|The Great Migration, a painting by Jacob Lawrence. Source: analepsis.org|
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple years, it’s that migration patterns are the building blocks of cities. People, and the things that attract them to the city, shape the city form and future. People, and the things that repel them from the city, shape the city form and future, too. Urbanists owe it to themselves to understand earlier migration forces and their impacts, so we can understand the context of current transitions. A recent deep dive I did into scholarly research on the relationship of the African-American Great Migration, white flight and the subsequent impact on central cities gives a great sense of where cities have been and where they’re headed in the near future.
UCLA economics professor Leah Platt Boustan has quickly become a favorite of mine, and I cannot figure out why her research has not become more well-known within the urbanist community. She’s done some excellent research over the last ten years on the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to Northern cities that started after World War I and continued through the 1960’s, and also the mass migration from Europe that preceded it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her studies include some interesting findings that are worthy of discussion. Here’s the abstract from a 2007 paper she did on the Great Migration:
“Residential segregation by jurisdiction generates disparities in public services and education. The distinctive American pattern – in which blacks live in cities and whites in suburbs – was enhanced by a large black migration from the rural South. I show that whites responded to this black influx by leaving cities and rule out an indirect effect on housing prices as a sole cause. I instrument for changes in black population by using local economic conditions to predict black migration from southern states and assigning predicted flows to northern cities according to established settlement patterns. The best causal estimates imply that each black arrival led to 2.7 white departures.”
Emphasis added. Boustan is clear that many factors were involved in the making of this correlation. Wealth created by improved economic productivity, particularly after World War II, gave many white residents the resources to seek new housing in suburban locales. The growth and expansion of the Interstate highway system helped to facilitate that. The G.I. Bill offered incentives for veterans to purchase homes, and mortgage finance reforms established during the New Deal firmly took root after the War. But two things were evident when looking at the correlation — 1) once the Great Migration started in 1915, white outflow from Northern central cities always exceeded black inflow, over the next 90 years; and 2) because of things like racial covenants and restrictive zoning policies, blacks were not able to make the suburban move until much later.
Boustan followed that paper with a 2013 analysis done with Boston University economics professor Robert A. Margo entitled A Silver Lining to White Flight? White Suburbanization and African-American Homeownership, 1940-1980. In this paper they demonstrate that rising black homeownership over the 40-year period was facilitated by white suburbanization, further finding that suburban expansion lowered central city housing demand and prices and opened the housing market to blacks. The study found that the rapid acceleration of black homeownership (from 15 percent to 42 percent of black households over that time, the vast majority of which was in central cities) was confined to that era for three reasons:
- The Great Migration peaked around World War II and the numbers of black moving North began declining;
- The infrastructure development that facilitated mass suburbanization, generally Interstate highways, reached its peak in the ’60s, leading to more incremental suburban expansion; and
- Blacks began gaining increased access to the suburbs themselves, beginning in the 1970’s.
(T)he models support the idea that the suburbs are experiencing urban decline similar to inner-cities in that white flight produces negative economic and social outcomes. First of all, white flight and urban decay significantly impact housing values. Although declining housing values may make housing more affordable, the social problems that accompany urban decay often outweigh this positive.
I admit that these papers do not represent the definitive thinking on American cities and migration patterns. There are critiques and counterarguments to their points, and simply different perspectives on city and metro area evolution. If there are strong critiques or counters to the analysis cited above, I’ll be on the search to find them. I’m always seeking new knowledge. Furthermore, I have to be careful to guard against confirmation bias. Simply finding the analysis to support your own claims can close one off from important research.
However, I have to admit that the analysis from these papers align well with my personal experience in Rust Belt cities, and the experience of many I know. When my parents purchased the house at the top of the last post here in 1968, there were several white families still on the block and in the neighborhood. All were gone by 1970. Twenty years later, when my parents purchased another home in the Chicago south suburb of South Holland, the block was evenly divided between white and black residents. Within four years it was all black. Perhaps the pace of change has slowed, but the process is still quite evident.
I’d add a couple of factors that might have fueled the changes described above over the last 35 years. First, the late ’80s/early ’90s crime wave that was a product of the crack epidemic led to more middle-class blacks leaving for the suburbs, increasing central city poverty rates and ultimately leading to an end to overall increasing black homeownership rates. Second, at just about the same time, the first wave of urban pioneers began moving into cities, generally into the last remaining bastions of relatively safe urbanity that Northern cities had to offer. If a city had many such areas, like New York, the wave accelerates; if a city had few or none, like Detroit or Cleveland, the wave never starts, or only barely takes hold. The roots of today’s bifurcated city were formed since 1980, and the trends that created them are dominant today.
Given this history, I think one can extrapolate a plausible future for our metro areas. The pendulum has begun to swing in the direction of central cities. While I don’t subscribe to the thinking that the shift of people, and ultimately jobs, to central cities will correspond to a total collapse of the suburbs, it does mean that there will be greater parity between the two, and it will appear that cities are substantially wealthier while suburbs are substantially poorer. And one of the things that will fuel this perception is the accelerated growth of minorities, including African-Americans, into suburban areas.
Just like the rapid increase in black homeownership in the mid to late twentieth century, which was once thought to usher in a new era of economic parity for blacks, this new shift will prove illusory. Blacks will move into suburban areas. Housing demand will decline in suburban areas. Available housing supply will increase in suburban areas. Housing prices will fall in suburban areas, making them more affordable to more people at the lower end of the homebuying spectrum. Conversely, the opposite will happen — is happening now — in cities. Demand is rising. Available supply is shrinking. Prices are rising, making them less affordable to more people at the higher end of the homebuying spectrum.
When that transition is complete, who wins, the city or suburban homeowner?