Portland, the Mission, and the housing affordability debate

Over at City Observatory:

I would, however, also like to add something to both of these pieces. From a big-picture perspective, Mesh and Duarte are right that new construction can slow or reverse the growth in regional housing prices, and restricting construction will tend to exacerbate that growth. But people don’t live their lives from 30,000 feet; they live them on the ground, which is why these ideas often seem so counterintuitive. More importantly, the people who packed the SF Board of Supervisors’ meeting to testify in favor of the moratorium don’t necessarily care about the medium-to-long-term trends in regional housing prices; they care about whether their own rents, and those of their family and friends nearby, will increase by more than they can afford in the next year, six months, three months.

Which means that arguments about supply and demand, though important, aren’t necessarily addressing their immediate needs and fears. Cities like Portland and San Francisco need better housing growth policy, it’s true: more construction now means less displacement, regionally, in the coming years. But if we care about preserving the option for people to remain in their communities now – which we should, for reasons both ethical and political – then we need to acknowledge the need for both housing growth policies and anti-displacement policies.

It’s a crisis when home prices rise, and it’s a crisis when they don’t

A farmer's market in Auburn-Gresham. Credit: Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation

A market in Auburn-Gresham. Credit: Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation

DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies has a really interesting post about the differing paths of Chicago neighborhoods through the recession. Readers will be shocked to hear that in some places, mostly on the North Side, housing values have rebounded quite strongly, while in others, especially south and west of downtown, they haven’t – and as a result have seen barely any appreciation for 15 years.

So what? The report imagines two families in 2000:

The first family buys their house for $320,000, the median value properties in West Town at the time… The second family buys a home for $85,000, the median value of properties in 2000 in Auburn Gresham.

Assuming both families did not take on added mortgage debt, the house in Auburn Gresham today is worth $86,500, only $1,500 more than in 2000, before the rise, bust, and rise of the market, for a rate of return of zero. Any equity in the home was built solely by paying down the mortgage principal.

Meanwhile, the house in West Town has more than doubled in value (a 119 percent increase) and appreciated to nearly $700,000. On top of any principal paid down on the mortgage, the owners have built an additional $380,000 in home equity.

In other words, the Wicker Park family is now several hundred thousand dollars wealthier than they were in 2000; the Auburn-Gresham family is not. And, of course, though both of these families are imaginary, we know that the Wicker Park family is probably white, and the Auburn-Gresham family is almost certainly black.

This is more than a theoretical concern. Though we often talk about racial differences in affluence in terms of income, wealth might actually be a much bigger deal. Wealth is why some people have college funds, and others don’t; why some people can retire comfortably, and others can’t. It’s why an employment or medical crisis is a major problem for some people, and a total catastrophe for others. Wealth is what keeps people in the middle class through rough patches. In sum, wealth can be more determinative of your life chances, and those of your family, than income in any given year.

Since real estate makes up a massive proportion of household wealth – more than half for blacks, and about 40% for whites – it contributes massively to the racial wealth gap. As of 2013, the median white family held $134,000 in net assets, compared to $11,000 for the median black family. And as the Washington Post covered earlier this year, looking at what you might call the Auburn-Gresham problem in the DC suburbs, the failure of homes in black neighborhoods to hold their value and appreciate is a major force for destabilization of entire neighborhoods, not just an economic scourge for individual black households.

WIcker Park homes that you should have bought in 2000. Credit: YoChicago

WIcker Park homes that you should have bought in 2000. Credit: YoChicago

What makes this comparison interesting, though, is that from the perspective of the most visible housing policy debates, it’s Wicker Park that has a housing crisis. When housing prices rise quickly, people whose incomes don’t rise accordingly get squeezed. That is, in fact, a big problem, and Wicker Park has become more segregated along class and racial lines as a result.

But if the racial wealth gap is a crisis, then the failure of housing values to rise in places like Auburn-Gresham is a crisis, too. This is especially true when it happens systematically to entire swaths of the city and entire subsections of the population. After all, it’s not a coincidence that black neighborhoods keep seeing the worst home price appreciation: black neighborhoods are systematically undervalued, because virtually no one who isn’t black is willing to live there, which leads to a collapse in demand. Other forms of systematic discrimination, including in the provision of amenities, also creates a kind of push factor, even for black households. (Recall that this is how we get the “racial arbitrage” theory of gentrification.)

It’s tempting here to ask for some sort of goldilocks solution: a moderate but steady increase in housing prices, so that people can build wealth without gentrification-related displacement. The problem, of course, is that displacement happens on a sliding scale. It’s not as if everyone will be priced out if rents increase 10%, but no one if they only increase 5%: every little bit that a neighborhood’s housing gets more expensive (that is, every little bit that homeowners build their wealth) tips someone from being able to afford to stay in their home to not. So it really is quite directly a tradeoff between how many people you want to price out of the neighborhood, and how much you want to allow other (especially black) people to build wealth from their homes the way white people are able to. At least, that will be the case as long as waiting lists for housing vouchers or public/subsidized housing units are years-long, rather than covering everyone who needs them.

* Of course I’m assuming here that owner-occupied home prices and rental prices track each other pretty closely. Obviously there are times where that isn’t the case, but over the long run, it tends to be.

Please, please, stop using rent numbers from Zumper

There is an apartment search site called “Zumper.” Zumper has come up with a very smart marketing ploy, which is something they call a “National Rent Report.” The “National Rent Report” reports on how much rent is, nationally, in a bunch of different cities and neighborhoods.

People like to know how much other people are paying for things, compared to how much they are paying, and they like to get updates about the course of neighborhood change, and that sort of thing, so the “National Rent Report” gets picked up by media outlets all over the place.

Most recently, I saw it on Curbed, which reported that, according to the “National Rent Report,” the median one-bedroom apartment in Chicago goes for $1,780. (I don’t mean to pick on Curbed, which I read constantly, is generally excellent, and far from the only outlet to pick up the “National Rent Report.”)

The median one-bedroom apartment in Chicago does not go for $1,780.

I could go into any number of reasons how I know that’s true. But the simplest is to look at Zumper’s own numbers for Chicago:

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Recall that the definition of “median” is “the point at which there are an equal number of items above and below.” Now look at this list. According to Zumper itself, there are only five neighborhoods in the entire city of Chicago where the median rent is above $1,780. If the city’s median rent as a whole is $1,780, then one of these things must be true:

1. There must only be ten neighborhoods in all of Chicago of roughly equal size, or

2. There can be more than ten neighborhoods, but half of all the one-bedroom apartments in the city must be located in just five neighborhoods.

Neither one of these things is true. Rather, the issue is almost certainly that half of Zumper’s listings are in one of those five neighborhoods, because their listings are very, very concentrated in high-end apartments.

But that makes their listings completely worthless for determining the actual median rent for the rest of us, who live in a world that is not bounded by Zumper’s database.

Which makes the “National Rent Report” completely worthless.

Let’s all stop writing about it.

Riders aren’t abandoning buses; buses are abandoning their riders

At City Observatory:

And it turns out that when you disaggregate the national data by urban area, there’s a very tight relationship between places that cut bus service between 2000 and 2013 and those that saw the largest drops in ridership. If you live in a city where bus service has been increased, it’s likely that your city has actually grown its bus ridership, despite the national trends. In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be that bus riders are deciding they’d rather just walk, bike, or take their city’s new light rail line. It’s that too many cities are cutting bus service to the point that people are giving up on it.

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Undercounting the transit constituency

At City Observatory:

And that matters because the people who make decisions about transit investments – politicians – look at how many of their constituents benefit from a given service as a major component of whether they benefit politically from supporting it.

And if they’re just looking at commute share, they’re looking at too few people. Even transit-rich metropolitan Boston doesn’t look so great by that metric: only 12% of workers there usually take transit to their jobs. But 29% of households include someone who regularly takes transit to school or work, and fully 56% of households use transit for at least some of their trips. In sprawling Houston, just 2% of workers commute with transit – but more than twice that proportion of households use transit for work or school, and more than one in ten households use transit for some of their trips. That’s still not great, but it’s much more significant than the minuscule commute numbers. It also suggests that even in one of the most transit-hostile regions of the country, a remarkable number of people find public transit useful for certain trips, forming a toehold for better service to produce even more ridership.

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Why are there no “pedestrian streets” in black neighborhoods?

It’s a bit weird that Chicago has something called a “pedestrian street designation” – after all, people walk on pretty much literally every single street in the city. But it does! Official “pedestrian streets,” which have existed since 2004, are designed to “promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort” by disallowing certain things, like parking lots facing the sidewalk, and encouraging others, like storefronts and sidewalk cafes. The city’s transit-oriented development ordinance also applies up to two blocks from an L station along pedestrian-designated streets, as opposed to one block on other streets.

Recently, I saw a map of the city’s pedestrian-designated streets for the first time. This is what it looked like:


This is a map that made me say “hmm.” If you have any sense of Chicago’s racial and economic geography, it is probably making you say “hmm,” too. But just to hit the point home:


There is literally one pedestrian street in a majority-black community area: Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, between 88th and 92nd Streets. By contrast, the North Side east of the river is absolutely lousy with them; Milwaukee Ave., the retail backbone of the Northwest Side, has several large districts radiating from six-way intersections; and the Latino section of the Southwest Side, though it has way less than the North Side, at least has pedestrian designations on the busiest portions of 18th, Cermak, and 26th Streets.

To be clear, the people in charge of assigning pedestrian street designations are aldermen, not CDOT. That is, the issue isn’t that the Mayor’s Office is just choosing to give North Side streets “pedestrian” status and not South Side streets. But still, it’s a pretty notable pattern.

How much does this matter? I don’t know. You could observe, of course, that people in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, West Town, and their aldermen, appear to believe that pedestrian street designations matter enough to slap them all over their neighborhoods. Alderman Ameya Pawar, for example, has been quite vocal in his belief that making commercial streets in his ward more pedestrian-friendly will improve his constituents’ quality of life and promote economic development, not to mention reduce injuries from car accidents.

And although people on the South and West Sides may have different concerns and priorities, certainly one of them is economic development and thriving retail districts, which exactly the sort of thing the pedestrian street designation is designed to support. Part of the issue is that a pedestrian street designation – and the somewhat more attractive street that results – is hardly a guarantee of new businesses. Underlying economic factors and the perceptions of business owners matter much more.

But a pedestrian designation is such a low-cost exercise that I’m not sure that explains it. More likely is that there’s a fear that the kind of businesses that have chosen to move into black neighborhoods – disproportionately national chains with auto-oriented cookie-cutter designs – would be deterred by rules that forced them to adopt more pedestrian-friendly formats.Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 12.25.57 PM

From one block to the next on 35th St. in Bronzeville, we go from pedestrian-friendly to not.

From one block to the next on 35th St. in Bronzeville, we go from pedestrian-friendly to not.

There may be some legitimacy to that. But, for one, there’s more than enough room to place some drive-through restaurants in South Side neighborhoods while preserving and enhancing pedestrian-oriented retail streets. And for two, pedestrian-friendly design is likely best for the long-term economic health of those communities. After all, not only is the property value bonus for walkable neighborhoods well-documented, but there are plenty of South Siders who have noticed that there’s a difference between, say, Clark St. and Cottage Grove – and want to close that gap.

(I’d also note, as an aside, that the way the pedestrian street law is written seems to disadvantage South Side neighborhoods. The ordinance stipulates that pedestrian streets should be designated in places where there are “very few vacant stores,” which excludes many communities with trouble attracting retail – which is to say, most black communities in Chicago. But if the point of the law is to promote economic development, why would you specifically exclude places especially in need of economic development? I don’t think that this clause has actually prevented any given pedestrian street designation – I suspect that, as these things generally work, any alderman who wanted one would get it – but I do think it suggests that the law was designed with the North Side in mind. Which is unfortunate.)

Baltimore’s problems belong to 2015, not 1968

I have a new post at City Observatory:

In the wake of violent protests against yet another apparent police killing in Baltimore, variations of this meme spread rapidly in certain corners of social media. Their message went something like this: Pundits and politicians may think Baltimore’s crisis began with the first brick that hit a window at CVS, but we – the people who live there – know the crisis goes back much further, and much deeper.

With this in mind, there’s some irony to the spate of columnists warning that the disturbances in Baltimore mark a return to the “bad old days” of the mid-to-late 1960s, when a series of violent protests in America’s black neighborhoods held the nation riveted. Those riots, too, were treated as a crisis by pundits who had not applied the term to decades of housing discrimination, or illegal violence on the part of police officers and white civilians.

But using violent protests as a point of analytic departure – rather than the underlying crises that provoked them – doesn’t just (unintentionally) reveal one of the similarities between 1968 and 2015. It also misses a lot of the major differences.

Rail transit options in Chicago

I’ve written these roughly in descending order of how much sense they seem to make for the city, but I should say that I think context matters an enormous amount in determining what kind of transit service makes the most sense, and this is meant more as an attempt at an outline of the tradeoffs involved for each option rather than a definitive ranking.

UPDATE: I should also have acknowledged that the cost estimates are verrrry rough; the methodology is at the bottom of the post, but several smart people have commented to quibble one way or the other, particularly with the street-running light rail numbers.

6. Subways

Ballpark Cost: $1.1 billion per mile¹

At one point, this would have made sense. Sadly, no more. Credit: chicago-l.org

Chicago’s 1939 subway extension plan. At one point, this would have made sense. Sadly, no more. Credit: chicago-l.org

Sometimes, people say: why don’t we just build a subway? They might say this in reference to the Ashland BRT project, or the Belmont Flyover, or some other place where they’d like a rapid transit line but don’t want to disrupt the flow or aesthetics of the city above ground.

Unfortunately, I have bad news: This is extremely unlikely. It’s unlikely because American subways are just ungodly expensive. (Why are they so expensive? Go ask Alon Levy.) Take, for example, the 16-mile Ashland BRT project. If we held an Ashland subway to the average cost of an American subway, it would run about $17 billion. Even the five-mile first phase would set us back $5.5 billion – nearly 12 times more than we spent to deconstruct and then reconstruct the entire 10-mile length of the Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch in 2013. Chicago’s entire annual budget is only about $8 billion, and the federal government hasn’t been handing out checks for transit infrastructure projects on that scale for quite a long time.

And that’s sort of where the discussion ends. Subways have a lot of benefits – they don’t interrupt, and aren’t interrupted, by surface traffic; they’re protected from the elements; they can move lots and lots of people – but I say that in the spirit of someone window-shopping something very pretty but outrageously unaffordable.

5. Streetcars

Ballpark Cost: $50 million per mile

While subways are potentially useful but logistically impossible, streetcars are logistically simpler but, in most cases, their benefits are much more doubtful.

I should note that I’m using a very particular definition of streetcars here. I have in mind essentially a bus on rails: a relatively short train set designed to travel in the same road lane as cars and other traffic. (Another type of rail transit that some people might call a streetcar, but which I’m calling “street-running light rail,” appears further below.) It looks something like this:


That’s the recently-opened Atlanta streetcar; note the automobiles in the same lane behind it. The problem with this sort of thing, from a Chicago-centric perspective at least, is that it has exactly the same issue that Chicago’s buses have: it gets stuck in traffic, and is therefore extremely slow. Actually, it’s worse than that: buses can move around a stopped cab or double-parked car; a streetcar can’t. In fact, one reporter found the Atlanta streetcar to be slower than walking.

The one advantage streetcars do have over buses is that they can hold more people. But that’s only an advantage if a) you need more capacity and can’t run any more buses, or b) you want to trade higher-capacity vehicles for less frequent service. Since there are virtually no bus lines on which the CTA can’t fit more bus runs – and since I don’t know of any Chicagoans who think that their local bus runs too frequently – those don’t seem super relevant here.

And, for all that, you have to spend $50 million – the cost of one of those super-fancy new L stations – to build each mile before you can even get up and running.

4. Freight right-of-way

Ballpark Cost: $180 million per mile

A cheap way to build a rail line that doesn’t have the traffic problems of a streetcar is to put it where there are already train tracks: in a freight right-of-way. That’s mostly what Chicago did with the Orange Line. There have also been proposals to create a line in a freight right-of-way just east of Cicero Avenue – the “Lime Line” in Transit Future.

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The problem with this is that most freight corridors don’t go near major residential or commercial nodes. Here, for example, is the area around the Kedzie Avenue Orange Line station:

Unlike L stations on, say, the Green or Brown Lines, you have to walk a quarter mile or more through some pretty uninviting landscapes to get to the places that most people take transit to get to. That problem can be partly mitigated by integrating the station well with frequent buses that take people for their last mile, and the Orange Line makes an effort to do so – but that can still easy add ten or fifteen minutes to a trip, making it much less attractive. That may have something to do with the findings of a study last year that the Orange Line has not catalyzed development in the way that other transit lines have.

3. Elevateds

Ballpark Cost: $250 million per mile

Credit: TheeErin

Credit: TheeErin

Elevated trains have some of the advantages of subways – they don’t have to even think about street traffic – but are missing lots of others. Namely: they’re exposed to the elements, and are considered by most people a bit of an audiovisual disaster. They’re much, much cheaper – enough so that one could imagine the city actually procuring the money to build one – but politically quite difficult to build in places where lots of people already live and have bought homes on the assumption that there would not be a train rumbling past every five to ten minutes all day.

But if you run them far away from where people actually live, then you have the same problem as freight right-of-ways: you’re not actually connecting people to where they want to go, which is usually the entire point of building a transit line.

2. Street-running light rail

Ballpark Cost: $160 million per mile

Credit: Ruin Raider.

The recently-opened Green Line in the Twin Cities. Credit: Ruin Raider

This is essentially a streetcar with its own travel lanes. Advantages, then, include that it can bypass traffic jams without incurring the expense of building either underground or an elevated structure; it also is much more likely to run near homes and businesses, as it runs in an actual street rather than a freight corridor.

Unfortunately, these kinds of projects can still have problems with speed, since they may have to stop for traffic lights, and being in the middle of a busy street means they can’t reach heavy-rail speeds (the L, for example, can top out at 55 mph – which wouldn’t be allowed if it were running down Western). Still, it’s cheap and user-friendly.

1. Commuter rail conversions

Ballpark Cost: $27 million per mile

Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The Metra Electric District along Chicago’s south lakefront. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

It’s a little-known but important fact that there are far more Metra stations on the South Side than there are L stations. Some Metra lines also have freight traffic that limits the number of possible passenger trains, but for the several that don’t – including the Metra Electric District – there’s no reason that these existing passenger rail lines can’t be turned into regular L-type service relatively easily. Make some upgrades, buy some train sets, and run them every ten minutes or so, and boom, you’ve got a new rapid transit line.

Of course, the bigger issue is political. But with Toronto promising 15-minute headways all day on its commuter rail network, it’s a shame there isn’t more momentum for that type of conversion here.

¹ In every case but commuter rail conversions, I’ve come to these cost figures by averaging all similar projects currently under construction in the United States, as listed at The Transport Politic. There are a lot of problems with this: mostly, construction costs are so site- and project-specific that it’s really hard to generalize to a particular development in Chicago from things that are being done elsewhere. But this was, I thought, about as good as I could do – thus the qualification that these are only “ballpark” costs.

In the case of commuter rail conversions, because there is not a single such project under construction in the entire United States (though there is in Toronto!), and because the most likely such project in Chicago – the conversion of the Metra Electric line – has been studied and given a price tag, I just used that.

How we measure segregation depends on why we care

Over at City Observatory, I have a post riffing on recent posts by Nate Silver and the New York Times’ Upshot on segregation and the reproduction of inequality:

That is, it’s easier to send black children to inferior schools if their schools are all on one side of town, and white schools are on the other. It’s easier to target housing and mortgage discrimination against blacks – one of the most important causes of the wealth gap – if all the black-owned houses are in one area. It’s easier to unleash abusive policing and incarceration practices on black communities without disturbing – or even attracting the attention – of whites for decades if whites and blacks don’t live in the same neighborhoods…. If this is why we care about segregation, then Silver’s measure – which doesn’t care which racial groups are mixing, as long as there is some mixing going on – is less useful. What matters then isn’t just integration: what matters is that privileged groups live in the same places as traditionally oppressed groups, so that place-based discrimination is made more difficult. In the United States, that means whites and people of color living in the same neighborhoods. Where that doesn’t happen – even if an area is integrated with, say, blacks and Latinos – then place-based discrimination is still viable, and it will be much easier to reproduce racial inequality.

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The Riots

Actually, given what’s going on in Baltimore right now – and the narratives it’s being fit into in a lot of places – I think I’ll republish an excerpt of a post I wrote back in 2013, before I really had any readers. I wouldn’t necessarily write this exactly the same way today, but I stand by the general idea.

All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.

During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”

This post was originally supposed to be pegged to the Detroit bankruptcy postmortems, but I’ve been busy, and in any case the phenomenon at hand is hardly that specific.

The following weekend, one hundred and fifty white teens armed with metal rods and bottles rampaged through the park, injuring thirty black picnickers. “Hoodlums” broke the windows of more than twenty-five cars…. Officers refused to escort victims into the park to retrieve their belongings, left several black women and children stranded in a park building as the mob attacked, and again rebuked the picnickers for using the “wrong park.”

But that was a particularly stark moment, since it called on all sorts of people to recount a narrative of northern urban decline. And pretty much every single one I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over two and a half million hits on Google.

This sounds familiar, if you’re a Chicagoan. Chicago Magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of the bankruptcy entitled “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,”‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”

The 1971 school year opened with the bombing of ten Pontiac[, Michigan] school buses, followed by mass protests…. [White] antibusing activists…vandalized school buses, puncturing radiators with sharpened broomsticks, breaking windows with stones and bricks, and forcing the district to create a high-security parking lot, complete with a bulletproof watchtower. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue

This is something like a Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods – their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there – was the catalytic event that actually delivered chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettoes like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. The things I couldn’t explain from the other side of my train window – those are the “scars” (as the preferred metaphor goes) of the riots.

Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter] It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”

Ira Glass On a Catholic church?

Monroe Anderson Yes.

This American Life, Harold, describing events at a campaign stop by Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.

To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in LA), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people, who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:

Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.

Or this:

A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.

Or this:

In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.

Or this:

A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.

Or this:

When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.

Or this:

From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.

But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.

And more than that, the white riots – the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings – deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.

Without this context – without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs – none of what we see in the ghetto makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”

We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettoes.

But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.

With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s – years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots – Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.

The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.