Make That Money, Don’t Let It Make You

As an African-American and as a planner, a theme that has occasionally popped up on this blog has been the limited impact that blacks have had on the nation’s urbanist dialogue (By the way, forgive me if I use “African-Americans” and “blacks” interchangeably.  “African-American” is justtoo cumbersome to use exclusively, at least for me.).  I brought it up in my Regarding Black Urbanism article and to a lesser extent in my Don’t Move, Black People! article, but it is a theme that is infused in much of what I write about.  My general take has been that our impact on the physical aspects of the urban dialogue has been relatively small, but fairly large on the social side.  Into the future, however, I think that, if trends play out as I view them, blacks will be able to have an even greater role on the physical side of the dialogue.  Furthermore, I think African-Americans may be in a position to be prime beneficiaries of a major, nationwide real estate transfer, benefiting from our location more than at any other time in our history.
Our nation is at a point where a shift in development patterns and preferences is emerging.  I see our nation as shifting its distinct preference for new, suburban development over older urban development to something more balanced.  Please note – I’m not suggesting people are wholly shifting from suburbs to cities, as some city advocates would want to say and as some detractors would argue against.  I’m saying that changes in the typical factors affecting personal location decisions are making older places (cities and inner-ring suburbs) a more viable option than maybe anytime in the last 60 years.  A new balance is unfolding.
African-Americans, particularly those who reside in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest, could be in a position to benefit from this transition. Today, even with the rapid suburbanization of the black population during the last decade, the vast majority of black metro area residents live in central cities and inner-ring suburbs.   In the Chicago metro area, for example, where I live, nearly two-thirds of blacks in the region reside within the city proper, and three-quarters within the region’s core county (Cook).  I would venture to guess that most Rust Belt cities exhibit a similar dynamic.  Gentrification, that scourge of a word that denotes the transition of a low-income community to a higher-income community, will become more central to the American development pattern than it is today.  Right now, gentrification is a feature that takes place in the largest of our metro areas, and often in a haphazard fashion.  I believe gentrification will increase in scale, and maybe even in pace, in the next twenty years.
In my very first planning job more than twenty years ago, I was assigned to work on a neighborhood plan on Chicago’s South Side.  I told residents there that the evidence existed that Chicago was reinventing itself from the inside out, and that they must prepare for the change.  Most residents of the area at the time wanted to shift the discussion from one of gentrification to one of equity – they wanted the amenities that other communities enjoyed, but without property value increase or displacement.
They found it doesn’t happen that way.
Twenty years later that community has experienced a fair amount of gentrification.  Not quite like what happened in other areas of the city, but a good deal nonetheless.  The financial crisis (and some local political decisions) likely prevented a much larger transition.  But the community is now poised for further growth once the economy rebounds.
Prior to the financial crisis property owners profited from the community transformation.  Values increased; the sought-after amenities arrived.  Despite the crash one could argue that the community is stronger now than it was two decades ago.   Property owners benefitted from the increase in demand in two ways: they were able to sell property at a profit or enjoy increased equity.
I believe shifts in demand in the upcoming decades will result in many more transformations like this.  Inner-city African-American property owners can become analogous to farmers selling off land to developers for future subdivisions.  What will be critical for the future prosperity of blacks will be figuring out how to invest profits from the transfer.
Will the future play out in this way?  Only time will tell.

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