The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Hyper-Segregation:The Defining Feature of Rust Belt Cities

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

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.

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