Things about which I have to write, so I don’t get on the train Monday thinking, I really need to write about that

1. Two worthwhile pieces from Aaron Renn: “Well-Heeled in the Windy City” at City Journal, and “My Presence Is a Provocation” at New Geography. The question of what obligations the political class of a city like Chicago, or New York, or wherever, feels towards those residents, and those neighborhoods, that will never be glamorous is an important one, and I think it goes way beyond Emanuel or Bloomberg or Gilbert personally.

2. Moody’s finds that charter schools can cause a fiscal crisis for regular public schools just as Catalyst notes that Chicago’s neighborhood high schools are having an enrollment crisis. Which precipitates a fiscal crisis. Not much to say here other than Oy. Actually, there is, but I already said it: Is this the educational marketplace that charter backers had in mind, or are we just spreading students thin to the detriment of their education?

3. Chicago’s getting an independent budget office! Thank GOD. This is important because in instances when someone wants to, say, lease our parking meters, an independent budget office is pretty much the only outfit that might warn us, with the numbers to back up the claim, that such a lease would be a disaster. Basically, if this thing works, we will be much, much better-informed about the potential effects of future proposals before they happen. Then again, it may not work. It’s apparently getting $500,000 and a staff of six, which is double what Ald. Ameya Pawar initially proposed, but one-sixteenth of what Scott Waguespack seems to think is necessary. I’m not really in a position to evaluate. Although I will point out that New York City’s Independent Budget Office has a staff of 39.

4. A great four-part series on dream public transit reforms at the Beechwood Reporter. Main thing I would like to emphasize: METRA COULD BE SO GREAT BUT IT’S NOT. OY. Metra, and also BRT. Improving the first – getting trains to run at least every 15-30 minutes – and building a moderate-sized network of the second would pretty much revolutionize rapid transit and access in Chicago without digging any expensive tunnels or anything.

Addendum, or: race- and class-based segregation

I looked at my last post again and realized that, as written, it is entirely race-neutral. Is race beside the point of municipal-level policies that affect inequality? Obviously not. And yet.

And yet I have become aware, in the course of thinking about these things, that when I use the words “integration” and “segregation” in a contemporary urban context I mean, by default, integration and segregation by economic class, and not by race, which is obviously the default for most people. That is, when we want to talk about class-based segregation, we have to say “class-based” or “income-based.” We don’t have to say “race-based”; it’s implied. The opposite is now true for me, or at least the monologues in my head. My language has revealed that I believe class segregation is the more fundamental problem.

Why is that? And is it fair?

This, I suppose, is my thinking: There is something necessarily wrong with economically-segregated neighborhoods that is not necessarily wrong with racially-segregated ones. I can think of two things, in fact. Number one is that in any very roughly capitalist, modern society, it is hard to imagine a disproportionately low-income neighborhood that does not suffer the kinds of neighborhood effects on education, health, mobility, etc., that I mentioned in the last post. It just seems impossible. Number two is that economic class has not traditionally – at least not in the United States – been a dominant cross-generational cultural marker in the way that race or ethnicity has been. That is to say that being of a particular race puts you in a more defined community than being in a particular economic class, and so there seems to be more of a positive reason to have some amount of physical clustering along those lines.

(I don’t think I can emphasize enough, of course, that I AM NOT endorsing the segregation-exists-because-people-want-to-live-among-their-own-kind hypothesis, which is falsified by every possible empirical and non-empirical and imaginary investigation, from actually asking people what kind of neighborhoods they would like to live in, to a historical examination of how neighborhoods actually came to be segregated, and so on. But even in the absence of all of this, I am saying, there would be some push for some moderate amount of clustering, in the same way that, for example, being a young person puts you in a community that creates a push for clustering and the creation of neighborhoods that are somewhat disproportionately full of young people. These neighborhoods are not 98% young people, or anywhere near it, as so many American neighborhoods are 98% black. To get to 98% anything, or anywhere near it, you pretty much always need massive coercion.)

I would add that the purely race-based barriers to racial integration are less today, I think, than the purely income-based barriers to economic integration. Race-based barriers are very alarmingly high, of course. There is steering and lying and mortgage discrimination and so on. But if you are a black middle-income couple and you are committed to moving to a majority-white neighborhood, you will probably be able to do so, even if it takes longer and is more costly (and puts you in a less-affluent white neighborhood) than if you were not black.

Low-income people, on the other hand, also face a variety of discriminatory practices, but the most important one is simply the price of real estate, which makes discriminatory practices moot in many, if not most, instances. If you cannot pay the going rent for a given neighborhood or suburb, you don’t even have a theoretical recourse. Except Section 8, I suppose, if your income is low enough, which puts you back in the world of discriminatory practices – one in which it’s perfectly legal in most places for landlords to flatly state that you are not welcome. The fact that racial segregation is slooowly declining, while economic segregation is skyrocketing, is more evidence of this.

But. There are at least two very obvious problems with my argument. The first is that because race is still a characteristic that on its own provides privilege or the lack of it, there is something inherently wrong with racially segregated neighborhoods in the United States in 2013, and, in fact, there will be for the foreseeable future. The fact that it’s possible to imagine a world in which that is not the case doesn’t mean a ton. The existence of a massive number of communities in Chicago, and across the country, that are 95%+ non-white is itself evidence (if more evidence is necessary) that race continues to provoke coercion.

The other thing is that, largely because of point #1, race and class are so intermixed that it’s not really practical to talk about integration of what without integration of the other. Especially if we take into account wealth, and not just income, economic status is so skewed by race that serious integration along one of those axes would necessarily create integration along the other.

So I have built up an argument in favor of focusing on economic segregation instead of racial segregation, and then knocked it down. I think the wrongness – in both the ethical and the logical sense – of privileging the economic issue to the exclusion of the racial one is clear.

There is one last factor, though, which is practicality. From a policy perspective, at least, economic segregation looks much easier to deal with (in most instances). The issue is, on the one hand, about just giving lower-income people more money so they can pay rent; and, on the other, allowing developers to increase housing supply so prices go down. There are huge logistical and political obstacles to that, of course, but the basic ideas are there, and there’s a fairly diverse and vocal constituency for them, from the large number of people who would like to pay less for housing – or be able to afford better housing given their budget – to the ecosystem of affordable housing nonprofits and CDCs, to the developers who would like, selfishly, to make money from building more stuff.

On the other side, it’s not at all obvious how you significantly speed up racial integration. Increased enforcement of anti-discrimination laws would help, of course, but almost by definition it’s difficult to prove those cases without a huge amount of time, energy, and money. Real estate counseling programs help, but not that much, and plus it’s kind of paternalistic, which may or may not bother you. Moreover, there just isn’t any massive, organized groundswell in favor of racial integration. Steve Bogira has been doing a BenJoravskyonTIFs thing with racial segregation, which is terribly important, and he is one of the only people, if not the only person, with real media access who’s doing that in Chicago. But his own articles are often about the fact that it’s basically impossible to get anyone with power to even acknowledge that government might have some role to play in directly promoting racial integration.

I guess what I’m saying is that this, in the end, is why I spend more energy thinking about policy responses to economic segregation than policy responses to racial segregation, and probably will continue to do so: it seems less hopeless. That, and, like I said before, promoting economic integration will almost certainly push along racial integration as well. But I don’t think coming to that conclusion is an excuse for ignoring the very real relevance of race, and I think it’s important that in particular the wonkish conversations a la Glaeser and Krugman and Yglesias and Avent (all white, like me! a hint of more of the problem) don’t become so focused on pure economics that they forget that.

Is Inequality the Purview of City Government?

I haven’t paid an enormous amount of attention to Bill DeBlasio’s mayoral platform – although at some point I probably will – but his candidacy has had the pleasant effect of provoking a conversation about whether, and to what extent, city halls ought to grapple with economic and social inequality. Responses range from Yes, it’s about goddamn time, to No, that’s terrifying, to a sort of sickly cackle.

My position – in fact, the premise of this blog and of many, many hours of my time over the last few years – is that yes, local governance has an enormous amount to do with inequality. I would say there are at least four major ways, roughly in order of big-picture importance:

1. Housing policy. People who don’t believe that cities have a major role to play in the story of inequality tend to emphasize the national and global economic trends that brought us to this point, like offshoring and automatization, which they say can only really be effectively dealt with – to the extent they can be dealt with at all – by high-level policy organs. This is true, I guess. But the experience of poverty and the replication of poverty both heavily – HEAVILY – depend on where you live. Specifically, whether or not you live in a high-poverty neighborhood. Up and down the line – physical and mental health outcomes, educational outcomes, employment and income outcomes both in a single generation and over multiple generations – an enormous body of research shows that neighborhood effects are pretty massive. And income segregation has increased faster over the last 40 years than income inequality, meaning right now cities are actually exacerbating those global-trend-derived problems. A housing policy that promoted income integration would not only help to decouple miserable living conditions with being on the lower end of the income distribution, but also, most likely, improve social mobility.

2. Transportation policy. Places where public transit isn’t an option force low-income people to pay massively more for transportation than they would otherwise. The actual number is something on the order of $10,000 a year per household. Those people who truly cannot pay for a car – or choose not to because they would like to, say, buy their kids new clothes for school, or go to the doctor instead – end up incredibly isolated, both from the broader metropolitan society, and from necessary amenities like stores and jobs. The average American, willing to travel up to 90 minutes each way on public transit, can only reach 30% of all jobs in their metropolitan area. That’s a disaster if you need a job and can’t afford a car.

3. Education policy. The obvious one, but all the way down here because so much of what matters is wrapped up in housing policy. Segregated neighborhoods equal segregated schools, most of the time. Which equals major operational and pedagogical challenges, most of the time.

4. Constituent services. James Fallows wrote once that wealthy people live pretty well all around the world, and so the difference between a developed and developing country is in the quality of life of people who need some kind of direct support from the state. Something similar goes on with cities. If you are middle class, and have always been, you probably are not very upset by, say, the closure of public mental health clinics. If you are not middle class, and need mental health care, you’re devastated. (The situation is made worse, let’s point out, by lackluster transit access to the remaining clinics.) The public services cities provide are a real and important part of the safety net. Without them, more people fall to the point where it’s almost impossible to pick themselves back up, and mobility – at least upward mobility – suffers to some extent. City services are about more than just street-sweeping.

“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 3

A more curated set of my reactions, because the point-by-point thing can get kind of tedious. This time we cover Bruegmann’s history of anti-sprawl campaigns.

The first is that I have made a certain peace with this book, having realized that what really animates Bruegmann, I think, is less the sort of policy questions that I take to be of major importance, and more a kind of cultural and aesthetic criticism about What We Talk About When We Talk About Sprawl, or thereabouts. And he’s on much more solid ground making those kinds of anti-elitist critiques about the use of the word “sprawl,” tying it to the history of elitist urban reform programs, disdain for the striving mass middle class, and all of that. Then again, there’s a certain amount of “well, yes”-ism, if you get my drift: I have the same thoughts about this as I had about other critiques of urbanism’s progressive cred, which is that the general rule is that basically all ideological and political projects are used by the governing class for their own aims, and pointing out that some particular project has been co-opted isn’t really that interesting or damning. Then again, there are clearly a number of people in the urbanist community for whom this would be news, that many things labeled “urbanist” are in fact very problematic. So okay.

I will say that making this sort of cultural criticism, especially if you are (as Bruegmann is) an academic in a rarified urban setting (Chicago), carries the risk of mistaking cultural power in upper-middle-class social circles for the only, or the most important, kind of power. That mistake seems to drive a lot of Sprawl. Time after time in this section, Bruegmann slips in – as if it were unimportant – that he actually comes down on the side of the anti-sprawlers on their most fundamental criticisms of postwar urban policy. “There are probably good reasons to provide more subsidies to some forms of public transportation in the United States today,” he says at one point. “A very good argument can be made that automobile owners should pay more to compensate for the costs to society associated with their driving,” he says at another point. Really? Then why write an entire book defending the status quo?

The answer, I think, is that Bruegmann and I have very different senses of what the status quo is. For Bruegmann, the status quo is the politically correct thought you would find at a professor’s dinner party in Chicago, or in an academic journal. It’s absolutely true that in those contexts, the anti-sprawl position is pretty hegemonic. Thinking within those contexts – and only those contexts – is the only way it makes sense to write something like, “By the middle of the 1990s the anti-sprawl forces had become quite powerful,” as he does.

Because from almost every other perspective – the laws that govern what development looks like, the policy positions of the vast majority of elected and unelected officials in the United States, the mainstream practices of the development industry – anti-sprawl forces were anemic in the 1990s, and are only somewhat less so today. For Bruegmann, looking at the leftist bons pensants, the country has gone too far in the anti-sprawl direction, and needs a counterweight; for me, looking at public policy and changes in the actual urban environment, we haven’t gone nearly far enough.

“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 2

So after the last installment, I actually raced through the next 80 pages or so in two days, and my brain was overflowing with things to say about them, but life has a frustrating way of proving that the things you are excited about doing are, as the government shutdown managers would put it, non-essential.

But here we go. I’m now halfway through the book, and have finished all of Part 1, Bruegmann’s history of sprawl, which is a nice place to stop and reflect before going on to new themes.

These last 80 pages largely pick up where the Introduction and beginning chapters left off, which is assembling the evidence that sprawl is a normal (in the sense that it has occurred in every era of human history, and in nearly every civilization), and healthy, process for economically maturing cities to go through, and that most of the received wisdom in urbanist circles is either exaggerated or entirely false.

It’s an odd and frustrating read, alternating between important and incisive critiques of anti-sprawl motifs – usually cultural or aesthetic – and factual claims that it’s hard to believe the author believes accurately represent reality. It feels a bit too often like the presentation is being shoehorned into the thesis, and there are a few moments when the author sort of winks at the reader – so fast you could miss it if you weren’t looking – to indicate that he knows he’s not being entirely fair. More on that next time. This time, just a few notes on Bruegmann’s “history of sprawl,” which takes up the rest of Part 1.

  • Bruegmann tries to take on the popular urbanist narratives about the causes of urban sprawl; I guess it’s worth reminding people about the big picture, or part of it, which is just economic growth: People consume more resources (i.e., a car, a detached house) because they can. For most people, making the jump to a single family home and their own car is a triumph. B. is right that urbanists who don’t want to be assholes shouldn’t sneer at that, whether or not those are the material things they happen to prize most.
  • But we need to be careful about writing things like: “Another common explanation of…the rise of sprawl is that it was caused by white flight fueled by racism. Although no one would deny that race has played a key role in many aspects of American life, it is significant that urban areas with small minority populations like Minneapolis have sprawled in much the same way as urban areas with large urban areas like Chicago.” First, it is unfortunately characteristic for Bruegmann to dismiss the entire history of race-based urban policy with the single clause quoted here. (This is the sort of wink that suggests B. actually knows the immensity of what he is omitting, but it is not fair to assume that all of his readers do.) Second, this book’s perpetually loose definition of “sprawl” is doing an awful lot of work here. It is certainly true that the growth of suburban-style communities did not anywhere depend on racial animosity. But it’s also true that the counterpoint to the growth of those communities – that is, the collapse of inner-city communities – is highly correlated with racial politics. The parts of inner-city America that have had catastrophic population declines are, in fact, largely those neighborhoods that became segregated black ghettoes during the first or second Great Migrations. Given that Bruegmann has taken pains elsewhere to point out that suburban sprawl has had effects on urban neighborhoods, it’s curious he doesn’t feel the need to make that point here.
  • About claims that government policies – redlining, highway construction, zoning, and so on – have furthered sprawl, Bruegmann says: “None of these arguments are very convincing.” But he brings up arguments about transportation spending and highways during his discussion of federal influence, and dismisses them by pointing out that state and local governments had plans to build even before federal money came; then when he gets around to talking about state and local influence, he forgets (?) to bring the subject up again.
  • Bruegmann claims that “the self-amortizing mortgage…could have benefited any homeowner, whether in the central city or suburbs,” before admitting only a few lines later that in practice, banks refused to lend to “poor and racially changing neighborhoods,” and then justifying it by claiming that “a great deal of evidence [indicates] that property values did tend to drop as neighborhoods got older and experienced ethnic or racial turnover.” Well, yes. But why did those prices decline? Because in the context of mid-20th century America, a “changing” neighborhood meant a place that, in a matter of a few years, would be an all-black ghetto deprived of capital and given inferior city services. Because of, you know, racism. And, in fact, nearly the entire central cities of many American metropolises were redlined on those grounds during that period, up through the 1960s. How exactly does this jive with the claim that race played little role in the decline of urban areas?
  • Staying on the subject of government influence, what is with the admission – again, given a single sentence – that “in city after city across the country, old zoning codes have been downzoned time and again to reduce the ultimate possible population and prevent existing densities from rising”? Should that not maybe come up when we use changing population patterns as the evidence for people’s “preference” for sprawl? If cities have capped their populations, that would seem like a relevant confounding variable.
  • The book continues to suffer from not considering the idea – which is not exactly obscure – that car-dependence is a line, maybe the only one, that very clearly divides one type of development from another. As a result, a lot of arguments get confused. For example, at one points he claims that cars can’t possibly cause sprawl, because “the Los Angeles region has become dramatically denser since the 1950s in an era when the vast majority of people have relied on the private automobile.” It’s true that there isn’t any linear relationship between car-reliance and low population density (look at Houston); but that doesn’t mean cars are irrelevant. There is absolutely an upper limit to the density at which cars can function in any kind of efficient manner, and designing for maximum car efficiency almost always makes it much more difficult to design for efficiency or safety for pedestrians and public transit users. There is absolutely a trade-off involved, and one that has very serious consequences for the low-income and anyone else who can’t or doesn’t want to drive; but Bruegmann’s resort to population density as the ultimate arbiter of sprawl in this case papers that over.
  • Later, apparently deciding that cars are a good proxy for sprawl – this sort of goalpost-moving, depending on what point needs to be made, is annoyingly common – Bruegmann argues that the advent of personal automobiles is a good thing, since it improves mobility and “allowed a dramatic expansion of educational and employment opportunities.” Maybe. But why doesn’t he even mention the difference between mobility (how much physical ground you can cover) and access (how many resources you can get to)? Cars absolutely improve mobility, but highly car-dependent development tends to work against access, since residential, institutional and commercial uses are separated and you have to cover much more physical ground to get to them than you do in an urban area where the pharmacy, grocery store and neighborhood school are all within half a mile of your house. The costs of car-based mobility are also radically higher than any other form of urban transportation, which reduces access to anything that requires the money you just spent on insurance and gas. And none of this applies to people who can’t or choose not to drive because of their age, disability, or income level, whose access and mobility are dramatically cut down by car-dependent development. That’s how you get a situation where the average low-income person in the Chicago metro area can only get to 14% of the region’s jobs within a 90 minute public transit commute.

I don’t mean to be quite so relentlessly negative; this is still a book worth reading, especially if you feel yourself nodding along with most of my criticisms, because it forces you to consider which of your feelings are cultural prejudices, and which are actually linked to some non-aesthetic conception of the good. I’m generally on board with the American liberal idea that the freer people are to choose how they want to live their lives, the better, and my own ideas about the good life shouldn’t matter in those calculations. It’s worth remembering, if you feel the same way, that suburbanization, broadly speaking, enormously increased the average person’s choices about how to live. But it’s also worth remembering – if you find yourself nodding along more often with Sprawl – that car-dependent development has had a dramatically shrunk the options available to many other people. The way forward, I think – and so far I’m disappointed that Bruegmann hasn’t moved this direction – is to acknowledge that the argument should not be between urban elitists and defenders of the status quo. It should be about finding the policies that best allow people to live their lives the way they want. Ultimately, single family homes and decent public transit access are not mutually exclusive. More on that in future installments.

An evilness still possesses this town and it continues to weigh down my heart.

Via the miracle that is link-hopping, I stumbled on a thirty-year-old essay by the late Leanita McClain last night. It was written in 1983, shortly after Harold Washington’s first election as mayor. It ought to have a place in the Chicago nonfiction canon, I think, next to books like Making the Second Ghetto and Boss, and Studs Terkel’s work. The only website I could find with the full essay is here. More about Leanita McClain here.

Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist’s acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness. It has made me weld on a mask, censor every word, rethink every thought. It has put a face on the evil that no one wants to acknowledge is within them. It has made me mistrust people, white and black. This battle has made me hate. And that hate does not discriminate.

“Sprawl, A Compact History”: The Liveblog, part 1

Can one liveblog a book? Particularly a book that was published several years ago?

I’m motivated to try, anyway, because of the minor blogging fiasco (although even a regular-sized blogging fiasco, I think, is the smallest kind of fiasco that can exist) that became of Rethinking Federal Housing Policy by Glaeser and Gyourko, which was a fantastic book, and about which I’ve been meaning to write for a month. But I haven’t, and when this week I finally sat down to do it, I had forgotten half of what I wanted to say.

So this time we are being proactive.

So far I have only read about 10% of Sprawl, which comprises the Introduction and a few chapters on the history of sprawl up to World War One or so. So let me say up front that I am expecting some of the questions or objections I raise to be answered or ameliorated further on, in the 90% of the book I have not yet read.

But still: particularly the Introduction, I think, contains Bruegmann’s – the book is by Robert Bruegmann, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago – ideological narrative about what sprawl is, and how we should think and talk about it, and that is important on its own.

What’s immediately obvious after only a few pages is that a) Sprawl is delightfully iconoclastic in its appreciation for low-density environments, and b) Robert Bruegmann is very smart. This is not a New Geography piece about how urbanists hate children, or how feminists want to use cities to emasculate men. It has an agenda, but it pushes that agenda with a great deal of rigor and skill.

The best moment, I think, comes when Bruegmann writes that sprawl “is not so much an objective reality as a cultural concept,” like “blight” before it, and then goes on to draw a straight line between blight and sprawl, as the particular types of neighborhoods most disfavored by the elites of their time and place. Bruegmann isn’t the first person to notice that urbanists have a class problem, of course – there have been tomes written on new urbanist gentrification, and the socioeconomic politics of bike lanes, and so on – but vanishingly few popular urbanist writers so clearly establish the city as an environment that is inherently political, down to the most basic words we use to describe it, and which is purposefully shaped by the interests that compete over it. Interests which may be slightly more threatening than gallery owners or bicyclists.

I hope, in fact, that the few paragraphs that Bruegmann uses to set up those ideas are greatly expanded upon later; they raise an awful lot of questions. The juxtaposition of “sprawl” and “blight” is particularly provocative, especially for someone, like me, who has spent many hours reading about the truly horrific things that happened in the name of blight removal. Of course, the fact that the elite supports a particular idea doesn’t mean it has to be bad for the rest of society. Not only that, but the anti-sprawl crusade has a long way to go before it has the sort of monolithic elite support that anti-blighters enjoyed from, say, the 1930s to the 1960s. There are still many powerful interests – builders, real estate people, not to mention the millions of voters who live in low-density suburbs and the elected officials who are accountable to them – in favor of sprawl. Then again, the anti-blight movement also began with lefties and academics who, in the late 1800s, came up with theories about the pernicious effects of high-density living on health and morality, and whose appeals to the general public eventually won over. Clearly, the anti-sprawlers have already made huge inroads on that front since the 1980s; who’s to say what the ideological landscape will look like in another two decades?

The prospect of anti-sprawl as an anti-blight-style class war is even more troubling in light of the sort of Great Inversion-type demographic shifts going on between suburbs and inner cities. It is hard to imagine large, invasive, confiscatory government programs to retrofit the suburbs along urbanist lines as long as the residents affected are members of the middle class. It is much easier to imagine that happening to a relatively poor community in, say, an auto-dependent inner-ring suburb along a light rail line and in a potential path of gentrification. In a sense, that precedent has already been set in Chicago, with the demolition of public housing towers and their redevelopment as urbanist-style mixed-income housing. The diagnosis of the towers’ failure, after all, wasn’t just about the sin of segregating poor people from the rest of society; the popular narrative is that the form of the buildings themselves made it impossible for them to house decent communities.


Bad midcentury towers in parks

And so, just like the midcentury planners who bulldozed the ghettoes instead of rehabbing existing buildings because they thought the traditional urban form was inherently dysfunctional, Chicago scattered CHA residents and started over in a way that was more attractive to the middle-class and business interests. All this, while just a few miles away, private residential towers built at the same time and in the same form survive as thriving middle-income homes, in defiance of the theory that cities must look a certain way if they are to function.


Good midcentury towers in parks

I am less excited, so far, about Bruegmann’s dissembling about the definition of sprawl. It is one thing to note that the word is used in ways that are colored by class and cultural politics, and that there is not necessarily any obvious red line between what is popularly considered sprawl and what is not. True, streetcar suburbs that are today widely admired by urbanists would have been considered low-density a hundred years ago; true, one person’s comfortable urbanity is another person’s suburban hell.

But it’s an entirely different thing to claim, as the Introduction seems to do, that there is no obvious or important difference between the suburbs produced over the last fifty years and the ones that sprouted up outside gated cities during the Roman Empire or along commuter rail lines in Europe and North America in the 19th century. From all of the perspectives that I take to be the most common and serious urbanist critiques – that is, roughly in descending order according to how much I care, economic justice, environmentalism, public safety, social interaction, and aesthetics – there is a major break that occurs when all local travel must happen by car. That is the point at which lower-income people must choose between an untenable financial burden or a loss of access to jobs, stores, and cultural amenities; when the greenhouse gases produced per household can rise most quickly; when streets become designed so that they are dangerous for anyone not encased in a metal shell; when the sort of spontaneous or casual social interactions that are common in public spaces in cities become much more rare; and when most visual charm usually evaporates. (Making local travel by car mandatory, by the way, also makes non-car long-distance travel incredibly difficult, since it requires sufficiently low densities that the number of people within reasonable distance of any given commuter rail station will be very low. This is part of why commuter rail lines built into car-dependent neighborhoods have generally been such miserable failures.) And until roughly World War Two, those types of communities were vanishingly rare. The invention of the railroad, of course, allowed people to live in suburbs where non-local travel – to downtown, say, or far-off factories – couldn’t be done by foot, and developments in the early automobile era were also planned so that people might drive to a distant central business district. But walking to accomplish local travel – to the nearest school, grocery store, shopping district – was still possible, or even preferred. That’s why in the older suburbs of Chicago or other Northern cities, you often have commuter rail stations every half-mile, so that almost everyone could be within walking distance. That’s why in the older car-based suburbs – here I’m thinking of some place like Dempster Street in Skokie – you have sidewalks, and a street grid, and stores placed behind only very small parking lots, if any.

Dempster: A wide road for fast driving, plus sidewalks, stores reasonably close to the street, and a surrounding neighborhood with single family homes sufficiently dense that a good number of people can walk to these stores.

The failure to make that distinction – that of local walkability – infects several other aspects of his argument. Take, for example, this passage:

Gentrification and sprawl at the edge have been flipsides of the same coin. In a typically paradoxical situation, no matter how much the new, more affluent residents profess to like the “gritty” urban character of the place, so different in their minds from the subdivisions of the far suburbs, what makes the neighborhood attractive today are less the things that are actually traditionally urban but those that are not. The most important of these are sharply lowered population densities, fewer poor residents, less manufacturing activity, and the things that the Lower East Side finally shares with the suburbs: reliable plumbing, supermarkets with good produce, and a substantial cohort of middle-class residents.

This is right, as far as it goes, and in fact dovetails very nicely with what I’ve written before about most people wanting, above all, safe neighborhoods with access to jobs and amenities and decent schools. Here, Bruegmann suggests, correctly, that there is no reason that those things are the natural domain of the suburbs. Whether or not it makes sense to say that urban neighborhoods that have acquired those characteristics have “suburbanized,” it does make sense to point out that having those characteristics is a prerequisite for any place that aspires to house middle-class people, regardless of its urban form.

But if all that’s attractive about these inner-city neighborhoods is their “suburban” qualities, why do people pay such a premium to live in them, not only in American cities like New York or San Francisco, but in central cities around the world? What is the extra desirable quality? All the evidence suggests that it’s the massive access to jobs and amenities which, for the most part, can only exist in cities dense enough that having all local travel done by car is logistically impossible.

Or take this line:

Using the most commonly accepted and objective characteristics attributed to sprawl – that is involves low-density, scattered development with little overarching regional land-use planning – I try to show that…our understanding of urban development is woefully out of date because it is based on old and obsolete assumptions about cities, suburbs, and rural areas. In fact, I argue that many of the problems that are usually blamed on sprawl – traffic congestion, for example – are, if anything, the result of the slowing of sprawl and increasing density in urban areas.

If we don’t believe that sprawl has a real definition – or if we use a mushy one like “low-density,” which Bruegmann spends pages correctly accusing of being a massively subjective and relative descriptor – then I guess this makes sense. If suburbs are densifying, then that must mean that the problems associated with “sprawl” should be declining, right?

But if we realize that the actual issue, again, is the requirement to use a car for all local transportation, then this makes much less sense. Of course, given how much space cars take up, denser car-dependent cities will have worse traffic than less-dense ones. And, I mean, consider the alternative: if cities avoid traffic congestion by making all neighborhoods sufficiently low-density that all travel can be done by car without traffic jams, then you would have to travel quite far to actually get to anything. Which means that either 1) you won’t avoid traffic jams after all, because the number of miles driven per person will rapidly increase as development spreads further and further away from job and amenity centers, or 2) people will only be able to access the jobs and amenities that are very close to them. In other words, they won’t do any non-local travel at all. And that would defeat the entire purpose of living in a big city.

All of this said, I am more excited about reading Sprawl than I have been about any other urban policy book for quite some time. It’s an extremely smart analysis of the issue from a perspective that is woefully underrepresented in contemporary conversation. I’m very much looking forward to writing up the next installment.

Correlation and Causation: City Journal Doesn’t Understand the Difference; Also: The Overton Window of Urban Policy

So George Packer writes that New Yorkers are whispering about whether de Blasio is going to return the city to its hellish 1970s past, and four weeks later City Journal helpfully publishes those whispers, in earnest, in the form of a mostly ill-considered post:

Perhaps the most important question in the looming mayoral race is this: Will the next occupant of City Hall remember the hard lessons that New York has learned over the last 40 years, or will the city revert to a functionally bankrupt metropolis with chaotic schools and dirty, dangerous streets?

By far the worst part is this passage about crime:

During Koch’s three terms, crime rates zigged up and zagged down, but in 1989, despite all that he had done to make the city safer, crack ruled the night, and murders jumped to a record 1,905.

When David Dinkins took office in 1990, hopes were high that the new mayor’s low-key approach and strong support in minority neighborhoods would cool the fevered streets. Instead, the city saw 715,000 felonies committed in 1990, while murders spiked to an all-time high of 2,262. The NYPD didn’t get the tools that it needed until the mid-1990s, when Giuliani adopted the Compstat system of analyzing crime data, along with proactive tactics and accountability throughout the department. Giuliani and the police reduced the number of homicides to 629 in 1998, and all categories of crime fell sharply.

Because Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly retained and strengthened Giuliani’s reforms, crime rates continued to fall.

If you know anything about national crime trends over the last 30 years, which presumably someone at City Journal who read this before it was published does, none of what I just quoted makes any sense. To refresh our memories:


Source: Volokh Conspiracy

So crime in New York peaked in the early 1990s, just like it did in almost every city in the country, and fell dramatically during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations in the mid-late 90s and 2000s, just like it did in almost every city in the country. Now, we could look at this data and conclude that Giuliani and Bloomberg, far from being New York’s crime-fighting heros, somehow managed to bring down violent crime all over the country. And that would be very impressive. But it’s obviously completely implausible.

So the other, more reasonable, conclusion to make is that the correlation between the change in administrations and the falling crime rate in New York is just that – a correlation – and not, in any major way, a causal relationship, in the same way we might note that homicide rates in Chicago began falling after the Bulls won their first championship, but we have no compelling evidence that one had anything to do with the other.1

This all points to a larger issue with this sort of talk about municipal leaders, which is that it fails to acknowledge that contemporary urban policy in the U.S., at least on the scale of a mayoral term or two, is just not that transformative. Sure, visionary leadership on a particular issue or project can have measurable results, and epic mismanagement can make problems worse, but on the big-picture issues – whether your region is rich or poor, to what extent it’s car- or transit-dependent, whether it will gain or lose residents, how affordable its housing will be – major metropolitan regions and their core cities are mostly following a) national trends and b) path dependency based on earlier policies and national trends. Crime is one obvious example of this. Unemployment, and macro-level economic health, is another: The fact that being a industrial center in the Midwest was highly correlated with being prosperous until roughly World War Two, and since then has become highly correlated with poverty, has nothing to do with a rash of bad leaders replacing excellent ones around the middle of the century in that region, and everything to do with global economic shifts. The fact that Madison, WI, Columbus, OH, and the Twin Cities became economic leaders in the Midwest certainly has less to do with the caliber of their municipal leadership than the fact that they all contain the apparatus of state governments and flagship state schools, which virtually guarantee a huge pot of well-paying jobs that attract highly-educated people.

This isn’t to say that urban policy, at the local, state, or national level, has to be powerless: in important ways, how and to what extent cities provide services can make a huge difference in their residents’ daily lives, and planning decisions can nudge a city’s path-dependency in ways that can become significant over time. And, obviously, in the past, urban planning at all levels of government had serious short- and medium-term transformative power through FHA regulations, transportation subsidies and projects, and so on. In 1963, the Beale Street neighborhood, just southeast of downtown Memphis, looked like this:


In 1968, King was shot there, and city officials became concerned that Beale, which was mostly populated by black folks, was a racial powder keg frightening (white) people away from downtown. So, by 1971, it looked like this:


That was some transformative leadership. But city governments can’t just condemn and raze the homes of tens of thousands of people anymore.

They also can’t radically rezone neighborhoods to allow them to change. The kind of wholesale transformations of the built environment that accompanied economic booms in Chicago, New York, etc., in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been legislated out of existence. Places that approximate it – Phoenix, Houston – mainly accomplish their construction sprees by relegating the vast majority of it to the periphery, where no one lives who can object.

So policies that might actually have radical short- or medium-term effects, like drastically liberalizing density caps, are politically impossible. Transit lines – or, if it’s your cup of tea, highways – through heavily populated areas are similarly verboten. If they’re built at all, they have to be routed in the least efficient possible way to minimize costs and eminent domain claims, which has the effect of making them as useless as possible, which makes fewer people use them, which makes them less transformative to the urban landscape. The Overton Window of urban policy is just too small, too frozen in place, to allow much dramatic change, even in the areas where we know it has the potential.

Now obviously this is not entirely, or even mostly, a bad thing. Our tolerance for Beale-style urban renewal projects, whether billed as slum-clearing redevelopment opportunities or transportation projects, should be extremely low. But as long as we’re unwilling to make much of any substantial change to urban policy, and especially to put any real muscle or funding behind those changes, we should stop talking about individual contemporary political leaders as if they’re the determining factor in what our cities look like, or how they behave.

1 This isn’t to say that there’s no effect on crime from local policies. And one should acknowledge that, in fact, New York saw a much greater decline in its crime rate than the nation as a whole. But it also saw a much greater amount of gentrification, which is highly correlated with lower crime. And the Giuliani/Bloomberg policies most commonly credited with reducing crime, like broken windows and stop and frisk, have been shown to have dubious efficacy.

Homicide Awareness!

Listing every factual error in the most recent of the documentaries released this summer called “Chiraq” – there are two of them – is easy, because its director, British-born Will Robson-Scott, does not actually attempt to make any factual claims. Or, rather, he makes exactly one, which is superficially true but deeply misleading, as I’ll discuss in a minute.

Instead, Robson-Scott gives us thirteen minutes of black-and-white cinema vérité in a genre that might be called Violence Porn. Violence Porn is a cousin of Ruin Porn, the much-maligned and yet perennially popular family of photography and cinema that invites us to gawk at empty streetscapes and rotting theaters in places like Detroit or Camden, NJ. Except instead of asking us to feel sadness or disgust about cityscapes, Violence Porn asks us to marvel at just how incredibly scary young black men in Chicago are.

The folks behind VICE’s HBO show are Robson-Scott’s brothers in this endeavor, having also shot a thirteen-minute piece called “Chiraq,” which came out in June. It’s a bit more ambitious in terms of actually providing information and context, with the downside that almost all of that information and context is completely wrong. Its very first line claims that “in the last two decades, most major cities in America have seen a dramatic drop in violent crime, except Chicago” – curious, given that the homicide rate over the last twenty years has fallen by nearly 50%. It claims that the South Side “has lost most of its schools,” which, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s best efforts to close allegedly underutilized buildings, is not even close to true. It claims, without qualification, that the demolition of public housing has made crime worse in outlying neighborhoods, a proposition fiercely denied by many of the academics who have studied the issue. And it strongly implies that violence is escaping the traditional “bad” neighborhoods and “seeping” into the rest of the city, which is exactly the opposite of what has actually happened in the last two decades: violent crime is more concentrated in certain areas than ever before, with terrible consequences.

If either of these documentaries had shown any interest in research or fact-checking, it might be easier to forgive them for having devoted so much time to filming young black men, usually shirtless or in hoodies and preferably heavily tattooed, jumping around in groups, throwing gang signs and flashing guns. But they didn’t show any such interest, and so we’re left to conclude that this, in fact, is the point. Neither documentary allows more than a minute or two to elapse without such a shot, and both devote the majority of their interviews to brief expressions from these young men about how crazy life is on the South and West sides. “We like to eat the body up,” says one man, explaining why murder victims in the city are shot so many times. “We were brought up to beat your motherfuckin’ ass,” says another.

None of this is to say that Chicago doesn’t have a very serious crime problem, or that its crime problem – or that of other cities – isn’t worth the attention of a documentary film. Such a documentary might accomplish one of two things: It might allow us to understand the big picture by telling us what all the news reports add up to, why the problem exists, and what possible solutions might address it. Or it might give us the human story behind the numbers and socioeconomic forces, allowing us to understand what it’s like to live in affected neighborhoods, what the motivations are of people who take part in the violence, and how everybody else copes in their day-to-day lives.

Neither “Chiraq” accomplishes, or even attempts to accomplish, either of those objectives – the big picture facts are either absent or wrong, and it’s hard to get a sense of the interview subjects as people when they’re only allowed a few lines of dialogue each. Instead, the most generous interpretation of the purpose of these documentaries is a kind of awareness campaign, akin to wearing a colored ribbon to draw attention to a deadly but relatively low-profile disease.

But that’s absurd. The first thing that any American – and many foreigners – will say if you ask them about the South and West sides of Chicago is that there is a lot of crime there. Awareness is not the problem.

In fact, you might say that part of the problem is too much awareness – and here we get to the heart of the matter. Both documentaries are called “Chiraq” because they claim (this is Robson-Scott’s only verifiable fact) that there have been more murders in Chicago since 2001 than U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This, supposedly, is context. But what does it tell us? Are Iraq and Afghanistan less dangerous than Chicago? Obviously not; those figures don’t account for the fact that there are many, many times more people in Chicago than American soldiers stationed in those war zones, and they don’t include casualty figures for locals, who have died at rates hundreds of times higher than people have been killed in Chicago. Does it say something about the relative importance of violent street crime and overseas wars? Maybe; but why is that the comparison? Why not compare it to other, less far-fetched analogues, like the number of people who die in car accidents, or heart disease?

The answer is that these documentaries, and Violence Porn in general, are premised on reinforcing stigma: the stigma of poor inner-city neighborhoods, the stigma of being black, and especially of being a young black man. Car accidents and heart disease are tragedies that might happen to anyone; a war zone is something savage and foreign that belongs elsewhere: not for nothing does the VICE documentary conclude that “the South Side of Chicago is basically a failed state in the borders of the U.S.,” where locals “proudly declare themselves savages or soldiers.” This is why neither documentary can show us anyone in these neighborhoods but young black men who are gang members, or the mothers of young black men who have been murdered: to depict an average citizen going to work, or taking their young child to school, or even just mowing their lawn, would clash with the stigma that gives these films all their power.

Ultimately, the message is that you, the presumably white, or at least middle-class, viewer of the documentary, need to be very afraid of the unhinged people who live in these areas. (At one point, the VICE correspondent looks at a map of gang territory and helpfully volunteers that it “scares the living shit” out of him.) Or, rather, you should continue to be very afraid. Because these places have already been suffering from white and middle-class stigma for decades, pretty much since they were turned into all-black ghettoes around the middle of the twentieth century. I, a white person who lives on the North Side, run up against this stigma whenever I try to take a friend to visit a restaurant or gallery even in a relatively safe black neighborhood on the South Side, and they refuse because they “don’t want to get shot.” (This is usually accompanied by a laugh, to suggest that they’re kidding, but the fact that they actually won’t go suggests that they’re not.) The people who live in those neighborhoods run up against the stigma every day because of the social isolation, lost business investment, and paltry consumer spending it causes, which just furthers the economic decline that the “Chiraq”s are supposedly lamenting. This is not a minor issue: one study by Harvard professor Robert Sampson found that a neighborhood’s reputation was a better predictor of its future poverty rate than actual signs of disorder like graffiti or crime.

And so it’s hard to conclude that these documentaries do anything other than make the problem worse. It would be nice if the next round of journalists who venture into America’s crime-plagued neighborhoods treat the people they find there as people, and not spectacles.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “The Riots”

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.”

The first time I saw the* ghetto – not just a poor neighborhood, or an entirely non-white one**, but the kind of place where an economic and social bomb had gone off and left its mark on the streets and the buildings and everything else – I was fifteen and taking the train to Michigan. From my seat, out the window, I saw something like this:


I think I was mostly confused. I suspect that’s the case for many Americans, of all kinds of backgrounds, who have grown up in a country that has its problems but which, at some fundamental level, works, upon seeing parts of that country that so clearly do not work. It may be paired with pity, or revulsion, or fear, or anger, but at the bottom is confusion, because nothing we know explains what we’re seeing. How can a neighborhood be so poor, so isolated, so different, in a rich country where people regularly move and mix themselves from city to city and state to state? If the ghetto we’re seeing is populated mostly or entirely by black people, which it generally is, we may think about slavery and other forms of racism, but do we really believe there has been enough of that – even since the 60s? – to account for this? And in the North? To see that kind of poverty in rural Mississippi, near farms worked by sharecroppers, is terrible, but produces very little cognitive dissonance. But in Chicago? In New York***?


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.

And it’s why I, and so many other people, are so confused when they see a ghetto for the first time. 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 it 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.

As I said previously, this is emphatically not about white guilt; it’s about getting the story right both for its own sake, and for the sake of getting the remedies right. I’ll take up the remedy side at a later date.

* I vacillated here between using “a” and “the”; obviously, poor, segregated neighborhoods are tremendously diverse in a large and diverse country, and I don’t wish to portray them as homogenous. On the other hand, especially for the purposes of this post, I wanted to talk about the ghetto as an institution, which exists with certain important commonalities in almost every city in the U.S. So “the” it is.

** Of course, originally the word “ghetto” meant exactly that: an entirely segregated neighborhood of an ethnic minority. But in the American context, it has such distinct economic and social connotations that it’s obviously unfit to describe place like Chatham, even if it’s almost entirely black. This, for example, is not what Americans mean by a ghetto:


*** These rhetorical questions are meant to be from the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the relevant histories of these places, which I think covers most people. But obviously if you grew up in one of them, you are not shocked to find that there is desperate poverty there.