The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Quiet Newcomer

A map of Baltimore for the U.S. Home Owners Loan Corp., 1937.  Red areas were deemed “strong risks” for mortgages.  Source:
A book I read nearly 30 years ago seems to offer an appropriate analogy for what’s happening in our cities today.

The Quiet American by British author Graham Greene was originally published in 1955.  The book (and its subsequent films from 1958 and 2002, although the latter is truer to the book) details the relationships between three figures — Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, Alden Pyle, an American aid worker, and Phuong, a Vietnamese woman, during the midst of the First Indochina War between the French and independence-minded Viet Minh forces in Vietnam following World War II.  Fowler is a weary and jaded writer in Indochina to cover the war as a reporter.  Pyle is a driven and idealistic aid worker who believes he has, and that America has, a solution to the war.  Phuong is a 20-year-old woman whose desire for security draws her to both men.

After years of covering the war between the colonialist French and Viet Minh, Fowler has seen enough.  Pyle, however, is a devotee of York Harding — an American foreign policy theorist who believes Indochina needs a “third force” — apart from the colonialists and rebels — to bring lasting peace to the region.  Pyle is later revealed to be (spoiler alert!) a CIA operative in Vietnam to help steer the war in the direction of America’s interests.  Phuong becomes the center of a love triangle as she seeks to escape the depravity of war.

In describing Pyle, Fowler had a notable quote about him and his role in Indochina:

“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Fowler realizes that Pyle has little fundamental understanding of the root causes of the war.  He finds that Pyle is engaged in provocations designed to escalate the war.  Fowler elects to challenge Pyle’s aggressive idealism.

As our nation deals with the recent unrest in Baltimore, on the heels of similar events in Ferguson, and struggles to find the right context to define our cities, I’m reminded of this.

Without a doubt the last 15-20 have seen a renaissance in our nation’s big cities; one that, had you asked me in 1990, I would’ve said, “possible, but unlikely.”  The urban renaissance has been driven by younger, educated former suburbanites, looking for something very different from what they experienced as a child.  They’ve left a significant imprint on cities over this period, and given cities a far stronger foundation than they previously had.

But while these young adults, and their parents, and their grandparents, settled and developed the suburbs, there were long-standing social and structural issues festering in cities that they had little awareness of.  Those issues linger to this day.

The legacy of restrictive covenants, redlining and exclusionary zoning, beginning more than 100 years ago, limited the fortunes of many city residents.  Cities became defined throughout the twentieth century for their proclivity for violence — at first in the 1910s and 1920s, and once again of a different sort in the 1960s.  Urban renewal projects and interstate highway development tore apart neighborhoods and displaced thousands.  The movement of jobs from cities to suburbs, and a corresponding disinvestment in transit, isolated city residents from job opportunities.  School quality in urban school districts began to decline as the tax base that supported them disappeared, and they became overwhelmed by the social challenges the children brought with them to school.  A “tough-on-crime” mantra that emerged in the ’70s and morphed into the War on Drugs in the ’80s and ’90s inflicted criminal records and draconian sentences on hundreds of thousands of city residents, further isolating them from mainstream society.

This is the American city that city newcomers are moving into today.  This is the city they must understand.

I welcome the newfound interest in cities.  I welcome the reinvestment in housing and commercial development.  I love the renewed energy that can be found in virtually every city today.

Sadly, all of it has taken place in a bubble, in a vacuum.  It can only go so far, revitalize so much of the city, until we deal with the century of actions that created the city they moved into.

City newcomers are bringing lots of new ideas to improve city governance, efficiency, mobility and transparency.  I appreciate the utilization of data to solve problems that were once believed to be intractable.

But we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to dealing with the issues that really plague our cities today.

This paper from the Economic Policy Institute lays out the case in Baltimore, which is really no different than most American cities:

In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

Thus began a century of federal, state, and local policies to quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums—policies that continue to the present day, as federal housing subsidy policies still disproportionately direct low-income black families to segregated neighborhoods and away from middle class suburbs.

Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.

Again, Baltimore’s experience is not unique.  It happened in Philadelphia, or Cleveland, or Chicago, or St. Louis.  It happened in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Kansas City.  In Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas and Houston.  American cities were characterized by explicit efforts to segregate African-Americans, followed by implicit efforts to do the same, throughout the twentieth century.

These issues have policy prescriptions.  They’ve been put before the American public before, but have generally been ignored.  When we develop the will to create better cities, we will have better cities.

2 Responses to “The Quiet Newcomer”

  1. Anonymous

    Right. This makes me think of something someone else said (a little more sarcastically), \”In 2015 liberals still want to talk as little as possible about wealth disparity. Don't worry guys, we'll put cameras on the cops and that'll fix all the problems. We'll take a look at why black people have 1/10th the wealth of whites..uh…later…some time.\”I'm all for police reform, as it's clearly needed, but I'd very much like to see some plans to address the fundamental problems at the city, state, and federal levels. Something to start to reverse the hundreds of years of plunder.


  2. Alan

    To me, one of the most illustrative things to see is both how similar Canadian cities were historically, and how different they are today, due to that country's relative lack of a black population, and subsequent lack of an attempt to use urban policy to explicitly and then implicitly enforce white supremacy.The same issue is illustrated, to a milder degree, in American cities that have small minority populations, either by accident of history (Minneapolis), or policies to exclude them from the entire region (Portland/Seattle).



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