The price of “somewhere”: Gentrification and Equality

The title, as long time readers have already figured out, plays on my favorite geography book – James H. Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.The book, written in the mid-/late-1990s, is an excellent perspective on the history of the United States’ built landscape, specifically the typical American suburb (of which Z Geography is intimately familiar). The book reads as a eulogy for the “classic” American small-towns of the northeast. The “Main Street” that modern politicians are so fond of recalling. These towns and villages were small, reasonably compact, intimate, and green. In other words, the complete antithesis of the modern suburb.

In this post, we’ll discuss how these “Nowheres” are in transition to becoming “Somewheres” in both cities and suburbs. In highlighting the disparate, but legitimate, interests associated with development as well as its pitfalls, I’m hoping to draw your attention to the importance of these political choices. Beyond politics, there is also room for decency.

As any urban resident will tell you, things are changing. White Americans are returning, following the well-discussed “White Flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, when the racial group left cities for safer, cleaner, newer suburbs. The process of returning and the development associated with it has been coined gentrification. Gentrification involves an increase in home values and better delivery of public goods (e.g. education, transportation, security) – city managers like the increased tax revenue. Young, white families like being in a city while enjoying more effective utilities. Of course, there are already residents living in these cities – black home owners and renters, with decidedly less income, who are eventually “encouraged” out by developers or high property values.

These disparate outcomes increased development while original residents are pushed out have been discussed in some media. Recently, the Washington Post described how large, predominantly black, churches in Washington, DC are attempting to prevent the creation of bike lanes on the streets near the church. As the Post observes:

  • “the packed meeting…highlighted a tension in the rapidly changing District [of Columbia] between longtime, black residents and new, largely white residents.”
  • “These conflicts stem from the change in D.C.’s neighborhoods. Many of D.C.’s churches were built at a time when their neighborhoods, such as Shaw, weren’t as teeming with condos and restaurants,  and parking wasn’t as big of an issue. Additionally, many longtime churchgoers have left the city for the suburbs and now commute to their old churches by car.”

The issue relates to a proposal to establish bike lanes on streets near the church, thus removing parking spaces. While not summarized as such the “conflict” (because that is what it is) is between two distinct social groups (blacks, whites) on how best to use (in this case transportation) a finite, terrestrial resource (land). Again the Post:

  • “This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.
  • “Washington Area Bicycle Association, a group that advocates for cycling in the city, argues that bike lanes wouldn’t prevent anyone from going to church.  There are other modes of transportation available to churchgoers, and bike lanes are necessary for the safety of the city’s increasing number of cyclists.”

The conflict, obviously, is ultimately a political question and as the Advisory Neighborhood Commission member notes in the article not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome. The Washington Post article presents both sides of the dispute as legitimate stakeholders with competing interests. Often, it is too easy to characterize (or spin, if you like) these conflicts into easily identifiable “right” and “wrong” positions under a completely different narrative, one for each stakeholder.

Gentrification is not only happening in America’s cities, it is also happening in some of the suburbs as well. Considering that many of suburbs are still more affluent (and house predominantly whites) than the cities they surround, what I’m really referring to is the development or transformation of these communities.

Politico describes the ongoing transformation in a suburb outside Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, which trying to “kill the car” as the title notes. The article is a 5-page look at a new-old concept: transit-oriented development (TOD). New because, Americans (sometime after Europeans) “rediscovered” it. Old because we employed this concept with railroads and streetcars. Evanston’s planning (since 1986) involves mixed-use development (i.e. residential and commercial) close to one another near a transit node (hence transit-oriented development). The theory is to promote walkability within insulated communities – walk from your apartment to the grocery store, bakery, or school. But, if your job is in Chicago, then there is a light rail just down the street. The net effect, of course, is to make cars useless.

Unfortunately, Politico gives decidedly short thrift to the problems of development and gentrification (you have to dig to page 5). According to the article, critics of TOD refer to it as “transit oriented displacement.” There is only a general mention of “affordable housing” as a potential explanation to how TOD, with its rising property values and prices, generates “diverse neighborhoods—diverse in population, retail, entertainment and housing”.

At the moment, according to the 2010 Census, Evanston was more racially and ethnically diverse compared to the rest of Illinois (66% White, 72% White respectively). However, the city is also markedly more affluent based on average income and with median home values of over $350,000 compared to $182,000. There is already a bar to live in this transforming suburb where a car is not as necessary. The unintended consequence, without guaranteed affordable housing, is to permit an elite core of residents the luxury of short commutes, walkability, and liveability, while a much larger group of workers must commute in – probably with cars – because they can’t afford it.

There are no easy solutions to these political problems. How do we as a local electorate balance the desires of newcomers with the desires of long-time residents? Many would argue that these questions should be decided at the ballot box – but that is also a tyranny of the majority. A time may not be far off when your majority becomes a minority – what then will we have built? What precedent would you have set?

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