New Urban Ideal: Young, Progressive and White?

Portland. Seattle. Minneapolis. Besides being magnets for well-educated young people, what do these cities have in common?

According to Aaron Renn, creator of the Urbanophile blog, they all have a relatively low proportion of black people.

In an article published on New Geography, Renn asks, is the trend towards cities like Portland a form of nationwide suburban sprawl?

A city scene in Portland. No black people to be found.

A city scene in Portland.

Is it only a coincidence that cities with a high proportion of black residents are so often the most maligned, like Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown?

If you’ve ever read the Urbanophile (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ll notice that Aaron is a great creator of charts.

He has developed some pretty convincing data to back up his argument.


Portland and Seattle: 6% black. Austin: 8%. Denver: 10%.

I think Aaron has a point and this is an issue that doesn’t get the play it deserves in most of our discussions. Because racial issues and racial tensions shape our cities and our country profoundly, though not as overtly as they once did. This is especially true in the industrial Midwest.

On the other hand, there are some notable exceptions to Aaron’s rule. Atlanta, for one. New York and Chicago for another.

While I think Aaron has a point, I think the socioeconomic vestiges of a pattern of discrimination in housing, finance and education may be influencing residential decisions more than race at this point, or at least playing an increasingly strong role. The history of racial turmoil in Cleveland and Detroit and Chicago are still very ingrained in the cultural consciousness. In these cities, and the two events that had the greatest impact were the race riots and forced school integration, or busing.

Older generations in Cleveland are still programmed to the “us vs. them” turf battles between ethnic groups and blacks that played out the cities neighborhoods in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Last week, a professor of mine mentioned that his friend still refuses to drive through the Hough neighborhood, where riots took place in the ’70s, out of fear. My 47-year-old mother, a Toledo native, recently told me that every time she hears about Detroit, she thinks about the riots and how scary a place it’s always seemed.

Meanwhile a discriminatory education system continues to drive middle-class families out of the central city of Cleveland. Ohio’s Supreme Court has rules the state’s education funding system unconstitutional four times and still no relief for inner-city families.

So what’s the difference between Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago and New York? Well, not nearly as much as now until the ’90s when Chicago and New York began pushing minorities to the periphery, while in Cleveland and Detroit, whites continued their migration outward. While there is some concern about “rings of poverty” and endemic violence on Chicago’s South Side, studies have shown that cities where wealth trended inward perform better economically than where wealth flowed outward.

That said, I certainly wouldn’t call Chicago a model for racial integration.

Anyway it’s an interesting article and Aaron brings up a good point. I think these issues are very complicated, however. Everyone wants to be the journalist that pinpoints exactly what’s wrong with Detroit or Cleveland, when the truth is, cities are very dynamic places with a multitude of different forces at play.

Any input?

St. Louis? Youngstown? Memphis? Camden?



Filed under Featured, Race Relations

16 responses to “New Urban Ideal: Young, Progressive and White?

  1. Jill

    Aaron Renn is a hack and nothing published on the pro-sprawl New Geography website should be taken seriously. Have you ever looked at their “best cities” list? It’s laughable.

  2. Pingback: The New Urban Ideal: Young, Progressive and White? | Rust Wire Outward

  3. You have to take things like this with a grain of salt. Atlanta, for example, is considered very hip and progressive these days and it’s over 60% black. Articles like these don’t really serve any purpose other than to keep downtrodden cities down.

  4. Special K

    I’m with Angie on this one. This article makes a good point:

    “Why is it that progressivism in smaller metros is so often associated with low numbers of African Americans? Can you have a progressive city properly so-called with only a disproportionate handful of African Americans in it? In addition, why has no one called these cities on it?”

  5. Standard

    “On the other hand, there are some notable exceptions to Aaron’s rule. Atlanta, for one. New York and Chicago for another.”

    I wouldn’t quite agree with these two; Chicago was recently rated the most segregated large city in American. In Atlanta, the mostly white suburbs launched a plan to split the county to avoid being in the same one as the metro area.

    “Can you have a progressive city properly so-called with only a disproportionate handful of African Americans in it? In addition, why has no one called these cities on it?”

    San Francisco is often called the most progressive city in America. However, the African American population of the city has dropped from around 25 percent in the 70’s to about 6 percent today. Seattle is also touted as one of the most progressive cities. It’s African American population is around 8 percent. It seems like national trend.

  6. schmange

    Yeah, San Francisco is completely segregated. All the black people live in Oakland.

    Atlanta is funny too. I used to live there. Despite being more than 60% black there were almost no integrated neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods were always separated by a highway or an industrial park or railroad track. Sometimes the street names even changed. I will say for Atlanta though, there was less fear on the part of white people.

  7. schmange

    I’ve been thinking more about this. A lot of “progressive” cities, SF, NY, Portland, seem to limit their activism to environmental issues. There’s something very hip about being environmentally conscious.

    It seems like larger social consciousness, or concern for the poor, doesn’t enjoy the same prestige, at least not in terms of domestic inequality. I think that’s unfortunate. I think that misses the point a little.

  8. Since when are “black” and “white” the only two racial groups? Maybe it’s not that those cities have more white people, or fewer black people, but that they have more Asians:

    San Frasisco: 31% Asian
    Seattle: 16.6% Asian
    Portland: 6.7% Asian
    Austing: 4.7% Asian

    Cleveland. 1.4% Asian
    Detroit: 1% Asian

    Actually, I don’t think that at all. I think it’s all about where wealth has concentrated. There are a higher percentage of poor people who are black. It’s a fact, and it has to do with our country’s history. Having a lot of rich people means neighborhoods, and cities, are nicer. It’s not rocket science.

    The question is, how does our region build wealth organically, rather than just trying to recruit rich people from out of town to move here?


  9. On other words… How much impact does race have on these cities when you control for wealth?

  10. Serrano

    “Having a lot of rich people means neighborhoods, and cities, are nicer. It’s not rocket science.”

    More tax money, more money for personal property upkeep, more money to consume goods and services (and employ those with less wealth), etc, etc.

    Poor people of ANY color tend to have lots of personal issues and make bad choices. When there are a lot of them in one place it becomes a bad place to live. The result is that those who can afford to flee very wisely choose to do so. Land is cheap, mobility is easy, and cities are disposable.

    The only cures for bad neighborhoods are gentrification or demolition. The doomed lower classes will re-concentrate elsewhere as other areas deteriorate and become economically accessible.

  11. Paul

    This reminds me when a black co-worker and I traveled from Cleveland to Seattle for work. We were both surprised at how few black people we saw compared to Cleveland. My co-worker humorously related how time consuming it was to find a black hair/cosmetics store because she “couldn’t find where the black people were.”

    I’ve always found it suspect when white liberal/hippy types say how great Portland and Seattle are because of the demographics. They won’t admit it, and I maybe it’s more subconscious, but I think some white liberals like the whiteness more than the fair trade coffee shops, vegetable co-ops, and art houses.

    I’ve also found it interesting that I only hear young black folks telling me how awesome Atlanta is — the Capital of Black America – but never from the white liberal hipsters.

    While racism today is less overt, it’s obviously alive and well and continues to be one of the fundamental problems of American cities.

    Good post Rust Wire!

  12. Shaheen


    I agree with you, except I don’t think lower classes are necessarily doomed for eternity. Higher education would help the next generation. Eventually, maybe the US can become one giant Seattle and all the poor people will be left to other countries and governments to deal with.

  13. Shaheen

    I’m not sure if it was clear, but for the record, I wasn’t being totally serious on that last comment!

  14. Seth

    An interesting conversation. I’ve wondered this a lot, too. I would be interested to see in-migration into these cities by race as well. For instance, given the healthy in-migration into cities like Portland, are African Americans becoming a larger portion of the population over time? Or is African American migration to such cities proportionally smaller than migration of Caucasians, Asian born, Latino, etc.? And if so, why? Are there particular barriers to entry or psychographic patterns that either exclude young “crunchy” African Americans or what?

    I agree that I would hardly call Atlanta the model city of progressivism. If you have to look for an example of a city with a large African American population that also has an overwhelmingly progressive population, I would say DC provides the sole example. But it’s a bit of an outlier, given the presence of federal government and a plethora of national and international NGOs.

    After that, I would be inclined to look at Chicago, Philly and Cleveland as cities that are becoming considerably more progressive (and in a broader sense that considers social equity rather than environmentalism exclusively).

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