The invention of gentrification: Ten notes

I just picked up (ordered to my Kindle) The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, an American urban history classic that’s been on my list for years. It explores how, and why, between roughly World War II and 1980 northern Brooklyn transitioned from a prime candidate for slum clearance and urban renewal to the treasured capital of New York’s, and the country’s, “new middle class” (or “creative class,” or whatever). Though the focus is on Brooklyn, it’s a story that has obvious structural parallels in many other cities, including Chicago.


Anyway, I’m just about a third of the way through, and have no overarching conclusions, except that if this sounds remotely interesting to you, it is even more interesting in the actual reading, and here are ten notes on what I’ve read so far.

(See: Suburban Warriors)


(See: My own previous writing on the “immaculate conception” myth.)



One of Chicago’s most important trends is flying under the radar

Chicago is a city obsessed with neighborhoods, neighborhood boundaries, and neighborhood character, and therefore with neighborhood change. Demographic trends, from the rapidly declining black populations on the South and West Sides to the gentrification of the Northwest Side, get a lot of play in the media and in conversation. Which is why it’s weird that we’re in the middle of a demographic transition that is already of historic importance for the city and almost no one is talking about it.

Which is: the Southwest Side, first a bastion of European immigrants and their descendants, and then of Mexican immigrants and their descendants, is now gradually filling with Chinese immigrants and their descendants.


In 1990, there was virtually no presence of Asian-Americans east of the Dan Ryan into the South Loop or Bronzeville, or south of Pershing (39th St.), except for Hyde Park. (I’m going to say “Asian-American” here, because those are the Census numbers I have, though it appears that nearly all of the Asian-Americans in this part of the city are of Chinese descent.) There was no significant (over 10% of residents) presence east of Racine (1200 W) or so, or south of 31st St. By 2010, there was a continuous band of Asian-American population down Archer Avenue, the backbone of the Southwest Side, nearly all the way to Midway*, as far south as 51st St. and as far west as Cicero (4800 W). There were continuous pockets of neighborhoods over 10% Asian-American stretching from the lake to California Ave., more than four miles away—and a nearly continuous stretch from the lake to Damen, more than three miles away, that were over 20%.

Now, to be fair, this alone isn’t especially dramatic in the context of Chicago neighborhood change. Certainly in the white flight era, a neighborhood’s racial makeup could transition much more quickly, and the gentrifying parts of Logan Square, say, may appear more unrecognizable to a decades-long resident than sections of Brighton Park that have gone from zero to eight percent Chinese-American in twenty years.


But there are several reasons, I think, that this movement is really notable.

First, Chicago has for many years been seen by many as culturally and politically divided into three major ethnic groups: Black, Hispanic, and White. In fact, the city was notable for how evenly divided the population was between those three groups, and for the extent to which their segregation allowed distinct racially-specific geographic political representation. But though Asian-Americans have been in Chicago for a long time—in 2012, Chinatown celebrated its 100th year—they are only now beginning to reach a point where the population is large enough, and geographically concentrated enough, to demand that kind of local political representation.

Already in the 2010 district remapping, neighborhood organizations were able to lobby—unsuccessfully—for a ward around Chinatown that would have been over 40% Asian-American. And in the March primary elections, one of the people asking for that remap, Theresa Mah, beat out a Hispanic candidate for the Democratic nomination for a state legislative seat. By the 2020 remap, it seems very hard to imagine that there will not be an Asian-American majority, or strong plurality, seat on the City Council, bringing a kind of ethnic representation to City Hall that that community has up to this point lacked.

Second, the growing Asian-American presence on the Southwest Side offers the city a glimmer of hope to a demographic problem that it seems to not yet realize it has: the dramatic national decline of Mexican immigration. That was a key factor in Chicago’s poor showing in recent Census population estimates, as Latin American immigration had essentially been keeping Chicago demographically afloat since at least the 1990s.

The major beneficiary of that influx was the Southwest Side, where predominantly Mexican-American families rejuvenated neighborhoods whose White ethnic occupants were either aging out or moving out to the suburbs. But now it appears that Mexican-Americans are following the Lithuanian-Americans down Archer Ave. past the city limits, and without new arrivals, it’s unclear what will happen to the gateway neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2010, Pilsen lost a quarter of its Latino population, or 10,000 people—far more than the 850 Whites it gained, and so probably not mainly explained by gentrification. Little Village, which was certainly far from the gentrification frontier in 2010, lost 10,000 Latinos as well. As the 850 number suggests, gentrification isn’t likely to spread too far down Archer Avenue in the near future. Rather, Chinese-Americans appear to be the most likely candidate for keeping the Southwest Side demographically healthy.

Third, Asian-American residents haven’t just spread west from Chinatown; they’ve also spread east, to Bronzeville. While I’ve written about how one of Chicago’s longstanding (and, of course, deeply and transparently racist) rules of neighborhood change—non-Blacks never move in significant numbers to Black-majority neighborhoods—is being threatened by Hispanics, Whites, and Asian-Americans in spots all over the city, nowhere has a Black-to-another-ethnic-group transition gone farther than northern Bronzeville. The area bounded by the Stevenson, the lake, King Drive and 31st St. was 73% Black in 1980, and just 55% Black (and 36% Asian-American) by 2010. The Census tract just to the west has gone from 96% to 73% Black, and 1% to 13% Asian-American, over the same period; just to the south, in the Lake Meadows area, the numbers are 92% to 75%, and less than 1% to over 18%.

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Lake Meadows

Again, these are a far cry from the total demographic overhaul that we’re used to seeing in some areas—but nevertheless, it puts the city in completely uncharted territory. As far as I can tell, this is the first real racial desegregation of a Black neighborhood in the history of Chicago that did not involve the wholesale government-led demolition of Black housing, a la Cabrini-Green. And the implications for Bronzeville go beyond the Chinese-American community, since creating a substantial non-Black presence may open the doors to people of other ethnic backgrounds as well, especially in an area adjacent to the rapidly gentrifying South Loop.

Finally, there’s a sort of meta-point to be made here, which is that it’s very odd that all of this has flown so far under the radar. When I brought this up on Twitter, I suggested it was because most media outlets only really care about neighborhood change when white people are involved, either as colonizers (gentrification) or evacuators (white flight). A transition from one group of people of color to another group of people of color just doesn’t rank. Someone else suggested that it might simply be the invisibility of Asian-Americans in broader media in general. Another possibility is geographic, given the well-established lack of interest in non-homicidal events south of Cermak or so on the part of a lot of Chicago media.

I’m not sure what else to say about that, except that none of these are good, and all suggest some amount of course correction is needed (and I don’t exempt myself from that). I’d love to see some reporting on what these transitions look like from the ground—and if I’ve somehow missed reporting that has been done, someone please let me know!

* If it seems that I’m making a big deal out of a few percentage points in some areas, I would just point out that historically, Chicago-area segregation has led to situations in which many neighborhoods would have virtually no representation from one or more ethnic groups; that was certainly the case with Asian-Americans on most of the Southwest Side. Breaking that barrier from “none” to “a few”—especially when, nearby, those numbers grow more substantially, suggesting a broader trend—is a notable step.

Zoning as a negotiation—and the single family loophole


In Chicago, aldermen often set zoning to be more restrictive than the kind of development they eventually plan to approve, so as to maximize their negotiating power.

But there’s a loophole: all residential zoning, no matter how strict, allows single-family homes.

So developers looking to avoid negotiation can just build (very expensive) single-family homes.

The downzoning-as-negotiating-tactic ends up leading to more single-family homes than aldermen (or local residents) actually wanted.

That’s a problem on a number of fronts: affordability; public resources; transit; climate change; and so on.

If we’re going to move towards a system in which every development has to be negotiated, then that rule should apply to single-family homes as well as apartments and condos.

In the most naive version of the story, zoning is a quasi-objective, quasi-scientific endeavor. Planners, in consultation somehow with the public or their representatives, assign every plot of land in the city a code that denotes the kind of uses, and intensity of uses, that are appropriate to undertake there. They determine “appropriate” according to some sort of rational set of criteria: putting denser uses closer to major transportation corridors and nodes of activity; keeping “incompatible” uses, like factories and homes, apart; and generally respecting the existing built environment.

Of course, at least in Chicago, you don’t have to poke the zoning apparatus very hard before this story falls apart. With the exception of the immediate area around downtown, Chicago does not allow more density in many of the places that planning textbooks would tell you it should go: near transit stations, for example. (Yes, we have a “transit-oriented development” law, but it’s mostly about parking requirements. It only gives a modest density bonus to parcels that are already zoned relatively densely.)

The Brown Line runs up the right side of this map, and then west just south of Lawrence; you can see stops labeled "Irving Park - Brown," "Montrose - Brown," and so on. You can also see that none of these stops have any kind of high-density zoning—in fact, most of the surrounding land is zoned single family only. (Click through to get to an interactive map.)
Can you tell where the Brown Line ‘L’ runs, carrying over 100,000 people a day? If you guessed any of the yellow corridors, indicating slightly higher allowed density, you’re wrong. None of the stops—which you can (barely) see, labeled “Irving Park – Brown,” “Montrose – Brown,” and so on—have any kind of higher-zoned halo, and most of their surrounding land is zoned single-family only. (Click through to get to an interactive map.)

And while Chicago’s zoning code mostly keeps factories and residential homes apart—though not always, as the above map shows; that vertical corridor of uncolored land is a manufacturing district in the middle of a residential neighborhood—beyond that, it often fails miserably at even pretending to be keeping incompatible uses apart. Remember, theoretically, each zoning category is different enough that it ought to be “incompatible” with every other category; otherwise, the authors of the code would have just combined them. That’s not to say they can’t be relatively close—say, commercial with apartments above on a main street, and residential-only on the side streets nearby—but it would be ridiculous to have a bunch of different zoning categories hopscotched around the same blocks.

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Except Chicago does that all the time. Above, you have a checkerboard of single-family-only districts (red), small apartments (yellow), larger apartments (green), and even a smattering of very dense apartments (purple). And while the densest category is only found near the corner of Chicago and Ashland, two major streets, the other three categories are liberally sprinkled around the very same blocks on the very same side streets. In many cases, “zones” make up just one or two buildings, surrounded on all sides by other, supposedly incompatible, zones!

There is a word for this: “spot zoning.” It is generally illegal.

But whatever. Maybe the issue is an overzealous application of the “existing built environment” criterion. After all, Chicago’s side streets were usually built as a haphazard mix of single-family homes, small apartment buildings, and larger apartment buildings. If we just zoned each parcel to the category closest to its current building, then you might end up with something very much like the above map.

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Except that’s not how we do it, either. The block above happens, at least, to be consistent in its zoning: it’s all single-family only. But literally none of the existing buildings—which, by the look of them, have been around for well over a century—are single-family homes.

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Nor is that at all unusual. Every building in the above scenes is also zoned to be single-family only—anything else would be, according to law, “incompatible”—despite the fact that none of them depict any actual existing single-family homes.

So what’s going on?

Well, an alternative theory would be that instead of zoning being the result of a professionalized, semi-scientific process of analysis, it’s instead the result of politics. In particular, local politics, since in Chicago zoning changes controlled virtually entirely by the ruling alderman.

And who controls the local political process? Well, over at City Observatory, I covered the debate between two theories. One, the “growth machine,” basically posits that local politics are dominated by business and development interests, which manipulate zoning to overbuild, relative to what an “objective” observer might think appropriate. On the other side, there’s the “homevoter hypothesis,” which suggests that local politics are dominated by homeowners, who are mostly interested in maintaining the value of their homes. As a result, they’ll make zoning that leads to underbuilding, so as to reduce the number of “competing” sellers and avoid other neighborhood changes that might risk reducing property values.

If these are the options, which wins? Well, the study I wrote about at City Observatory, which was based on zoning changes in the 2000s in New York City, found that in places where you might expect it would be most valuable to build—areas near high-performing schools; whiter neighborhoods; neighborhoods seeing high home price appreciation and population growth—there were many more zoning changes to allow less density than to allow more density. That’s really hard to square with a growth machine story, but fits in perfectly well with a homevoter hypothesis story.

And what about Chicago? Before even looking at the city at all, you would probably expect that Chicago would be closer to the homevoter hypothesis than New York—simply because there are way more homeowners here (the homeownership rate is about 45%, rather than 35%).

But beyond that, and without doing a whole study, I can make an observation that makes me lean towards the homevoter hypothesis here, too: while there are abundant examples of neighborhoods where current zoning allows less density than the prevailing built environment—that is, for example, it’s illegal to build a three-flat on a street full of three-flats—there appear to be vanishingly few parts of the city where zoning allows more density than the prevailing built environment. Since intensifying land use is basically the guiding philosophy of the growth machine, a situation in which very little land is allowed to have its use intensified as of right seems hard to square with that sort of regime.

(There are two exceptions. First, areas with lots of vacant land often have zoning that allows reasonably dense buildings as of right, which you could reasonably claim would be “intensifying.” But for one, there’s generally very little building going on in these areas, and I suspect the arrival of construction would result in a flurry of rezonings; and two, if the goal of the “homevoters” is to increase their property values, getting rid of vacant lots makes a lot of sense. The other place where lots of intensifying is allowed is downtown. I think there’s a longer story to tell here, but I also would probably concede that much of downtown is, in fact, ruled by the growth machine.)

But there’s another thing. Which is this:

Politics are not only about constituents. They’re also about actual officeholders. And if you’re an officeholder, regardless of what your constituents want, you probably want maximum flexibility, and maximum leverage, in any given situation. In Chicago’s “planning” environment—that is, where all zoning changes are controlled solely by the local alderman, and where zoning changes can be made by that alderman very easily—that means there’s a massive incentive to downzone so that every potential developer will have to negotiate with the alderman. In the best possible interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings where neighbors have the opportunity weigh in on exactly what they’d like to see built on every single parcel as developer interest arises, and then act on those wishes. In a less generous interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings as a show of democracy, placating local voters while expecting things to end up basically as they would have anyway. In the least generous interpretation, you might note that this creates an incentive for developers to, say, give campaign donations to any aldermen whose wards include land they’d like to build on, since they’ll need aldermanic approval for every single project.

But even if we stick to the most generous interpretation, there are a few problems.

First, by moving planning from a theoretical planning department in City Hall to the local alderman’s office, they have shrunk the pool of voters who are consulted about changes from (theoretically) the entire city, with perhaps an extra weight given to people nearby, to only the people who show up to a given community development meeting. Without going into a whole spiel about the issue of hyper-local planning, I’ll just say that excluding many of the people who are affected by decisions about housing from having a voice in those decisions is a recipe for problems. (If this doesn’t make sense in the context of, say, Logan Square, imagine who doesn’t get a voice in hyper-local community meetings in, say, Lincoln Park.)

Second, while it’s not necessarily bad to allow negotiations over land use—you get a bit of extra density in exchange for another design concession, or less height, or more greenery, or whatever—it might be better to have these negotiations at the level of a neighborhood plan, rather than parcel by parcel. That’s both because of the “who’s enfranchised” issue above, and because negotiations require a lot of everyone’s time and effort. The smaller the payoff, the less inclined people will be to expend that time and effort. Meaning, in this context, that you might just shut out smaller developments—three flats, say—altogether, with developers deciding it’s only worth going through a whole community process if they’re proposing much larger buildings.

Finally, there’s a huge loophole: single-family homes. While in the story above, Alderman Burnett is downzoning to disallow all residential (even though, as he says, he only expects residential proposals, of which he will eventually grant one), much of the time, the alderman downzones to RS-3, which only allows single-family homes. In fact, there is no residential category that does not allow single-family homes as of right. Which means that big expenditure of time and effort can be avoided, if you’re a developer, by building single-family homes rather than apartments or condos.

If you’re inclined to be against density for the sake of being against density, then maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. But if you’re concerned about anything else, it’s a huge problem. Affordability? Basically all new single-family homes are going for the better part of a million dollars, and significantly more than units in a multifamily building in the same location. Plus, single-family homes won’t trigger the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, so there won’t be any below-market units, either.

Transit? Allowing only single-family homes in central urban areas reduces the kind of density that supports bus and rail lines, leading to a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service.

Public services? Single-family homes will generally create less total property value than multifamily buildings, with smaller property tax bills to support vital city services.

Climate change? Less population density means more carbon emissions per capita.

Little islands of low per-capita emissions in dense urban centers. Credit: CoolClimate Network, UC-Berkeley
Little islands of low per-capita emissions in dense urban centers. Credit: CoolClimate Network, UC-Berkeley

Local businesses? Single-family homes mean fewer people within walking distance of local business districts. That sort of population decline may be a big part of why there are empty storefronts in some of Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Now! None of this is to say that I think we should outlaw single-family homes. I don’t.

But it does seem to me that these are, together, a good enough reason to believe that the single-family loophole is a problem. Remember, the issue is not that we’re zoning land for single-family homes because we think that’s the only “compatible” use, but because it gives us maximum negotiating leverage over the appropriate multifamily building we eventually want to approve. And yet, in the process, we’re giving developers a huge incentive to build less densely than we think is appropriate, which exacerbates all the issues above.

So basically what I’m saying is that if we’re going to move towards a system where every development is negotiated—where, in planning lingo, basically everything is a mini-planned development—then we should require negotiation for single-family homes as well.

The collapse of rental housing on Chicago’s North Side

I’ve written several times about the problem of shrinking population, and shrinking housing supply, in Chicago neighborhoods that ought to be booming. A quick recap: Over the last generation or so, the number of people wanting to live in Chicago’s close-in neighborhoods, particularly on the North and Northwest sides, has skyrocketed. Many of these people are also much wealthier than the people who had been living in these neighborhoods before. Downtown, builders have responded to this situation as they had historically throughout the city: by building more densely and allowing more people to live in a given area.

Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river - along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.
Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river – along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.

But because Chicago’s zoning code fits so snugly over its neighborhoods outside of downtown – so snugly, in fact, that maximum allowed densities are frequently much lower than what already exists – builders have not been able to add much new housing. Instead, they maximize their profits by turning two-flats into luxury two-flats, or into mini-mansions for a single family. As a result, as places like Lincoln Park get more desirable than they’ve ever been, fewer people are able to live there, and its population remains about 40% below its peak, depriving the rest of the city of whole heaps of tax money that we might be able to spend on schools, roads, transit, and so on. And, meanwhile, the intensified bidding war over the housing that remains drives up prices, pushing some of the people who would have lived in Lincoln Park in 1990 to Wicker Park in 2000 or Logan Square in 2010 – in other words, it causes gentrification.

But the situation is actually even worse than that. Because the deconversion of multi-unit buildings into smaller multi-unit or single-unit buildings is just part of the removal of rental housing: there are also lots of buildings that retain the same number of units, but are converted from renter-occupied to owner-occupied. (This trend has slowed dramatically since the recovery of the rental market, and there are even a few places where condo buildings have been converted back to rental—but not nearly enough to reverse the trend of the last 20 years.)

As a result, the stock of rental homes in some of these North Side neighborhoods—which, at this point, is the market that anyone without an upper-middle-class income is in by default—has just completely collapsed.

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Why is this a problem? Well, for one, owner-occupied housing almost always excludes more people—people of more tenuous economic standing—than rental housing. This is true even when monthly payments aren’t terribly different, because owner-occupied housing requires greater savings, a more stable source of income, and generally better credit. Less rental housing in that sense translates directly into a more exclusionary neighborhood.

But also, to the extent that rental housing constitutes its own market, reducing the supply of homes through condo conversions will bid up rental prices in the same way that too-low supply of homes in general will. In the wake of the recession, huge numbers of people who might in another time have chosen to buy—even people with relatively high incomes—stayed in the rental market instead. They found it much smaller than it would have been a decade or two or three before, and that almost certainly contributed to the competition for apartments that has pushed prices so high over the last several years.

And, of course, this is all happening in the context of sometimes extreme political pressure on aldermen and developers to privilege new owner-occupied housing over rentals. That makes pushing back against those pressures, as aldermen like Walter Burnett and Ameya Pawar have done, all the more crucial.

While I was gone: three posts!

I was in Brazil for the last two weeks; more on that later. For now, here are three things I wrote for City Observatory that were published in the interim:

1. Between highrises and single family homes: housing’s “missing middle”

This kind of mid-density, low-rise housing—including duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and other low-density multi-family buildings—has been called the “missing middle”: American cities build lots of single-family homes, and (in a certain places) some larger apartment complexes, both in the form of sprawling suburban “apartment communities” and downtown highrises. What we don’t build are the kind of human-scaled, moderately-dense housing that has historically made up the bulk of America’s urban neighborhoods.

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2. The next road safety revolution

Even if you adjust for the fact that Americans drive more, the United States’ roads still stand out as some of the most dangerous: 20% worse than Germany, 40% worse than Denmark, and 71% worse than Norway.

As we’ve noted before, this is one of the cases where cities and urban living are the solution.  Because people drive less and drive more slowly in cities, traffic death rates are lower in more urbanized places.

Nor are dangerous streets an unchangeable part of national culture. In 1990, the US and UK had almost identical road fatality rates. But since then, the US has made much slower progress—and today, we suffer 71% more deaths for the same amount of driving. The difference is worth 14,000 American lives every year.

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3. The suburbs: where the rich ride transit

So how do we explain this? Well, here’s where we get back to land use. In America, people with higher incomes tend to have certain kinds of jobs: in particular, white-collar office jobs in fields like insurance, law, finance, and so on. In many American cities, those jobs are heavily concentrated in the downtown core. In cities like Philadelphia, which has an extensive commuter rail network, or Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul, which have a pretty good network of regional express buses, that makes commuting from the suburbs quite convenient: You can walk from the downtown station to your office, avoiding both the frustrations of driving in rush hour traffic and the expense of downtown parking.

But the situation looks very different for lower-income people. Those jobs are disproportionately likely to be blue-collar manufacturing or service sector, which are much more scattered across the metropolitan area. If you live in the suburbs, the prospect of commuting to another suburb by transit is probably pretty bleak: in most regions, very few suburban jobs are walking distance from a rapid transit station, and local suburban buses are often unreliable and too slow to efficiently travel across the massive distances of American metropolitan areas.

Faced with unreliable, extremely slow commutes by transit, most of those blue-collar and service sector workers will just find a way to buy a car and drive—even if it eats into the money they have for other important expenses. And so you end up with a situation where a lot of wealthy people have an easy transit commute to their jobs, but lower-income people do not.

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Disparate Impact

So I’ve gotten some pushback on the last post in the comments. One of the main objections is that “bigot” is an inflammatory and unhelpful word. That’s probably true, and had I been at that meeting, I would not have used it. But I suppose my position is that the balance of offense here still lies with the people asking the city the disallow new rental buildings, and given how rarely – almost never – those sort of people get called out by anyone, let alone the elected official who has been asked to enact their segregatory policies, I just can’t feel that that’s the real injustice here.

But there’s also some feeling that I was not correct to perceive a racial issue, especially given that the new apartments – other than the 10% subsidized under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance – would almost certainly cater to relatively upper-income, disproportionately white people. Which is true! And yet the underlying dynamic here is that people want to control the “quality” of their neighbors, which will almost inevitably have racial implications. That’s true both because 1) people perceive blacks in particular as reducing the value of a neighborhood independent of their income, and 2) even a purely class-based bias will created disproportionately white neighborhoods, given the distribution of income.*

Now, you may say that in this case, somehow, we have found an exceptional group of American people without racial prejudice, even subconscious. Fine. But 2) is enough all on its own. The Supreme Court just ruled last month that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits racial segregation by “disparate impact” – meaning exactly the kind of policy at issue here, which is on its surface race-blind but which will inevitably have a racist outcome if implemented. If Anthony Kennedy thinks there’s race involved, then I think there’s probably race involved.

I also want to highlight this, from a follow-up DNAinfo story:

But opposition to two projects doesn’t mean West Loop residents are opposed to all rental developments, Tenenbaum said.

“What we do favor is supporting the families that make the West Loop a desirable area,” he said. “What’s wrong with families and what’s wrong with homes? Who serves on the parks councils? The PTAs? The local school boards, CAPS committees? On community boards? For the most part, its people who put down roots.”

What’s wrong with families? Well, for one thing, family status is actually a protected class, too. What Tenenbaum is straightforwardly asking for is straightforwardly illegal under the Fair Housing Act. Which is just to say that this situation is wrong from all sorts of angles, I suppose.


* I’m reminded of an affordable housing fight in the North Shore suburbs a few years ago. The housing at issue would have been targeted to people at something like 120% of Area Median Income – that is, people who were actually richer than the average metropolitan Chicagoan. In practice, they were actually probably nurses and teachers. They were probably going to be almost all white. And yet the campaign against the project – which was ultimately successful in blocking it – repeatedly referenced Cabrini-Green, with obviously racial implications. Which isn’t to say that the West Loopers are quite as noxious as that, it’s just to point out that there don’t actually have to be any black people involved for anti-black racism to play a major role in decision-making.

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.

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.