The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Black Urbanists, Part 7: A Definition of Black Urbanism

The iconic photo “A Great Day in Harlem”, taken by Esquire photographer Art Kane in 1958.  The photo is of 57 prominent jazz musicians, including legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk, and several neighborhood children.  

Links in the series:

Recognizing Black Urbanists
Black Urbanists, Part 1: Academia
Black Urbanists, Part 2: Community Activists
Black Urbanists, Part 3: Local Government Management

Black Urbanists, Part 4: Media
Black Urbanists, Part 5: Nonprofits
Black Urbanists, Part 6: Politicians and Private Practice

Here we are.  Five months, seven posts, and nearly 10,000 words into an exploration of black urbanism and the uncovering of black people working in the urbanist sphere, nominated by Corner Side Yard readers and followers, and we reach the conclusion.  The exploration is complete; now is the time to put it all together and determine what it means.

In a nutshell, the profiles of nominated persons here reveal that there is a distinct practice, or discipline, of black urbanism.

Before we get to defining that practice, let’s start at the beginning of the exploration.  The stereotype of urbanists is usually some sort of subset of the group most associated with gentrification in American cities — white, young, well-educated, generally liberal in political and social orientation.  They’re noted for bringing a fresh perspective on the possibilities and potential of cities.  They’re also known for bringing a skill set in a particular specialty (architecture or urban design, economics, transportation, public policy or academia) into broader discussions about cities.  From my perspective, this has been the prevailing view of urbanists since the rise of two different but often overlapping groups, the New Urbanists and the Creative Class adherents, during the 1990’s (I’ll discuss their relevance to black urbanism later).

But the fact remains that, despite that urbanist stereotype, the African-American population is one of the most urban of any racial or ethnic group in the country.  Nationally blacks make up about 12 percent of the total population.  However, when looking at the largest metro areas, those with more than one million people, that figure surges higher.  And when we consider specific metros, we see even larger percentages: Chicago, at 17 percent; New York, at 18 percent; Philadelphia, at 21 percent; Detroit, at 23 percent; Washington, D.C., at 26 percent; Atlanta, at 32 percent.  Blacks have a significant presence in American metropolitan areas, and that’s been the case for more than a century.

The numbers, however, haven’t necessarily translated into a universal understanding of the particular impact of black culture, black life and black thought on cities.  It’s true that most people recognize jazz, rock and roll, modern R&B and hip hop as art forms that have their roots in the African-American urban experience.  Another truth, however, is that blacks haven’t typically been represented in large numbers among the groups that have tended to develop urbanists and promote urbanism over the last 25-30 years or so — the architects, designers, economists, transportation experts, policy analysts and academics referred to earlier.  That even includes trained urban planners like myself.

But this series has made it clear that there are blacks who are making their presence felt in cities, in ways that deviate from the mainstream.  Rather than having an architectural, design or economic academic approach, many blacks bring a sociological perspective to their work.  Instead of working in the private sector, many are working with small nonprofits.  Instead of being motivated by the possibilities and potential of cities, many are motivated by civil rights and social activism.  That’s how the people who were nominated in this series came to me, and it begins to describe the four ways I see black urbanism as distinct from what I’ll call mainstream urbanism.

Pragmatic vs. Idealistic.  What is the immediate threat to American cities?  Is it the continued expansion of conventional low-density suburban development — sprawl — pulling people out of cities?  Is it a dire lack of housing, driving up prices and rents in the most desirable cities, threatening low-income residents?  Is it the primacy of the automobile, threatening pedestrians and a walkable environment?  Is it spreading inequality, with concentrated wealth and poverty at both ends of the economic spectrum, and a disappearing middle class?  In most cases, mainstream urbanists seem to take an idealistic approach and address problems in the abstract, while black urbanists, most concerned about spreading inequality and perhaps secondarily about affordability, seem to focus on immediate concerns and push for pragmatic solutions.

Direct vs. Indirect.  Many mainstream urbanists seem to view cities almost exclusively through the prism of their profession.  Architects and urban designers see design as having a transformative impact that can improve the urban quality of life; transportation and infrastructure experts contend that transit and infrastructure improvements can foster stronger links to job opportunities.  However, many black urbanists choose to take a more direct route to community revitalization, through addressing the needs of current residents.

Community Focused vs. Individually Focused.  Mainstream urbanism seems to concern itself with removing barriers that can allow revitalization, creativity and innovation to flourish.  That’s all well and good, for individuals who have the ability to maximize their personal opportunity.  But a critical distinction that many black urbanists make is that a community’s identity is collective, not an assemblage of individuals, and they tailor their revitalization approaches with that in mind.

Egalitarian vs. (vaguely) Autocratic.  Perhaps because a Le Corbusier, Daniel Burnham, or Robert Moses was able to accomplish much through their direct or indirect power to impact the physical appearance of cities, many mainstream urbanists have tried to utilize similar positions to obtain similar results.  Many black urbanists, however, have rarely had the ability to ascend to such heights and have had to use other means to have a similar impact (one huge caveat: Jane Jacobs adopted an egalitarian approach in her defense of her beloved Greenwich Village.  But while she’s been applauded since for her advocacy, earning her the highest rank from one publication listing influential urbanists, I’d challenge people today to think of a mainstream urbanist operating in a similar fashion).

The growth of New Urbanism and creative class theory underscore the differences between black urbanism and what’s become mainstream urbanism.  New Urbanism came about as an urban design movement in the mid-1980’s, promoting pedestrian-oriented development with mixed uses.   Early on I applauded the movement, because I saw it as celebrating the kinds of communities I most familiar with in cities.  But it became apparent that New Urbanism advocates had a complicated relationship with existing urban environments.  Yes, New Urbanists took their inspiration from the pre-World War II urban environment that permeated many cities, but were challenged today.  But it became clear that their goal was less about improving existing communities, and more about paving the way for the creation of new ones.  New Urbanists have done an excellent job of charting the way for suburbs to move away from the sprawl paradigm that’s ruled for the last 70+ years.  But the movement has had difficulty translating that success into inclusive revitalization of the existing communities that provided the inspiration.

Richard Florida’s identification of the creative class has been a driving force in the economic development of post-industrial cities since he introduced the idea in the book The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002.  Florida identified knowledge workers — technology, research, education, finance, health care, arts, and professional services, among others — as the leading edge in the transition from the twentieth century industrial economy to today’s post-industrial global economy.  Florida also said that successful places would be the ones that appealed to what creative class types preferred:  complex, diverse and stimulating environments that emphasize serendipitous contacts, or exactly the kinds of places New Urbanists were promoting.  City leaders and business elites took Florida to heart.  They worked hard to create the type of urban environment to support creative endeavors.

But today, even Florida is able to note that the laser focus on appealing to the creative class has created new challenges in our cities, without ever fully addressing the ones that existed all along.  In his book The New Urban Crisis, published last year, Florida laments the distortion of the creative class theory and its ultimate impact on cities:

“I have lived in and around cities and observed them closely my entire life, and I have been an academic urbanist for more than three decades. I have seen cities decline and die, and I have seen them come back to life. But none of that prepared me for what we face today. Just when it seemed that our cities were really turning a corner, when people and jobs were moving back to them, a host of new urban challenges—from rising inequality to increasingly unaffordable housing and more—started to come to the fore. Seemingly overnight, the much-hoped-for urban revival has turned into a new kind of urban crisis…

Gentrification and inequality are the direct outgrowths of the re-colonization of the city by the affluent and the advantaged.”

From my perspective, New Urbanism and creative class theory came into being through the prism of mainstream urbanism — idealistic, indirect in its problem resolution, individually focused, and autocratic in its implementation — without utilizing any of the pragmatic, direct, socially focused and democratic strategies employed by those working within the black urbanism paradigm.

The distinctions I’m noting now are something I’ve felt for decades as part of my personal experience, but haven’t been able to articulate until recently.  Early on in my career, I had the chance to work for a university engaged in a community/university partnership program funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The program brought together faculty and staff from a wide range of disciplines within the university, and community leaders and activists from the community we chose to focus our work in.  Ostensibly the goal of the program was to bring the institutional resources of a university to the grassroots community revitalization work taking place.  But it didn’t work out that way.

It didn’t take long to discover that some of the academics were less concerned with community revitalization, and more concerned with proving or disproving various theories.  Could youth violence be reduced through early intervention?  Does local school control improve student performance?  Could entrepreneurship thrive if community residents are allowed to flesh out business ideas with academic assistance, and given more exposure to business plan development?  All valid questions, but it sometimes appeared that the goal was finding answers to the questions, and not the revitalization of the community.

Added to this was the service learning approach the university wanted to adopt for all work it did in the community.  The university wanted to identify as many volunteering opportunities for its students as it could.  It sought out ways to use the tough environment of the inner-city community as a “teachable moment’ for students.  The university wanted student exposure to inner-city community challenges, followed by student reflection and introspection on those challenges, as a way to enrich the student learning experience.

At best, community revitalization became a tangential goal.

So what could each urbanist perspective learn from the other?  Black urbanism suffers mostly from a lack of recognition, in part due to the fact that few blacks doing the work come from the traditional fields that birthed urbanists.  Part of that is addressed in this series, by highlighting the work of dedicated servants to cities.  That can also be changed with more black people entering those same fields and gaining the credentials that signify “urbanist” to mainstream types.

But mainstream urbanists would do well to learn from the examples of those who chose the black urbanist path.  Choosing to solve problems instead of striving for a lofty ideal.  Being direct in addressing matters of inequality, rather than looking at indirect means for challenges that are the result of direct actions.  Shifting practices from those that emphasize individual gain for those at the highest levels to one that develops broad-based communities for people across the economic spectrum.  And seeking to gather the input of all in a given community, over the exclusive input of leaders, experts and moneyed interests.

The path to stronger, vibrant, and more inclusive cities is right before us, if we only listen to those who’ve been moving in that direction.

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