Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Planner's reality: Segregation in America

Salon.com recently posted a great slideshow of the most segregated cities in America. The post had a map of the racial breakdown of each city as well as an explanation of the history of segregation in each city. Check out the slideshow in this link.

What's interesting is that even in some of the most segregated cities, there is a new trend of young affluent white suburbanites moving into back into the core of cities and working class and middle class city black populations moving into inner-rung suburbs. While this new trend is causing some existing places to become more diverse as one population slides into a new neighborhood as the group is leaving, what's fascinating is that the new trend is still reinforcing the old trend of segregation. The shifts in population among races are not quite coexisting with each other as they are displacing one another.

And this displacement is causing a lot of ugly fights between new and existing populations throughout urban America. In Philadelphia and Washington D.C., historically black neighborhoods are trying to protect their community's identity from white and now black gentrifiers and in suburban Detroit, elite black suburbs or worried about the waves of working class blacks from inner-city Detroit moving into their communities.

These new tensions are now issues that planners now have to listen to and address. These tensions are no longer just a sensitive issue for the inner-city but now affect suburban planners as well. In my jurisdiction, my office worked on an historic black community (historic in culture but not in the building preservation sense) that began as a segregated community and had faced decades of discrimination. Their struggles in overcoming these obstacles helped cement the community's identity and it was very important that we preserve and honor that community's history. But from a strictly planning sense, none of their history of segregation was going to greatly affect how we planned and designed their future housing developments and open spaces. We could not ignore their history but we could not plan around their history either without a historical landmark or building. There was a disconnect between the community and the planners. To the community, their history was the number one concern. For the planners, designing safe spaces was our number one concern.

This disconnect between preserving the people's history in a community over the preservation of buildings is one of city planning's biggest challenges and up to now one of it's biggest failures. As a whole, city planners do not know how to at least help a community on the wrong side of gentrification. As city planners we almost always side with the gentrifiers because our number one goal is to create better designed spaces and buildings. The influx of gentrification helps remove and redevelop empty debris filled lots, rehabilitates vacant buildings and brings commercial vitality back into neighborhoods. Who wouldn't want that?

Newcomers into gentrified inner-city neighborhoods are often dismayed when they find out that it is the existing long term residents who do not want the positive changes of gentrification. The standard answer for newcomers to existing long-term residents is that they should be thanking them for improving their neighborhoods. The issue for long-term residents is not that they want to live in sub-standard conditions but they are seeking a permanent stake in their community in which they felt they established. Whether that neighborhood is an affluent community or a poor community, long term residents feel that it is their neighborhood in large part because of the history of segregation. A lot of older black inner-city neighborhoods were purposefully segregated and became the only neighborhoods blacks could live in within a metropolitan region.

Despite their struggles these older black communities formed identities that were important not only to the psyche of blacks that lived in that community but to urban black America as a whole...for that time. Over time, these communities have often lost their identities as segregation slowly ended and middle class blacks moved out, leaving some of the working class blacks who couldn't afford to leave feel abandoned. But even with all that said there is still some high reverence for some of these communities no matter how poverty stricken or crime riddled they have become. While saying you are from Harlem or the Southside of Chicago or the 9th Ward of New Orleans may be looked down upon by some, for some in urban black America it is still a source of pride.

And this source of pride, which is wrapped around decades of segregation, self-empowerment, decline and then decades of poverty is what gentrification threatens to end. These communities have seen the life cycles of the black community within those cities and while they may be dying, those that still live in those communities do not want to see it end. So how do we as planners preserve that sense of pride? We all know that cities and neighborhoods go through changes, death and rebirth. Do we interfere with the natural life cycle of neighborhoods? Or is it important to maintain the cultural identity of a place like Harlem from becoming just another nice gentrified neighborhood?

What are your thoughts? Thanks for reading!

3 comments:

Swamp Thing said...

It's a very interesting time in America! A lot of Americans communities, including African American communities, are having to grapple with change. I call this the "Lock The Gate After I Move Here" phenomenon. Whether it's a new subdivision in a wooded area, or upper class folks gentrifying a poor neighborhood, or just a change in dominant race of the community, we (human beings) just have a hard time dealing with the change.

My grandfather was the second member of his family (after his next older brother) born in the USA. Their family lived in Glendale, Brooklyn, which was German and Irish immigrant neighborhood from about 1890 to 1945. It was amazing to hear my grandfather (in his 70s and 80s) complain, "Look at it! It's all immigrants! All the good people are gone!" Because of course, the new immigrants are Chinese and Russian, Latvian and Romanian. Not the "good kind" of immigrants.

Before you cast judgment - I bet anyone reading this has had a member of their family say similar things.

Can planners account for this? Not really. I think it's just part of life on earth.

BC Planning said...

It's a tough challenge because change is always going to happen and change should bring forth progress.

I think the tough thing for Americans in general is that we don't help others to moving in to either learn about the community or stabilize the community. Too many times, the first signs of trouble, people are already packing their bags instead of trying to nib a potential problem in the bud. And when people leave it creates these dramatic shifts in population.

After a while it just seems like the working class are just chasing the well-to-do in circles. And I think black communities are way too flighty outside of older black neighborhoods that tend to be inner-city neighborhoods or old towns. Its like stop moving so much and work on making your current community better but that could be said for almost anybody.

But I also think that some of the gentfriers and some planners (mainly new urbanists) have no sympathy for people who live in the hood and can't afford to move. There has to be a better way.

Anonymous said...

Check out this project in San Diego: http://www.shopmcp.com/shop.htm
Long time residents got a literal stake - investment - in the change. It shouldn't all come down to money, but sometimes that is the only way to maintain power.