Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

The White City

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “The White City“. I take a look at the cities which are often touted as progressive urban role models, places like Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Austin, and find that one thing that unites these cities is their lack of African Americans. This is in marked contrast to most cities of the Midwest and South. The following chart illustrates:

You might be interested in contrasting my piece with this one in the American Prospect.

When I say “progressive”, I don’t mean it in a left-politics sense – Midwest cities like Cleveland are very blue, for example – but rather that places like Portland and Denver are held up as exemplars that other cities should be imitating in terms of urban policies. I actually happen to be a big fan of a lot of what they are doing and think a lot of it worthy of adapting to other places. I’ll even go so far as to say that changing land use and transportation policies in our urban cores is an absolute imperative if we expect that Midwest cities are ever going to regenerate themselves.

But I am troubled that cities who share a lack of African Americans as a core feature in common are considered the model. Far better would be truly diverse cities like NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami – but those Tier One cities simply can’t be imitated by much smaller places.

Perhaps those cities can’t be blamed for their history and resulting demographics. And I don’t think all American cities should have the exact same demographic mix. But it isn’t realistic to expect that the models that work there will work in other places.

That’s the piece of the puzzle that is missing in places like the Rust Belt and the South. Cities try to “lift and drop” the policies and sales plan of Portland without considering the local context in terms of how things like transit should be targeted to benefit the entire community and promote social justice, as well as how to sell forward looking urban policies in this environment.

Dynamics like this are largely missing from too much of the urbanist agenda. Perhaps it is not surprising, since the “R&D labs” for urban policy are the Tier One cities and also these Portland-like smaller cities. What’s needed in places like the Rust Belt are a mixture of indigenous solutions and imported ideas that are tailored to the local community. It can’t just be trying to buy urban widgets from elsewhere like some sort of “public transit in a box” solution. The Midwest would do well to consider developing an indigenous urban R&D program to mitigate this.

I can also say this, with most large Midwest urban areas having core county African American populations of around 25%, any civic strategy that doesn’t involve African Americans is a loser.

As Smart City Memphis put it, “There’s the myth our African-American majority is an economic drag. Because distinctiveness is the basis for competitive advantage, Memphis needs to be a hub of black talent. If that isn’t at the top of our economic development agenda, we’re not really in the economic development business.” Cities need to create strategies based around their unique competitive advantages, and for the Midwest, one of those unique attributes are those cities’ African American populations. It’s too bad virtually none of them act like it.

What’s it worth to have a robust and engaged black community in your city? Well, what’s it worth to have the President of the United States be from your city? Absent the rich black cultural and political infrastructure of Chicago, there wouldn’t be a President from that city, or even the entire region, of any race.

I didn’t write that piece to bash Portland – well, not just to bash Portland – but also as a call to arms for Midwestern cities to figure out how to make their African American communities a key plank in their civic growth strategy. It’s a weapon those other cities simply can’t copy or match.

This was the topic of one of my very first blog posts ever, “Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis“. I happen to think that Indianapolis is very well placed to be a city that could really execute this strategy. Not only does it have many strong black cultural institutions, it also has, in my view, better race relations that many regional cities such as Cincinnati. And I experience degrees of social integration there to a degree greater than that of other regional cities I’ve been to. For example, pop into even a working class neighborhood bar on the near South Side and don’t be surprised to see a few black faces in the room. There are a number of racially mixed neighborhoods as well. I truly believe that one of the ways Indianapolis could truly take its civic success to the next level would be to set a goal of becoming the next great American city for African Americans and really making a push behind it.

As you might expect for such a topic, that post generated a bit of polarized reactions. Some of the critics suggested that “not black” doesn’t mean “white”. True enough. But that’s also why in the article I note how urbanist discussion in recent times has increasingly emphasized immigration as the prime metric of diversity. It helps divert people from an inconvenient truth.

Lastly, I’ll include this comment from Tommy Ates, whom I hope doesn’t mind my reproducing it here. It is very thoughtful and relevant.

Being black from Cincinnati and now living in Austin, reading the “The White City” article is both a validation of demographic observations and sobering testimony of how 21st Century cities are becoming a lifestyle choice where race is just an unintentional adjective, perhaps leading to ‘intentional’ acts of racial balkanism.

Being raised in Cincinnati, in the ’70s my parents moved there because there were an abundance of middle-class blacks that were “doing well”. In fact, Cincinnati does have safe “blurbs” (black suburbs). However, my deep criticism of Greater Cincinnati is that the suburban wealthy and middle-class blacks shun the black lower-class in Cincinnati.

In the 2000s, now the black “boom towns” are Atlanta and Houston. Living in Austin, instead of lapping it up in progressive Texan shangli-la, I get the creeping sense of being “left behind”. Nearly all of my cousins in my young age (20s-30s) have moved to Houston after high school because there is “culture”. When I’ve told my white friends, they look at me with incredulity. They don’t understand. But, “old South” may have ended for white Austin, but, after the 60s, it never did elsewhere for black and hispanics, except with a ’90s high tech bang with massive white incoming and rising home prices (far beyond average minority incomes).

As a result, Black and hispanic east Austin is dying. The people know it. The city of Austin and its downtown plan expect it. And, cynically, both the young and old minorities suspect, they won’t be missed. After all, their positioning in east Austin was a consequence for “old South” segregation. Well, nothing lasts forever, and what the real estate market gave, the market now takes away..and for some young minorities, time to go to a new “promiseland”.

For me, I love Austin for the art, “atmosphere” of diversity, progressivism, and civic will to build a denser, more impact urban core. Even though sometimes being only black face in restaurants and stores is a little uncomfortable -and jarring. I want to be a part of that effort against the encroaching suburban “donut hole” ravaging so many of our fine American cities.

Sadly, in some black quarters, the article’s mindset simply reveals what many people have thought all along. That, perhaps unconscious – or conscious, race or the lack of race has become a lifestyle choice.

In Texas, Austin for ‘liberal’ whites. Houston for blacks. Dallas for ‘conservative’ whites. San Antonio for hispanics. All the while, not dealing, but “dealing”, with the issue of race – in its absence.

If it’s not done with malicious intent, but it is the result, is it racist? Is it racism at all to go where one feels ‘comfortable’, even if the faces and viewpoints are all the ‘same’?


In a Changing World, Portland Remains Overwhelmingly White (The Oregonian)
Refugees of Diversity (The American Prospect)

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis, Portland

22 Responses to “The White City”

  1. Anonymous says:

    For City of Denver from the Census:

    White persons not Hispanic, percent, 2008 50.9%

  2. TGGP says:

    How is San Francisco so much better than Portland?

  3. Matthew says:

    Coming from Austin, it does seem like East Austin is usually kept out of most of the true planning decisions, other than gentrification issues. Some of the area along MLK east of I35 is really jarring, for example, with run-down bungalows right next to brand new contemporary apartments and condos.

    And I definitely don't think is as good a progressive model as its boosters say it is. I mean, there's not even an effect rapid transit system yet! Not the "Shangri-La" so many assume it is.

    IF Austin embraced its minority groups, it would be a whole lot better off; East Austin is one of the few places in town that has a workable urban fabric, and including the African-American and Hispanic communities should be essential to a true revitalization.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I like this:

    "Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip?"

    I might have said it a little differently- like substituting "get critcized" and "be praised" for "think of yourself and the people around you as" but I've had pretty much the same thought.

  5. Anonymous says:

    For medium-sized cities, I think growth pressures matter more to progressive policies than race.

    For example, Raleigh and Charlotte are increasingly progressive in their planning policies, yet continue to have large African-American populations, as well as African-American Planning Directors.

  6. pete-rock says:

    I think Aaron answered his own question in his article — Portland, Seattle, et. al. are the beneficiaries of national-scale white flight. But none of the cities would call it that, and few if any of their recent transplants would view it that way.

    I usually try to find a historical bent on why things develop the way they do. And I almost always come back to the point that what we see in our built environment today has its roots in the 1950s and 1960s. My guess is that, consciously or unconsciously, each of these cities — Portland, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Raleigh/Durham, Charlotte, etc. — marketed themselves as up-and-coming urban options for people looking for something different from the Northeast and Midwest "Old Order".

  7. Ken & Tricia says:

    A few thoughts

    First, as a former resident of SF, I think SF is one of the most segregated cities I know, but it doesn't really come up on any sort of census as the white upper class mostly live in the city and Marin, while the African American population mostly lives in Oakland, all the way across the bay.

    Second, I think the "white flight" to Portland, Seattle, et al is way too simplistic. I grew up in the West (SoCal), moved to Chicago and then back to the West (SF, then Portland). I love living here for various reasons, but certainly diversity (outside of LA) isn't a strong suite of the cities in the west. But, I think it's important to note that these cities have never been especially diverse. There isn't any "white flight," but rather the demographics of these cities have always been different than the east or the mid-west.

    In short, there are many reasons to move to the cities in the West (natural beauty, wide open spaces, smart urban development (Portland)), but I don't think "white flight" rates high on anyone's list as a reason to be out here.

    There is a different between cause and correlation and I think the hypothesis of "white flight" to these cities confuses the two.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don't even give the white cities credit for forward looking planning.

    This country was dotted with thousands of little towns through the 1800s. When the industrial revolution made water transport really profitable, the little towns at important intersections became big cities. The other towns just stayed towns.

    In the 70s' and 80s', a lot of young people thought it was okay to spend their 20's in suburbs. There were bars and night clubs in strip plazas. By the 90's, young people figured out that they prefer urban living. The white cities had what they wanted – safe (no low-income Blacks) urban neighborhoods. So white yuppies headed there.

    Remember why all white cities are white – because they were the losers (at least not winners) in the late industrial era. The winners of the late industrial era – Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, etc. attracted massive migration of southern Blacks. Detroit and Buffalo would have reinvented themselves as Seattle did if it weren't for white flight.

  9. JC says:

    Some good critical comments on this article are currently appearing on Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

  10. Ironwood says:


    I think you’ve come up with a spurious correlation. I feel it in my gut even tho I can’t fully articulate it … yet. I believe with some further analysis we’d find that racial composition of a city is simply another history-determined variable.

    Demographically, I suspect you will also find a relatively lower concentration of certain European ethnic groups in the Portlands and Austins, such as Italians, Poles, Greeks and Slavs. I wouldn’t be surprised to find similar variations in concentrations of religious affiliations.

    Other examples might be densities, architectural styles, building materials, dominant color schemes, grid patterns based on horse-and-buggy or street cars, combined storm and sanitary sewer systems, etc.

    I would submit that few of the variables I’ve listed are factors in the relative progressiveness of a city or are major determinants as to why people to move to or from one city to another.

    I’m not downplaying the continuing importance of race in American life. I do, however, think that in this case it’s going to turn out to be trivial.

    I would, however, tend to agree with the position that the more diverse a population is in terms of age, income, race, religion, class, etc., the more difficult it’s going to be to find consensus on most issues. And that would reasonably be expected to have an effect on the ability to pass major reforms.

    I see your taking a little bit of a licking in the blogosphere on this one, which is a shame, because I’ve seen a couple guys taking cheap shots. That’s what comes of your increasing notoriety, I guess. Those of us who’ve been reading you over the long haul know where your heart and head are at.

    Best, Iron

  11. Doug says:

    I came from an occasionally bruising discussion of this article on Metafilter.

    For what it’s worth from my end, though, I know exactly what you’re talking about — the talk there that you are ‘cherry-picking’ core counties is silly, because you’re talking specifically about urban cores and urban revitalization. In St. Louis, a large part of the African-american population lives closest to the core.

    That’s why it was exciting and sad at the same time for me to see my city get a Metrolink light rail system — exciting because hey, we finally got trains, and sad because the system was structured around an assumption that riders would start at a suburban park and ride, and then take a traffic-free trip downtown, perhaps to a Cards game or — and here we can see some race assumptions, maybe — musical theater. For the hundreds of thousands of potential daily users who use mass transit to go from downtown locations to employment in the suburbs, investment in light rail didn’t really help that much (although in its defense, it’s still being extended).

    And you were right. It hasn’t been successful, in terms of ticket sales. What the black community might want (geographical coverage, convenient bus transfers, discounts for monthly passes, station-stop security) isn’t built into the system the way that the Portland, revitalize-the-city-with-culture DNA is. We don’t need to revitalize our downtown with culture: it has culture — in many cases, black culture. We need to help the city serve its community.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. People who are crapping on it and live in Portland or San Francisco don’t really know what they’re talking about.

  12. Thanks for the contributions.

  13. Nathanael says:

    I think there may be some cause and effect reversal in this analysis.

    Because of racism, there is an excess concern over whether services will go to “people like us” (ugh) in cities with more black people. *This makes it harder politically to do any sort of urban design, because it’s all tied up with providing service*. In short, cities with low levels of diversity have less trouble convincing people that everyone will benefit from whatever they build. Because so many people are bigots.

    If there were a 90% black city with any money (is there?), I would expect that it might be able to be a pioneering model city too.

  14. Nathanael says:

    Oh, BTW, check out Youngstown, OH, which is being cited as an intelligent self-reinventing city… I don’t think it qualifies as a “White City” by a long shot.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Nathanael: there is no rich black core city, but there are upper middle-class black suburbs, especially to the east of Washington, in PG County, and Atlanta, in DeKalb County. The reference for this is The Failure of Integration, by Shirley Cashin, noteworthy for its case study of PG County.

    PG County, Cashin explains, is your average suburb, where the residents are as neurotic about trying to keep poorer people out. In one section of the county, when youths from poor inner suburbs traveled in to make use of a richer town’s basketball court, the town hired a private security firm to keep them out. The irony of middle-class blacks hiring security to restrict lower-class blacks was lost on most of the town’s residents.

    What’s worse is, both PG and DeKalb Counties are the poorest suburbs in their respective metro areas – in fact, they’re located on the side of downtown diametrically opposite the favored quarter. Upscale chains are loathe to open branches in the local malls, forcing the residents to drive a long way to the favored quarter suburbs. They have above-average income, but on social development metrics, they underperform even in absolute terms: PG County has both the worst schools and the highest crime rates in Maryland outside Baltimore City, with a murder rate of about 20/100,000.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Portland and other “white cities” don’t have the urban problems we have in the Midwest because they don’t have a big black underclass. The black underclass is the legacy of a mix of de-industrialization combined with geographic segregation and social exclusion due to te endemic racism in the Midwest. A topic people like to gloss over.

    “national” white flight is not to Portland and Seattle, which are attractive for reasons other than racial homogenity. The white flight is from California to the Intermountain West and now to places further east.

  17. George says:

    I have often speculated that one of the reasons that the United States abandoned the core of its cities while European cities reinvested in them is because of race. Obviously this is a very complex issue, but in the 50’s it probably seemed quite logical to many white Americans to leave the inner city to be closer “folks like them”. This isn’t just a white/black thing, think of all the Little Italys in major urban centers, but certainly the racial issues of the times did not help matters.

    Then you consider European cities. They have very homogenous populations, mostly monocultural. In this case, the drive to be close to “folks like them” might have kept them where they were, and resulted in a majority of the population that favored reinvesting in the central city, as opposed to disinvesting.

    Now take this and apply it to the concept of this post. What if the cities like Portland and Austin have more support for investing in their urban cores because of the lack of diversity? What if people feel more comfortable investing in downtown because they see folks like themselves living there, instead of people that look different or have different cultural views. That would have significant ramifications for our policies.

    Having said all this, while a correlation has been shows, I don’t see a proven causality het, so let’s not jump to conclusions.

  18. George says:

    One thought I forgot to mention. I live in Columbus, OH, where we have a city that’s 2/3 white but significant African American leadership representation, including the Mayor, a majority of City Council and the School Board. While we are certainly not considered as “progressive” as Portland or Austin (yet), it will be worth watching how the City progresses. Much of what Aaron Renn proposed for Indianapolis in this blog is actually happening in Columbus today. Look at Mayor Coleman’s plans for the King-Lincoln district just east of Downtown.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    George, it’s not just speculation. You can look at the redlining maps banks and Fannie Mae used in the 1930s to decide where to give people mortgages, or even read the criteria. Even one black family on a block was enough for banks and the government to declare the block a slum, and deny mortgages to anyone who wanted to buy there. Excessive numbers of Jews, Italians, and other immigrant whites were also enough to redline the block, as was any amount of ethnic diversity.

    The newer cities, which developed after this practice became illegal in the 1960s and 70s, don’t have the same problems. They still have some poor inner-city/rich suburbs split due to spillover from the rest of the country, for example the bus/poverty association, but it’s less stark than in the North and Midwest.

  20. Thanks, George. By the way, as you probably know, I’m a big fan of Columbus. It is doing a lot of great things.

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