Regarding Black Urbanism, Part II

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece that asked the rather provocative question of why no nationally prominent African American urbanists have emerged in the United States, despite the fact that African Americans have been among the most urbanized groups in this country for decades.  In this followup, I want to explore a little bit more why I think that’s the case, and identify the possible linkages the could be made to bring more blacks into discussions about cities.
First of all, my take: I believe no nationally prominent black urbanist has emerged in large part because of differing worldviews held by whites and blacks.  Very, very, very broadly speaking, with many caveats, I believe whites have a history of believing they can impact cities, while blacks have a history of believing that cities impact them
Let me explain.  Prior to the Great Migrations of blacks from south to north that began around 1910, blacks were among the most rural of population groups in America.  Prodded by the deepening grip of Jim Crow segregation and the lack of economic opportunity, and pulled by the availability of manufacturing jobs, blacks flowed to cities in great numbers between 1910 and 1930.  The Great Depression and World War II slowed the migration, but post-War growth led to another wave of migration between 1950 and 1970.  But while the Great Migration was more often than not beneficial to blacks, they were not always welcome in their new environs.  There are numerous examples of conflicts and riots that arose from the new presence of blacks in large northern cities. 
At the same time that conflict was occurring, clearance was occurring as well, under the name of urban renewal.  As I pointed out in my earlier piece, many long-standing black neighborhoods were lost as their structures were demolished for new public housing and new highways.  Furthermore, and just as importantly, other communities that were untouched by urban renewal were often left isolated by the experience, cut off from old social and economic networks and unable to establish new ones.  What resulted was the development of an African American urban community that was defined by its isolation (I also argue that suburban insulation developed at the same time).
Fast forward to the 1980’s and ‘90s.  A new cadre of suburbanites who spent two-plus generations living on peaceful cul-de-sacs grew tired of the perceived monotony and homogeneity of suburbia (to use a couple of stereotypes), and began looking at cities and city-type living as the next frontier.  However, at the same time, blacks were beginning to assert their political control in cities that had been devastated by suburban migration, and were looking to develop a new model for the city that addressed the realities of the previous decades.  You could call this period the beginning of the community development approach to urban revitalization.
Meanwhile, enter New Urbanism.  Notice I said in the previous paragraph that the new cadre of suburbanites was looking at cities and city-type living.  Meaning they were looking to recreate the positive amenities of cities, either inside cities or outside of them, and usually using urban design as a key component of their work. 
The ‘80s and ‘90s can be viewed as years when competing messages regarding urban revitalization were being developed.  New urbanists wanted to focus on making communities walkable, restoring mixed use development, creating a diverse housing stock for all housing incomes and needs, and creating stronger community connectivity.  On the other hand, community development advocates, many of whom already enjoyed such amenities in their communities, were looking at ways to return market forces to areas where it had been lost.  Their approach was to utilize the one resource they had – themselves.  Their focus was on asset building, community mobilization, empowerment, and establishing stronger linkages with existing institutions.
What happened along the way?  Well, there could be many explanations for how this competition played out (if it ever really was a competition).  My guess is that New Urbanism as a concept has a universality that allows it to be applied in an urban as well as suburban context, while the community development model is one that is uniquely suited for quite urban environments. 
Yet I’ve always thought there was an element that was taken for granted in the New Urbanism philosophy and overlooked in the community development model – people.  Yes, better design can create stronger communities, as long as there is population and money to sustain it.  Yes, community empowerment can create stronger communities, but without additional population and money, its long-term prospects may be stunted. 
In recent months I’ve become a big believer in Jim Russell, writer of the Burgh Diaspora blog.  He has written extensively on migration patterns and how they are affecting urban growth and economic development.  As a supporter of Rust Belt cities, he has often talked about the folly of conventional “cool cities”, “creative class” and “brain drain” strategies of economic development, and has urged city leaders to focus on appealing to the young and educated people who left for supposedly greener pastures, yet yearn for the authenticity of the cities of their roots.  He argues this return migration is what will be a catalyst for Rust Belt city growth, and that this phenomenon is already contributing to the comebacks of cities like Pittsburgh.  While I don’t think Russell have ever come up with a catchy terminology for his theory, he often refers to “churn” in cities; that works, but to me the term that seems to work is “flow”.
So in a way, you could argue that with New Urbanism, the community development model, and “flow”, there are three paradigms that obliquely address urban revitalization.  And if there is one place where all three paradigms meet, it’s gentrification.  Gentrification is the issue area that can be the platform for black urbanism.
New Urbanists need the mobilization strategies that community development advocates have perfected.  Community development advocates need the clearer understanding of talent attraction that “flow” brings.  And “flow” proponents could benefit from accepting more of the place-based strategies of New Urbanists.  But who can unite the paradigms?  The people who live in the areas most directly impacted by their remedies. 
I’m personally awaiting the emergence of the individuals who can bring these views together.

3 thoughts on “Regarding Black Urbanism, Part II

  1. I think what you're saying about “A new cadre of suburbanites who spent two-plus generations living on peaceful cul-de-sacs grew tired of the perceived monotony and homogeneity of suburbia” is the key here. White America (the ethnicity, not the race, but there's been relatively little recent white immigration so they're almost the same) suburbanized in the middle of the 20th century. Black America is suburbanizing now, leading to attitudes about cities that are similar to those of whites in the 1950s.

    The other issue is that the option of staying in is less attractive, in a way. It's exactly what you're saying about whether one affects cities or is affected by them. In the Jane Jacobs era, the Village offered underpriced housing to anyone who didn't mind not having a backyard. The first movers of gentrification were not bored second-generation suburbanites, but artists who needed cheap space. Today, Harlem is if anything overpriced, because amenities north of 125th and east of Broadway still leave a lot to be desired, but prices have still increased because of expectations of future gentrification. The cost of living gap between cities and suburbs has shrunk, and for many subcultures – including the dominant middle class one – it's reversed itself and the cities are more expensive to live in.

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  2. Thanks to both of you above for your comments. Alon, I do tend to agree with you regarding the cost of living within cities, and the impact it will have on minority residents. However, I do believe that if minority homeowners are willing and able to stay the course in cities they stand the chance of benefitting. Justin, please note that I was being a little facetious in asking the question about black urbanists. There are people who are doing great things in individual communities but you have to admit that there are few if any who are doing things on a national scale. I look forward to checking out your work.

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