Let’s Talk About Flow – African-American Neighborhoods and Migration

Geographer Jim Russell, whom I first came across through his blog Burgh Diaspora but now writes for Pacific Standard, has written lots about the importance of migration on the health of cities.  His arguments, which are often counter to conventional thinking on cities and how they grow, has stimulated a good deal of thinking about urban neighborhoods on my part.
Russell is a proponent of what he calls “churn”, what I’ve called “flow”.  Basically, he states that the accumulation of population is less important to the economic health of a region than that region’s ability to continually attract people.  On the surface one might read that as being exactly the same thing – attracting more people means more people – but that’s not always true.  There are often people leaving regions for greener pastures elsewhere, even as others are moving in for the same reason.  What’s key, Russell argues, is the numbers coming in, not the overall numbers or the numbers who are leaving. 
I tried to summarize Jim’s theory in a post from earlier this summer:
I’m not migration expert, but I think I better understand where Jim is coming from.  Moreso than the number-padding exercise of counting heads to determine population growth, the constant and consistent flow of people into your city is crucial to its sustainability.  Flow is essential.  I view it like water in a river.  Inflow can sustain a city even if it has a substantial outflow, just like the biological diversity that can be found surrounding a waterfall.  When the inflow slows to a trickle or stops altogether, or the lack of outflow impedes movement, cities should become worried.
In fact, I can envision a flow hierarchy that goes against the grain of population growth conventional wisdom:
Inmigration
Outmigration
Net
Representative City
High
High
Gain
New York City
High
Low
Gain
Portland
Low
Low
Gain
Pittsburgh
High
High
Loss
Philadelphia
Low
Low
Loss
Cleveland
Low
High
Loss
Detroit
Jim typically applies this theory to entire metro areas, but I see many implications at the community or neighborhood level.  I think it’s especially useful in thinking about how unique African-American communities are in the context of metro areas.
Within metro areas, black neighborhoods have always been the exception since their inception.  Segregation made it that way.  Whether segregated by force of law (as in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South) or by a strange brew of policies and preferences, black neighborhoods grew, matured and withered on a different trajectory than other neighborhoods.  How so?  Sociologists have long known that urban neighborhoods have had traditional lines of succession as one group, often one ethnic group, succeeds in a neighborhood and moves to another, with yet another ethnic group beginning the same process.  Throughout much of the 20thCentury the pattern was quite evident: WASPy neighborhoods were followed by Irish residents, who in turn were followed by Eastern and Southern Europeans, and so on.  At the micro level, this is the churn or flow.  This made urban neighborhoods into acculturating incubators of immigrants.  This phenomenon was again initiated with the Great Migration that brought large numbers of African-Americans up from the South in the middle of the century.
But a funny thing happened with the growth and spread of black neighborhoods.  When they grew, it was only from the continued influx of more African-Americans.  This set them apart from other neighborhoods that benefitted from a greater demand because other groups were willing to consider them upon moving into the new area.  Let’s look at a couple of Chicago neighborhoods to understand this.  Logan Square, on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side, transitioned through many ethnic hands over the last hundred years – German to Polish to Latino, before gaining more upscale (usually white) residents over the last twenty years.  Meanwhile, the Grand Boulevard or Bronzeville community on the city’s South Side underwent a shift from Irish to Eastern European Jews to blacks by 1920 – after which the process of transition stopped. 
The continued migration of blacks from the South made neighborhoods like Bronzeville look very much like neighborhoods in other parts of the city – the influx of entrepreneurial immigrants gave the area a dynamism that kept it going.  But when the tap that was the Great Migration ran dry in the early 1970’s, no new group was moving in to keep the churn or flow going at the local level.  This was complicated by open housing gains made possible by the Civil Rights Movement.  As black middle class residents were able to move out, they did.  As a result, many traditional black neighborhoods were doubly hurt by an accelerated outmigration and a totally halted inmigration. 
As you look at the lack of churn/flow in neighborhoods at the micro level and then scale upward, you can see the impacts it has on cities and entire metro areas.  The lack of a replacement group behind African-Americans means that demand for those areas is substantially reduced and, in effect, cordoned off from the rest of the metro area.  Let’s look at Logan Square and Bronzeville again.  Logan Square reached a peak population of 114,000 in 1930, and today has a population of about 82,000.  The continued influx of new residents has not created a net gain, but the churn creates a vibrant neighborhood.  Bronzeville reached a peak of 115,000 in 1950, but is down more than 80% percent from that peak to just 22,000 today.  Despite many attempts at revitalization, the lack of a replacement group – the lack of flow – means a lower demand and a dramatically lower population.
Chicago and Detroit offer two examples of what happens when this phenomenon of African-American neighborhoods is allowed to occur.  When vast sectors of a city fall out of favor with most in the region, as the South and West sides have, you get a bifurcated city with incredible differences between the haves and have-nots, and little understanding of how to deal with the troubling violence that plagues the outsider communities.  If an entire city is able to fall out of favor with the entire region, like Detroit, well, you know what’s happened there.

This is the great unaddressed question regarding our large cities, particularly those with substantial African-American populations, and especially so for those in the Rust Belt.  We’ve learned to re-establish flow to cities, but not to all parts of cities.  That is the remaining challenge.

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