The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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The Housing Segregation Conundrum

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I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether? Continue reading


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Interview: Anna’s Word on Detroit

My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.

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Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.

Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?

A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.

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Q: What did you do in Detroit?

A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens. Continue reading


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Little Kid in the Big City

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I’ve been taking care of two wonderful girls in Minneapolis all summer and through this job I’ve learned about cities from a new perspective. When you’re a kid, the city is an entirely different scene. Everything is bigger, more confusing, but usually more exciting—and we often forget about this viewpoint once we grow up. I highlighted several ideas for free summer fun a few weeks ago and most of those are suitable for children, but here are some specific ideas that I’ve picked up while traversing the city with kids.

Make it bold: Kids are attracted to bright colors and lively music, big splashes and sweet treats. To keep them engaged, you’re going to have to keep your landscape interesting. (Of course, some kids are also scared of loud noises or crowds so know your child.)

Get there a different way: I’ve never met a kid who didn’t like riding the train and—while many of us don’t have easy access to trains in our neighborhoods—any new form of transportation is bound to delight. Take the bus. Try walking. I’ve been impressed with how far my girls can walk without complaint (particularly when there’s the promise of ice cream at the end).

Seek out special events: I mentioned festivals and concerts in this post and those are often a perfect kid-friendly activity, but it’s worth mentioning that libraries, parks, shopping districts and book stores also often sponsor child-centered events.

Mix it up: Do you take the kids to the farmer’s market every weekend? Visit a new one this time. Better yet, visit an actual farm. 

Be mindful of energy: Sometimes I forget that I can walk much faster and farther than the kids I’m in charge of. Pay attention to the endurance of your kids. Plan a reasonable amount of time for a given activity and give them a chance to take a break on a bench, drink water, nap, etc.

Welcome the questions: Children come up with the most outlandish questions when they encounter something new and this is a fantastic opportunity to challenge you own assumptions and learn things. Kids ask how library books are organized and why the lake doesn’t have chlorine in it. They ask why one park is filled with rocks and another with woodchips, or what exactly is inside a bottle of sunscreen. I welcome these teaching moments and sometimes find myself googling the answers when I get home from work.

Stay cool with the kids this summer!