Monday, July 20th, 2009
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.