Power and Interests

A few days ago, Pete Saunders wrote a post on “gentrification management”:

I’ve come to the belief that gentrification can be managed.  Its benefits can be harnessed; its costs can be mitigated….

Some six months ago I detailed the efforts of Oak Park, IL, an inner ring suburb adjacent to Chicago’s West Side, as it was faced with racial transition and resegregation during the 1950s and ‘60s.  Unlike the vast majority of communities that warily accepted its fate in the face of changing conditions, Oak Park sought to directly confront the issue….

Perhaps Oak Park’s experience can be a template for a gentrification management program.

Perhaps! But, since Pete asks for comments, I will give a few, and they are mostly pessimistic.

My pessimism comes from two things: power, and interests.

Oak Park is miraculously integrated. Credit: theoakparker.com
Oak Park is miraculously integrated. Credit: theoakparker.com

The white middle-class and affluent residents of Oak Park had much more power over their situation than the lower- and working-class, generally non-white residents of gentrifying neighborhoods do today. More to the point, Oak Parkers had more power than the people who wanted to move into Oak Park, which is the opposite of the dynamic in gentrifying areas. To start with the obvious, Oak Parkers had more money, which is useful if you’re going to launch a campaign that will require many, many person-hours of work. The fact that Oak Parkers had money also meant they weren’t in danger of being priced out of their neighborhood; the challenge, rather, was to keep their neighborhoods the kind of places they would choose to live, so as to avoid voluntary mass exodus.

Second, Oak Parkers had the kind of social capital that allowed them to do things like set up equity insurance programs to protect homeowners from potentially falling real estate prices during integration. The social power that came with their racial background also allowed them to get away with “encouraging African American dispersion” throughout Oak Park to avoid ghettoization. Imagine the response of middle-class whites being told by some Pilsen neighborhood council that they would be instructed as to which apartments they were allowed to rent so as to avoid too much white clustering: it would not be pretty.

Anti-gentrifiers can make posters. Chicago Tribune.
Anti-gentrifiers can make posters. Chicago Tribune.

Third, Oak Parkers had the advantage of their own government. Unlike, say, Logan Square, which is governed by a city whose constituents include both longtime Logan Square residents and many of the wealthier potential gentrifiers, Oak Park’s municipal government was responsive only to the interests of a small, relatively homogenous group of educated, liberal whites with, apparently, broad agreement about what the future of their suburb should look like.

Finally, Oak Parkers had the benefit of policy levers that could accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Without downplaying the real risks they took, and the real novelty of a white neighborhood successfully implementing planned integration in the mid 20th century, by that time American cities had been managing the residential movement of black people, and lower-income people, for many generations. If part of Oak Park’s goal involved making sure the inflow of black families wasn’t too fast, and that it didn’t create new segregated clusters, they had reason to believe that was, if not exactly a slam dunk, definitely achievable. On the flip side, there are no policy levers I’m aware of that can keep relatively wealthier people out of a low-priced neighborhood that don’t also have serious negative consequences for the existing residents of that neighborhood.

What makes this power differential even more important is that the interests of the more powerful party in each situation – that is, existing Oak Park residents and gentrifying newcomers – are very different. Oak Park residents were interested mostly in maintaining their neighborhoods’ “stability”: keeping racial change slow, and keeping property values at their already-high levels. Once an all-out fight against any black in-migration had been ruled out – because they thought it wouldn’t work, or because they thought it would be too costly, or because it offended their political ideals – both their social and financial interests pointed towards slow, controlled integration.

Conversely, gentrifiers have little incentive to promote “stability,” in the sense of minimal change in their new neighborhood’s demographics and real estate values. Even if they have an abstract commitment to “diversity,” gentrifiers are primarily interested in living as close as possible to the middle-class social networks, jobs, and amenities they want access to, while staying within their budgets. (This is obviously not something I can really prove. But A. I have a lot of experience moving in gentrifiers’ circles, and B. the pattern of gentrification in Chicago, clearly moving out from the largest hubs of those social networks, jobs, and amenities, gives a pretty strong indication of what people are trying to get.) That means they will move to the working-class neighborhoods on the edge of more affluent regions of the city.

Importantly, each individual college-educated white twentysomething may prefer that other white twentysomethings stay out of those neighborhoods, but they have every reason to want to move there themselves. If they were kept out, after all, they very likely would be farther from their friends; face longer commutes (or maybe not be able to get to their preferred jobs at all); have worse access to public transit and grocery stores; pay much more for housing and/or transportation; and/or face a much higher risk of crime. This is why Adam Hengels’ point that gentrifiers move where they do because those represent the “best” neighborhoods they can afford is so crucial: it suggests that you can’t get them to stop moving in without seriously diminishing their quality of life. And people rarely, if ever, voluntarily diminish their own quality of life.

And, to close the circle, the residents of gentrifying neighborhoods don’t have the power to force them to do so. Which is why I’m pessimistic that, absent major housing policy reform, gentrification can be successfully managed.

The problem

From Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ’s series on gentrification:

James Rudyk says affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant or that certain people or businesses should stay out.

But…by definition, it kind of does, doesn’t it? If housing values don’t “remain stagnant,” then they’re growing. Another way of saying that housing values are growing is that housing is getting more expensive. In a neighborhood (Belmont Cragin, in this case) with home prices already above the city average – in a city where something like half of all residents are paying more than 30% of their income for a place to live – that suggests that every increase in housing prices is going to stretch the budget of some people who live in the area, and put the community beyond the reach of other city residents who might like to move there for better schools, safer streets, etc.

In other words, affordability will suffer.

This is the fundamental problem with using housing as our country’s main vehicle for wealth accumulation: as soon as you buy a home, you have an enormous incentive to see its value grow. But that interest, of course, is directly opposed to the interests of any people who might want to buy, who want – in many cases, need – housing prices to stay flat or even decrease in order to find a place to live. In a place where the vast majority of homes are not subsidized for the low- or moderate-income – and Chicago will be that kind of place for the foreseeable future – that means that strong returns to housing are directly opposed to affordability.

It also means that statements like this are really hard to take from theory to reality:

“If residents on Diversey and Laramie really do want a Starbucks, then let’s put in a Starbucks. If they really do want a Trader Joes, then let’s put in a Trader Joes. If they’re really fine with the fruit market, let’s leave the fruit market. So the question is, who makes that decision?,” he said.

Rudyk hopes it’s the people who live here, and not outside investors. He says that may determine whether Belmont Cragin redevelops or gentrifies.

This imagines that there are two groups of people: Belmont Cragin residents, and “outside investors.” But that’s not really true.

A very common refrain in gentrification debates is that “the community should decide,” or that changes should “benefit the community.” But as Michael Kendricks points out, “the community” is always made up of many different people, with many different interests. Virtually any decision that’s made about a new housing development, or store, or transit project, will benefit some members of the community at the expense of others. That is politics, and anyone who has been to a neighborhood meeting about anything, large or small, has seen firsthand that neighborhoods are not above, or below, politics.

It’s tempting, in this as in any situation, to try to find a way that everyone – or everyone you consider a “good guy” – can win. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot more conflict here among the “good guys”* – conflict that isn’t about misunderstandings, but about real and immediate self-interest – than we’re willing to admit.

* I say “good guys” because I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about a middle class family in Belmont Cragin wanting home prices to increase in their neighborhood so they can have some financial security for retirement. The point, though, is that the consequences of that totally benign goal – multiplied by hundreds of thousands of homeowners – are anything but benign for people caught on the wrong side of affordability.

Donuts and wedges

Since my last post, I was reminded of the existence of this, from Radical Cartography. One point Bill Rankin makes there, which is really important, is that the “donut model” of economic geography, with concentric circles of high- and low-income areas, is really not the American standard. More common is the “wedge model,” with a “favored quarter” radiating out from the city center like an especially privileged slice of pizza.

For example (in Rankin’s maps, pink = rich and blue = poor):

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.01 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.09 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.22 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.32 PM

If you take another look at my maps for Chicago…


…you might reasonably ask: how sure are you that the growth of a high-income zone in the central city is following the donut model, versus the wedge model? After all, it seems to be growing mostly towards the already super-wealthy northern suburbs. Maybe the endgame is a wedge, after all.

To which I would reply: yes, I think there’s something to that. But what matters, I think, is what’s at the center. Going back to the rent gap theory, a building’s potential rents will only be high if it’s close to jobs or amenities that make the area valuable. In all of the extreme wedge examples above, the downtowns don’t really serve quite the same central economic or cultural role for their respective metropolitan areas as does downtown Chicago, and so areas adjacent to them – say, the southern end of downtown Atlanta, or the areas to the north of downtown St. Louis – aren’t especially close to a major job or amenity center. Instead, those centers are further out in the suburbs, and high rents revolve around them, following major transportation corridors.

Downtown St. Louis (background) has more jobs, but suburban Clayton (foreground) has higher office rents and half the vacancy rate. Credit: http://s29.photobucket.com/user/jeffvstl/media/downtownfromclayton1.jpg.html
Downtown St. Louis (background) has more jobs, but suburban Clayton (foreground) has higher office rents and half the vacancy rate. Credit: http://s29.photobucket.com/user/jeffvstl/media/downtownfromclayton1.jpg.html

In other words, northern Bronzeville’s position, I’m guessing, really isn’t anything like whatever neighborhoods are a mile or three east of downtown Houston: it’s actually in close proximity to the region’s largest amenity hub, and they aren’t.

Now, what gives the wedge model a bit of weight in Chicagoland is that the Loop isn’t the only major employment center. In fact, even if you know nothing about the Chicago area, you could easily pick out the other employment centers just by looking at the map: they’re in the northern suburbs and along a corridor running along I-88 in second- and third-ring suburbs southwest of the Loop. They are, not coincidentally, close to the two largest other major high-income areas. (Though the high-income areas near I-88 continue to move away from where the actual jobs are, which is something that should maybe trouble people with a vested interest in keeping those jobs there.)

Who could say no to working here? Naperville, Illinois. Forgive my urban snobbery.
Who could say no to working here? Naperville, Illinois. Forgive my urban snobbery.

Anyway, the point is that things are complicated, and basically every major metropolitan region in the world is polycentric, which does weird things to potential rents, and thus the prospects of disinvestment and reinvestment. You don’t even have to go outside the city to see that: though it’s much less dramatic, Hyde Park – the little patch of white along the south lakefront – has seen a very small ripple of reinvestment expand from its major employment center, the University of Chicago. The problem there, of course, is that Hyde Park is surrounded entirely by black neighborhoods (and South Kenwood, a mixed neighborhood, beyond which is North Kenwood, and almost entirely black neighborhood), which, as we discussed last time, makes the reinvestment stage difficult.

Quickly, before I go

On Tuesday I’m flying to Bogota, Colombia, for a quick vacation before school starts up again. I’m not planning on spending any of that time writing – in fact, I’m not even taking my computer – but I wanted to get a few things down in the few hours before I head to the airport.

First Bogota, then Ashland.

1. This is now two weeks old, and Streetsblog has already covered it well, but it’s worth heaping just a bit more scorn on CBS’ “expose” of the Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit project. One can begin, of course, by mocking the idea that CBS did any “digging,” in their words, to uncover an initiative about which CDOT, the CTA, and third party organizations have issued multiple press releases, held meetings, and created public websites. Or the scene in which the reporter gestures to an entirely empty street behind him, and then declares that “traffic has slowed to a crawl.”

But mostly I just want to point out that, yet again, a major Chicago media organization has covered a transit issue without talking to a single actual transit user. As ever, the reporter pitches the conflict, or tradeoffs, not as between people who ride the bus and people who drive, but between high-handed “city planners” and regular people who happen to drive. CBS lets Peter Skosey at the Metropolitan Planning Council and Rebecca Scheinfeld from CDOT represent the pro-BRT side, along with some rando in a bike helmet, and then talks to four people in their cars. Despite the fact that the report was shot in the Loop, where there is a bus station on virtually every corner, it did not seem to occur to anyone that if you are going to interview seven people about a bus project, maybe one or two of those seven should be someone who rides a bus. A-plus reporting, CBS.

2. Not entirely unrelatedly, Eric Jaffe published a piece in City Lab the other day entitled, “If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?”

Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

Not to be rude to Eric Jaffe, who I generally like a lot, but this seems like a pretty silly question to me. People don’t ride mass transit because riding mass transit doesn’t make any sense for them. Lots of people also “support” getting in shape – they even spend their own money on diet apps and gym memberships – but very few actually do it, because eating whatever you want and then not going to the gym is much, much more convenient than the alternative. By the same token, a person who must walk fifteen minutes along a street without sidewalks to a bus stop on a line that comes every twenty minutes and would take twice as long to get to work may “support” mass transit, but would have to be kind of insane to actually use it. (Money is a constraint, of course, but even the vast majority of the poor, faced with those conditions, just buy a car as cheaply as possible.) Nor are those kinds of tradeoffs limited to people who live in postwar sprawl: From where I live, in a highly walkable neighborhood with two relatively high-frequency bus lines and a subway stop within a five minute walk, getting to most jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area by public transit is simply not a plausible choice for someone who has other options. And that’s not just true of jobs out in the burbs, far from transit themselves: even getting to, say, Evanston – which by car is maybe 45 minutes – would be pushing an hour and 20 minutes by public transit, simply because the lines aren’t oriented to serve that trip.

Jaffe claims that relatively low ridership on new transit services created by popular referendum is another data point on the “support-usage gap,” but really all it shows is that transit is drastically inconvenient for the vast majority of people in a way that one or two new lines can’t fix.

Anyway, I think the only way this can seem like a hard question is if you’re not thinking of the issue from the point of view of current or potential transit users. Instead, as with CBS, it’s a philosophical question. But for the vast majority of people, transportation isn’t a philosophical issue. It’s a convenience issue. It would be nice if both sides would approach it that way.

Excerpts from “The Formation of American Local Governments,” by Nancy Burns

Scholars have argued that part of the reason for the Salem witch trials was that Salem Town refused to let Salem Village secede to form an independent town. The residents of Salem Village faced land constraints and consequent decreasing income; the residents of Salem Town had access to other forms of income because the male residents there were largely merchants. Salem Village repeatedly petitioned for its own government; just as repeatedly, Salem Town refused. The Salem witch trial accusers were from Salem Village; the accused were from Salem Town. (p. 34)

Exclusionary zeal in various forms has been a part of American local institutions from their beginning…. The earliest tradition is the establishment of towns that create economic homogeneity…. In the seventeenth century this process was led by English merchants who planned the colonization of New England. The resulting communities are exemplified by the founding of Watertown, Massachusetts, in the late 1630s: “Everyone hoped that there would be no poor, and Watertown had made special provisions to exclude them.” To that end, they established that “anyone who ‘may prove chargeable to the town’ could be ordered to leave.” (p. 35)

Church groups in St. Louis decided to purchase twelve acres of land in Black Jack, Missouri, an unincorporated section of St. Louis County, in 1969. The land was zoned for multiple-family dwellings. The groups planned to build racially integrated, moderate-income housing on the site. Almost immediately, the white residents of the area…petitioned the St. Louis County Council to incorporate the area. They succeeded. Immediately upon forming the municipality, they zoned apartments – including publicly funded ones – out of the city. (p. 36)

“The real issue is not taxes, nor water, nor street cars – it is a much greater question than either. It is the moral control of our village. Under local government we can absolutely control every objectionable thing that may try to enter our limits.” – suburban Chicago newspaper editorial in favor of incorporating as a separate municipality, 1907  (p. 37)

“Planners and zoning experts often appeal to their clients, that zoning for height and lot area, and sometimes other items, will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, all the arguments adduced to show that zoning protects property values are meaningless unless they imply this important element in the determination of values. No height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.” – Bruno Lasker, academic, 1920  (p. 57)

Americans have discovered in local institutions effective barriers to racial and economic segregation. Living within particular city boundaries means that schools will not be integrated, that neighborhoods will not be integrated, that offensive industry will not be apparent, and that taxes will not be higher. It also means that the problems of people in other – even, and especially, neighboring – cities will be considered irrelevant to local politics….

Because municipal boundaries can be boundaries between races and classes, boundaries that reinforce homogeneity, the possibilities for transformative public discussion in local politics are severely limited.

Moreover, the space we have created for local political autonomy means that we allow local boundaries to define citizenship, and we allow that definition of citizenship to carry weight in American politics. Boundaries, and the import we give to them, can thus legally impede desegregation efforts, halt efforts at redistribution, and restrict access to services. (p. 117)


A 1938 FHA map of Chicago. Note the loan guidelines for each color-coded zone on the bottom right.
A 1938 FHA map of Chicago. Note the loan guidelines for each color-coded zone on the bottom right.

By now, certainly, you’ve heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark piece on reparations in The Atlantic. If you haven’t read it, the essay is less about reparations per se – writing checks and so on – and more about grappling with and acknowledging the basic sources of American racial inequality.

I won’t quote any of it here; you really just have to read it. Certainly you should read the middle sections, in which Coates lays out, better than anyone I’ve seen, the established facts: how federal housing insurance policies, contract buying, and good old-fashioned violence, both mob and state-sponsored, led to the segregated, deeply unequal world we currently inhabit. If you think you already know the story, and you are not a professor of 20th century American history, you are probably wrong. Go ahead and read it.

Pete Saunders and others have already said it better than me, but this is all central to the American urban story: not just if you care about housing disparities and the racial wealth gap, but if you’re interested in urban design choices that were made in and around inner city neighborhoods; or if you’re interested in why so many urban neighborhoods were locked out of loans to fund rehabilitation and reconstruction of aging buildings, condemning them to decline and setting the stage for gentrification once the artificial barriers to development were removed.

The bottom line is that, to a great extent, we don’t have to wonder about why Chicago is so segregated, and whether it matters. The research has been done. The answers, as Ta-Nehisi Coates likes to say, are knowable. And we all owe it to ourselves to know them.

The author of “Sprawl” returns

Generally speaking, I find the kind of broad “Cities: Yea or Nay?” culture-war debates pretty exhausting and pointless. And it is, for the most part, a culture war, fought by people who disdain or feel threatened by the social influence of others. Data point: the subhed on Robert Bruegmann’s recent op-ed in Politico, which reads: “Why urban yuppies have it all wrong.” It’s a tempting rhetorical trap, because so many people have chosen sides – or have had their side chosen for them – and because reducing transportation policy to a culture war allows everyone to feel like all they need to know about it is their own personal experience and feelings. It’s also, obviously, a totally symmetrical phenomenon: for every “urban yuppies” jab there’s an urbanist who makes some throwaway reference to suburbanites being fat, or rich, or whatever. It’s all very stupid, and as a general rule we should all stop judging each others’ choices. (We should also be more aware of the extent to which people don’t get to choose what kind of community they live in.)

If you want to live in a weird giant circle, that’s cool.

Anyway, I clicked on and read Bruegmann’s piece mainly because he’s the author of Sprawl: A Compact History, the reading of which I attempted to liveblog last fall. (See parts one, two, and three.) And I’m writing something about it partly because I’m too busy to write the longer thing I’ve been working on for a while, but also because I think there’s a really basic flaw to the column that’s both extremely important and not at all obvious to the casual reader.

Basically, Bruegmann’s argument is that sprawl is fine – good, even – because car travel is more efficient, timewise, than public transit, and so Atlanta shouldn’t be worried about its recent designation as the most sprawly city in the country. It certainly shouldn’t attempt to fix its problems with sprawl and congestion by building more public transit:

In any case, the remedy for the problem of traffic congestion is not some massive transit-building program… Atlanta, like virtually every American city, would probably benefit from an expansion of the transit system, particularly to accommodate those who cannot, for one reason or another, drive. Even a major expansion, however, is unlikely to alter in any fundamental way the fact that most people except for those traveling to or from a few very dense nodes are going to do most of their travel by private automobile because in greater Atlanta, as in greater New York or greater Paris, the automobile is simply so much faster and more convenient everywhere except at the very center. [my emphasis]

This is a really remarkable paragraph for a person who is an emeritus professor of urban planning to write, and then publish, without immediately requesting a retraction or addendum or something.

The reason, if you think about that bolded part for a just second, should be pretty clear: what Bruegmann is referring to as “the very center,” where “the automobile is simply so much faster and more convenient,” varies a crazily huge amount between New York, Paris, and Atlanta, both in absolute size but also more importantly as a proportion of the entire metropolitan area. That’s obvious to anyone who has been to these cities, or is even casually familiar with them, but we can get a pretty good estimate of how big each “very center” is by looking at each metro area’s mode share: the percentage of people who choose to take public transit to work. Presumably, after all, people choose transit mostly because it’s the most efficient way to get where they’re going, with some consideration also for the fact that it saves a ton of money.

In the Atlanta area, about 3.7% of people take public transit to work; in the New York area, it’s about 30%. Paris is skewed somewhat because a huge percentage of people walk, but the drive-transit split works out to about 67-33. So we can very roughly estimate that the “very core” makes up, respectively, 4%, 30%, and 33% of these cities.*

Why the huge difference? Because a much larger percentage of the New York and Paris metropolitan areas are built at a reasonably dense, pedestrian-friendly scale where it makes sense to walk to the nearest bus or train stop, and where, when you get off that bus or train, you are likely to be able to walk to your job without too much trouble, either. In those cities, what Bruegmann refers to as “a few very dense nodes” make up, in fact, a continuous fabric of urban neighborhoods that are home to a huge percentage of the metro area’s residents.

In other words, Bruegmann forgot to talk about land use. At all. He forgot to mention that Atlanta, like basically everywhere else in the country (including metropolitan New York!), has basically made it illegal to build neighborhoods that resemble the transit-friendly nodes that, in Atlanta as elsewhere, are some of the most popular parts of the metropolitan area. As a result, as greater Atlanta has grown over the last few decades, it has failed to produce the kind of neighborhoods that allow people to choose not to drive, regardless of the quality of the public transit network.

Midtown, an attractive neighborhood with a thriving retail, restaurant, and housing scene, as well as a decently-used MARTA station, is one of the only parts of the Atlanta region that has been allowed to develop like this.

Which makes the whole finger-wagging at urbanists pretty silly. It may be the case that Atlanta needs more roads; I don’t know. It seems very clear – as Bruegmann himself admits, pulling the kind of rhetorical underhandedness that bugged me in his otherwise thoughtful book – that Atlanta needs better public transit. But without spending hardly any money at all, it could make what transit it already has much more useful simply by changing its land-use laws and letting people build more housing and jobs around major bus and rail lines.

It’s a measure of just how invisible land use policy is, though, that Politico would publish an op-ed on urban form and transportation choices without thinking that it needed to spend a single word on the subject. It is my hope that one day this will not be possible.

* Obviously the Paris number is ridiculously low, since it’s unlikely that the 40% of people who walk, if they had to choose between driving and transit, would mostly choose to drive. But whatever, the broader point stands.

How segregated is New York City?

Update: I wrote this in the comments, but several people have asked about it and not everyone makes it down there: this post focuses on white-black segregation because that, for various social and historical reasons, has been by far the most significant geographic separation in American cities, certainly in the Midwest and Northeast. But by far the second most significant separation – white-Latino segregation – is also very extreme in New York. The same Census analysis that found NYC was the second-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and black people found that it was the third-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and Latino people. That’s obviously not the end of the story either, though. If you know about or are curious about some other aspect of segregation, leave a comment.


The online reaction to the recent reports on racial segregation in New York state’s public schools reminded me, yet again, that most people think of New York as an integrated city, and are surprised or incredulous when that impression is contradicted.

This is somewhat jarring, since virtually every attempt to actually measure racial segregation suggests that New York is one of the most segregated cities in the country. This University of Michigan analysis of 2010 Census data, for example, suggests that New York is the second-most-segregated metropolitan area in the U.S., exceeded only by Milwaukee, and that about 78% of white and black people would have to move in order to achieve perfect integration. (Chicago’s corresponding number is just over 76%, good enough for third place.)

Why is this so surprising? One obvious reason, I think, is that most people’s conception of New York is limited to about 1/2 of Manhattan and maybe 1/6 of Brooklyn, areas that are among the largest job and tourist centers in the world. As a result, they attract people of all different ethnic backgrounds, especially during the day, even if the people who actually live in those areas tend to be monochromatic. Imagine, in other words, trying to judge racial segregation in Chicago by walking around the Loop and adjacent areas: you would probably conclude that you were in a pretty integrated city.

But it goes beyond that, I think. Segregation in New York doesn’t look like segregation in Chicago, or a lot of smaller Rust Belt cities. For one, there just aren’t very many monolithically black neighborhoods left in New York. Here, for example, I’ve highlighted every neighborhood that’s at least 90% African American:


Were we to do this in Chicago, half the South and West Sides would be lit up. But in New York, black neighborhoods have become significantly mixed, in particular with people of Hispanic descent. This is a phenomenon Chicagoans are used to in formerly all-white communities – places like Jefferson Park or Bridgeport, which as recently as 1980 were overwhelmingly white, now have very large Latino and Asian populations – but in New York, it’s happened in both white and black neighborhoods.

That said, white folks in New York have still on the whole declined to move to black areas, except for some nibbling along the edges in Harlem and central Brooklyn. That means that instead of measuring segregation the way we might in Chicago – by looking for very high concentrations of a single ethnic group – it makes more sense to look for the absence of either white or black people.

Here, then, I’ve highlighted all the places where white people make up less than 10% of the population:


It’s a lot. And, correspondingly, here are all the places where black people make up less than 10% of the population:


It’s also a lot. And if we put the two maps together, we see that these two categories cover the overwhelming majority of NYC:


The same pattern holds pretty well if we lower the threshold to no more than 5% white or black:


And there are even a significant number of areas that are truly hypersegregated, with fewer than 2% of residents being either white or black:


Because I now love GIFs, here’s a summary GIF.


What does all this tell us? For one, it confirms graphically what the Census numbers suggested, which is that the median black New Yorker lives in a neighborhood with very few white people, and vice versa.

But it also suggests a racial landscape that looks different from that of Chicago, and lots of other American cities, in important ways. In particular, where Chicago has a relatively simple racial geography – white neighborhoods at various levels of integration with Hispanics and Asians to the north and northwest, black and Hispanic neighborhoods to the south and west, with only a few small islands like Hyde Park and Bridgeport that break the pattern – New York’s segregated neighborhoods form a more complex patchwork across the city. That means that while a North Sider in Chicago might go years without having to even pass through a black neighborhood, lots of white New Yorkers have to get through the non-white parts of Brooklyn or the Bronx to reach job and entertainment districts in Manhattan or northern Brooklyn.

I imagine that structural-geographic fact, combined with New York’s relatively high level of black-Hispanic integration, goes a long way to explaining my anecdotal experience that white New Yorkers tend to be less ignorant and scared of their city’s non-white neighborhoods than white Chicagoans are of Chicago’s. (There’s some interesting research that suggests white people tend to be more sympathetic to brown people, and their neighborhoods, than black people and theirs.) There’s also, of course, the fact that Chicago’s segregated non-white neighborhoods tend to have much higher violent crime rates, and much more modest business districts, than New York’s, although that’s likely both an effect and cause of their relative isolation.

All of this is another reason that I’m kind of excited about the growing entertainment and shopping district on 53rd St. in Hyde Park, since the more that the South Side has “neighborhood downtown” strips that draw people from across the city, the more likely North Siders and suburbanites are to travel through the black and Latino neighborhoods that surround them, observe that many of them are actually quite nice, become less committed to shunning them, and thus contribute less to the social and economic dynamics that have created the institution of the ghetto, and the poor job prospects, failing schools, and high crime rates that accompany it.

In conclusion: New York is super segregated, but the numbers aren’t everything.

Also, let me have another Talk To Me Like I’m Stupid moment: suggestions for books about the racial history of New York? What’s the equivalent of Making the Second Ghetto or Family Properties? I’ve already read Caro’s Moses book.

Urbanism and the novel

There’s a sense in some quarters – even among some urbanists themselves – that urbanism is a niche, technocratic interest. I feel very strongly that this is not, in fact, the case, and that urban policy is central to American life both culturally and politically. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his series of posts on Family Properties and Making the Second Ghetto, among others, is one writer who expresses that idea very well.

On Sunday, I got another reminder about all that when I opened up Toni Morrison’s novel Sula on my way back to Chicago from St. Louis. This is the first page:


Watch Chicago’s middle class vanish before your very eyes

Note: I owe both the concept for this measurement of income segregation and much of the actual data – all of it, except for 2012 – to Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, who wrote a series of wonderful papers on the subject and then were kind enough to send me a spreadsheet of their data from Chicago a while ago. The maps, however, are mine, as is all the data from 2012, and any mistakes in them or in the interpretation of the data is entirely my responsibility.

I think one reason I’ve felt less than compelled by Chicagoland, CNN’s reasonably well-made documentary series, is that its tale-of-two-cities narrative is so worn, so often repeated, that it’s become a little dull. Not the actual fact of inequality – which only seems to cut deeper over time – but its retelling.

In fact, I think the point has long passed at which simply repeating the story of Chicago’s stratification is equivalent to fighting it. For a lot of people, in my experience, it’s the opposite: an opportunity for distancing, for washing of hands. It’s a ritual in which we tell each other that this is the way it’s always been – The Gold Coast and the Slum was written about already well-entrenched institutions, after all, over three-quarters of a century ago – that these facts somehow seep out of the ground here, as much a part of the city as the lake, and that as a result there’s really nothing we can do about it.

But this obscures much more than it clarifies. Inequality has always been a part of Chicago – as it has always been a part of the United States, and a part of humanity – but the forms it has taken, and the severity of those many forms, have changed in truly dramatic ways. Take, for example, today’s monolithic segregation of African Americans: at the turn of the last century, black Chicagoans were less segregated than Italians, and not because Italians were then hyper-segregated.

Moreover, decisions made by people in the city have played, and continue to play, a huge role in determining what those changes look like. Had Elizabeth Wood received any serious support from white residents or their elected representatives – instead of meeting Klan-like violent resistance – the history of racial integration, economic integration, and public housing in this city would be very, very different. This isn’t to say that national and global factors aren’t important, since they obviously are. But neither do we lack responsibility.

Anyway, this is all by way of introducing the following maps: their goal is not merely to depress you (you’re welcome!), but to suggest just how dramatically the reality of Chicago’s “two cities” has changed over the last few generations, how non-eternal its present state is, and that a happier alternate reality isn’t just possible, but actually existed relatively recently.

I feel relatively comfortable telling the story of how Chicago came to be so segregated by race; I’m much humbler about my ability to explain this, except inasmuch as the ever-widening ghetto of the affluent could not exist without, yes, radically exclusionary housing laws, and I will take that up separately in another post. In the meanwhile, I’ll take a page from Ta-Nehisi Coates and ask you all, if you have some background in this, to talk to me like I’m stupid: what does the literature say about growing economic segregation? Who and what should I be reading?

One last piece: the obvious and immediate reaction to these maps is to see them as a direct consequence of rising income inequality. There is some truth to that, but the researchers from which much of this data came have already discovered that income segregation has actually risen faster than inequality. So that’s not the end of the story.

Anyway, here you go: the disappearance of Chicago’s middle-class and mixed-income neighborhoods since 1970, measured by each Census tract’s median family income as a percentage of the median family income for the Chicago metropolitan region as a whole.