The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Moving Away From Opportunity?

Gentrification seems to have popped up as a hot urban topic again in the last few months.  The “Google Bus” controversy has been in the news lately, as affordable housing activists have been protesting the impact of high-income Silicon Valley tech employees on San Francisco home values.  A recent Atlantic Cities article highlights Atlanta’s fragmented struggle with urban revitalization in a suburban-sprawl environment.  Even bankrupt Detroit is showing signs of gentrification activity as it works out a bankruptcy plan in court.

There are those who welcome this and say the narrative about cities has shifted for the better:

There just aren’t that many neighborhoods remaining that are “undiscovered.” It’s all on the real estate radar, and as soon as it looks ripe, people with money sweep right in (skipping the bohemian phase altogether).

Very few neighborhoods in thriving cities retain the low-price, fertile obscurity that defined American gentrification from 1950 – 2010 or so. Fewer still offer the kind of sense of place that makes a gentrifying neighborhood into a creative milieu, a scene in the best sense of the term. I think we have probably passed peak gentrification in those terms. Maybe a decade or more ago.

 In the minds of many urbanists, cities have won.

But I think we’re only looking at a small part of the gentrification issue.  What’s happening is much larger than the accelerated improvement of urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and others.  What’s happening is a fundamental shift in the composition of our metro areas unlike anything we’ve seen in the last 60 years.

For an example, look at Chicago.  I took a look at some American Community Survey data for the Chicago metro area from 2005 and 2012, to gauge shifts in the demographic composition of the city and suburbs during that period.  Using the broadest definition of the Chicago metro area, the combined statistical area that stretches from Michigan City, IN to Racine, WI, we see that the region has grown slowly over the period, largely relying on (presumably) inmigration and birthrate growth from Hispanics:

Overall, the Chicago CSA grew by 2.8% for the period.

The city of Chicago’s population profile has been well-documented; the city reported a population loss in the 2000s but has since rebounded as economic prospects improved from the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2012, the growth profile of whites, blacks, Hispanics and all others looks like this:

Chicago lost nearly ten percent of its black residents, while whites, Hispanics and all others grew.

Now, if we look at the suburbs, excluding Chicago, we find this:

Taking the three charts together, here’s what we find:

  • Numbers of white residents in the metro area overall are decreasing, but growing in concentration in the city.
  • Numbers of black residents in the metro area are also decreasing, but growing in concentration in the suburbs.
  • Numbers of Hispanic residents and others (here defined as Asians, Native Americans, persons of mixed race, and any others not defined as white alone or black alone) are growing rapidly, and growing in concentration in the suburbs.
I use Chicago as the example, but I suspect that this trend is similar in virtually all Rust Belt cities.  Many may not have the Hispanic and other minority presence that would provide the leading edge of growth, but I would wager the profiles are similar.  I would also suspect that trends are similar for coastal metros, and to a lesser extent in the Sun Belt.
I don’t find this to be good news for minority residents in metro areas.  Why?  Because the narrative is changing regarding cities.  Cities are becoming viewed as the “new frontier”, and as new residents move in, opportunities will move in with them.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as “gentrification” solidifies in Chicago that crime inequalities emerge, but as more new residents move in the inequalities will dissipate.  I imagine the same will happen with education; the gap between good and bad schools in the city will grow, until more schools improve.
Meanwhile, minority residents may be unwillingly participating in a next generation resegregation.  We’re finding that urban homes have maintained their value better than suburban homes since the onset of the Great Recession.  We’re finding that crime rates are increasing in suburbs while decreasing in cities.  We’ll soon see decreases in suburban school quality and improvements in city school quality.  We’ll eventually end up with a transformation of our metro areas that will have minorities literally on the outside looking in.
Some may say may this speculation is premature, or requires more data.  True.  But we appear to be undergoing a shift in America not unlike the establishment of modern suburbia circa 1955.  We’ll see how this plays out.

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