Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The Three Generations of Black Mayors in America by Pete Saunders

[ This week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, so I’ll be away and enjoying it for the rest of the week. As a holiday long read for you, I’m posting this very important piece about the three generations of black mayors in America and how the timing of the election of the first black mayor affected the trajectory of those cities, with implications even today. Pete is the best writer on urbanism and race that I know and you can read his writings about this and more on his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]


The Monument to Joe Louis, commonly known as “The Fist”, in downtown Detroit. For more than thirty years, the sculpture has been a controversial symbol of black power in Detroit.  Source: Pete Saunders

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community.  However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.

If the cities that elected black mayors during this tumultuous period are ever to move forward, to achieve their potential, they must be released from the purgatory they inhabit.

Just as many people have well-developed thoughts and opinions on the American Civil War but little understanding of the turbulent Reconstruction Era that followed, many are familiar with the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, yet are far less knowledgeable about the local social and political events that followed it.  The Black Power Movement supplanted much of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with an emphasis on turning social activism into political empowerment.  Several cities elected their first black mayors during that period.  Cleveland was the first with the selection of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967.  Gary, Indiana followed suit the same year with the election of Richard Hatcher, and the federal government appointed Walter Washington to become Washington, DC’s first black mayor as well.  Later, Newark (Kenneth Gibson), Dayton (James McGee) and Cincinnati (Ted Berry) followed suit by 1972, and culminated with the elections of Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta) and Coleman Young (Detroit) in 1973.  A new era of African-American political empowerment had begun.

Taking a long historical view, it’s clear that the people who became first African-American mayors beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing through today held different views, developed different paths to victory and methods of governance, and had differing perceptions of their skills among their constituents.  Mayors elected through about 1975 were often activists straight from the Civil Rights Movement, and were looking for ways to turn the movement into actual political power.  The group of black mayors that followed them, from about 1975 to 1990 or so, had more distance between them and the Civil Rights Movement and were less concerned about implementing movement politics; they were more concerned about developing the kind of coalition that could get them elected and help them win legislative victories once in office.  The third group of “first black mayors”, coming after about 1990 and continuing through today generally came to terms with a different demographic landscape in most major American cities.  Whereas first black mayors elected twenty years prior could dependably rely on a supermajority of black votes in their favor – and an equally large supermajority of white votes against them – the most recent group works in a more nuanced and less racially charged environment.  Younger white residents without the racial grievances of their parents or grandparents were returning to cities, and Hispanics were rapidly increasing in numbers.  Anyone who would attempt to become a “first black mayor” in that environment would have to develop an appeal that goes beyond racial boundaries.

And yes, the decade that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was as tumultuous as they come for America’s largest cities.  That period, well remembered by those who lived it as a time of particularly strong urban and social tensions, coincided with the downward slide in momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of the Black Power Movement.  Older adults likely remember the period well: urban riots, fights over school busing, Affirmative Action battles, efforts to eliminate long-entrenched policies like blockbusting and redlining.  Skyrocketing crime, heated debates on the inequity of public services, and the development of a new, rapidly expanding land called “suburbia” that was looking very appealing to a growing number of city residents.  Nearly all large cities developed scars during that period.  The question is whether they healed, and healed well.

“It’s Our Time”


Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.  Source: Detroit News

Coleman Young, elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, in many ways epitomizes the first group of black political leadership that emerged following the Civil Rights Movement.  One might call them the Black Power set.  Born in 1918, Young was part of a generation of African-Americans who stood tantalizingly closer to economic prosperity and social equality than any previous generation, yet were reminded that they could never achieve it.  After serving as a bombardier and navigator for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Young returned from his service disillusioned by the segregation he and his fellow troops suffered.  He went on to become a labor leader with the UAW and later built a political base as a state representative and state senator in the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit’s East Side.

Young became a vocal critic of local leadership after the 1967 riots, and targeted the heavy-handed efforts of Detroit police to reduce crime.  Young announced he was running for mayor in 1973 in large part to work to disband the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit.  The unit was often mentioned as the initiator of police brutality complaints, and was allegedly responsible for as many as 22 deaths of black residents over a 2 ½ year period.  Young ran against John Nichols, the city’s police commissioner and staunch supporter of the troubled unit.

Young won a narrow victory over Nichols in 1973 in a race that was almost entirely split along racial lines in the nearly 50/50 city.  In his inaugural address, Young famously told “all those pushers, (to) all rip-off artists, (to) all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”  Young maintained that his message was that criminals were not welcome in Detroit; the quote has often been interpreted by white former Detroit residents as a throwing down of the gauntlet, urging whites to leave the city for the suburbs.  Young went on to win four more terms in office.  He balanced budgets yet struggled to maintain services in a city with a rapidly declining tax base.  He remains one of the most controversial leaders in Detroit history.

Conversely, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes and Newark’s Kenneth Gibson may not have provoked similar passions in their respective cities, but they did not fare much better.  Stokes obtained his law degree in 1956, served three terms in the Ohio Legislature and narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1965.  His eventual win in 1967 garnered him plenty of national attention as he became the first African-American mayor of one of the nation’s ten largest cities.  He was successful enough to pursue and win a second two-year term in 1969, but his tenure in office was characterized by constant feuds with the Cleveland City Council and the Police Department.  Stokes left office at the end of his second term.  After studying civil engineering in college, Gibson worked for nearly two decades as a structural engineer with the New Jersey Highway Department, the Newark Housing Authority and the City of Newark.  He pursued the mayor’s office as a reformer wishing to restore honor to the office following the corruption scandals of incumbent Hugh Addonizio.  Gibson won in 1970 but perhaps his attachment to people like Newark poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who challenged Gibson to push the city’s corporate interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community, served as a lightning rod to the city’s remaining middle class element.  Gibson was elected to four terms, but Newark’s slide continued unabated.

Black National Political Convention

It’s probably fair to say that the political pinnacle of the Black Power era took place between the elections of Gibson and Young, with the advent of the Black National Political Convention in 1972.  Held in Gary, Indiana and hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, delegates from the entire spectrum of black leadership convened to establish a black political agenda for urban America.  More than 8,000 people attended the three-day convention, with 3,000 selected to be voting delegates.  Newly elected black officials attended, along with celebrated black nationalists and revolutionaries.  Delegates with more moderate position also attended.  However, whites were not invited.  No white speakers whose views were sympathetic to the movement; not even white reporters.  This exclusion caused groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to skip the event and be critical of the gathering.

Renee Ferguson, a former Chicago local news television reporter and currently the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), attended the convention as a 22-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis News.  In an interview with Chicago public radio station WBEZ remarking on the 40th anniversary of the convention in 2012, she spoke about the frenzied nature of the event.  “When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson said that the agenda of the convention was framed by a basic question, and was the source of great tension.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

In the end, black nationalists won the day.  The prevailing theme of the convention was that African-Americans would seek to create change outside of the system.  The agenda included platforms that had support from other liberal factions (elimination of capital punishment, national health insurance), but also included platforms that sought to consolidate political control with the growing number of leaders (community control of schools, busing for school integration).  Perhaps the biggest message of the convention, however, was that “White politics had failed Black people”.  And a new group of leaders set out to implement that vision.

Coalition Builders


Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the day after winning the election in 1983.  Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Almost immediately after the convening of the convention, a group of rising black political figures who rejected the premise of the Black Power era leaders sought to ascend through coalition building.  Rather than work exclusively outside of the system, and alienating those who disagreed with them, this group stressed their ability to work within the existing power and political framework.

As a state representative at the time representing Illinois’ 26th legislative district, Harold Washington would’ve been eligible to serve as a delegate to the Black National Political Convention.  Whether he attended is uncertain.  But it is clear that he adopted a coalition-building style that served him well as he ascended to the office of Mayor in Chicago.

Born in 1922 and just four years younger than Detroit’s Coleman Young, Harold Washington nevertheless followed a different path to mayor of Chicago.  Washington also served in the Army during World War II, building runways for long-range bombers in the North Pacific.  Upon his return from service he graduated from Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1949, and from Northwestern University Law School in 1952.  Washington immediately became immersed in local Chicago politics after law school, working for 3rd Ward Alderman and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe.  While working with Metcalfe Washington became intimately familiar with Chicago’s brand of Machine politics – a spoils system, patronage, and a personal approach to bringing out the vote on Election Day.

Contrary to Young’s experience in Detroit, African-Americans in Chicago experienced a fair amount of political enfranchisement.  In many respects, African-Americans were just one part of the ethnic milieu that made up Chicago’s political landscape, like the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish.  The foundation of Chicago’s political machine was its ability to meet the specific needs of those who could be convinced to depend on them, and convincing as many people to depend on them as they could.  The Machine’s success meant that it could not ignore or exclude potential votes, wherever they came from, and that included the African-American community.  The Machine’s strength was derived from its network of precinct captains, committeemen and elected officials that would convene regularly to discuss its political platform, slate of candidates vote targets and distribution of benefits.    Washington received a sound political education in coalition building through his work in Chicago’s Machine.

Washington was elected into the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965 and to the U.S. Congress in 1980.  Over the years, he developed a reputation of independence from the Chicago Democratic Party leadership, often becoming an unreliable member of the Machine’s state legislative contingent.  As a State Senator Washington was one of a group of independent black Democrats who partnered with white liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans to push forward the Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980.  His ascension to Congress later that year, defeating Machine loyalist Bennett Stewart, further alienated him from the Machine.

This effort afforded Washington a unique political perspective.  He enjoyed strong independent support from his African-American base, largely developed apart from the Machine.  He had strong connections with members of Chicago’s “lakefront progressive” community, which had a fairly large contingent in the city’s Hyde Park community, where Washington also lived.  It was likely evident to Washington and others that this pairing provided him a wider base than other black elected officials who rose through the ranks and focused solely on serving the needs of their African-American constituents.  Furthermore, Washington likely realized that the Hyde Park progressive community’s networks with other progressives, particularly on the North Side, opened up opportunities for offices beyond Congress.

Washington rode the wave of his unique coalition into mayoral politics in 1983.  Bolstered by support from his African-American base and reform-minded white progressives, Washington won against Republican Bernard Epton that November.  Once elected, however, he was confronted with a solid bloc of 29 aldermen (out of 50) firmly wedded to the “Democratic Organization” structure that had survived for so long in Chicago.  The bloc led a four-year period of legislative gridlock in Chicago known as Council Wars – the bloc assumed control of all Council committees, allowing it to set the legislative agenda; the bloc voted down virtually all of the mayor’s appointments; the bloc fought bitterly with Washington’s supporters on budget and appropriations.

Despite the challenges, however, Washington’s coalition held firm.  Federal lawsuits led by Washington allies challenged Chicago’s ward redistricting following the 1980 Census.  At the time, Chicago’s population included approximately 40 percent white and black residents, and 15 percent with an Hispanic background.  However, Washington supporters argued that wards were gerrymandered to maximize the number of white aldermen in the racially polarized city – at the time of Washington’s election as mayor there were 33 white, 16 black and one Hispanic aldermen.  Federal courts ruled in favor of Washington’s supporters in 1986, causing a redrawing of seven wards and special elections.  Washington supporters won four elections, creating a 25-25 split in the City Council and effectively giving the mayor control of the Council through his ability to cast a deciding vote.  Unfortunately, Washington’s control was short-lived.  He died of a massive heart attack on November 25, 1987, just months after his defeat of the obstructionist bloc.

Whereas Harold Washington’s political acumen made him a coalition builder, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stellar athletic and academic pedigree, wonky sensibility and personable nature drew coalitions toward him.

Schmoke attended the prestigious Baltimore City College for high school, where he excelled in football and lacrosse.  He entered Yale University in 1967, where he played quarterback for the freshman team and developed into an undergraduate student leader.  After graduating from Yale with a degree in history in 1971, Schmoke studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976.

Schmoke’s first electoral victory was as Baltimore State’s Attorney in 1982.  He defeated William Swisher in a surprise landslide, running a race-neutral campaign against the law-and-order, and (according to some) racially insensitive incumbent.  Schmoke was technically not Baltimore’s first black mayor; that title goes to Clarence “Du” Burns, who was elevated to mayor after the election of the previous mayor, William Donald Schaefer, as Maryland’s governor.  But Schmoke inherited much of Schaefer’s progressive and business establishment, as they saw him as the one who could articulate their agenda in a largely black city.  Schmoke challenged Burns in 1987 and won narrowly.  Recalling Schmoke’s victory for an article in Baltimore’s City Paper, City Council member Bill Cunningham said it was a “new-day-is-dawning thing.”  In the same article, the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church said, “We were looking for someone to encompass our hopes for the future, someone who would validate our own journey.  He went into office with all that on him. He was the new savior. He was the one who would fulfill our dreams.”

In the end, however, despite being twice re-elected, Schmoke’s analytical approach to leadership alienated coalitions who thought they were getting something else.  He developed a reputation for establishing bold policy goals that were difficult to build consensus around – improving adult literacy, drug decriminalization – and put in place department heads who brought the same policy wonk approach to their work that he did.  The business establishment and African-American community alike thought they were electing a dynamic “mover and shaker” who could energize them as they pushed toward new heights.  But Schmoke was perhaps more manager and caretaker than mover.  As a result he left office in 1999, deciding not to seek a fourth term, with a frayed coalition: a business community slightly betrayed, and an African-American community slightly disillusioned.

Trans-Racial Appealists

With the start of the 1990’s a new type of black political figure began to emerge.  Gains made through increased access to education and job opportunities were putting more African-Americans in previously unattainable positions, and allowing them to pursue previously unattainable avenues.  Wellington Webb, the first black mayor of Denver, fits this bill.

Webb was born in 1941 in Chicago and arrived in the Mile High City at age 11.  In his autobiography, he chronicles a difficult childhood; his mother had a drinking problem and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, and he had academic difficulties at Denver’s Manual High School.  But Webb fought through his family problems and personal demons.  He attended and graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Colorado in 1960, and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College in 1964.  He was introduced to politics by his grandmother, who was a Democratic Party district committeewoman in Denver.  Webb wanted to become a teacher, but found it difficult to obtain a position in Denver’s public schools, and thought local political involvement in some of the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the late 1960’s might help.  He transitioned from working in a potato chip factory to working in city government, and later obtained a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1971.

Webb developed a reputation as a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk in city government, and was pulled into politics rather than pushed into it by any sense of bitterness.  He was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1972 and represented the Northeast Denver neighborhood he grew up in.  In 1977 he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1981 he was appointed by Colorado Governor Richard Lamm to be executive director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.  Webb held that position until 1987, when he ran and won in the election to become Denver’s city auditor.

Webb’s political ascendance through the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly put him on a path to consider pursuing citywide and even statewide positions, but it was unclear whether an African-American in a city with a small minority population, in a state with a small minority population, could be competitive.  He did not start with a built-in large political base like Young or Washington; nor did he have to ability to strengthen a base through coalition building the way Washington did.  His only strategy, should he pursue another office, was to make a trans-racial appeal that would highlight his experience, skills and vision.

Webb entered the campaign in late 1990.  Three leading candidates emerged: Webb, Denver District Attorney Norm Early (also African-American), and Republican lawyer Don Bain.  Webb carried out his “Sneaker Campaign”, going door-to-door in virtually all of Denver’s neighborhoods while preaching a message of competency.  He surprised everyone by forcing a runoff with Early in the May 1991 primary, finishing with 30 percent of all votes to Early’s 40 percent.  Webb was able to consolidate the support from other candidates with a law-and-order platform prior to the general election against Early in June 1991.  Webb won with 57 percent of the vote.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Source: gbmnews.com

Perhaps a better version of a first black mayor who won with a broad trans-racial appeal would be Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.  Johnson was born in Sacramento, where he was a standout student and athlete.  He excelled in basketball and baseball, and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley.  From there he went on to a storied college basketball career and a long professional career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Even during his playing days Johnson maintained strong roots with his native Sacramento.  He established the Kevin Johnson Corporation, which focused on real estate development and business acquisitions, and the St. HOPE nonprofit organization as an after-school program in the Oak Park neighborhood he grew up in.  After his retirement from basketball in 2000, he broadened St. HOPE to include charter schools and nonprofit development in Sacramento.  Today, St. HOPE is a network of four charter schools in Sacramento, and a development company with more than a dozen new construction and renovation projects in Sacramento.

Johnson had intimated his political ambitions for years, but finally announced his run for mayor in 2008.  Race was hardly a factor in the race; indeed, Johnson was viewed as a decorated favorite son of California’s capital city.  Johnson received numerous endorsements from Sacramento’s business and political establishment, and was the highest vote getter in the nonpartisan election that June.  He forced a runoff against two-time incumbent mayor Heather Fargo, and soundly defeated her in November.

Johnson has parlayed his athletic, corporate and nonprofit success well in the government sector.  He has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, along with his wife Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools.  He was actively involved in keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings basketball team from fleeing the city, orchestrating the team’s sale to a group of local investors.  He easily won reelection in 2012, and in April 2014 was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

There are other black mayors who fit the trans-racial appeal profile, but are not the first black mayors of their respective cities.  Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Cory Booker of Newark each brought impressive academic credentials, strong corporate backgrounds and youthful passion to their positions as mayor, distinguishing them from their predecessors.    Reed interned for U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II before earning his juris doctorate from Howard University, and became a partner at a law firm prior to entering politics.  Nutter earned a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Booker earned his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, and earned his juris doctorate from Yale.

Because of their academic and corporate credentials, Reed, Nutter and Booker are as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as they are in churches or community centers.  Each has forged partnerships with political opponents, and adopted a pragmatic bipartisan approach to governing cities.  Each has focused on effective service delivery rather than empowerment or redistributive policies.  Booker’s success as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city propelled him to his current position as New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator through special election in 2013.

The Power of Perception

Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Sacramento occupy different positions on the success spectrum of American cities.  Of these five Chicago would certainly occupy the highest perch.  Chicago clearly is a global city – a world financial center, the home of a dozen Fortune 500 companies and the critical link in the nation’s rail and air transportation network.  The Windy City has extensive economic connections throughout the world.  Indeed, world-class architecture firms based in Chicago are designing the gleaming skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in China’s large cities.  Denver would rest in a position not far behind Chicago.  Denver has become the capital of the Great Plains and Mountain West, a mid-continent transportation hub that built its wealth on its access to mineral resources in the Rocky Mountains.  Sacramento would likely occupy a position behind Denver.  Sacramento’s growth has been more recent than the others, and it still sits in the shadows of much larger California metropolises.  But as the capital of our nation’s largest and most influential state, it has heft.

Baltimore, Cleveland and Newark would occupy another place on the spectrum.  All are well known for enduring the storm of industrial decline, and in Cleveland’s case, fiscal insolvency.  They’re slowly recovering from a nadir reached perhaps a decade or two ago and have made small steps toward improvement.  They’ve worked hard to revitalize their cores – Newark has leaned on its financial services sector to turn the tide, while Baltimore and Cleveland have relied on their assets in education, health care services, and biomedical and biotech research.  However, all are far from being complete success stories.

Then there is Detroit.

Each city has had African-Americans serve in the city’s highest office.  Chicago’s Harold Washington endured tough times as mayor of Chicago, but he built a lasting coalition that allowed him to prevail.  Denver’s Wellington Webb learned to adapt in a pluralistic environment and raised the profile of a Western city.  Cleveland, Newark and Detroit each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.  Cleveland and Newark began their turnaround some years ago; perhaps Detroit’s, with its recent bankruptcy filing, has just begun.

If anyone doubts the impact of electing an African-American mayor during the racially tumultuous late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, examine the general perceptions that formed of the cities during that period and have endured ever since.  Newark and Detroit, already tainted by the aftermath of urban riots, were effectively shunned by white residents after the elections of their first black mayors.  Cleveland may have been headed down the same path after the election of Carl Stokes in 1967.  But Stokes chose not to run for a third two-year term as mayor, leaving a wide open field.  Stokes was followed by three consecutive white mayors — Ralph J. Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich – before the election of the city’s second black mayor, Michael White, in 1990.  Atlanta touted itself as the “City too busy to hate” in the ‘70s, but Maynard Jackson’s 1973 election coincided with rapid white flight out of the city, at the same time that Sun Belt migration from the north was strengthening the suburban base.  In Washington, DC, black political empowerment there was often wrapped up in the controversy of federal political representation for the District.  Mayors in the District were federally appointed until Walter Washington was elected mayor in 1975.

Perhaps the best way to view perceptions of cities that elected “first black mayors” during the Black Power Era is to examine the fortunes of Detroit and Philadelphia during and after this period.  Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.

Cities that elected their first black mayors during the Black Power Era deeply suffered in national perception because of the gamut of social challenges they had at the time, and found it difficult to stabilize poor economies or for revitalization to gain traction.  But they suffered far worse than other cities because they were in effect shunned.  They suffered from the greatest increases in crime.  They experienced the largest declines in school quality and performance.  They witnessed the steepest drops in property values.  They had the widest divides between police and community.  They had the highest numbers of white middle-class residents departing for the suburbs.  Newark was shunned.  Gary was shunned.  Detroit was shunned.  Maybe Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati, or Dayton did not suffer the same fate because African-American populations there did not approach parity with whites, who were eventually able to “reclaim” the city’s highest office.  In the end, however, select cities paid a price for the election of black mayors during this time, a price not paid by cities that elected black mayors after them, or not at all.

Another Transition


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on election night in 2013.  Source: wikipedia.org

On January 1, Michael Duggan assumed the difficult and unenviable responsibility of becoming the 75th mayor of Detroit, Michigan.  Given the most recent difficult period that Detroit has endured, and the continued difficult times ahead, Mayor Duggan’s inauguration was a subdued affair.  There was no inaugural ball or celebration.  The new mayor was simply sworn in with a short ceremony in his new 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new mayor said he would focus on operations – removing blight, snowplowing streets, repairing lights, making sure buses run safely and on time.  The mayor suggested he would move into Manoogian Mansion, the palatial mayoral residence on the Detroit River that was deeded to the city in the 1960’s.  As far as the focus on operations goes, he really has little choice in the matter.  The State of Michigan-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, brought in with exceptionally broad powers to resolve the city’s financial mess and currently leading the Motor City’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, has a lock on policy decisions right now.  Mayor Duggan says his focus is to “return the city to elected leadership on October 1,” the day that Orr’s 18-month appointment from the state ends.

And with that, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit since 1973, mayor of a city with a population that is 83% African-American.  This most recent election, most observers believe, is a venture into the unknown, and is as much an experiment as Detroit’s bankruptcy itself.  An era of African-American political leadership has ended in Detroit, but no one is certain of what the next era might be.

Perhaps the bankruptcy, the election of a white mayor and the growing urban pioneer spirit that is visible in parts of the city means that the shunning of Detroit has ended.

This post originally appeared on August 10th, 2014 in Corner Side Yard.

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Two Chicagos, Defined by Pete Saunders

[ Here’s another nice piece of analysis about Chicago from Pete Saunders. He originally did this earlier this year – Aaron. ]


Chicago skyline.  Source: wikipedia.org

Years ago, when I first started working as a planner for the City of Chicago, my primary responsibility was working with community organizations that received Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for commercial revitalization activities.  This being CDBG funding, our work was constrained to areas of the city where 51% or more of households earned less than the median household income for the Chicago metro area.  In the early 1990’s, this hardly interfered with our work — outside of the Gold Coast, the Near North Side, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and a few parts of the Northwest and Southwest sides, we were able to grant CDBG funding to virtually the entire city.

Fast forward twenty years.  Chicago’s transition from Rust Belt Capital to Global City has been unparalleled.  Where there once had been large swaths of middle-class, working-class and impoverished neighborhoods, with high-income enclaves, there are now nearly as many high-income neighborhoods as there are of the other three.  Perhaps someone who moved to Chicago post-1995 and lives in one of the up-and-coming areas is vaguely aware of this, but anyone who was here before then is quite right to be astounded.

Despite Chicago’s transformation, it’s been pretty well-documented that not all parts of the city have benefited.  The battle over the closing of nearly 50 schools, mostly located in the city’s poorer South and West side neighborhoods, brought this to light, as did Chicago’s high-profile murder and violent crime rates through 2013 (which, to date in 2014, have gone down dramatically).  Inequalities and disparities became evident in both areas; University of Chicago graduate student and blogger Daniel Kay Hertz brought the disparities to light with his analysis of violent crime in Chicago.  As he said in his piece:

Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

Over the last two decades a new but undefined paradigm has emerged, the one of “Two Chicagos”.  This is probably best explained once again by Dan Hertz, who recounted an overheard conversation on the L:

I was on the train earlier this week, and two white men got on and asked their neighbors, who were two black women, how to get to a hotel. The women told them. And then began a sort of stock conversation that Chicagoans have with tourists: How do you like the weather, ha ha? The men, who were from Atlanta, did not like it. Have you been on a subway before? Yes, but not often. Would you come back? Oh, yes. We love Chicago, the men said.

The men reached their station, and left.

One woman said to the other: I hate it when people say that – I love Chicago. No, you don’t. You love downtown and the North Side. The other woman said, Uh huh. 

That is a frequent sentiment of those who live on the other side of the invisible divide in Chicago.  But what, exactly, is that divide?  Where are the boundaries?  Exactly how deep are the difference?

I took a stab at trying to figure this out.

I compared some socio-economic statistics for the 56 zip codes in Chicago against medians and averages for the entire Chicago metro area (Indiana and Wisconsin excluded).  The differences are stark.

Let’s start by looking at maps of the areas of examination.  Here is the seven-county Illinois portion of Chicago’s metro area, with Chicago etched in:

I gathered data for all suburban municipalities and all City of Chicago zip codes within this area, for five variables — population, non-white population percentage, median household income, and median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  The data comes from the 2011 U.S. Census American Community Survey.  After collecting that data, I established an “average of medians” or “average of averages” to get a baseline for the metro area, and an understanding of how jurisdictions or zip codes would compare to one another.  One fairly big caveat — an average of medians or average of averages weighs all jurisdictions equally, skewing the numbers higher due to the number of small but well-to-do suburban municipalities.  So while the 2011 actual median household income for the seven-county area overall was $61,491, the average of medians was $74,731.  But since all data is expressed this way, differences are negated.

Next, I looked for Chicago zip codes that were above the metro area average in at least one of three categories — median household income, median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  These are the higher income neighborhoods that can be called “Global Chicago”.  Within the city, they look like this, in yellow:

Most Chicagoans would recognize this as the wealthier parts of the city.  It stretches from the far Northwest Side eastward to the lake, south to downtown and continuing south before ending in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side.  Again, I included all zip codes that were above the metro average for at least one of the three categories I examined, so not all communities are the same.  Hyde Park, for example, is here because it has high educational attainment, but is below the average for income and home value.  The same applies to Rogers Park and Edgewater on the city’s northern border with Evanston.  Jefferson Park, Norwood Park and Sauganash, on the other hand, located on the Northwest Side, rank highly in home value but lower for income and educational attainment.

Taken together, you can see how “Global Chicago” compares with the Illinois portion of the metro area, the metro area excluding Chicago to give you Suburban Chicago, and the balance of the city beyond “Global Chicago” that I’ve called “Rust Belt Chicago”:

The differences are indeed stark.  “Global Chicago” is on par with the Chicago suburbs and the metro area overall in terms of income, and has a lower percentage of minority residents compared to the metro area.  Interestingly, “Global Chicago” has a much higher home value and educational attainment when compared to the metro area overall or the ‘burbs.  Meanwhile, “Rust Belt Chicago” lags far behind.  “Rust Belt Chicago” has a large majority-minority population, has an income nearly one-half as much as the suburban households, and has only one-third as many college graduates as “Global Chicago”.

I decided to take this analysis a little further and determine if there is a core to “Global Chicago”, and how it would compare to the rest of the city.  I collected data for zip codes that exceeded the metro average in two or more of the three categories.  That produced this map:

And this table:

Here, a “Super Global Chicago” compares favorably with the ‘burbs in terms of income, but far exceeds it in terms of home value and educational attainment.  Including some of the peripheral areas of the previous “Global Chicago” with the previous “Rust Belt Chicago” to produce an “Average Chicago” leads to some gains, but it still lags far behind the other slices of the metro area.

Right now, the CNN series “Chicagoland” is doing its best to illustrate the “Two Chicagos” meme, highlighting blues festivals and Stanley Cup championship celebrations on one end of town and school closures and endless crime on another.  However, these maps and tables may do a far better job of demonstrating the impact of past and current practices and policies on the city’s landscape.  In fact, I think Chicago’s example is one that will serve as a model, for better or worse, for other cities across the nation.

In reality I see the “Two Chicagos” meme as overplayed.  Chicago may be better understood in thirds — one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.

This post originally appeared at Corner Side Yard on March 18, 2014.

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Midsize Midwest Cities — Where Do They Go Now? by Pete Saunders

[ Here’s another piece of analytical insight from Pete Saunders, who originally posted it over at his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]

There are some things I posted in the early days of this blog that probably enjoyed very little attention and received little followup on my part.  This piece on midsize Midwestern cities definitely fits that bill.  Since I started this blog nearly two years ago, the attention given to the Rust Belt seems to have grown exponentially — Detroit’s bankruptcy, Chicago’s crime, and Pittsburgh’s revitalization have occupied center stage at various times.  Unconventional ideas are emerging on how to turn around major Rust Belt cities, but smaller ones seem to escape inclusion.  So rather than repost my original post without further comment, I’ve decided to revisit and do some followup commentary.

First, the research.  Looking at 2010 U.S. Census data, I found there are 74 cities in the Midwest as I’ve described it with a population between 50,000 and 300,000.  I eliminated primary cities that fit the population threshold but were part of metro areas that had more than one million people (i.e., St. Paul, MN; Cincinnati, OH; Buffalo, NY), leaving me with 71 midsize Midwest cities.  The largest is Toledo, OH (287,208 residents) and the smallest is Elkhart, IN (50,949).  In between are cities that have become the icons of American Heartland – see the table below.


Midsize Midwest Cities 2010 City Population 2010 Metro Area Population
Toledo, OH 287,208 651,429
Lincoln, NE 258,379 302,157
Ft. Wayne, IN 253,691 416,257
Madison, WI 233,209 568,593
Des Moines, IA 203,433 569,633
Akron, OH 199,110 703,200
Aurora, IL 197,899 9,461,105
Grand Rapids, MI 188,040 774,160
Sioux Falls, SD 153,888 228,261
Rockford, IL 152,871 349,431
Joliet, IL 147,433 9,461,105
Kansas City, KS 145,786 2,035,334
Dayton, OH 141,527 841,502
Topeka, KS 127,473 233,870
Cedar Rapids, IA 126,326 257,940
Evansville, IN 117,429 358,676
Independence, MO 116,830 2,035,334
Springfield, IL 116,250 210,170
Peoria, IL 115,007 379,186
Lansing, MI 114,297 464,036
Ann Arbor, MI 113,934 344,791
Elgin, IL 108,188 9,461,105
Rochester, MN 160,769 186,011
Fargo, ND 105,549 208,777
Green Bay, WI 104,057 306,241
Flint, MI 102,434 425,790
Erie, PA 101,786 280,566
South Bend, IN 101,168 319,224
Davenport, IA 99,685 379,690
Kenosha, WI 99,218 9,461,105
Waukegan, IL 89,078 9,461,105
Lawrence, KS 87,643 110,826
Duluth, MN 86,265 279,771
Sioux City, IA 82,684 143,577
Champaign, IL 81,055 231,891
Bloomington, IN 80,405 192,714
Gary, IN 80,294 9,461,105
Racine, WI 78,860 195,408
Appleton, WI 78,086 225,666
St. Joseph, MO 76,780 127,379
Bloomington, IL 76,610 169,572
Decatur, IL 76,122 110,768
Kalamazoo, MI 74,262 326,589
Canton, OH 73,007 404,422
Muncie, IN 70,085 117,671
Waterloo, IA 68,426 167,819
Iowa City, IA 67,862 152,586
Lafayette, IN 67,140 201,789
Youngstown, OH 66,982 565,773
Oshkosh, WI 66,083 166,994
Eau Claire, WI 65,883 161,151
St. Cloud, MN 65,842 189,093
Lorain, OH 64,097 2,077,240
Janesville, WI 62,948 160,331
Hamilton, OH 62,477 2,130,151
Council Bluffs, IA 62,230 865,350
Bismarck, ND 61,272 108,779
Terre Haute, IN 60,785 172,425
Springfield, OH 60,608 138,333
Pontiac, MI 59,515 4,296,250
Ames, IA 58,965 89,542
Dubuque, IA 57,637 93,653
Owensboro, KY 57,265 114,752
Anderson, IN 56,129 131,636
Grand Forks, ND 52,838 98,461
Normal, IL 52,497 169,572
LaCrosse, WI 52,485 133,665
Manhattan, KS 52,281 127,081
Battle Creek, MI 52,347 136,146
Saginaw, MI 51,508 200,169
Elkhart, IN 50,949 197,559


I listed them all in a spreadsheet that included their 2010 city population and their 2010 metro area population, and started to make some early observations.  For example, metro area population is likely a better indicator of the relative “imprint” of a city, rather than primary city population.  Saginaw, MI, with a population of 51,000 but a metro area of 200,000, seems bigger than Muncie, IN, with a city population of 70,000 but a metro area population of just 118,000. And of course, cities that were relatively close to large metro areas (having a population greater than one million) seem to share more characteristics with their bigger neighbors than their smaller ones, economically and socially.

That led me to ask a few questions that could shed some light on other city characteristics:

  • Is the city a county seat or a county’s largest city, yet not the primary city of a metro area?
  • Is the city a part of or adjacent to a large metro area (with a population of more than one million)?
  • Is the city less than 60 miles from a large metro area?
  • Is the city a state capital?
  • Is the city a college town?

And that exercise led to some interesting conclusions.  Using those questions I was able to identify seven different categories of midsize Midwest cities, and the categories provide a glimpse into each city’s economic history and strengths:

  1.  Captured Satellite City: A once independent midsize city that has been pulled into the “orbit” of a larger metro area. There are eleven in this category.
  1.  Emerging Satellite City: An independent midsize city that is in the process of or on the verge of being pulled into the orbit of a larger metro area.  There are six in this group.
  1. State Capital and College Town:  A city fortunate enough to be a government center and the home of a major university.  There are just three in this category.
  1. Emerging Satellite City and College Town: A combination of points 2 and 3, they retain some measure of independence from larger metros, and benefit from having large schools.  There are only two in this group.
  1. State Capital: Self-explanatory.  There are four here.
  1. College Town: I’m defining a college town as one with a school with an enrollment greater than about 15,000 students, making the school large enough to have a significant impact on the local economy (in case you’re wondering why Notre Dame and South Bend, for example, aren’t included).  There are ten in this group.
  1.  Independent Midsize City: Ah yes, the largest group, with 35 in this category.  Too far from major metros to bask in their glory, and no state capital or university to build from.

Here’s how the cities stack up in a table:


Midsize Midwest City Categories Cities By Category
Captured Satellite City Aurora, IL; Joliet, IL; Kansas City, KS; Independence, MO; Elgin, IL; Kenosha, WI; Waukegan, IL; Gary, IN; Lorain, OH; Hamilton, OH; Pontiac, MI
Emerging Satellite City Akron, OH; Dayton, OH; Flint, MI; Racine, WI; Springfield, OH; Anderson, IN
State Capital AND College Town Lincoln, NE, Madison, WI; Lansing, MI
Emerging Satellite City AND College Town Ann Arbor, MI; Bloomington, IN
State Capital Des Moines, IA; Topeka, KS; Springfield, IL; Bismarck, ND
College Town Lawrence, KS; Champaign, IL; Bloomington, IL; Kalamazoo, MI; Muncie, IN; Iowa City, IA; Lafayette, IN; Ames, IA, Normal, IL; Manhattan, KS
Independent Midsize City Toledo, OH; Ft. Wayne, IN; Grand Rapids, MI; Sioux Falls, SD; Rockford, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Evansville, IN; Peoria, IL; Rochester, MN; Fargo, ND; Green Bay, WI; Erie, PA; South Bend, IN; Davenport, IA; Duluth, MN; Sioux City, IA; Appleton, WI; St. Joseph, MO; Decatur, IL; Canton, OH; Waterloo, IA; Youngstown, OH; Oshkosh, WI; Eau Claire, WI; St. Cloud, MN; Janesville, WI; Council Bluffs, IA; Terre Haute, IN; Dubuque, IA; Owensboro, KY; Grand Forks, ND; La Crosse, WI; Battle Creek, MI; Saginaw, MI; Elkhart, IN


So what do the categories suggest about each midsize city’s present and future economic prospects?

Captured Satellite City: These cities have economic fortunes that are closely tied to the economic fortunes of the much larger metro area surrounding it.  Some cities seem to recognize this and have planned accordingly; others still have memories of their earlier independence and have struggled in the face of industrial restructuring.  Perhaps their future is better served by becoming low-cost urban options in otherwise suburban areas.

Emerging Satellite City: These are cities that sit on the periphery of major metro areas, and have yet to fully benefit from being “pulled” into the larger orbit.  They, too, have memories of earlier independence, and may struggle with adjusting to a more dependent future.

State Capital and College Town: With only three in this category, Madison leads the way in terms of economic strength, with Lincoln not far behind.  Lansing, despite having the capital and college attributes, has historically relied on its industrial legacy as well, possibly diluting the government and education benefits.  If it can tap those strengths maybe it can duplicate the others’ success.

Emerging Satellite City and College Town: Ann Arbor and Bloomington are truly unique in that they are the flagship universities in their respective states and are in close proximity to each state’s largest city.  Ann Arbor seems to figure more prominently in metro Detroit’s future; Bloomington remains relatively disconnected from metro Indy.  My guess is that when these cities are fully brought into the larger metro’s orbit, they — and the entire metro — will greatly benefit.

State Capital: As long as the four cities here remain state capitals, they have a reason d’etre and economic catalyst that will support them.  They will continue to have strengths that will elude other similarly-sized cities.

College Town: In many respects the college towns are similar to the state capitals, with an existing reason d’etre and economic catalyst.  The difficulty, perhaps, lies in strengthening and reinforcing the college’s links to the rest of the city and metro.

Independent Midsize City: Here, I believe, are the midsize Midwest cities whose future is most tenuous.  When people wonder about the future of smaller post-industrial cities, these are generally the ones we think of.  What can Youngstown, OH do to forestall its decline?  What strengths does Decatur, IL have that can serve as a foundation for revitalization?  What lies ahead for Terre Haute, IN?  Wtih respect to the other midsize Midwest cities, which have more clear futures (whether or not they choose to accept them), I’ll start exploring what might happen with the independent, midsize, post-industrial Midwest city.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on November 9, 2013.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

A Typology of Gentrification by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders has been on fire lately. His latest is a framework for examining gentrification. A couple of informative comments on the original post on Pete’s blog are worth clicking over to read – Aaron. ]


Cities by gentrification type. Special thanks to Adam Carstens for producing this map.

Patterns of gentrification vary by city, and the spread of gentrified areas is partly determined by the city’s predominant development form and the historic levels of African-American populations within them. Gentrification is a nuanced phenomenon along these characteristics, but most people engaged in any gentrification fail to acknowledge the nuances.

Spurred on by the recent debate on the impact of limited housing supply on home prices and rents, thereby “capping” gentrification, (taken on fantastically by geographer Jim Russell in posts like this), I decided to do a quick analysis of large cities and see how things added up. The analysis was premised on a couple observations of gentrification, one often spoken and one not. One, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in cities that have an older development form, offering the walkable orientation that is growing in favor. Two, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in areas that have lower levels of historic black populations. This less noted observation was the thrust of a study by Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang, recently described here. Here’s what they said, after conducting an exhaustive study of gentrification patterns in Chicago:

After controlling for a host of other factors, they found that neighborhoods an earlier study had identified as showing early signs of gentrification continued the process only if they were at least 35 percent white. In neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black, the process slowed or stopped altogether.

That prompted my quick study. I wanted to categorize cities by old and new development forms, and low and high historic levels of black population. To do that I came up with an arbitrary proxy for the age of development form. Using decennial Census data, if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population by 1940, it was deemed to have an old development form; if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population in 1950 or later, it was deemed to have a new development form. Here’s a quick example of how this works. Baltimore, currently with a population of a little over 600,000, reached its peak of 949,000 in 1950. Baltimore reached half its peak, or about 475,000, by 1890, a time at which it could be said that Baltimore’s form as a city had been firmly established. Similarly, Austin reached its peak of 790,000 in 2010. The fast-growing Texas city was half that size in only 1990, a year in which it could be said that its development form was established and the city began to see itself as a major city. Imprecise, yes, but a decent proxy for examining old and new city development forms.

The second piece of analysis was gathering Census data on central city black populations in 1970. This decade was chosen largely because it represents the end of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans left the rural South for cities across the nation. By that time the cities which are generally recognized as having large black populations had already been identified, and it’s possible to explore the impact of the migration on them. I arbitrarily said cities with black populations lower than 25 percent of the total in 1970 had a low black population, and those above 25 percent had a high black population.

Using those two factors, I put together this table of the 64 primary cities over 250,000 in the U.S.:

There are more than a few cities that are exceptions, largely because recent consolidations or large-scale annexations have boosted them into more unfamiliar boxes. But some patterns are evident, and if you think of these in terms of gentrification, you might be able to make the following general assumptions:

Old Form + Low Black Population = Expansive Gentrification (OFLB)
Old Form + High Black Population = Concentrated Gentrification (OFHB)
New Form + Low Black Population = Limited Gentrification (NFLB)
New Form + High Black Population = Nascent Gentrification (NFHB)

Identifying the examples might be the best way to explain what I mean. New York, San Francisco and Boston are the prototypical OFLB cities, and gentrification has made its widest impact in these three cities. Chicago, Washington and Atlanta are the classic OFHB cities, where gentrification is concentrated in certain areas of the city (or region), and eludes the heavily African-American parts of the city. Phoenix, San Diego and Las Vegas might be the prototypical NFLB cities, all of which came of age with the car as the dominant mode of transport and with few African-Americans. NFLB cities may also be the leaders and innovators in seeking ways to catalyze their inner cities, with greater tangible investments in public transit and mixed use development. The relatively few NFHB cities are a distinctly Southern phenomenon, and by all appearances gentrification activity lags behind other cities, with sprawl still the dominant development engine.

Why would any of this matter? Nationally, the gentrification debate is defined by the experiences of the OFLB types like New York, San Francisco and Boston. There, the issues are rapidly growing unaffordability, concerns with displacement and growing inequality. But the gentrification debate is quite different in OFHB cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta, where seeking ways to more equitably spread the positive benefits of revitalization might lead such discussions.

In other words, it’s not exactly correct to look at what’s happening in Los Angeles or San Diego, or Baltimore or St. Louis, in the New York-San Francisco-Boston context. Different forces and different experiences are creating different outcomes in each city, and if we want to understand how to look at gentrification’s impact, we need to understand its foundations.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on August 15, 2014.

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

The Uniqueness of Detroit’s Housing Stock by Pete Saunders

[ I’ve posted a number of pieces by Pete Saunders here in the past. He’s not just a great analyst generally, he’s particularly great on Detroit. His post laying out nine reasons why Detroit failed has more page views than any other article in Urbanophile history. (The top four posts are all about Detroit, showing the powerful hold that city has on the public consciousness). In his blog, Corner Side Yard, he’s bee revisiting that post to go in depth on each of his nine points. Today I’m pleased to be able to repost his analysis of Detroit’s housing stock, along with that of many other Midwest cities – Aaron. ]


A scene from the Grixdale neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side.  Source: Google Earth.

Last week, as part of my series on planning reasons behind Detroit’s decline, part 2 of the nine-part series was about the city’s poor housing stock.  I started to play with some numbers to see if there was any validity to my opinions about the city’s housing, and I found some very intriguing things.  Detroit’s housing stock is definitely unique among its Midwestern and Rust Belt peer cities, and perhaps among cities nationwide.  Let’s examine.

Grouping the cities by population figures from the 2013 U.S. Census population estimates, and housing data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, I looked at housing age and single family detached housing data for 15 Midwest/Rust Belt cities with populations above 250,000.  One city I typically include in an analysis like this, Louisville, was not included due to a lack of ACS data.  Data for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were aggregated into one (sorry, Minneapolis and St. Paul) because they jointly function as the core city for their region.  Here’s the big table with all the data:

That’s a lot to digest, so I’ll take the data piece by piece.  First, let’s look at the cities ranked by their percentage of housing units built in 1969 or earlier:

You’ll see here that, perhaps following the general national perception of Detroit housing, the Motor City has an older housing stock.  Only Buffalo has a higher percentage of older housing. Generally speaking, the cities at the top half of this list have older housing because they lack redevelopment activity that replaces older housing, while cities at the bottom half consists of cities with decent levels of redevelopment activity, or more recently built housing that’s been annexed into the city in recent decades.  Here, Detroit does seem to fit the pattern.

But does it really?  If you look at the Census’ earliest category for age of structure, 1939 or earlier, Detroit drops considerably on the list:

Instead of ranking second as in the earlier table, Detroit falls to tenth.  The rest generally hold the same spots they occupied from the previous table as well. The only ones ranking lower than Detroit here are smaller cities (Omaha, Ft. Wayne) and the cities that annexed large amounts of land post 1970 (Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus).

Next, let’s look at how the cities rank in terms of their concentrations of single family detached homes:

Detroit shows up here with the second highest percentage of single family detached homes, comprising nearly two-thirds of the city’s housing stock.  Once again, the only comparable cities are the smaller cities and the big annexers.

Clearly, most observers believe Detroit has more in common with Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh than with Ft. Wayne, Kansas City and Indianapolis.  What happened to Detroit’s housing stock that gave it such an odd profile?

To understand, let’s pull out a specific category on the age of structure table, the 1950-1959 category:

Here, we find that Detroit has, by far, the highest concentration of housing units built between 1950-59 of all its peer cities.  Nearly one in four homes in Detroit were built during this period.  In fact, Detroit, along with Milwaukee and Toledo, occupies a strange space among Midwestern/Rust Belt cities.  (Side note: the more I study Detroit against other Midwestern cities, the more I find that Detroit and Milwaukee are virtually the same city.  And it doesn’t surprise me that Toledo, just 75 miles from Detroit, would share its characteristics as well).  Detroit, Milwaukee and Toledo all added their greatest numbers of housing at the outset of the modern suburban development period, what I’ve called the Levittown Period in my so-called Big Theory of American Urban Development.  This supports my thinking that if anyone was ever interested in establishing a Levittown-style national historic district, Detroit would be a good candidate.  The Motor City has perhaps more small Cape Cod-style, three-bedroom, one-bath single family homes than any city in the nation.

How did Detroit get this way?  Housing demolition likely had some role in a city that lost so much.  Detroit likely lost older single family homes and multifamily buildings over the last few decades, leading to skewed numbers.  The same is also true of Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, cities that annexed large undeveloped areas after 1970 and built new housing there.  Keep in mind, though, that Milwaukee and Toledo, Detroit’s comparables, may not have had the same level of demolition loss that Detroit had, yet they still match the Motor City well.

That leads me to believe that a concentration of housing development at a unique time is a crucial piece in understanding Detroit’s housing stock.

Here’s another way of looking at this.  I grouped the cities by age and single family home concentration and came up with interesting groupings:

Here it becomes clearer that Detroit and Toledo stand alone as locations for old or moderately old structures that are largely single family.  Also, Milwaukee’s greater mix of single family and multifamily units begins to set it apart from Detroit and Toledo, even when it has a similar concentration of Levittown-style housing.

Finally, let’s consider housing adaptability as part of the housing stock analysis.  Chicago, the region’s largest city and lone “global city” member of the group, comfortably rests in the middle of all tables except for the single family detached table, where it shows the lowest concentration of single family homes.  My guess is that Chicago’s continued desirability means more newer housing has been built, and that its lower single family housing numbers mean that other housing types (lofts, condos and the ubiquitous 2-flat and 3-flat) created a more flexible and adaptable housing development landscape.

Assuming that younger structures are more often suitable to renovation for adaptability, moderately old structures require more intense rehabs, and older types are more often subject to demolition and rebuilding, I reorganized the previous table in terms of housing adaptability:

And if I put in the cities next to this adaptability scale, it’s easy to see the magnitude of Detroit’s housing challenges:

Detroit is such a unique city in so many ways.  The Motor City needs more research and analysis that highlights its uniqueness and adds to our understanding of the what led to its downfall, and less of our ire and contempt.

The more I study Detroit, the more I see the seeds of a similar downfall in other cities nationwide.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 6, 2014.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

May the (Insidious) Force Be With You by Pete Saunders


Google Earth pic of the boundary between Detroit and suburban Grosse Pointe Park, MI. Alter Road (cutting from upper left to lower right) is the boundary between the two. Take note of the differences in vacant land between Detroit (on the left) and Grosse Pointe Park (on the right).

Too many people think today’s “de facto” segregation in metro areas is the result of personal preferences expressed by individuals, when the fact is that public policy has created the conditions we live with today.  In fact, I see the demise of Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act corresponding with the immediate rise of an insidious, “non-racist” racism that shapes our metros today.  Our metro areas have never dealt with this.

In the aftermath of the Donald Sterling controversy (which, if you aren’t aware of, you truly are under a rock), the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates posted an on-spot critique of how racism is viewed and how racism is really working in today’s society.  It is a truly beautiful piece on the perception of racism versus its realities — the perception being that racism is the purview of dunces like Sterling (and Cliven Bundy before him) who get caught making inelegant statements that shed light on their true feelings, and a reality that is far more insidious and receives far less attention.  Coates describes how “elegant racism”, that insidious force, shapes where we live, what jobs are available to us, how we’re educated, and who is incarcerated and who isn’t:

“Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.”

And to better describe how “elegant racism” works, he cites Chicago as its key implementer:

“Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”

(Let’s parenthetically stop here for a second; the symbolism in that last sentence is incredible.  The implication is that victims of elegant racism “die” from internal injuries, which are often believed to be sustained from a lifetime of poor personal choices.  But elegant racism made those choices for them.  Absolutely incredible).

I don’t know if Chicago was the innovator of this type of racism, but I do believe it was something created in Northern industrial cities — i.e., the Rust Belt.  I suspect it has its seeds in the antebellum North, whose cities had small African-American populations prior to the Civil War and immediately afterwards.  I imagine at that time, when blacks comprised maybe less than five percent of, say, Buffalo’s population, it was relatively easy to isolate blacks without necessarily singling them out, as in the Jim Crow South.

But the Great Migration changed everything.  The need for industrial labor in the North, and rapidly declining conditions in the Jim Crow South, pushed African-Americans into Northern cities.  Once there they encountered competition for jobs and housing from both longtime “nativists” and more recent European immigrants.  The ten years from 1910-1920 were fraught with racial conflicts in Northern cities, culminating with the Red Summer of 1919.

But Northern cities did something that Southern ones did not.  They sought to limit and stigmatize the places where blacks lived, instead of limiting or stigmatizing the people themselves.  Out of this a whole set of policies emerged.  Racial covenants.  Redlining emerges during the New Deal.  Blockbusting came about as a tool to clear room for a growing black population, accelerate suburban expansion, and enrich real estate speculators.  Public housing was concentrated where blacks lived, and infrastructure investments ground to a halt.  Investments in education fell behind that of suburban schools, or couldn’t keep up with growing social challenges.  “Tough-on-crime” measures like mandatory sentencing and the “War on Drugs” were effective in removing potential workers from the workforce, reducing competition.  Taken together, these “non-racist” racist policies, often grounded in sound, rational economic thinking, created deeply ingrained patterns within metros that shape them today.

This position is further buffeted by research done by Nancy DiTomaso, a business professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  In her book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, she says this:

“Because whites disproportionately hold jobs with more authority, higher pay, more opportunities for skill development and training, and more links to other jobs, they can benefit from racial inequality without being racists and without discriminating against blacks and other nonwhites. In fact, I argue that the ultimate white privilege is the privilege not to be racist and still benefit from racial inequality.”

There are other strong claims made by DiTomaso in that interview; it (and the book, which I loved) is worth your attention.

In my opinion the practice was perfected in the Rust Belt but has spread everywhere.  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is doing a series on political segregation in southeastern Wisconsin, and found that its roots are in the state’s residential segregation legacy.  Lee Atwater’s famous quote about the abstraction of racial policies, uttered in 1981, possibly signaled to Southern metros that there was a way to accomplish the separation that Jim Crow had earlier provided.  I see a correlation between the number of blacks within a metro area, and the impact of insidious policies on residential and job patterns.  In some metros, the impact, while there, is not as strong (New York, Boston), because of lower relative numbers of blacks.  In some Sun Belt metros, Jim Crow likely enforced similar patterns but subsequent post-War growth and the new policies altered things a little (Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville).  In other Sun Belt metros with more recent growth the numbers of blacks has hardly been enough for full-on “elegant racism” implementation (Phoenix, Las Vegas).  But insidious racism is a critical feature of today’s Rust Belt cities.

This is in part why I’m skeptical of new calls from urbanists to increase affordable housing in cities, when I see vast neighborhoods that have suffered from policies that simply removed them from the consciousness of the majority of the housing market.  I’d prefer to address yesterday’s mistakes before creating new ones.

Plus, I keep thinking about that saying that the only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing…

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 9, 2014.

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A New Urban Revitalization Model For New Times by Pete Saunders

[ Following on from Richey’s piece last week, Pete Saunders asks how we can create urban revitalization strategies that connect with minorities – Aaron. ]


Cover of the East Garfield Park Quality of Life Plan, prepared by LISC through the New Communities Program. Source: Garfield Park Community Council

How is it that so many of the recent theories or models on effective urban revitalization absolutely fail to connect with minorities, especially African-Americans?

New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Class supporters and even advocates of the nascent Rust Belt Chic movement are bumping their heads against a low ceiling, trying to figure out how to achieve escape velocity and gain greater acceptance among the general public. General support from the African-American community seems to elude them all.

Let’s look at a few examples. Recently, the New Urbanist-oriented website Better Cities lamented the lack of support it has attained from minority communities for bike lanes and other measures that support pedestrianism and walkability. In Cincinnati last week, mayor-elect John Cranley defeated former mayor Roxanne Qualls by running on a platform to halt construction of the city’s streetcar project – a project supported by Qualls and that enjoyed the support of many urbanists. However, Cranley, a Democrat backed by many Republicans, enjoyed the support of a significant part of the African-American community. In New York, the election of populist Bill de Blasio as Michael Bloomberg’s successor has caused some consternation among corporate-oriented New Yorkers who may wish to continue New York’s Creative Class-style of revitalization.

All in all, this is causing adherents of the various theories and models to reevaluate their inclusiveness. In reality they need to reevaluate their mission, goals and message. If you look at what each theory has to say, it’s pretty clear where they fall short.

New Urbanists, who broadly support the notion that better design can create better communities, have a message that was crafted with the sprawling post-WWII suburbs in mind, and intended for implementation there. New Urbanists get their guidance from the pre-WWII urban development patterns of many of our nation’s cities, but often have little to say about how those cities should move forward today.

Smart Growth supporters may share the design sentiment of New Urbanists, but their focus is often on revisiting the regulatory environment that creates the cities we have. Similar to New Urbanism, Smart Growthers also get inspiration from pre-WWII cities, but have a message designed to appeal to suburban revitalization.

Creative Class advocates come a little closer to addressing the needs of cities. They broadly support the idea that establishing an environment for innovation and creativity in cities can drive urban revitalization. Perhaps, but that message seems to neglect a huge segment of the population of cities that don’t fit the high-education, professional, tech-oriented label at the heart of the Creative Class.

Finally, the new Rust Belt Chic model is gaining notoriety and followers. Supporters of this model believe that authenticity is key to urban revitalization. Cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, are who they are; they will attract new residents who seek an alternative to homogenous suburbia or Sun Belt by becoming better, and often more ironic, versions of themselves.

You can disagree with my characterization of the various models. They’re overly broad, I admit. What’s also overly broad is the role that African-Americans, and in fact other minorities, play in their formation and implementation. How can we have models supporting urban revitalization without really including all members of the urban landscape?

Let’s be real. The reason New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Classers and Rust Belt Chic-ers are looking into their appeal to minorities to go to the next level is that the Great Recession has changed everything. Prior to the financial crisis none of these models needed minorities to move forward. Whatever you think about the Occupy movement, it exposed growing income inequality in this country, and forced people who care about cities to consider inequality’s impact. Being on the short side of the haves/have nots divide is something that blacks are quite familiar with.

Touting bike lanes, streetcars, tech-led revitalization and amenity-rich areas has meant little to many blacks because they don’t deal with the structural inequities of our cities. Otherwise, the strategies simply seem like so many relocation efforts, reminiscent of urban renewal efforts from a half-century ago. For too long, the New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Creative Class models (Rust Belt Chic gets a pass for now) have all but neglected cities because they believed their strategies would indirectly improve cities – and they steadfastly avoided facing urban challenges directly. Now that more of suburban and exurban America is as structurally alienated as urban minority America has been, they want to reevaluate their message.

Blacks and other minorities have been looking for an urbanist response to the challenges they face. Our communities are plagued by rising violent crime, even as violent crime continues its steep decline at the national, metro and even city scale. Our communities are not only lacking poor physical connections to metro job centers, but poor social connections as well. The divide between challenged inner-city communities and all other parts of a metro area is reinforced by an inadequate educational system.

All our current urbanist models have been neglecting these challenges.

Addressing these challenges requires a social as well as a physical or economic approach. The best model that I’ve come across that unites these three is the comprehensive community development model, or quality-of-life planning. The model can be viewed as an outgrowth of the community development model that got its start in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has largely been supported by the philanthropic community. Early community development efforts were geared toward alleviating poverty – providing affordable housing, connecting people to job opportunities, and stabilizing community decline. But the model took a leap more than 10 years ago when the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) launched its New Communities Program in 2003, and expanded it to more than 20 cities nationwide. The model seeks to develop neighborhoods through five strategies:

  • Expanding investment in housing and other real estate
  • Increasing family income and wealth
  • Stimulating economic development
  • Improving access to quality education
  • Supporting healthy environments and lifestyles

The comprehensive community development model has succeeded where implemented, but has largely escaped attention from the general public. Why? It hasn’t exactly gained wide acceptance in political quarters, where politicos feel the spotlight on low-income residents and communities highlights deficiencies in their efforts. CCD is resource-intensive. The model operates in a social realm that few people who focus on physical or economic matters feel comfortable. But I’ve found that the CCD model provides answers to questions that New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and Creative Classers are just now starting to ask themselves.

Since the onset of the Great Recession Richard Florida has talked about this particular time in history being the Great Reset. I agree. Times have changed, and advocates of the earlier models may not fully understand the depths of the changes. However, I’d encourage people to dig a little deeper – there are people who’ve been addressing these challenges – and developing solutions – for some time.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on November 11, 2013.

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? by Pete Saunders

[ In this post, Detroit native Pete Saunders pulls no punches in assigning the ultimate blame for Detroit’s demise. You can read more of his work at his web site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]

Thou wouldst fain destroy the temple! If thou be Jesus, Son of the Father, now from the Cross descend thou, that we behold it and believe on thee when we behold it. If thou art King over Israel, save thyself then!

God, My Father, why has thou forsaken me? All those who were my friends, all have now forsaken me. And he that hate me do now prevail against me, and he whom I cherished, he hath betrayed me.

Lyric excerpts from the Fifth and Fourth and Words, respectively, of the Seven Last Words of Christ orchestral work by Joseph Haydn.

I’m pissed.

Ever since the announcement late Thursday that the City of Detroit was indeed going to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection, the Internet has been overflowing with commentary on the matter. The commentary has come from all places and taken on by all comers – from the political left and right; from hard news and general interest sources. And all usually with the same scripted and lazy tripe about how Detroit reached its nadir:

  • Single-minded dependence on a collapsing auto industry doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to diversify economically doomed Detroit.
  • Public mismanagement and political corruption doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to effectively deal with its racial matters doomed Detroit.
  • The dramatic and total loss of its tax base doomed Detroit.

That’s it, people, they seem to reason. The Motor City’s fall from grace is as simple as that. You do the things Detroit did, and you get what Detroit got. You defer decisions just as Detroit did, and you too will suffer the consequences. The speed with which the various articles on Detroit came out proved to me that many writers anticipated the announcement with at least a twinge of glee.

As I’ve written before, Detroit’s narrative serves everyone else as the nation’s whipping boy, and that came through in the last couple of days:

You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can even find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

But let’s leave that aside. I’m pissed because no one seems to acknowledge the central reason Detroit is filing for bankruptcy now. It has endured abandonment – white flight abandonment – on an absolutely epic scale. Before there was auto industry collapse, before there was a lack of economic diversity, before there was mismanagement and corruption, there was abandonment. People skirt and dance around the issue when they talk about the loss of Detroit’s tax base. What Detroit lost was its white people. The chart above illustrates how Detroit’s unique experience when compared to similar cities.

Detroit is what happens when the city is abandoned. And frankly, there is a part of me that views those that abandoned Detroit with the same anger reserved for hit-and-run drivers – they were the cause of the accident, they left the scene of the crime, and they left behind others to clean up the mess and deal with the pain. What’s worse, so many observers seem to want to implicate those left behind – in Detroit’s case a large African-American majority community – for not cleaning up the mess or easing the pain. Their inflicted pain which they’ve made ours.

White abandonment of Detroit did not start with the 1973 election of Coleman Young as mayor, or even the 1967 riots, yet those two events accelerated the process. And indeed, Detroit had a very unique set of circumstances that caused it to veer down a troubled path. The very first piece featured in this blog was about the land use and governing decisions that were made more than one hundred years ago in Detroit that literally set the city’s decline in stone. I identified eight key factors:

  • Poor neighborhood identification, or more broadly a poorly developed civic consciousness.
  • A housing stock of poor quality, cheap and disposable, particularly outside of the city’s traditional core.
  • A poorly developed and maintained public realm.
  • A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
  • Freeway expansion.
  • Lack of or loss of a viable transit network.
  • A local government organization type that lacked accountability at the resident/customer level.
  • An industrial landscape that was allowed to constrain the city’s core.

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote perhaps one of the best recent articles I saw on Detroit when he acknowledged that even a half-century ago, journalists were predicting a dire future for the D. Take this quote Conor found from The Reporter, published October 31, 1957:

The auto industry created modern Detroit simply as its dormitory and workshop, attracted polyglot millions to it, used it, and now threatens to abandon it. Civic consciousness played little part in the lives of the masses of Irish, German, Poles and Italians who flocked to Detroit in search of a Ford or Dodge or Packard pay check, and who settled there in islands of their own – any more than it played a part in the managements of Ford or Dodge or Packard themselves, or in the crowd of Negroes who also descended upon the city during the boom years of the Second World War… Indeed, it is remarkable that any sense of civic responsibility at all should have been generated in so rootless and transient a community.

What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes?… But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit’s you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.

Yes, that is from 1957.

The chart at the top of this article was done for an article I did more than a year ago, looking at U.S. Census data for several peer cities over the last seven decennial censuses. In it, I concluded that Detroit’s experience of abandonment was entirely unique:

Between 1950 and 1970, the decline in Detroit’s white population was on the low end of the spectrum of cities on this list, but it was in the ballpark. Prior to 1970, Detroit and St. Louis were the white flight laggards. After 1970, the bottom fell out and Detroit stood alone. While there certainly are economic reasons white residents may have had for moving, this graph may lend credence to the twin theories of Motor City white flight – the 1967 riots and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone of the invalidity of their decision to move from Detroit. There were good reasons and not so good reasons. I’m only trying to describe its impact relative to other cities. And where exactly are those white residents who left over the last 60 years? Certainly many have passed on. Some are currently in the Detroit suburbs or elsewhere in Michigan. Some are part of that great Detroit Diaspora that took them to New York, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. There are clearly at least 1.5 million reasons why white residents left Detroit.

But the fact is, had Detroit experienced white flight at the same combined rate as the other cities on this list, and not experienced any other changes, there would be nearly 350,000 more white residents today. Maybe 140,000 more households. Maybe more stable neighborhoods.

Can you imagine that? An additional 350,000 residents means Detroit would still be a city with more than one million people. It would likely be viewed in the same way that a Philadelphia or Baltimore is now – challenged but recovering – instead of the urban dystopia it’s widely seen as today. What impact would that have had on the city’s economy? On the metro area’s economy? On the state’s economy? Or simply the city’s national perception?

I’ve mentioned here on several occasions that the reason I chose the planning profession is because I grew up in Detroit during the 1970’s. I looked around and saw a city with an inferiority complex and saw people leaving in droves. My naïve and childish thinking was, “instead of leaving the city, why don’t people stay and work to make it better?”

Silly of me. Abandonment is the American way.

Nonetheless, I view Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement positively. It acknowledges that its troubles are far deeper than most realize. It can be the springboard for fiscal recovery, a re-imagining of the city and an actual and complete revitalization. Detroit indeed is in uncharted waters, and its abandonment means that in many respects it could be viewed as a frontier city once again. I would not be surprised if, after restructuring and reorganization, after recapturing its innovative spirit, the city could see growth almost like it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, mimicking what, say, Las Vegas has done for the last 40 years. Even at this dark moment, Detroit has assets that are the envy of other cities.

But let no one forget that it is abandonment that brought Detroit to this point.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 20, 2013.

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

East Coast, West Cosat – What About Our Coast? by Pete Saunders

[ Here’s another nice entry from Pete Saunders, a Chicago urban planner. If you haven’t checked his stuff out before, be sure to pay a visit to his blog Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]

Most Americans take it as an article of faith that there’s a strong connection and relationship between the major cities of the East and West coasts. Indeed, there may be 3,000 miles separating New York from Los Angeles, or San Francisco from Washington, but psychologically the cities each seem to be more connected to each other than, say, Dallas to New York or Atlanta to San Francisco. Of course, in the minds of the coastal crowd, the rest of the nation has become “flyover” country. That wasn’t always the case. How exactly did that happen?

Lots of factors helped to develop America’s west coast. Certainly the pioneer spirit that initially brought settlers west led to a strong sense of individualism and entrepreneurism that pushed development forward. The allure of the weather brought many transplants west. But I think the West Coast benefitted much more from the kinds of connections identified by Jim Russell at Burgh Diaspora (and now at Pacific Standard) – the West Coast had an effective talent attraction strategy, created strong bonds with the East Coast, and never let them go. It’s a lesson that the shrinking cities of the Rust Belt should heed and practice.

I’m no historian, nor am I the ultimate authority on the development of cities. But it’s clear West Coast cities did some things that Rust Belt cities did not. As we all know, the settlement of California was kicked off with the Gold Rush of 1849. Prior to that California was a sparsely-settled former Mexican territory with no physical or institutional infrastructure. The Gold Rush propelled Eastern financiers to provide the money to develop San Francisco as the financial center that would open up the west, and give it the physical and institutional resources to deliver its goods to the rest of the nation. San Francisco never relinquished those ties.

Further south, Los Angeles used its fabulous and consistent weather as a means to attract parts of a budding film industry previously based on the East Coast. The growth of the film industry ultimately led to the growth of the media industry in Southern California, and voila – the economic underpinnings of a major metropolis are established. Like San Francisco, LA never relinquished those ties. (Side note: I don’t think you can understate the importance of the Rose Bowl in luring Midwesterners in particular to Southern California. The “Granddaddy of Them All”, started in 1902, annually brought the Big Ten’s best and brightest for a few weeks of sun and fun in winter. The strategy paid off.)

The lesson here for the Rust Belt is talent attraction, and maintaining the connections over time. San Francisco was able to parlay its Eastern financial connections into the development of a strong financial center, which later served as the financial apparatus for the tech industry. Los Angeles was able to do the same with the film industry and media, and it could be argued that the city’s ties to Midwestern interests led to the growth of the defense industry there.

As for the Rust Belt? It seems that what sets it apart from the West Coast is that it remained content to be the industrial hearth of the nation, instead of seeking other avenues to leverage its advantages for even more growth. That, and the fact that West Coast cities understood the importance of maintaining strong connections with East Coast partners, and East Coast cities understood the financial upside – for their own cities – of staying close to those on the West Coast. Can the Rust Belt do the same?

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 3, 2013.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Urban Culture

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Detroit – America’s Whipping Boy by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don’t forget to check out his blog – Aaron. ]


The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect

Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way.  Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City.  Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit.  The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement. 

But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go.  America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy. 

Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England.  I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:

They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.

Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again
(emphasis added).

If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.

I grew up in Detroit.  Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family.  I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams.  I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet.  And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city.  I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.

I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path.  As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix.  I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings.  I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion.  And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”.  That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better.  I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.

It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did.  The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape.  It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.

In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions.  The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit.  The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling.  The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother.  And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise. 

Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit.  Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings.  Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing.   Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”.  The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy.  At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.

There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America.  You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.  You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix.  You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.  And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.  You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country.  Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?

The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here.  City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure.  By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city?  We could become like Detroit!

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities.  I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip.  No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit.  Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it.  Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions.  Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing.  Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions.  Or the Big Three.  Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters.  Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption.  And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people.  We are not you, they say, because we made better choices.  But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives.  This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.

Detroit needs a reprieve.  It needs a second chance.  Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future.  There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them?  There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products.  There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick.  There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back.  Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.

More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique.  It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large.  America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city.  Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.

By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems.  There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership.  Dealing with foreclosures.   Crushing income inequality and economic disparities.  Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads.  Crumbling infrastructure.  Unsustainable sprawl development.  The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt.  That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.

But I look at Detroit like this.  To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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