Tuesday, October 20th, 2009
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)