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Rust Belt Conditions Flip Gentrification Patterns

1 June 2012 One Comment

It’s hard to speak about the prospect of any kind of inner city Rust Belt resurgence without the echoes of gentrification ricocheting in from places steeped in the history of having locals priced out. The question is whether that has any bearing on cities that have seen a mass exodus.

I argue that for the Rust Belt, the gentrifying model generally doesn’t fit.

First, an obvious argument—a central part of gentrification is the displacement of lower-income residents at the hands of the well-to-do. Space is limited in this model, and so when a spot is deemed hip and demand pushes down supply, this increases rents, and folks are displaced. And then flavor dies at the hands of a homogeneity that attracts yet more sameness.

This model is way out of whack in the Rust Belt. Detroit is turning off sections of street lights in the city because it has so much uninhabited land (see image below). There is also a glut of cheap houses in Rust Belt cities, and not just in bombed-out parts. For instance, in Tremont, Cleveland’s three-decade-long gentrifying neighborhood, you can buy a pretty nice house for $32k. Not exactly the Mission District, then.

Second, there is a displacement that’s been going on in Rust Belt cities for some time now. It goes like this: minorities are leaving inner city areas in droves, with folks seeing a depressed housing market in suburbia as their best chance at the American Dream. For instance, in Cleveland, one-fifth (43,342) of the city’s black residents left the historically black East Side over the last decade. During that same time, the number of black residents in Cuyahoga County suburbs increased by 30,206, whereas the historically white West Side added 11,029.

In fact, in terms of creating mixed neighborhoods, this is usually the model—turning the talking points of gentrification on its head. From a recent working paper entitled Pathways to Racial Integration, the authors found that integrated neighborhoods are quickly becoming more common over the last twenty years, with the main pathway to integration as thus:

[D]espite media attention to the entry of young whites into a few urban, minority neighborhoods, integration, when it occurs, still results overwhelmingly from the in-movement of minority households to largely white neighborhoods.  Indeed, of all racially integrated neighborhoods that were newly integrated in 2010, 93 percent of them were white neighborhoods in 2000.

Of course the authors note that if whites perceive a neighborhood to be getting “too black,” the effect can quickly be 21st century “white flight,” with exurbs being the next stop. This is occurring, no doubt. But I’d argue that it is an echo that will someday be put out by the normalcy of racial tolerance imbued in recent generations’ experiences.

Blame rapSaid Jay-Z:

Racism is taught in the home. We agree on that? Well, it’s very hard to teach racism to a teenager who’s listening to rap music and who idolizes, say, Snoop Dogg. It’s hard to say, ‘That guy is less than you.’ The kid is like, ‘I like that guy, he’s cool. How is he less than me?’ That’s why this generation is the least racist generation ever. You see it all the time. Go to any club. People are intermingling, hanging out, having fun, enjoying the same music.

The link between generational tolerance and neighborhood change is that altered perceptions lead to changed behaviors and thus new experiences. These experiences: they go from person to person, which then are rapidly leading to the increased prevalence of everyday between-race interactions if not multi-racial nuclear family units. Slowly, then, the creation of integrated neighborhoods ensue that evolve more organically than the colonialist model of gentrification states.

Take my neighborhood, Detroit Shoreway, on the Near West Side of Cleveland. It is a neighborhood I grew up in. It is a neighborhood where I woke up to the sounds of rocks being thrown at a black man’s house some thirty years ago. Now it is one of those endpoints for migrating East Siders, as well as a significant Latino stronghold. And these folks are being met by an increasingly prevalent inmigrating group: young whites. Is it an idyllic setting? Hardly–still poor, lots of vacancy. Does it need to be? No. Rather, it’s just people of different races living.

But maybe it is just a pipedream. Maybe these Rust Belt neighborhoods are but a time and place in which the least demand for property is creating spaces that are existing outside of traditional market forces, thus allowing human interactions to evolve that would otherwise be stifled by money’s segregating impact. Maybe this diversity will lead to vibrancy and eventually a Panera will come to smash the dream into yet another still urban pond of vanilla.

Or maybe the consequence of extreme economic ruin is creating pockets of life in the rubble that can somehow foster the proof of a new way.

As the father of a black daughter, I say it’s worth the chance to try. The alternative? Well, we have been living it.

Richey Piiparinen