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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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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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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Interview: Keller talks about Nashville

This week I had the chance to sit down with one of my best friends and fellow religion majors at Whitman College, Keller Hawkins. She grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and she talks it up quite a bit, (not to mention we’re both devoted fans of the ABC show, Nashville) so I took this opportunity to ask her some questions about her city.

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Q: How long have you lived in Nashville?

A: I was born in Nashville, so you do the math. (20 years.)

Q: What would you say is the over all feeling of the city? Musical? Southern?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s a typical southern town at all. You don’t get the quaint southern feel. You do get little essences of it, but I think Nashville’s really interesting because of its diversity. There are four major universities in Nashville so you get a lot of people—not just college students but faculty too—that come from all over the place. That impacted my elementary school years. I was with a bunch of people who would have parents in graduate school or their parents were faculty at Vanderbilt. They were from all over the world. But then you also have the refugee community which is kind of on a different class level. Then you have all the singer-songwriters who are solely there to make music. I think overall there is a big music scene but it’s not necessarily one type. There’s so much different music going on in Nashville.

Q: So it’s not just country music?

A: No, not at all. My favorite Nashville radio station is Lightning 100. It’s all locally funded and they do “Local Lightning Spotlight” where once a week they have a local artist that they play. […] There’s concerts every night no matter where you are. There’s always something going on. And there’s just so many different genres. I’m not into country music so I don’t even know that scene. But there’s tons of singer-songwriters, tons of funk. […] I think the music scene does dominate nightlife in Nashville. That’s what people go for.

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