|Scene from Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Source: ppmapartments.com|
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.