TNC and Me

Scene from Chicago’s North Laawndale neighborhood.  Source:

I don’t think that the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates  would consider himself an urban planner or urbanist, any more than I would consider myself a public intellectual or social critic.  Yet our individual explorations have come to a similar conclusion on the tools of exclusion in this nation, and their devastating impact.

Coates’ lengthy yet absolutely fascinating piece in the Atlantic came out a little more than 24 hours before I started writing this, and quite honestly I’ve had a hard time thinking about anything else.  In it, he details how for centuries wealth has been extracted from African-Americans for the benefit of the rest of American society, moving very easily from the plagues we know and understand (slavery and Jim Crow) to the murkier and far more ambiguous policies that effectively render the same impact today.  I cannot do the piece any justice by pulling out any one quote that summarizes it.  It deserves your full attention.

I’ve been an avid follower of TNC for perhaps 4-5 years now.  I’ve excitedly read just about everything he’s produced over that time, and he’s been a great influence on my thinking about cities.  If I were to characterize his journey in any way, I’d say he’s long been searching for the roots of racism in America, in order to find a way to vanquish it.  That exploration led him to study early American slavery, a deep dive into the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era that followed.  It also led him into an exploration of the set of housing policies that are at the heart of the gap between blacks and whites today.

This is where our explorations begin to intersect.

I’ve been on a similar journey over the last  2 1/2 years, but coming from the vantage point of the revitalization of place rather than people.  Growing up in Detroit and living for more than twenty years in Chicago, I was quite familiar with Coates’ descriptions of living conditions in black urban America.  I’ll go back on my earlier point about not quoting from the article; this quote below is our point of intersection:

“North Lawndale is an extreme portrait of the trends that ail black Chicago. Such is the magnitude of these ailments that it can be said that blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city. The average per capita income of Chicago’s white neighborhoods is almost three times that of its black neighborhoods. When the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson examined incarceration rates in Chicago in his 2012 book, Great American City, he found that a black neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates (West Garfield Park) had a rate more than 40 times as high as the white neighborhood with the highest rate (Clearing). “This is a staggering differential, even for community-level comparisons,” Sampson writes. “A difference of kind, not degree.”

Emphasis added.  And that’s how I’ve long understood racial segregation in American cities, particularly those of the Rust Belt.

Another point of intersection: I became intimately familiar with  Chicago’s North Lawndale community while working on a planning project there about eight years ago.  We were working on a housing plan for a community where, at that time, nearly one-third of the land area was vacant land or abandoned structures.  It was a daunting challenge, and remains so.  The community’s conditions are dictated by broader forces.

The very first entry on my blog in 2012 sought to examine the factors that led to my hometown’s decline, beyond the standard “auto-industry-left-and-people-did-too” narrative.  Increasingly I’ve been moving in the direction that cities like Detroit, and neighborhoods like North Lawndale, were effectively shunned by broader society through practices like restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting, the concentration of public housing, the lack of public infrastructure investment, among many others.

While most of the attention on Coates’ article will revolve around the reparations debate, the strength of the article is in its detailing of housing practices that have marginalized both people and place for the last 100 years in Rust Belt cities.  This is often overlooked.  Just because Northern cities did not have “whites only” water fountains, or force black movie goers to sit in the balcony, does not mean that they don’t have every bit as much of a racism legacy as the Deep South.  I said as much two weeks ago (citing TNC once again), before this latest entry on the subject came out.

I have some early thoughts on the reparations side of this, but I’ll save them for later when I’ve given more thought to them.  Right now, I’m pleased that the “how we got here” part of the debate seems to be developing into a consensus.

One thought on “TNC and Me

  1. I think integration might come easier in the future. Part of what it takes is for white people not to flip out and stampede for the exits the moment a couple of black families move into the neighborhood. If there's no stampede out of the neighborhood, then property values remain intact, and if white neighbors at least tolerate the presence of black neighbors, then over time you can expect the neighborhood to remain appealing while also diversifying. The good news is, I think future generations won't be as paranoid about having neighbors of another race as previous generations were, so there's a better chance of neighborhoods evolving as I described.

    One thing that I believe has to change, though, is the distribution of public housing. Public housing projects are a lot like Indian reservations in the city, because they all get clustered in certain areas that are often off the beaten paths. I think public housing should be more decentralized, but what I mean by that is a smaller number of units across a larger number of neighborhoods, instead of a couple of highrises in a small number of neighborhoods. Crawford Square in Pittsburgh (between downtown and the Hill District) is an example of what I'm talking about. It's a townhouse development that was built during the 1990s, and most of the housing is market-rate, but there are a handful of townhouses scattered throughout the development that are subsidized. As a result, it's possible that somebody with a six-figure income could live right next door to somebody who qualifies for public housing. The development is racially mixed, and crime within the development is low. For whatever reason, when you have a large concentration of public housing in one area, crime tends to increase, so having a house here and there within a larger development seems to correct that. This is how I'd like to see public housing done in the future, because it's better than isolating a bunch of people in an apartment tower.


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