Race and Shrinking Cities

Photographer Gordon Park’s image of black children watching white children at a playground.  Taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at theatlantic.com

Among the blogs that I frequently read is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic.  He often writes about the legacy of race in America and its impact on today’s society.  He also has one of the most insightful and dedicated commenter sections I’ve ever seen on any blog.  I’ve commented on a few occasions but he has a cast of regulars who are fantastic.
Over the last month he has written about residential and economic segregation in Northern cities.  One of his commenters brought up a quote from 1960’s comedian and civil rights activists Dick Gregory (and I paraphrase): “In the South, Negroes can live as close as they want to whites, as long as they don’t get too big.  In the North, Negroes can be as big as they want, as long as they don’t live too close.”
That quote is just as true today as it was when it was uttered 50 years ago, and it has had a horrible impact on the Northern cities that became today’s shrinking cities.  Race is a prominent factor in today’s shrinking city dynamic.
A couple years ago the Urbanophile demonstratedthe utility of his then-new Telestrian website by writing about migration data for U.S. metro areas.  He suggested at the time that simply using net migration data, the number of out-migrants from in-migrants, doesn’t fully capture the migration dynamic of metros.  He urged looking at in-migration and out-migration separately.  
His data, at the time taken from 2008-2009 IRS filing data, found surprisingly some surprising things.  Generally speaking there were three types of metro areas with regards to migration.  There were metros that had high in-migration and low out-migration – often Sun Belt metros.  There were metros that had high in-migration and high out-migration – usually older and quite stable East Coast metros like New York and Boston.  Lastly there were metros that had both low out-migration and extremely low in-migration rates – usually Northern shrinking cities.  People simply weren’t leaving the cities for better economic prospects, contrary to the conventional narrative about them (one note: this sample was taken at the height of the Great Recession, and a similar pattern existed for many cities across the nation at the time.  This has since abated somewhat).  In fact, a case could be made that many shrinking city residents are stuck in place, despite their desire to relocate.  However, Northern shrinking cities had even lower in-migration rates.  No one was moving into these cities; they lost their “churn”.  This list included the usual suspects of shrinking cities – Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and Philadelphia, among others.
What I also noted was that the low-out, low-in migration metros of the North had some of the highest non-Southern black populations in the nation.  St. Louis’ and Baltimore’s percentage of black residents in the MSA approaches 30 percent; in Detroit and Philadelphia the number is over 20 percent; Cleveland’s figure is just under 20 percent.  All are shrinking cities in the classic sense.
This brought to my mind the concept of the segregation “tipping point”.  Often brought up during the Civil Rights era, it demonstrated how neighborhoods quickly changed from being mostly white to mostly black in the span of just a few years.  The thinking was that there was a number – 10 percent?  15 percent?  20 percent? – of black residents which white residents could not abide by, and that would start a wholesale move of white residents out of the community.  One study I saw from the 1960’s suggested the number was about 15 percent.  Above that number and the pace of resegregation accelerates dramatically.
Two thoughts on how I think this impacts today’s shrinking cities.  First, I think the same “tipping point” dynamic that was evident at the neighborhood level in the 1950’s and 1960’s became a citywide phenomenon for some cities by the 1970’s, and a metro-wide phenomenon by the 1980’s.  Furthermore, I think the trend accelerated in cities that elected black mayors during that period, like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and even Gary, Indiana (a smaller example of a shrinking city).  I think that at some level white residents felt unwanted and the pace of white flight exploded. 
A perfect and well-known example of this – when Coleman Young was elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, he famously said at his inauguration speech that criminals should “hit 8 Mile Road” (code for get out of town, and presumably to the suburbs).  While the new mayor said later that he meant for his remark to be a “get tough on crime” comment, many white residents later said what they heard was one of two things: a push to get criminals to assault Detroit’s suburbs, or a push to get the city’s remaining white residents to relocate to the suburbs.  Whatever the intent, it’s clear that white flight accelerated in Detroit during the ‘70s.  The Motor City lost 51 percent of its white population in the ‘70s alone, going from 838,000 to 413,000 – a staggering loss of 425,000 people in just 10 years.
(An aside: I just have to show this again.  Nearly a year ago I produced this chart that shows changes in white population for various cities between 1950 and 2010.  I think the staggering difference between Detroit, shown as the dotted line, and the others bears repeating.

That is what I call the Detroit Difference.)
My second thought relates to traditional migration dynamics in American cities.  It’s well-known that many immigrant groups, once established in a city at a cultural gateway point, moved outward and upward as their economic prospects improved.  Beginning in the 19th Century there was a veritable migration escalator at work in American cities.  Irish immigrants moved out of a neighborhood, Italian immigrants moved in.  Germans moved out, Poles moved in.  Poles moved out, Hispanics moved in.  But something peculiar happened when blacks moved up from the South.  As blacks progressed toward the middle class and moved to new environs, who replaced them?  No one.  Why?  Why did urban black communities not become the gateway for future immigrants, like Asians or those of Middle Eastern descent?  Did blacks unnecessarily bear the brunt for the condition of their communities, when there was no group to replace them, and more importantly, no economy to support them?  
The migration escalator became stuck once blacks moved in because no one wanted to come after them.  This is the defining characteristic of our shrinking cities.

2 thoughts on “Race and Shrinking Cities

  1. Interesting post. But in answer to your second question, while I can't speak for northeastern cities, I can say that for the two cities on the west coast:

    In San Francisco, the black population has been declining for the last decade, and the historically black east side of town (the Bayview and Hunter's Point) is now majority Asian, with many Latinos as well.

    In Los Angeles, historically black South Central is now majority Latino in most neighborhoods. In LA, many blacks have dispersed throughout the overall county area- in fact, this was part of the decline of South Central, since many upper and middle-class blacks fled the area. Latino in-fill has been critical to keeping the area as economically viable as it is. I knows this firsthand, since I live in South LA. Taquerias and Mexican bakeries far outnumber black-oriented restaurants.

    Another point to consider is the shift in immigration patterns in the last 25 years, in which more and more immigrants are going straight to the suburbs as they followed the jobs. I don't think this was due to any racism towards blacks so much as the inevitable result of decades of suburban economic growth.

    The big question in my mind is whether the re-emergence of cities as exciting places to live and work will invigorate these struggling areas. How to improve a neighborhood without pricing out the existing residents is a big puzzle.


  2. Nate, sorry for the late response to your comment. Little access to a computer over the last 24 hours. I should note that when I've talked about Northern cities in this post I've almost exclusively meant Midwestern cities. The immigration dynamic has been very different on either coast. You are right that San Francisco and LA have had significant Latino and Asian immigration that predated similar immigration in other cities by decades, and that's produced a different dynamic there. The East Coast is, IMO, also a different breed. Cities like New York, Boston, DC, to a lesser extent Philadelphia and more recently Pittsburgh (yes, on that East Coast/Midwest border) have been talent magnets that draw domestic migrants due to their colleges and universities or growing job bases. I think Chicago has been unique because it has the talent magnets and recent immigration experience to be a little like either East or West Coast cities. Some others (St. Louis, Cleveland and Milwaukee come to mind) could use this as a building block as well. But some of the others would struggle to replicate what's happened on either coast. The same, actually, applies to many southern cities.


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