The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Not Getting the Urbanist’s Message

Scene from Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.  Source:

My wife and I are coming up on sixteen years together, twelve of them married.  Anyone who’s ever married realizes that you won’t always be totally in sync on everything, and that’s OK.  However, if there’s one persistent debate my wife and I have, it’s our living preferences.

I’ve written about my wife Gwen and her family’s history before.  She grew up in Chicago’s Wicker Park — today one of Chicago’s trendiest and most in-demand neighborhoods, but a crime-ridden no-man’s-land 30-35 years ago.  Largely because of crime, my wife’s family moved away from Wicker Park in 1981.  They settled in West Humboldt Park, where my mother-in-law still lives today.  My wife and mother-in-law are both astounded by the transformation that took place just two miles east.

Just as my experience growing up in Detroit has impacted me, Gwen’s experience in Wicker Park has shaped her.  But we’ve arrived at different conclusions.  I’ve long believed that cities have suffered from willful neglect due to economic disinvestment and segregationist policies that extracted wealth and accelerated decline.  Take that neglect away, I say, and cities will prosper once again.  Gwen, on the other hand, is fed up with cities.  I said as much here in January:

If it were simply up to her we would never live in Chicago, or any large city, ever again.

You have to understand this. To her, and to millions of other blacks who came up in cities at the same time, cities are not the next frontier, or some new land of opportunity. Cities are not any more – or less – authentic in their being. Cities are becoming something that no longer wants her. In her view, cities are, at best, overpriced and over-regulated environments with no parking. Full of incredible amenities, yes, but micro brewpubs, gourmet restaurants and coffee shops are not her scene. She remembers when bikers avoided streets to prevent hit-and-run incidents; now they have their own bike lanes. Cities are crowded, loud, and did I say no parking? To her cities are best enjoyed through visits, not immersion. She wouldn’t mind living in a city if we were one-percenters (or even five-percenters), so that we could live in the kind of home and have the kind of lifestyle that would mitigate her dislikes. Alas, we’re not there yet.

At worst, she sees cities as she experienced them during her childhood – dope boys on the corner, taking cover when she hears shots fired. Troubled schools, traveling great distances to go to the supermarket. Full of neighborhoods that lack access to the region’s job centers, both city and suburban.

By contrast, she enjoys the lower density, retail-rich environment we live in. Homes are larger and more contemporary. The schools are excellent, and that means a lot when you have a third-grade son. Parks and forest preserves are available for recreation.

For anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “happy wife, happy life”, you understand why we live in Naperville.

I bring this up again because CityLab’s Richard Florida wrote about this last week.  Florida cited a recent study by William Riggs of California Polytechnic State University that examines equity and access to walkable communities in the San Francisco Bay area.  The study found a considerable racial divide when it comes to access to walkable communities, with blacks being far less likely than other groups to live in walkable neighborhoods.

I could’ve told anyone that.  My personal experience, and that of my wife, has shown this to be a national phenomenon.

The real question, however, is why is this happening?  As more evidence builds on the merits of walkable communities, and as walkable communities are establishing themselves on the urban landscape again, why do blacks seem to be moving away from them?

Unfortunately, I think Cal-Poly’s Riggs offers a couple of weak explanations for this phenomenon.  There is truth to the point that longtime black homeowners living in walkable neighborhoods are seeking to cash out for more square footage.  There is also some truth that people are simply following where friends and family have relocated, and they want to be close to people like them.

But I see deeper reasons:

  • Many blacks still associate dense, walkable communities with being poor-quality communities, full of congestion and crime.  It’s not that many blacks did not grow up in walkable communities; it’s that they often grew up in poor walkable communities, like my wife.   They haven’t necessarily envisioned the alternative.  If they have…
  • Many blacks don’t feel that today’s version of the walkable community has them in mind.  My wife will be the first to tell you that today’s neighborhoods featuring high-priced haute cuisine, brewpubs and rentable Divvy bikes simply does not have contemporary black middle class people in mind.  To her, it’s too expensive, too pretentious, and used as a tool of exclusion.
  • Suburban living is still aspirational among many blacks.  The prevailing narrative for more than 60 years in this nation was that suburban living was the American Dream.  Most Americans were able to act on that dream.  They bought homes and later worked in jobs that moved closer to them.  Many blacks, however, were unable to act on the dream until the last 25-30 years or so — redlining in urban cores meant little equity to use to buy a suburban home, and exclusionary zoning policies kept suburban home prices artificially high.  Furthermore, blacks often heard about how bad there communities were, full of crime, bad schools, substandard housing.  Today, many blacks are moving quickly to partake in the suburban dream that tens of millions of Americans have enjoyed for decades.
  • The urbanists’ walkability mantra is simply not penetrating the black community.  As one who’s been in the planning profession for 25 years, I noted from the start of my career that New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates likely had a willing ally among minority urban residents who were already living in the kinds of communities they sought to recreate.  We agree, they’d say, and continue their focus on trying to improve the suburban landscape, to limited effect.  Perhaps their biggest accomplishment was to educate millions of suburbanites on walkable communities, and encouraging them to seek those places out — without doing the same with longtime urban residents.  As a group, blacks have largely missed that message and are therefore not a part of the movement. 
I don’t think most urbanists choosing to move into cities much care that the walkability message hasn’t penetrated the black community.  In fact, their ability to act on their economic interests, to buy low and sell high, depends on a knowledge disparity that is every bit as damaging as the economic disparity we’re all quite aware of.  
I’ll say it again.  We are quickly moving toward solidifying the metro area alignment that’s becoming known as the “New Donut” — affluent downtowns and city neighborhoods, surrounded by poor outlying city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, and further surrounded by affluent exurban areas.  This will have devastating impacts — whoever lives in the intermediate area will find themselves living in a no-man’s-land with no amenities, no leadership, crumbling housing and infrastructure — and little sympathy from the other parts of the donut.

6 Responses to “Not Getting the Urbanist’s Message”

  1. Anonymous

    I don't think middle class blacks are any different than middle class whites when it comes to fleeing poorly governed cities. I seem to recall a an animated GIF showing middle-class people fleeing Chicago over the last 40 or 50 years, to be replaced by large numbers of very low income people, along with an increase in very rich people. I'm guessing the Chicago's politicians like this population mix because it keeps them in power. Chicago hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1932. Lots of poor people along with a substantial number of limousine liberals mean a lock on elected offices for the Dem's. Black middle class people realize that it's a recipe for failure and they're fleeing just like the middle class whites.


  2. Barbara Boylan

    Excellent read – I think history when it comes to race is critical to the narrative. Glad to hear that \”high-priced haute cuisine, brewpubs and rentable Divvy bikes\” are not everyone's desire! I live in Cincinnati and this is how we are gentrifying in rapid bursts. I don't think middle-class blacks are even in the marketing mix here – but when where they ever. As a middle class white, I guess I am not young and creative enuf, cuz the food and beer and bikes all say to me – there go the poor from that area! And no one wants to hear that.


  3. Kevin Klinkenberg

    Pete – I think you've hit the nail on the head, and especially the point about the aspirational qualities of suburbia. My question – are there any exceptions to this rule, and if so, why? New Orleans, for example?Your post comes on the heels of the recent article about bike sharing struggling in African-American communities, even when operators are pulling out all the stops. It's wise to take a deeper look at all of this and ask the hard questions. And then ask, how can we more effectively recast the allure of walkable communities so that more people will stay and reap the benefits of the rising tide of cities?


  4. NEO

    Your argument implies that somehow things would be so much better off with Republicans running Chicago government, without any evidence to support that fact, just personal ideology. I know this isn't a political forum, and I by no means endorse the Democratic status quo in play within most US cities, but honestly, the thinly veiled racist and exclusionary ideologies of the GOP for the past 60-plus years betray any rationalized pretense that they pose any real solutions for the challenges cities face today. The Republican mantra is \”vote for us because we we want power for its own sake, not because we actually want to govern.\” Indeed, the nonreformable two party system has worked such wonders for our cities. It's why I now wonder how nonpartisan elections would change the dynamic of governance at this level.


  5. Anonymous

    I wrote such a similar post a few months ago! quoting myself here:“Before drilling into the reasons I think urbanism isn’t diverse, it is good to note why many black people are trying to get out of the city. We (as black people) are only about 40 years into having “full” choice in housing and neighborhoods; forced segregation only ended in the 60s. Segregation lingered well into the 70s.Today this choice is still hamstrung by systemic racism, the wealth gap and predatory lending.  But many of the worst polices, like redlining finally ended in the 70s. This choice in housing was limited to people with the right sort of privilege and experience to choose (and afford) to live in any neighborhood.After generations of being forced to live in rural areas or in the “inner city,” black people could finally pick any neighborhood. Experiencing the suburban American dream without too many consequences. After watching the turmoil in many American cities in the 60s: divestment in our urban areas, “redevelopment” and “urban renewal” projects, is it really a surprise, that people with choice decided to look for white picket fences? Good schools and large lots awaited.”I like living in walkable areas and seek them out. It is a preference shaped by the convenience I found as a teen visiting college campuses, spending a summer at an urban college campus where everything was in walking distance and a few trips to bigger cities where you could exist without a car. I loved it. I grew up in (nice) suburbia where life revolved around a car, and your parents shuttled you around. I think the bike movement misses the boat in getting more of the \”middle class blacks\” in the mix. And it is really a reflection of classism and social class. To be frank, as a middle class black person, the last thing you want is for people to think you are poor. There is already a prevailing stereotype that black = poor. We all aspire to not look poor and that means having a large home, a nice well-maintained car and all of the trappings of the American Dream. No one defines the American Dream on a bike. Or in a cramped urban condo.Personally, I like bike share, bike lanes, transit, 3rd wave coffee and fusion restaurants. But if you look at the marketing for these things it features young white hipsters or older white empty nesters. If you live in an average american metro, these spaces are not welcoming to black people. I'll quote myself again:\”Our definition of urbanism is one that pitches a lifestyle for liberal middle to upper middle class people. People who travel to Europe, and want to recreate the “idyllic” walkable environment at home with baguettes, cheese shops, cobblestone streets and old world charm.We rarely look to Asia, Africa or Latin America for urban inspiration. Where a scrappier, DIY mentality has taken hold, with urbanism for the masses. In Latin and South America city governments make improvements in infrastructure and safety for poor people, so they will stay home and create opportunity instead of going abroad. Cities in Africa have an unofficial and well-organized system of vans and jitney buses to provide transportation without public funding. In Asia density is a policy, and in places like Hong Kong, the government profits by leasing land to developers. In Korea freeways or torn down to improve air quality and build parks and public spaces. Our urbanism is romanticized old-world or Danish modern.Urbanism cannot diversify, without building a wider base of different perspectives, and looking at issues from more angles. Urbanism has the potential to help us solve micro and macro economic issues, environmental issues, civic participation and engagement issues, affordable housing issues, social justice issues and public health issues.\”You can check out my post here:


  6. Anonymous

    My argument implies nothing. I wrote plainly. And in no way did I state that an 83 -year monopoly by the GOP in Chicago would be any better than the current 83-year monopoly by the Dem's. In both cases it is (would be) disastrous. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is the situation in Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and other big Rust Belt and East Coast cities. The Dem's figured out how to gain and stay in power and those cities have degenerated into corrupt kleptocracies. Their method of operation has been to curry the favor of very poor people with welfare handouts and very rich, limousine liberals—who have so much money that it really doesn't matter how what percentage of taxes they pay—to stay in power.And it's worked. At least to keep the Dem's in power. For the long-term health of the cities in question? Not so much.BTW, Chicago elections have been officially nonpartisan since the 1990s. It doesn't matter. The last mayoral runoff choice was between a Machine Democrat and a Marxist Democrat.Some choice.



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