|How much does the identity of the person holding this balloon matter? More than most think. Source: sandiego.urbanistguide.com|
This blog has been in existence for 5 1/2 years (yes, that amazes me, too) and if you’ve followed all that time, you’ll notice a few consistent themes. There’s Detroit, my hometown, which has been to hell and is finally making an honest-to-goodness comeback. There’s Chicago, where I live now, which has perhaps the widest perception disparity of any American city I’ve ever seen. In some way I’ve written about the post-industrial Rust Belt and the Midwest in general, a region that stubbornly resists the trends evident on both coasts (both good and bad) and is in search of a definition and of understanding. There are iconoclastic views on gentrification, going against the grain of the national narrative. And there’s the role of the black community, perhaps the nation’s most urbanized demographic, in the past, present and future of our cities.
I’ve written quite a bit about the lack of a recognizable “black urbanism” or the recognition of black urbanists. I’ve gone from asking, “where are the black urbanists?” , to developing theories as to why the contributions of blacks looking to improve cities seems to have been historically undervalued. I thought of the organization of the fields of urbanism and wondered if that had something to do with the lack of recognition. I pondered the growth and evolution of black political power and surmised that it also had a role in the view of blacks in cities. And then two years ago I put together a list of prominent people who I thought would qualify as black urbanists, in history and through to today.
I think it’s worth asking again, and answering again, why this is important.
“When I first read this piece I must admit that I nodded right along and found it a bit refreshing. But upon further reflection, and discussion with @rjkoscielniak and @tressiemcphd over email and beers, I became increasingly discontent and have decided that I disagree with the premise of the piece for a few reasons. There are black urbanists. We’ve simply been ignored or excluded. In other words, it’s not community activist recalcitrance, white flight, or even large cultural perceptions of urban=bad/dirty that have limited the voices of Black urbanists, but widespread structural and cultural racism, and an urbanist community that is largely silent on issues that many Black urbanists, activists, and scholars have advocated over the life of this country.”
There are exceptional black people who have been working with everything they have to not only preserve, but improve their neighborhoods. There are academics who have proven theories on the impact of blacks on cities, from the Great Migration until today, and documented the explicit and implicit racist practices that prevented blacks from flourishing. There are practitioners who are working at all levels of government to make wise investment decisions to stimulate development and revitalization. There are dedicated people working in the philanthropic community seeking to support the little-recognized efforts of those working in cities.
There is a black urbanism, and there are black urbanists.
I’ve distilled it down to two reasons why the issue is relevant. First, the back-to-the-city movement that began in earnest in the ’90s has fundamentally altered national perceptions of cities. New movements, from the New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates who saw their start in the ’90s to today’s YIMBYs, touted the importance and livability of cities. Sadly, however, those movements often either glossed over, minimized or outright ignored the efforts of many who toiled in cities prior to their epiphany that cities are indeed good places. Black urbanists have never been fully admitted into this growing group.
Secondly, black urbanists are working in an environment in which cities are becoming more diverse among all demographics — except blacks. I recently wrote about the growing suburbanization of blacks in our nation’s largest metro areas and began thinking about the social and political impact of the shift.
Given these reasons, it’s possible that the identification and recognition of black urbanists is even more important today than when I first broached this subject five years ago.
Last week Planetizen released its list of the 100 most influential urbanists, nominated by and voted on by its readers. Planetizen notes that this list is far more diverse than the one first developed in 2009; the number of women rose from nine in 2009 to 17 in 2017. By my estimate the 2017 list features 17 persons of color, with six being African American. Planetizen should be applauded for its commitment to inclusion in urbanism, as reflected in this new list. However, it also led me to revisit this issue once again.
A few days ago I issued a request via Twitter for nominations of black urbanists worthy of recognition and celebration. The response was overwhelming. By Friday afternoon I received more than 40 nominees of individuals working to improve the lives of urban residents across the nation. I added a handful of others to produce a list of 50 total nominees. Look for a post in the next couple days that includes a short bio on the nominees, and then voting will resume once again in the Twitterverse.
Thanks so much for everyone’s contribution, and I hope you view this as valuable as I do.