Why Cities Are The Way They Are

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Ahh, the Holidays are upon us. It’s a time for uncomfortable conversations that you just can’t avoid, because, let’s face it, leaving the dinner table when your uncle refers to your city as “Murderville” isn’t going to win you any points with Mom and Dad.

If you’re an Urbanist, or just love your city and are tired of attempting to find the right words to describe why our urban cores are the way they are, The Holidays can be a most frustrating time. Trying to explain the rising crime rates, ballooning homelessness, rising racial tensions and why there’s very few employers and very little retail in our downtowns isn’t easy, especially when your audience consists of friends and family members who have purposefully done all they can to avoid the city life that you enjoy and support. And if you’re like me, trying to find the right words in an effort to calmly mitigate (and mayyyybe even educate) these conversations can be difficult with the TV on in the background, kids running around and your Great Aunt asking where the remote is for the third time.

If you want to simply explain why our cities are the way they are today, here is an “abbreviated” list of engines that led to the downturn of our Rust Belt cities, and what we are trying to do to make them better. There are countless studies, books and publications that solidify the following points, but think of this is a “Brief History Of American Cities.” Or at least the last 100 years of them.

Discriminatory Housing Practices

In the 1930s-1950s, the Federal Government, in concert with banks and loan providers, created programs to encourage home ownership as part of the New Deal. Major components of these programs were racially charged, favoring white suburban migration while disallowing black residents to thrive. “Redlining” ensured that people who lived in predominantly black neighborhoods could not move, even if families had the means to live in a more affluent area. Restrictions also hampered outside money to flow into these neighborhoods, eliminating the possibility of economic injection that might come from small business loans or outside investment.

Meanwhile, New Deal programs incentivized white Americans to cheaply build new homes outside of city limits. In essence the New Deal and accompanying legal and economic practices encouraged wealth creation outside of our cities, while disallowing the same growth in poor, predominantly black communities, causing them to stagnate and decline.

Redlining was finally made illegal in 1968, but the damage was done. For more than 30 years, the Federal Government purposefully incentivized white suburban growth, while simultaneously hindering growth in urban black neighborhoods.

Subsidized suburban growth is as prevalent today as ever

Roads, Bridges and Highways

Racially-backed loan practices weren’t the only thing incentivizing white Americans to leave cities. Massive government initiatives made it easier for a growing population of car owners to live outside of cities and commute to urban jobs through the building and bolstering of roads, bridges and especially new highways.

In cities, the sudden rush to create highways, parking and greater automobile access meant that streets were widened, buildings were replaced by parking lots and garages, and new highways split neighborhoods which, surprise surprise, were usually black communities.

More space for cars meant less urban density and less space for apartments and businesses. It also made for streets that were increasingly less inviting and more dangerous for pedestrians.

The Fall of Mass Transit

Streetcars were once the most utilized mode of urban transit. But the ever-increasing number of automobiles on cities streets in the 1920s meant that the once efficient movement of these machines was significantly slowed. Just a 10% shift from public transit to driving meant that streetcar delays, which often lasted hours, became intolerable. This fed the ever-worsening cycle of public transit service because of the car, leading to more people buying cars. Furthermore, city contracts with private streetcar companies typically disallowed fare hikes, and tasked these companies with maintaining the roads the streetcars occupied. Streetcar companies, which were notoriously corrupt, initially made these deals in exchange for monopoly rights. But with the presence of the automobile (and thus road maintenance costs) increasing and ridership decreasing due to delays caused by cars, the streetcars were already in peril when a GM-backed company famously began buying them up and tearing up track.

Cheaper and more flexible buses quickly replaced dying streetcars, but as is true today, buses are still subject to the traffic and delays caused by the single occupancy automobile. Subsidies, city design and automaker/big oil lobbyists, in part, led to the proliferation of the car, which in turn made public transit less efficient and less attractive. As a result, today, outside of major metros, a majority of public transit’s purpose is to service city residents who cannot afford a car.

Automation and Employment Relocation

While the American narrative is often that overseas trading with countries like China is the principle contributer to job loss in the manufacturing sector over the last half-century, studies have repeatedly shown that innovation and automation have led to this trend, especially for working class families. Automation advances in the last 60 years have meant that manufacturing plants, which used to reside in city centers and provide employment to urban residents, simply didn’t need as many workers to do the same job.

Furthermore, the building of highways and expansion of our road system meant that plants no longer had to inhabit expensive downtown locations. Needing fewer workers and having a network of easy-access highways to funnel employees in each day, employers followed the suburban residential migration in favor of cheaper space and more land to accommodate urban-scarce elements such as parking.

The War On Drugs

Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Regan and later, Bill Clinton were all elected in large part because of their promises to continue the War On Drugs. Black and white leaders advocated for relief from the oppressive clutches of gang activity, violence and addiction that was and still is, prolific in our cities. And while in hindsight this decades-long campaign has shaped up to be an epic failure, the policies of mandatory sentences disproportionately impacted black communities. One such mandatory sentence dictated that the punishment for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine (which was cheaper and more prevalent in black neighborhoods) yielded the same penalty as the sentence for 500 grams of powder cocaine (which was more pure and expensive, and thus more prevalent in wealthier white communities). This and countless additional mandatory minimums, consciously or not, disproportionately impacted black communities at far greater rate, leading in part to the lopsided imprisonment of black males. The community effect of this over-incarceration of black men meant that generations of black families, who were already financially challenged, were and still are headed by a single parent.

Many believe the War On Drugs was a deliberate political ploy to destabilize the black and anti-war movements of the 1960s through the 1980s while gaining the support of fearful citizens. In fact, a Nixon adviser famously divulged this narrative in the 1990s. But others believe that the campaign was a genuine effort to rid the country of a growing health epidemic. Regardless of the source, there is no denying that the war on drugs was yet another disproportionate blow to black communities in inner city neighborhoods.

Chains and Malls

Small business retail in cities was doomed from the beginning of the suburban mall boom. As more and more residents fled city centers, outlying malls meant that these residents didn’t have to visit the city for a robust shopping experience.

Destiny USA Mall, Syracuse, NY

Long before the term was coined, collections of “Big Box” chain stores and restaurants negated small businesses in both cities and towns. And of course, where shopping small in city downtowns often meant traveling on foot, malls have always catered to the automobile, featuring massive parking lots that were rarely full, save the weeks before Christmas.

Many cities, like my hometown of Rochester, New York, featured downtown malls that had the same small business-killing effect. While these destinations are often remembered fondly, their effect on urban economies was far more crippling than supportive.

The Result

As federal, state and local governments continued to subsidize “white flight” for Americans with means, those who could not leave the cities or transition to wealthier neighborhoods for economic, legal or social reasons became the sole remaining residents of our urban cores. This population was predominantly black, poor and the victim of decades of fiscal, legal and social oppression. The massive effort to de-centralize American living and employment left the residents who could not leave cities with even fewer options.

Because families, investment and opportunity were incentivized to leave our urban centers, cities stagnated for decades, leading to population declines of 35-50%. Opportunity for the upward mobility of city residents is all but nonexistent after nearly a century of suburban subsidization.

Cities today are experiencing a revitalization of sorts, as more and more young people are returning from major metros like New York, Boston, DC and Chicago, bringing with them an understanding of what it takes to create a “vibrant” city center. And while this movement has ushered in many of the first life-breathing efforts we have seen in our urban cores in decades, the effects of this transition are often socioeconomically exclusive. As more wealthy white Americans re-invest in our cities after decades of neglect, the issue of “gentrification” has become a household term. Black residents who watched as incentivized white flight hollowed out their cities are now reeling with the renewed interest and investment in city life, leading to rising rents, increasing costs and in many cases, new waves of displacement of poorer citizens. The “Brunch Urbanist” is a term urbanists use to describe white America’s neo-investment in our cities as a place to call home, without truly appreciating the often racially toxic history and foundation of our urban centers.

So while our cities are experiencing pockets of growth, that growth is rarely inclusive and often perpetuates the narrative in black communities that the wealthy white population will always do as they please, with little regard for what black Americans have had to endure. While new white residents and visitors might call it revitalization, black residents often see it as just another case of ignorant displacement of black residents.

The social justice protests that we saw over the last year and a half in reaction to tragic deaths of George Floyd, Daniel Prude and Breonna Taylor (and many others) at the hands of police officers highlight the generational frustration over the multi-dimensional, 100-year long effort to oppress and disenfranchise black Americans. Even after slavery was repealed, the playing field has never been close to equal for black communities, especially in our urban cores.

As we speak, many of our cities are experiencing a rise in violent crime like we haven’t seen in decades. But as any social scientist will tell you, when you subsidize pockets of wealth and systematically oppress another population, the polarizing effect will doubtless lead to the emergence of gangs, violence and drugs in areas that have been forgotten for decades. Manufactured hopelessness universally breeds anger, frustration and mistrust.

In Sum

Ok, here’s a recap:

  • White people were subsidized and encouraged to leave cities, while minorities were not given the same opportunity.
  • Roads, bridges and highways were built to further encourage white flight, as the growing trend of car ownership was typically only available to upper class families. With a growing proportion of middle class car ownership gaining momentum, the very structure of our cities was about to change. Many highways were also rammed through black neighborhoods.
  • Because of the growing number of cars, streetcars and buses became far less efficient, leading to the death of many mass transit solutions that disproportionately impacted low-income city residents.
  • Automation, and to some extent an overseas migration of American manufacturing jobs, displaced workers across the country. At the same time, employers began to follow the population migration to the outlying suburbs, lessening chance that those who could not afford a car could thrive.
  • The War On Drugs, consciously or not, punished black Americans far more harshly than their white counterparts. Evidence suggests that this may have been a decades-long initiative meant to destabilize black families and derail anti-war and progressive social progress.
  • Shopping malls followed suburban growth, perpetuating the stronghold of Big Box stores, which sunk the small business retail culture in cities and even small towns.

It’s easy to look at our cities today and say that murder, crime, drug abuse and other woes are a city problem with a racial spin. And while we don’t necessarily forgive criminal behavior, my hope is that knowing the history and context of the events and policies that have shaped our cities will foster a sort of multidimensional understanding of why communities are divided, why violence is on the rise after a decades-long decline, and why poverty continues to plague our minority populations. The wedge of inequality in our cities, coupled with a number of economic factors, has created what we see in our downtowns and urban neighborhoods today.

But revitalization efforts are creating real change as more and more Americans understand that our cities can be great places, we just worked so hard to for so long to ruin them. Cities are powerful economic generators, social engines of progress, and environmentally and fiscally more efficient than their suburban counterparts. Even weakened, cities are still the unparalleled centers of innovation and advancement.

Urban movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter protests in the last decades have educated Americans about wealth disparity and racial and social justice nationwide. And as people of all ages begin to reimagine what cities can be, these movements (and many others) are more and more important in guiding us to a more economically and culturally inclusive urban environment. That being said, we have a long way to go before we make real strides to overcome a century of racial, economic and community design mistakes that shape our cities today.

But I’ve seen it. I’ve traveled these cities and I’ve seen what real people from all walks of life are doing to re-invigorate their urban cores and neighborhoods. I’ve seen small business owners that have an inclusive mission that is as strong or stronger than their desire for the bottom line. I’ve seen powerful advocacy that understands we have to lift our most underserved communities. I’ve seen a growing pocket of Americans who are starting to realize that the proliferation of the automobile was one of the most harmful blows to our cities. I’ve seen a rag-tag bunch of young people who were tired of people hating on their city lead the charge in re-imagining it. I’ve seen community design policies change, incentivizing the construction of mixed-income housing in our downtowns. The positive efforts of so many are the reason I write this blog, and the reason I am still inspired by the power of social progress and the human spirit.

Our cities have a very long way to go, and at times, the journey is not going to be pretty. But true societal change doesn’t happen in a matter of years, it happens over generations, and maybe even centuries. In the meantime, the best thing we can tell anyone who understands what I’m writing in this post is that change happens quietly and slowly, and if you’re looking from the outside in, it’s hard to see. This is all the more reason we need to be informed and ready to convey our knowledge to those who might have a limited understand of urban dynamics over the last 100 years.

Maybe your family won’t buy in. Often the comfort of ignorance is far more palatable and convenient than understanding the complex realities of social change. Every one of us struggles with some sort of avoidance behavior that protects us from the chance that the theory we have about life around is fundamentally flawed. But people who know the history of our cities must be vigilant in our efforts to disseminate our message, for it is the tale of urban history that shakes the foundation of the suburban American narrative.

Happy Holidays. Have fun. Be safe. Love everyone. Understand everyone. Convey your message peacefully, especially in this time of great conflict and polarization. But look for those opportunities to have the important dialogues that we are desperate for in our society today. May that be the true gift that we all need to find under the tree.