Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gentrification, neighborhood change, and wacked discourse

This week the big news is that DC's demographics are changing and that African-Americans remain a bare majority of the population. See "D.C.'s black majority status slips away" from the Post. The article has graphics, although I think the graphics printed in the hard copy edition are superior to the online package.

Today's Post has a pretty limited follow-up article, "On Barry's old block, a racial shift," considering this issue in terms of the context of a block where Marion Barry, the former Mayor, lived when he first became Mayor. Because history and DC existed before 1975, when Marion Barry moved to the 1200 block of E Street NE, I don't think the article offers us much in the way of a long term, historically infused perspective.

Also see these blog entries I wrote the week before:

- Is commercial district revitalization racist?
- Is smart growth racist?
and years earlier:

and this paper by GWU sociology professors Gregory D. Squires and Charis E. Kubrin. "Privileged Places: Race, Uneven Development, and the Geography of Opportunity in Urban America," Urban Studies 42, (1): 47-68. 2005

Plus, last week the City Paper had what I thought of as a not very interesting article, "Confessions of a Black D.C. Gentrifier."

I just didn't think it offered much of anything new. I'd summarize the interesting points in fewer than 30 words--that African-Americans are moving into city neighborhoods, but because they are black, they aren't seen as interlopers and may in fact feel invisible.

While I know the writer is a journalist, not a planner, I didn't think the piece offered much insight from the perspective of planning or the voluminous writings on the "gentrification" process (isn't that something a journalist ought to look into when writing a story on gentrification?), especially the theoretical problems with the literature, because it's based on a presumption that neighborhoods and cities are only supposed to decline and that people with income and choice are not supposed to want to live in/move back to cities.

The real color of urban living is green: it's about money first and foremost; and attitude--a favorable belief, willingness, and interest in living in the city when most of the nation lives in the suburbs.

This is complemented by educational attainment and age. Generally, people who are younger and have more income and education are more willing to live in the city than people who don't share these demographic characteristics.

So as the city continues to improve, albeit fitfully, and with many many bumps along the way, most people seem to be asking the wrong question.

Here's a better question.

Q: Why is Prince George's County majority black? Why is Charles County majority black?

A: Because African-Americans continue to move out of DC--primarily to Prince George's County, making it a majority African-American community, and in subsequent waves of migration from PG County, Charles County has also become majority black over the past decade.

The most interesting and important question is why are middle class and upper middle class blacks fleeing the City of Washington?

People want bigger houses and more land, things they don't feel they can get in the city. Plus, people see the city as something to escape, the place where their parents and grandparents--the old people--lived, not as something exciting.

Yes, the knock on "Ward 9," Prince George's County, is that it is many of the residents there are people who made their nut working for DC Government, such as Leslie Johnson, wife of the former County Executive, who served as an administrative law judge for the DC Government for decades, long enough to retire from the position with a full pension.

The other question that isn't being asked is where would the city be if Asians, Hispanics, and Whites weren't moving into the city, while outmigration of middle class African-Americans continues unabated?

The answer to that question is that the city would be facing further revenue shortfalls and a population marked by an increasing percentage of the region's poorest residents.*

The issue isn't that scads of whiteys (and Hispanics) are moving into the city as much as it is that they are moving in as the outmigration of middle class African-Americans continues and accelerates.

As long as the so called lament about "gentrification" isn't direct about this fact, the discussion for the most part is empty.
Tom Toles on Gentrification, 1998
Tom Toles editorial cartoon from the Buffalo News, 1998.

Now I live in Ward 4, which historically has been the most African American and middle class in the city.

We moved to the Manor Park neighborhood in June 2008. In the 11 houses within a couple blocks that I know of that changed hands over the period from just before we moved in until today, one household is mixed white and black, all the others are white or white-hispanic. None are solely African-American. Most of the households, but not all, were African-American previously. There was no blockbusting or anything going on.

Mostly, it's a matter of older households turning over and new people interested in the area showing up and making an offer.

Getting back to my point about the city and the general loss of population, according to the latest statistics, Ward 4 has gone up 772 people in population since 2000. The population of African Americans dropped by about 9,000 residents, and was countered by an increase of about 4,000 whites and 6,000 Hispanics.

The issue is why aren't middle class African-Americans interested in moving into this neighborhood?, which is within easy biking and walking distance from the Takoma Metro, and while not replete with amenities, has decent housing stock and neighborhood amenities BUT ALSO HAS CRAPPY SCHOOLS.

On the other hand, is what's offered in Prince George's County really all that much better?

BUT IT IS (FOR THE MOST PART) NEW.

Most people in our neighborhood take the schools issue for granted, figuring that they can find a charter school or get an out-of-boundary placement in a quality DCPS school for their children, and being resigned to having to deal with the transportation requirements that not having quality walkable neighborhood schools imposes on them (we live within 5 blocks of Whittier Elementary and Coolidge High School).

But that isn't a good thing. It's why people are so hyped about the Michelle Rhee issue. I happened to be in favor of improving schools, but I believed and continue to believe that Michelle Rhee had no real system for school improvement other than hiring younger teachers and firing older teachers. And she was as arbitrary and capricious in her decision making, especially personnel decisions, as the worst of the various Barry Administrations. How I could I ever be supportive of someone like that?

Of course, the influx of new population in Wards 2 and 6 in new multiunit housing constructed in new buildings is mostly coming without displacement--mostly the buildings have been constructed where there wasn't housing previously extant, although this isn't entirely true, especially around the new baseball stadium and on the outskirts of downtown.

In Ward 1 some of the "new housing" that has been developed came at the expense of affordable housing, such as on Clifton Street. But even there most of the new housing on 14th Street NW has not come at the expense of existing residents--except in how it leads to an upgrading of housing and an increased demand for extant housing, especially buildings that are eligible for historic designation, and this can produce some displacement pressure.

But for the most part, the new residents added to the city in Wards 1, 2, and 6 are in new buildings that didn't displace previous residents. Is this "gentrification"? I guess it is, but it comes mostly without displacement, which is not part of classical definition. What we have here is a reproduction of space in the city, abetted by continued black outmigration.

In the meantime, Wards 7 and 8 are still pretty black, Ward 3 is pretty white, and Ward 5 is experiencing White and Hispanic influx.

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* The other question is why do people have so much difficulty moving up and out of being lower income. This has to do with educational attainment, readiness for employment, and other factors. And it's paired up with the fact that as the U.S. economy hollows out, more jobs require more and more education and training, especially of a technical nature, even for what are considered to be blue collar jobs...

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