The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Can Gentrification Management Work As Reparations?

New housing next to old in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable essay has had many people around the country buzzing.  His take on how fundamentally rooted racism is to the founding, growth and maturity of our nation is both enlightening and condemning.  I offered some early thoughts on his essay a week ago after it first came out, but now I’m ready to offer more.  While TNC really provided no broad outlines as to what reparations might look like, I think what I’ve started to call “gentrification management” might begin to serve that purpose.

As I’ve stated earlier, I believe that Coates and I have been looking at the same issues from different perches — he as an historian, journalist and public intellectual, and me as planner/urbanist.  I always had a nagging feeling that the conditions of isolated inner city areas were purposely created, and a lot of the research I’d conducted suggested as much.  What I had not done, as TNC has, was make the direct connection between redlining, blockbusting, urban renewal and other policies as an extension of the racial discrimination that created slavery and Jim Crow.  My thinking, as a planner/urbanist, has always been to seek methods to stimulate redevelopment and revitalization in our most troubled communities. 

Coates is right that the state-sanctioned policies of the last 75 years prevented the accumulation of wealth among blacks.  It is structural and foundational, and has created vastly different community types in our nation.  There simply are no other poor communities as fundamentally deprived as poor black communities.  But, especially in our cities, we are at the advent of a shift in living preferences that presents an opportunity.

That opportunity is proximity. 

For nearly all of the last 75 years, people have been fleeing our nation’s most established cities and seeking to set themselves up in new locales in the suburbs or the Sun Belt.  It’s mostly been economically driven, as people follow jobs, but it’s also been driven by the incentives and subsidies that made it possible (think G.I. Bill, Interstate Highway Act).  In that event, jobs follow people.

But it has also had a racial component, to varying degrees.  One reason white residents left cities is to minimize their loss of property value as black residents, attracted to new job opportunities in cities, expanded their urban footprint.  TNC does a masterful job of describing in his essay that this was a perfectly rational response.

Today that trend is reversing.  After writing off much of the city for decades, the tide seems to be turning.  William Frey of the Brookings Institute recently wrote about city growth, and pondered the question of whether the trend is enduring:

“So where are cities headed for the rest of the decade? This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the  newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could  signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.

Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up a growing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.”

 Related to this shifting trend, gentrification and its impacts have been surfacing in debates about inequality, affordable housing and displacement.  It’s heartening that the discussion has begun, but there is a missing link when it comes to discussing solutions.  Just as in the reparations debate that TNC has reinvigorated. 

In coming up with a language and potential policy framework for managing gentrification, there may be a way to address the loss of wealth that TNC identifies.  Furthermore, proximity provides an opportunity to create critical networks that are essential for the jobs, housing, social services necessary to navigate our society.

Here’s a bullet-point outline of gentrification management activities that might fit the reparations bill.

  • Entrepreneurship programs.  Opening up small business loan programs to persons living in or adjacent to gentrifying communities could accomplish two things: 1) it could accelerate the provision of amenities that newcomer residents seek in changing neighborhoods and 2) provide new job opportunities that were previously unavailable to local residents.
  • Apprenticeship programs.  New restaurants, shops and boutiques might do well to establish effective apprenticeship programs as part of their opening in a new community.  Working through local high schools, community colleges or social service agencies, stronger connections can be built between, for example, the local micro-brewery and the nearby residents who wonder what the fuss is about.
  • Sponsorship programs.  Just as entrepreneurship can be developed, so can workforce skills.  People working in professional positions, particularly creative economy jobs, could help to establish a link between the community they live in and the work they do through sponsoring local residents for job opportunities.
  • Fair Housing Act enforcement.  As part of their “Segregation Now” series, nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica detailed the lack of enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its ramifications over the last 40 years.  Communities routinely defy the act by not addressing affordable housing and fair housing concerns, yet continue to receive federal housing funding.  More effective monitoring and supervision of this at the federal level may produce results in the long run nationwide.
  • Expanded Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP).  NSP has its origins in the housing collapse of 2008, when HUD decided to dedicate funds to accelerate the purchase and redevelopment of foreclosed and abandoned properties across the nation.  The program has had three iterations, following up NSP with NSP2 and NSP3, and it’s been a useful but limited tool in addressing the conditions it was intended to address.  Larger scale implementation of the program could serve as a stimulus for investment in inner city neighborhoods.
  • Social Infrastructure Support.  Even the most distressed communities have social infrastructure, usually comprised of schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, block clubs, and the like.  As neighborhoods change, usually one type of social structure breaks down and a new one emerges.  However, with assistance from the philanthropic community, perhaps the existing social infrastructure in a changing neighborhood receives the help it need to adapt and grow, change its mission and increase its capacity in the community.  Doing so would build good will in the community and strengthen many of the activities listed above. 

These six points are not prescriptive, and are not intended to be.  They are simply a set of policies that could be on the table if and when a debate around gentrification management, or reparations, becomes serious.   The points suggest that there is a role for the private, public and nonprofit sectors, working in concert to address broader issues.  And if the set of policies described here sounds like an American-style Marshall Plan, that’s because it will take that kind of effort whether we call it gentrification management or reparations.

At any rate, let the discussions begin.

3 Responses to “Can Gentrification Management Work As Reparations?”

  1. Jaja

    Points 5 and 6 seem like they are more geared towards non-gentrifying neighborhoods. By gentrification management, do you mean preventing displacement in neighborhoods that are seeing an influx of wealthy residents, or do you mean preventing the exodus of blacks for gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods alike? Either way, your strategies definitely sound good.


  2. D Holmes

    You should check out the City of Milwaukee's efforts focused on the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, which runs through the center of Milwaukee's low-income predominantly African American neighborhoods, focused on one of the most challenging brownfields areas I have seen any city target for revitalization, and in an area that is physically separated from all of the areas of the city undergoing gentrification. The project combines environmental renewal, stormwater management, blight elimination, and economic development in a form and location where it has the greatest opportunity to benefit communities most in need. The City has invested more than $30 million to date in the largest and most challenging site (the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive plant which once employed 10,000 workers (which is now called the Century City site). The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District just approved plans for a $140 million project to address flooding/stormwater management in the corridor, which will correct key physical defects that have plagued the corridor as well as greatly expand green amenities. Milwaukee, like Chicago, was just named one of the 12 manufacturing communities, and will have the Century City site as one of the key locations for the training and innovation centers. Most of the neighborhoods bordering the corridor are 95-99% minority, and have poverty rates of around 50% on average. Overall, I think it includes some of the elements you reference above, but addresses other key challenges as well, such as the environmental degradation of many of the African American neighborhoods, especially those near former industrial corridors. More importantly, it is focused on creation of family supporting jobs in areas immediately adjacent to residential neighborhoods with high unemployment and poverty.


  3. Pete Saunders

    Jaja, my assumption has been that these practices would be put in place in gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods, however defined, and also in neighborhoods adjacent to those that may be experiencing gentrification pressures. But honestly, I've just come up with the outline of a program; I need to work on its implementation. D Holmes, I will definitely check out the 30th Street Industrial Corridor you cite.



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