Repost: Hyper-Segregation: The Defining Feature of Rust Belt Cities

Homicide inequality in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  Source: Daniel Kay Hertz,

(Note: Recent months for this blog have seen a big uptick in traffic; since August 2014 daily pageviews have nearly tripled.  But that means that many posts that were published before then didn’t get the exposure that subsequent posts did.  Here’s a post from June 2014 that brings up one of the Rust Belt’s distinguishing features, and presents a challenge for its revitalization.  -Pete)

I haven’t done any definitive personal research on this topic, but there seems to be enough research and anecdotal evidence to support this thesis — hyper-segregation is a distinguishing characteristic of Midwestern Rust Belt cities.  This is an impediment to their resurgence.

Segregation manifests itself in different ways in different metros in the Midwest, but it’s apparent everywhere.  Last month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did a fantastic four-part series called “Dividing Lines” that detailed the stark political divide between the heavily Democratic/largely minority city of Milwaukee and its heavily Republican/largely white suburbs, and the impact of the divide in public discourse and state politics.  The divide is not always political, or just at the city/suburb boundary, either: Chicago blogger Daniel Kay Hertz’s piece at the New Republic highlights the inequality of homicide in the Windy City.  Comparing Chicago with New York and Los Angeles, he finds that Chicago simply has not had the precipitous drop in murders across the city that New York and Los Angeles have witnessed.  While Chicago’s safest areas are every bit as safe as similar areas in NY and LA, its least safe areas have far higher homicide rates.  Income and racial segregation seems to define Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Cincinnati and other metros as well.

The question is why?  What happened in the Midwest that made segregation patterns so indelible?  Three historical rationales come to mind.  First, it could be that Midwestern cities excelled at implementing segregation-creating housing policies in the middle third of the 20th Century — restrictive covenants, redlining, urban renewal demolition and construction — that established enduring development patterns that have social implications to this day.  Transportation policy, especially the spread of the interstate highway system and the removal of privately-owned public transit following World War II and its replacement with publicly-supported public transit, isolated large parts of cities from emerging job centers in downtowns and suburban areas.

But a third and less-often recognized factor may play a role as well.  I find that Midwestern metros are unique among American metros in that actual city/suburb boundaries correspond with perceived city/suburb development patterns.  East Coast cities have dense and walkable, pre-WWII development that extends beyond city boundaries (witness the inner-ring burbs of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington).  For them, conventional post-war suburbia begins many miles beyond the core city.  More recently developed Sun Belt cities in the South or West have small pre-WWII cores and larger post-war suburban areas within core city boundaries.  Here, suburbia is well within the core city.  For East Coast and Sun Belt metros, perhaps development patterns have led to a greater affinity for and connection to the core city among residents.  But in the Midwest, the pre-WWII/post-WWII development divide is often the city and suburban divide, and that meant the suburbanization that characterized the last 60 years of American development had greater political, social and racial implications there than in other areas.

Think about it.  A Boston resident could get fed up with the city and move to, say, Somerville or Watertown, and still live in a community that has the development characteristics of the city he or she just left.  In Dallas, one can live in a recently built subdivision that you could never find inside Boston city limits.  In either case, the core city establishes the dominant development pattern — pre-WWII dense and walkable on the East Coast, post-WWII suburban in the Sun Belt.  In the Midwest, pre-WWII development is “city”, post-WWII development is “suburb”, and never the twain shall meet.  This creates an antipathy for cities held by Midwesterners that is rarely apparent anywhere else.

Of course there are caveats to this.  San Francisco is certainly an outlier as a West Coast city with a dominant pre-WWII development pattern.  Chicago’s development predates much of the rest of the Midwest, and as a result it has more than a few suburbs with a strong pre-WWII pattern.  In a city like Indianapolis the divide is less evident because city-county consolidation in the 1970s tends to mask underlying patterns.  But in general, the theory holds.

If we can figure this out, Midwest Rust Belt cities will take a giant leap forward.

3 thoughts on “Repost: Hyper-Segregation: The Defining Feature of Rust Belt Cities

  1. This is an interesting and important topic. My sense has always been that there is much more to the segregation patterns than suggested by the prevailing narratives (which is that segregation is just one more form in which the general failure of the old Midwest industrial cities is expressed). The patterns fit with expectations so researchers and pundits, especially on the east and west coasts, don’t bother to dig any deeper.

    That’s why I was somewhat encouraged by the study “Segregated City, The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros” published in February, which appears to have examined the economic segregation patterns in much greater depth. This study found 4 of the top 10 most segregated large U.S. metros to be in Texas, with Austin ranked as the most segregated major city. Chicago was also in the top 10, but Minneapolis St. Paul was ranked in the bottom 10. Buffalo, Rochester (NY), and Cincinnati were also major rust belt metros with relatively low levels of economic segregation. The study did note a significant positive correlation between the share of population that is black, Latino, or Asian, and levels of economic segregation.

    The patterns varied by city based on the type of segregation. Milwaukee ranked second highest for the level to which poor residents are segregated, and fifth highest for overall levels of income segregation, but ranked among the 10 least segregated major metro areas in terms of segregation of working class residents, creative class residents, and overall occupational segregation. Fond du Lac, a small rust belt metro one hour north of Milwaukee showed the lowest level of economic segregation of any US metro area (and by a significant margin).

    So at least for economic segregation, I would be very careful about generalizing regarding the rust belt metros – they are among both the most and least segregated economically, depending on the city, and the type of economic segregation. I’m not sure if your theory regarding city/suburb boundaries holds up either. Minneapolis fits the description in terms of the city/suburb boundary, but is among the least economically segregated major cities.


  2. D Holmes, thanks for being one of the most consistently thoughtful commenters to this blog. I love your comments, but as they often come at very early hours, I don't often respond as I should. Still, keep them coming.

    I will seek out “Segregated City”. I agree that metro area segregation is poorly understood. It's often just accepted without explanation. I'm sure a book like “Segregated City” will go a long ways toward providing explanations.

    I must admit that my default segregation variable is racial segregation rather than economic. I think it's been proven that many Rust Belt metros are less economically segregated than metros on the coasts, but racial segregation in the Rust Belt remains high. Also, even with the caveats mentioned, I think the pre/post WWII development and city/suburb development split I mention holds up pretty well in the Rust Belt. It generally fits many cities (Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, pre-consolidation Indianapolis and your hometown of Milwaukee come to mind). I also believe this mindset is one of the Rust Belt's biggest exports to coastal and Sun Belt areas.

    Lastly, I'd like to get your thoughts on similarities between Milwaukee and Detroit. I maintain that both cities occupy a similar position in each state's culture — admired for its economy, reviled for its urbanity. I think Detroit would have followed a growth trajectory very similar to Milwaukee's had the auto industry not settled there, and that Detroit's decline is partly a return to an equilibrium that's equivalent to where Milwaukee is (and also returning to).

    Thanks, and keep commenting!


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