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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I Will Build This

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After four years working in the field of homelessness prevention, I’ve zeroed in on one big way to help end homelessness. It isn’t education and it isn’t a shelter. (I’ve written before about why shelters are not the solution.) It’s something more attainable and concrete.

I have many dreams (to create an Oscar-winning documentary, to become a bluegrass singer, for example) but the one I am focusing all my efforts towards and shaping my goals around is this: to build high-quality, truly affordable housing as a lasting solution to homelessness.

The “Solutions” That Don’t Work

Why is affordable housing an important solution to homelessness? In short, because welfare is unsustainable and inadequate, and because the minimum wage will take too long to go up. These “solutions” to homelessness don’t work. Let me explain. When I encounter a homeless family that has been referred to the rapid rehousing program at my organization, one of the first things I look at is their income. I will use that to figure out what sort of payments they can make towards rent now, and what sort of apartment they might be able to afford after our subsidy ends. Most clients are either getting by on welfare checks, Social Security Income (because of a serious mental or physical disability that prevents them from working), child support (with payments ranging from $2-$50 a month, i.e. negligible) or wages from a job. Everyone is also receiving SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps).

So, let’s discuss these potential income streams for accessing housing. Continue reading


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Milwaukee, WI: The City That Contradicts Itself

Milwaukee's Third Ward in Winter

My boyfriend and I have this debate about his hometown. He’s tired of it, ready to get out soon, disgruntled by the vast majority of its bro-y residents, and skeptical about its insurmountable segregation. Meanwhile I relish every opportunity I can to adventure in Milwaukee (and not just because he’s there). I’ve visited enough times now to have a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite neighborhood, a favorite park and a favorite corned beef sandwich (of course!), but I think what fascinates me most about Milwaukee is that it is a city of urban contradictions. It’s established and exciting enough to draw a national audience, and yet the population is mostly Wisconsinites. It’s an attractive, inviting city in many regards, and yet it’s still widely affordable to live in. It’s got a progressive sensibility and a fairly successful economy, and yet it’s the most segregated metro-area in the nation. These contradictions make Milwaukee a captivating case study and an important city to pay attention to as other Midwestern cities rise and fall (here’s looking to you Detroit). It’s a hidden gem, with some dark secrets.

First, what’s attractive about this place? Milwaukee has incredible assets: a gorgeous lakefront, high-quality public transit, hundreds of affordable and delicious local food options, proximity to other important cities like Chicago and Madison (and rail transit to these as well), plus local industries to be proud of like world-famous beer factories and incredible cheese companies. Talk about products that we’ll always have a demand for! Moreover, Milwaukee does all this with not an ounce of pretension or snob. It’s the friendly guy from down the block that your parents will definitely approve of when you bring him over for dinner (but he secretly has a motorcycle).

It surprises me, then, that more people haven’t figured out how cool this place is and driven the prices up for the rest of us. I think it’s the Midwest curse—if you’ve never actually stopped in the “flyover states,” you have no idea what you’re missing out on. Outsiders think the Midwest is just mountains of snow, plates of hotdish* and caricatured accents, but the truth is, it is far more nuanced and diverse. Then again, maybe people aren’t moving to Milwaukee because its industries aren’t flashy enough; it is not home to any health care conglomerates, famous nonprofits or big banks—just the Harley Davidson factory, a slew of beer companies and the small bits-and-pieces manufacturing that this nation is built on.

Yet another possible reason for why Milwaukee isn’t quite as popular as it could be is that it’s got serious competition in nearby cities like Chicago, Madison, and even Minneapolis. Why would you move to Milwaukee—a town of 600,000—when you could live in Chicago—a metropolis of 2.7 million? Answer: Because you might actually be able to afford it. It’s utterly strange to walk through a pleasant neighborhood with lovely, old houses in close proximity to a downtown and find out that they aren’t all $1 million. It’s equally strange to see a handful of warehouses converted into trendy condos, but dozens of warehouses still being used for their original purpose.

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What’s more, Milwaukee isn’t gentrifying—or at least, not nearly to the degree of other similar metro areas. You hear rumblings about this or that development, but for the most part, the transitions are happening to vacant buildings and empty lots. A revitalization of the city is good news and I think gentrification here is minor enough that it can be stopped before it prices anyone out of their neighborhoods. Sure, a few people are starting to move into neighborhoods where they hadn’t formerly lived, and new businesses are cropping up in previously exclusively-residential areas, but that should be heralded as good news. Continue reading


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Getting the F*** Out

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Flash back to the last time you endured a seriously stressful situation. Maybe it was a clash with your boss, a fight with your significant other, or even a close call while driving during a storm. You walked (or drove) into the situation thinking you had it under control and then suddenly the people around you and the particular circumstances blew up, leaving you reeling with confusion. After these intense moments, some of us react by holing up in our rooms and refusing to see anyone. Others of us feel motivated to aggressively respond to the crisis. And then there are those of us who—after undergoing something painful or traumatic—desperately desire to get the f*** out.

GTFOing can be as simple as hopping in a car and taking a long drive out of town to clear your head, or it can be as serious as breaking a lease, packing up your belongings and leaving a city for good. These are not strategies of abandonment; they are getaway plans at the ready, should the need arise. Mobility is not just about escaping a bad situation, but moreover, it is about opening up the ability to say “yes” and act on the opportunities that present themselves in new places.

Just up-and-leaving sounds dramatic, but we’re all faced with the potential to change locations on a regular basis. You get a promotion and it’s in a new place. You’re unhappy where you are and you ache for new surroundings. You miss the family you left behind when you took a new job. You meet someone with whom you could journey anywhere… Continue reading


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Renegade City

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One of my housemates grew up in Baton Rouge, LA and, while she’s shared several fascinating tales of shooting a gun at the age of eight, eating crawdads by the pound and dancing til dawn at Mardi Gras festivities, one of the most intriguing stories she shared was one about a group of Baton Rouge residents who want to break away and start their own city. “St. George,” they’re calling it, and you might be able to guess their motives from that pompous title.

Nabbing up more than half of the geographic area in Baton Rouge, St. George would encompass the southern, middle class, white part of the city and ensure that wealth went only to schools in this enclave—cutting out the northwestern section of the city which is lower income and predominantly African American. Residents of the St. George area claim to generate two-thirds of the city’s tax revenue and they want to keep that for themselves. However, as an article in the Louisiana Times-Picayune explains, much of this revenue is from people outside of the area who come in to frequent its casinos, big box stores and mall. Like hundreds of American cities, especially in the south, Baton Rouge is home to glaring racial and economic divisions, and the proposed renegade city brings these divisions into brightest light.

The task of splitting a city down the middle also opens a Pandora’s box of budgetary and governance complications. For example: Will St. George contract their garbage and recycling pick-up out to Baton Rouge, or start their own service? Who pays the pension funds of Baton Rouge employees if St. George secedes? And how would over 10,000 public school students within the St. George boundaries fit into a mere handful of public schools in their new city? These are just a few examples of the myriad details that require smoothing when you create a new city.

To start it legally, St. George organizers will have to get signatures from “one fourth of the registered voters in the St. George area […and then get] a majority vote in favor of forming the city.” The catch is that only residents of that area partake in the vote. My Louisianan housemate asserts that this racist pipedream is unlikely to come to fruition for St. Georgians, but it does highlight the stark divide between northern and southern residents of Baton Rouge.

This campaign in Louisiana also holds wider implications for cities around the world that are home to stratified neighborhoods and segregated streets—i.e. almost every city I can think of. When wealthier residents get it into their heads that they can just cut out the citizens they don’t want to share with, they contribute to the already-skyrocketing class disparities in the world and they dismantle the already-delicate fabric of today’s cities.

What do you think? Should cities be able to break away in this manner? How can we promote unity within our cities instead?

Graphic from this article


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My Role in Gentrification

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I knew I would confront gentrification in New York City, but I didn’t think it would be this swift or this persistent. The fact that I can stand next to an H&M while simultaneously staring up at a thirty-story housing project is a juxtaposition I’m still wrapping my head around. My afternoon jogs take me past taquerias, corner stores, laundromats, then—suddenly—trendy coffee shops.

And I’m still trying to figure out how I fit into it. As a middle class white woman who moved in a month ago, I know I’m checking lots of gentrification boxes. I sometimes placate myself with the knowledge that I haven’t driven up the cost of living by moving here since my housing situation mostly exists outside the market. (I live in a church for a very discounted rate.) Nonetheless, my white face in a Dominican neighborhood shifts the topography. I stand out. On a weekday morning, I’m one of the only people wearing business clothes as I walk to the subway. And I don’t speak Spanish (though I badly wish I did).

I am also an outsider to the personal experience of gentrification: For generations, my family moved around the country and the world, so we have no roots—no neighborhood filled with history to be kicked out of. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and has been for as long as I can remember. I attended college in a town that was built by the most vicious kind of gentrifier: a pair of missionaries who wiped out the Cayuse Indian tribe that had been living there for centuries. I have never faced foreclosure or eviction. I have never lost my apartment to an upscale developer.

I have, however, witnessed a movement of white young people into neighborhoods that they might never have set foot in before the recession and I wonder about the effects of their migration. As the recession presses on and young people of all races fail to secure well-paying, full-time work, I know they will continue to turn to more affordable neighborhoods for housing—particularly if those neighborhoods are close to employment options in a downtown. It makes sense for these young people, but it becomes problematic if their presence encourages landlords to raise prices, eventually bumping out long-time residents, or if they begin to build new businesses that take away profit from existing stores. That’s Gentrification 101.

I’ve been struggling with this tension between housing demand and neighborhood history ever since I talked to Anna and learned about the in-your-face gentrification taking place in certain neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s also happening in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, and every other city you can think of. For example, long-time residents of my current neighborhood tell me that although it is broadly Latin@ now, fifty years ago the people who lived in these apartments were African American and farther north, they were Jewish immigrants. Time and again, one community gains economic ground and more freedom to live where it chooses, while another must make do with what’s left.

So what is the role of someone like me in these places? Is my presence so harmful that I should relocate to a white, middle class neighborhood where I “belong,” or can I be an informed, respectful resident? This is the answer I’ve come to so far: If gentrification is the act of pushing out existing residents, then the key to socially-just living choices is making your home in such a way that you do not exclude the people who already live there.

I’m not completely convinced that it’s possible, given the economic and racial hierarchies already entrenched in our culture and the top-down, all-encompassing manner in which gentrification pollutes a neighborhood. However, the best I can say for individuals who live in neighborhoods with the potential for gentrification is to be intentional about your attitude and your actions towards the place. Get to know all your neighbors. Learn the history of the area. Familiarize yourself with the systems, services, and leaders that govern there. Frequent diverse businesses to strengthen the existing economy. Dismantle your sense of entitlement, fear or superiority. Educate yourself about warehousing and land speculation. Join grassroots movements that combat the effects of gentrification. Most of all, recognize your role in the process and resist the allure of complacency at every turn.

Update: Some interesting and intelligent dialogue related to gentrification is going on right now (April, 2014). Check out 20 Ways Not to be a Gentrifier, then this response by Daniel Hertz.


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Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class

Two weeks ago, I started a discussion about the relationship between cities and public transit. I outlined the different public transportation models that I’ve seen broadly employed in big cities, sprawling cities, mid-size cities and small towns, but now I want to go more in depth to talk about two intersecting issues that effect public transit across the nation: race and class.
from thesource.metro.net

from thesource.metro.net

Riding the bus is one of the best ways to understand race and class differentials in a given city or town. By watching who gets on which routes, at which places, and at what times of the day, you can begin to notice the demographic make-up of your city. This information tells you what sort of jobs people have (night-shifts, office jobs, etc.) as well as what neighborhoods they live and work in, and how segregated those areas are. But public transit doesn’t just demonstrate how our cities are divided by race and class, it can also create those divisions.

Two Examples

I know I mention these cities a fair amount on The City Space, but New York City and Washington DC offer excellent fodder for an examination of the relationship between public transit, race and class. While I’m not a transportation expert by any means, I feel comfortable speaking about public transit in these places because I’ve used it a lot, and the corresponding issues seem to come up frequently in discussions with friends. Stick with me on this example—it’ll make sense in the end.

Let’s start with New York City. Here, the subway costs $2.50 no matter where you’re going. $2.50 buys a trip from the Far Rockaways to the heart of Manhattan, lending a certain equality to the daily commute. $2.50 also buys a homeless person a warm place to sleep on a cold winter day. In New York, everyone from grandmas to babies in strollers, from politicians to actresses, takes the train. $2.50 is by no means a bargain, but it can take anyone almost anywhere in the city. Continue reading


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Resource Review: Cosmopolis

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from cosmopolisfilm.com

Chances are you saw the dramatic trailer for Cosmopolis last summer but you probably didn’t bother to see the film given its mediocre reviews. It’s certainly not a movie for everyone, but as an economics minor and an urbanist, it was worth my time. Cosmopolis offers a destructive, gripping vision of a near-future economy. The film’s backdrop of New York City—because where else would an unsettling financial crisis story occur?— invites reflection on the current state of our own class-divided metropolises.

Cosmopolis is a clear attack on global capitalism and its director, David Cronenberg, frames the protagonist in such a way as to invite disdain from viewers. Eric Packer (played by Robert Pattinson) is the archetypal young tech CEO controlling a world of “cyber capital” with decisions that  affect millions of shareholders and consumers, yet having no conception of or concern for his relationship with these people. He is aloof, self-obsessed, and absurdly wealthy, and he spends the entire film watching his empire crumble.

Continue reading