I would argue, Indianapolis and Columbus–though all clearly show formidable room for improvement.

  22. Jefferey says:

    And to the anon who thinks white people don't want to live around black people…how sad for you.

    What's so sad about it? This has been validated via surveys. The book American Apartheid discusses this as part of a larger theme of racial segregation leading to economic and social exclusion.

  23. thundermutt says:

    My point: that an opinion or practice exists widely doesn't make it good, right, or salutary.

    The real world is mostly made up of people whose skin is NOT pale. The whole world does NOT look like the inside of a suburban mall or a suburban childrens' sports field.

    Teaching children by example that it's okay to run and hide from differences among people who look like you is not a good thing. It's sad.

    Equipping kids with the skills to navigate a city, state, country, and world full of differences is the right thing to do.

    Okay, I'll put the soapbox away now.

  24. Alon Levy says:

    DeKalb and PG Counties are symptoms of segregation, not black success. Both counties are rich by general US standards, but not by middle-class suburban ones. They collect their region's entire black middle classes, putting them on the opposite side of the favored quarter (NoVa, Sandy Springs/Marietta).

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