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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Psychology of Place

Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

On my way out of Houston yesterday morning my uncle was kind enough to hand me a copy of the Sunday New York Times that had shown up on his doorstep. (It’s too liberal for his taste anyway.) After a couple contented hours poring over the paper on the plane, I came across a short article on the back of the Sunday Review section about the psychology of place.

In “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” Adam Alter describes a series of studies that illustrate how people act a certain way based on their surroundings. In a packed dormitory, students were less likely to pass on letters that ended up in their mailboxes by mistake (as compared with students in a smaller apartment). In a parking lot full of litter, shoppers were more willing to drop flyers placed on their car windshields onto the ground (as compared with shoppers in a clean parking lot).

Alter’s article concludes, “It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us. But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be. These environmental cues can shape and reshape us as quickly as we walk from one part of the city to another.”

Last Friday, I talked about some of the trends I noticed in the city of Houston— things like strip malls, car culture and inadequate sidewalks. To be quite honest, these factors (plus the oppressive heat) make Houston a place I’d never want to live. I’m sure the city has its benefits for certain people, but when I compare it to more walkable, architecturally diverse cities like Seattle or Minneapolis, I wonder how they turned out so different. Continue reading