|New housing next to old in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood.|
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable essay has had many people around the country buzzing. His take on how fundamentally rooted racism is to the founding, growth and maturity of our nation is both enlightening and condemning. I offered some early thoughts on his essay a week ago after it first came out, but now I’m ready to offer more. While TNC really provided no broad outlines as to what reparations might look like, I think what I’ve started to call “gentrification management” might begin to serve that purpose.
As I’ve stated earlier, I believe that Coates and I have been looking at the same issues from different perches — he as an historian, journalist and public intellectual, and me as planner/urbanist. I always had a nagging feeling that the conditions of isolated inner city areas were purposely created, and a lot of the research I’d conducted suggested as much. What I had not done, as TNC has, was make the direct connection between redlining, blockbusting, urban renewal and other policies as an extension of the racial discrimination that created slavery and Jim Crow. My thinking, as a planner/urbanist, has always been to seek methods to stimulate redevelopment and revitalization in our most troubled communities.
Coates is right that the state-sanctioned policies of the last 75 years prevented the accumulation of wealth among blacks. It is structural and foundational, and has created vastly different community types in our nation. There simply are no other poor communities as fundamentally deprived as poor black communities. But, especially in our cities, we are at the advent of a shift in living preferences that presents an opportunity.
That opportunity is proximity.
For nearly all of the last 75 years, people have been fleeing our nation’s most established cities and seeking to set themselves up in new locales in the suburbs or the Sun Belt. It’s mostly been economically driven, as people follow jobs, but it’s also been driven by the incentives and subsidies that made it possible (think G.I. Bill, Interstate Highway Act). In that event, jobs follow people.
But it has also had a racial component, to varying degrees. One reason white residents left cities is to minimize their loss of property value as black residents, attracted to new job opportunities in cities, expanded their urban footprint. TNC does a masterful job of describing in his essay that this was a perfectly rational response.
Today that trend is reversing. After writing off much of the city for decades, the tide seems to be turning. William Frey of the Brookings Institute recently wrote about city growth, and pondered the question of whether the trend is enduring:
“So where are cities headed for the rest of the decade? This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.
Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up a growing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.”
Related to this shifting trend, gentrification and its impacts have been surfacing in debates about inequality, affordable housing and displacement. It’s heartening that the discussion has begun, but there is a missing link when it comes to discussing solutions. Just as in the reparations debate that TNC has reinvigorated.
In coming up with a language and potential policy framework for managing gentrification, there may be a way to address the loss of wealth that TNC identifies. Furthermore, proximity provides an opportunity to create critical networks that are essential for the jobs, housing, social services necessary to navigate our society.
Here’s a bullet-point outline of gentrification management activities that might fit the reparations bill.
- Entrepreneurship programs. Opening up small business loan programs to persons living in or adjacent to gentrifying communities could accomplish two things: 1) it could accelerate the provision of amenities that newcomer residents seek in changing neighborhoods and 2) provide new job opportunities that were previously unavailable to local residents.
- Apprenticeship programs. New restaurants, shops and boutiques might do well to establish effective apprenticeship programs as part of their opening in a new community. Working through local high schools, community colleges or social service agencies, stronger connections can be built between, for example, the local micro-brewery and the nearby residents who wonder what the fuss is about.
- Sponsorship programs. Just as entrepreneurship can be developed, so can workforce skills. People working in professional positions, particularly creative economy jobs, could help to establish a link between the community they live in and the work they do through sponsoring local residents for job opportunities.
- Fair Housing Act enforcement. As part of their “Segregation Now” series, nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica detailed the lack of enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its ramifications over the last 40 years. Communities routinely defy the act by not addressing affordable housing and fair housing concerns, yet continue to receive federal housing funding. More effective monitoring and supervision of this at the federal level may produce results in the long run nationwide.
- Expanded Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP). NSP has its origins in the housing collapse of 2008, when HUD decided to dedicate funds to accelerate the purchase and redevelopment of foreclosed and abandoned properties across the nation. The program has had three iterations, following up NSP with NSP2 and NSP3, and it’s been a useful but limited tool in addressing the conditions it was intended to address. Larger scale implementation of the program could serve as a stimulus for investment in inner city neighborhoods.
- Social Infrastructure Support. Even the most distressed communities have social infrastructure, usually comprised of schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, block clubs, and the like. As neighborhoods change, usually one type of social structure breaks down and a new one emerges. However, with assistance from the philanthropic community, perhaps the existing social infrastructure in a changing neighborhood receives the help it need to adapt and grow, change its mission and increase its capacity in the community. Doing so would build good will in the community and strengthen many of the activities listed above.
These six points are not prescriptive, and are not intended to be. They are simply a set of policies that could be on the table if and when a debate around gentrification management, or reparations, becomes serious. The points suggest that there is a role for the private, public and nonprofit sectors, working in concert to address broader issues. And if the set of policies described here sounds like an American-style Marshall Plan, that’s because it will take that kind of effort whether we call it gentrification management or reparations.
At any rate, let the discussions begin.