The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Insulation Comes With a Steep Price

The Atlantic put out an article ten days ago that may or may not have gotten much traction, but I believe is incredibly important and poorly understood by the vast majority of Americans.  Although we focus on the impact of segregation, income inequality and similar matters on those outside of the mainstream, we rarely focus on the forces that create them.

In other words, isolation cannot exist without insulation.  And insulation comes with a price to our society.

The article begins with a story about the border between Detroit and suburban Grosse Pointe Park, one of the clearest or starkest affluence/poverty divides I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the nation:

“Last summer, the Michigan town of Grosse Pointe Park erected a farmer’s market in the middle of one of the few remaining streets that allowed cars to pass between the tony suburb and the urban Detroit neighborhoods at its border. It was the latest of many attempts by Grosse Pointe Park residents to close off roads and block traffic between what has become a predominantly white, affluent suburb, and its poorer, urban neighbor.

There were protests about the border, and Grosse Pointe Park later said it wouldtear down the farmer’s market and re-open the road, but the incident speaks volumes to the segregation that exists in Detroit, and the tensions that can grow as a result.”

If you want to see how stark the difference is, witness this view of the Detroit/Grosse Pointe Park border (in orange) along Alter Road:

Grosse Pointe Park, on the right of the image, is largely intact.  Detroit, on the left, is riddled with vacancies.  Let’s look at this border at ground level.  Here’s a view of Wayburn Street in Grosse Pointe Park, one block in from the Alter Road border:

And then here’s a view of Ashland Street in Detroit, also one block away from the Alter Road border and just two blocks away from the above image:

How do such stark differences exist so close to each other?  How are they even allowed to exist at all?

Researchers Ed Goetz, Tony Damiano and Jason Hicks of the University of Minnesota documented the number of “racially concentrated areas of affluence” and the number of “racially concentrated areas of poverty” through analysis of census tract data for 15 of the 20 largest U.S. cities.  Their definitions for the areas:

“Racially concentrated areas of affluence, by the researchers’ definition, are census tracts where 90 percent or more of the population is white and the median income is at least four times the federal poverty level, adjusted for the cost of living in each city. Racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are census tracts where more than 50 percent of the population is non-white, and more than 40 percent live in poverty.”

And some of their findings:

“Detroit has 55 racially concentrated areas of affluence and 147 racially concentrated areas of poverty, according to the research, done by Ed Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks. Detroit’s racially concentrated areas of affluence are just 1.1 percent black. Its racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are 76 percent black.

Cities such as St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis have more racially concentrated areas of affluence (RCAAs) than they do racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAPs). Boston has the most RCAAs of the cities they examined, with 77. St. Louis has 44 RCAAs, and 36 RCAPs. Other cities with a large number of racially concentrated areas of affluence include Philadelphia, with 70, Chicago, with 58, and Minneapolis, with 56.

In Boston, 43.5 percent of the white population lives in census tracts that are 90 percent or more white and have a median income of four times the poverty level. In St. Louis, 54.4 percent of the white population lives in such tracts.

Still, it’s the poor areas, rather than the areas where whites have self-segregated, that get the most attention from policymakers, who have sought to ameliorate concentrated poverty in segregated areas by moving families from black, urban areas to white suburbs.”

I’ve cribbed quite a bit from the article, but I think one more quote demonstrates why this is a critical challenge to cities and metro areas:

“Goetz and his team are still researching the effects of this self-segregation of whites, but he thinks that a high number of RCAAs may be a negative factor for cities.

“Some people argue that when whites and affluent people segregate themselves, it can erode empathy, and it can inhibit the pursuit of region-wide remedies,” he told me. “It can inhibit a sense of shared destiny within a metropolitan area.”

That’s certainly true in a metro area like Detroit, where long-time Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has publicly voiced his opinions of the city and the virtues of his county, one of the most affluent in the nation, located immediately north of the Motor City.  In an interview with Paige Williams in the New Yorker last January, Patterson offered his thoughts on Detroit:

“Patterson told me, “I used to say to my kids, ‘First of all, there’s no reason for you to go to Detroit. We’ve got restaurants out here.’ They don’t even have movie theatres in Detroit—not one.” He went on, “I can’t imagine finding something in Detroit that we don’t have in spades here. Except for live sports. We don’t have baseball, football. For that, fine—get in and get out. But park right next to the venue—spend the extra twenty or thirty bucks. And, before you go to Detroit, you get your gas out here. You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.””

This is why I believe Detroit’s collapse, in particular, is better understood as a social phenomenon more than an economic one.  Detroit underwent similar economic distress as many Rust Belt cities, not more.  Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago — all underwent similar economic distress.  During a period of great tumult, however — the Great Migration that brought hundreds of thousands of black residents to Northern cities following World War II, who began jockeying for jobs and housing with existing residents, at the same time as the growth of suburbia — Detroit suffered far more than the others.

How did this happen?  Detroit underwent a withdrawal, a retreat, that was as complete as it was unprecedented.  Former Detroit residents sought to insulate themselves from the city in ways not seen in other metro areas.  It was enabled by a political governance system that no other Rust Belt city had.  Insulation has become the modus operandi in metro Detroit, and is a chief obstacle in many metro areas nationwide.

Sadly, I don’t have an answer for it.

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