The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Middle of the Great Inversion

Cities and suburbs will have a few years of this, until the process of inversion is complete.  Then they won’t.  Source:
A common refrain was often overheard in cities during the transitional era of the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  To many, integration was defined as the short period of coexistence bounded by the movement of the first black family into a neighborhood and the last white family out of it.  Although couched in mostly positive terms, some recent data presented by the Brookings Institution might be bringing this observation to the fore once again.

Last week the Brookings Institution published a rather hopeful report illustrating that black-white segregation in American metro areas, long a defining feature in our society, continues its decline.  Demographer William Frey analyzed the 52 largest metro areas with at least 20,000 black residents (which also roughly corresponds to the number of metro areas with greater than 1 million residents):

The new statistics, drawn from the Census Bureau’s 2010-2014 American Community Surveyallow calculation of neighborhood racial attributes and segregation measures. A standard measure of segregation indicates the percentage of blacks that would have to change neighborhoods to match the distribution of whites. It ranges from zero (complete integration) to 100 (complete segregation). When applied to the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas with at least 20,000 black residents most show segregation levels between 50 and 70 (see Map). While far below the nearly apartheid racial separation that existed for much of the nation’s history, these are still high measures—more than half of blacks would need to move to achieve complete integration.

Frey notes that the lowest levels of segregation appear in the South and Southwest, but Northeastern and Midwestern metros are reducing segregation more quickly and are catching up to their Sun Belt brethren:

(T)here is great variation across metropolitan areas as some of the fastest growing places in the South, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Austin show levels below 60. Las Vegas registers the lowest level at just 40. On the other hand, many of the nation’s large metropolitan areas outside the South, especially in the slow growing industrial Midwest and Northeast, have levels above 70, led by Milwaukee at 81 and followed by New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo (Download Excel table). These areas served as primary destinations of the “Great Migration” out of the South for much of the last century, but as their economies declined, and blacks began returning to the South their old pre-civil rights segregation patterns tended to persist among the mostly urban African American populations left behind.

But the positive news, shown with the new data, is that several of these high segregation areas have shown declines since 2000 (link to Table 1). Many of these experienced a renewed black suburbanization which led residents of heavily black city neighborhoods to somewhat more integrated neighborhoods in the suburbs. Between 2000 and 2010–14, black-white segregation levels declined in 45 of the 52 metropolitan areas; with several of the bigger declines registered by older Midwest regions.

Detroit’s and Kansas City’s segregation levels declined by 11 percentage points and those of Chicago, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis fell by at 5 points or more. This is significant because these older Northern areas were slower to desegregate than Southern areas where segregation declines occurred in earlier decades, as their fast growing black and white populations expanded into newer somewhat more integrated communities. Still the new data also show pervasive segregation declines in the South—with Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa, and Louisville showing segregation declines of 5 or more points since 2000.

I’m not so hopeful.  This data may simply be a snapshot of a larger trend in progress — the “Great Inversion” that means a growing number of affluent residents moving into cities, paired with a growing number of middle class, working class and low income groups moving into suburban areas.  Because of the way our economy is structured, this inversion is going to have a racial dynamic to it.

As the data brought forth by Brookings suggests, Northeastern and Midwestern metro areas are indeed desegregating at a greater pace than other metro areas.  These were metros where minorities of all types, not just African-Americans, were concentrated within central cities.  However, over the last 30-35 years, the exclusionary policies that once made a suburban lifestyle difficult for minorities to obtain have eroded.  Minorities have taken advantage of the availability of suburban housing and moved in.  This is presented as a positive.

Sun Belt metros in the South and Southwest, often unburdened with the segregation legacies and patterns that defined mid-20th century Northern cities, show lower levels of segregation at the metro level and a offered as a model for other metros to emulate.  They, too show evidence of inversion activity taking place, but less than that in Northern metros.  This is also presented as a positive.

Why am I not particularly hopeful?  I have concerns with the direction of the demographic pattern, at the macro and micro levels.

At the micro level, I see Northeastern and Midwestern metros leading the way in “Great Inversion” activity within them.  As I’ve noted in a few posts, African-Americans in particular are showing a greater preference for suburban living at the same time that whites are showing a growing preference for urban living.  This may be seen as a positive, but only if we believe that other qualities that define our metro areas, like where our jobs are located, the quality of our infrastructure, or even the value of our homes, remains static.  My guess is that the Great Inversion will lead to a recalculation of these qualities, and jobs will move, suburban infrastructure will deteriorate, and suburban home values will fall — in deference to cities.

At the macro level, I equate Sun Belt metros with the suburbs of Northeastern and Midwestern metros.  They are often largely suburban in their development character, and many people, minority or otherwise, move from Indianapolis to Austin for the same reasons that people moved from Chicago to suburban Arlington Heights.  My guess here is that as the urban preference strengthens and spreads among metros, Sun Belt metros that lack a critical mass of urban characteristics and amenities will be faced with paying the daunting costs of urbanizing their surroundings or losing out — just as the suburbs of Northern metros would.

In a global economy that seems to advantage cities, this appears to be a watershed moment for Sun Belt metros as well as the suburbs of older Northeastern and Midwestern cities.

Ultimately, any comment on changes in metro segregation patterns in America is a snapshot of an incomplete process.  I’m unconvinced that we’re seeing any rising public acceptance of diverse communities, or of reducing economic and social inequality.  We’re simply witnessing and documenting a metro-level reordering of people and things as it happens.

2 Responses to “The Middle of the Great Inversion”

  1. BCollinsSignMan

    Pete: Thanks for this analysis. Your suspicions of the renewal in future years of new patterns of segregation may be right. I won't belabor this point except to point to Ferguson, Missouri and other inner-ring suburbs of the City of St. Louis that are located in the northern part of St. Louis County. Clearly, as the data points to blacks moving out St. Louis City to St. Louis County, on the surface that sounds good. However, when one recognizes that a large number of blacks moving out of St. Louis City are, in effect, being herded into this inner-ring suburbs with a declining jobs base and anemic property values, then the pattern becomes more troubling. Here in Cincinnati, the pattern of black suburbanization appears to be similar to St. Louis City/St. Louis County. Yes, some more affluent blacks are moving into mostly non-black suburbs that are more affluent like Mason and West Chester and Loveland. But, from what I can tell the bulk of the blacks moving out of the City of Cincinnati into Hamilton County (the county of which the City of Cincinnati is a part) are moving into a group of 5-6 suburban school district where the quality of the public schools (as measured by state standardized tests) is now lower than the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) and where most of those schools are now heavily black. Of course, Cincinnati may be a bit of an aberration (I don't think so, but it could be) because among urban public school systems in the USA where annexation is not really allowed any more CPS is considered one of the best — infinitely better than Chicago Public Schools, St. Louis Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools, Cleveland Public Schools, Dayton Public Schools, etc. But, that is what I am noticing. I'd love to hear what other people living in Northeastern and Midwestern cities are seeing on this point.


  2. D Holmes

    Count me as skeptical as well of the significance of this study. Milwaukee certainly fits the segregated rust belt city narrative… but its essentially identical in segregation measures (both the index and the % of metro residents that are black) to New York City (perhaps the most diverse and successful city on planet earth). I hate the absurdity of this type of study as well. There are probably more than a 1000 cities, towns, or villages in Wisconsin. Only one (Milwaukee) meets the thresholds to be included in this study. So Milwaukee gets the notoriety in Wisconsin associated with being ranked as the most segregated major city in the US – even though it is likely the least segregated municipality in the State of Wisconsin.The low segregation measures for cities such as the major Texas metropolitan areas are another reason for skepticism regarding the ability of this study to provide useful insights into segregation trends. I recall a study on economic segregation published earlier this year in which I think the Texas metros ranked as the most economically segregated, led by Austin. In America of today, its hard to see how a place developing a strong pattern of economic segregation won't increasingly see this pattern expressed in black-and-white segregation patterns. I could be wrong but I'm definitely skeptical of drawing too many conclusions regarding which cities trends are in fact favorable.Milwaukee definitely does not have any Ferguson type suburbs. The suburbs with the largest minority populations are Brown Deer, Glendale, Wauwatosa, West Milwaukee, and West Milwaukee. All have a very strong record of redevelopment – some extraordinary – all while becoming increasingly diverse. Perhaps it won't last. The minority populations are still small relative to those in City of Milwaukee.



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