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We Should Not Fear Gentrification In the Rust Belt

Gentrification (noun)—the process by which people of (often modest) means who were once castigated for abandoning the city are now castigated for returning to the city.

AKRON, Ohio—Gentrification is a word that we hear with increasing frequency in contemporary discussions about American cities. But what does that word really mean? And, even more importantly, what does it mean in the context of the region that I live in and love—the Rust Belt?

Does gentrification mean the displacement of the poor—pushed aside to make way for the affluent? Or does it mean reinvestment in economically distressed neighborhoods that haven’t seen any significant investment in decades?

It is important to be clear about the meaning of this increasingly ambiguous term, because what needs to happen in the vast majority of urban neighborhoods in the legacy cities of the Rust Belt is far less ambiguous.

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Despite over 50 years of well-intended social programs, concentrated generational poverty, entrenched socioeconomic segregation, and the resulting lack of social and economic opportunity for urban residents, still remain the biggest challenges for the older industrial cities of this region.

As Joe Cortright says in his brilliant piece “Cursing the Candle [1],” “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”

And, as the Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube says [2], “It’s hard to imagine that the city will do better over time without more high-income individuals.”

High poverty rates in cities like Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, are partially due to regional economic conditions and structural economic challenges related to deindustrialization.

But overwhelmingly, concentrated poverty in these cities is due to private disinvestment in the urban core, made manifest by upper and middle-class flight to the suburbs, socioeconomic and racial segregation, and the loss of neighborhood retail and basic services. Today, the geographic disparities in household income between the central city and the surrounding suburbs remain profound.

In Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, respectively, 24 percent, 31 percent, 35 percent, and 36 percent of the population lives in poverty—as compared to 14 percent, 14 percent, 15 percent, and 15 percent in these cities’ respective metropolitan areas. Keep in mind that these metropolitan area figures include the core city—meaning that poverty rates in the remainder of the metro area are even lower.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists.

Writing about gentrification is becoming a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks. Many of the pieces that have been penned on the topic are important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But as more and more people in the Rust Belt read these accounts, and take them out of their geographic context, alarm over gentrification (particularly on the left) is steadily growing in metropolitan areas and housing markets where it should be the least of our urban policy concerns.

In the eastern Great Lakes region, with its low-cost of living, depressed housing markets, and surfeit of vacant and abandoned properties, most of the changes that are being held out as disturbing examples of gentrification—and are provoking hand-wringing in places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit—simply amount to the return of the middle class (and a sprinkling of the truly affluent) to several small pockets of the city.

The degree to which these fledgling positive examples of private reinvestment in long-neglected neighborhoods have truly taken root and have begun to influence regional housing markets is still uncertain. Documented cases of low-income residents being uprooted and displaced by spiraling housing costs have proven even more elusive.

While it can be unclear whether the return of middle class and affluent residents to a neighborhood will really do anything to improve economic conditions for the poor, it is an ironclad certainty that a continued lack of socioeconomic diversity, and its concomitant concentrated poverty, will improve nothing and help no one in these cities—the poor most of all.

For 50 years now, people, jobs, and economic opportunities have steadily left our cities for the suburbs. The status-quo in our region is, indisputably, one of widespread, entrenched urban poverty, geographically separated from (predominately suburban) economic opportunity.

Yet even the earliest signs of neighborhood revitalization, and nascent attempts at building new housing and opening small businesses, are frequently opposed by people who are convinced that they are acting in the name of social justice.

Sincere as these anti-gentrification sentiments might be, I believe that they are harmful, and, if allowed to derail incipient efforts to reinvest in urban neighborhoods, simply serve to ensure that the existing dynamic of socioeconomic segregation will remain unchanged.

In many cases, the very people who claim to be fighting the current unjust system are inadvertently perpetuating it. Gentrification alarmists have yet to come to grips with the fact that their position usually serves to reinforce the existing, highly inequitable, situation.

Many critics of Rust Belt gentrification [3] are holding cities to an unreasonable standard, and placing them in an impossible situation.

If much of the city remains poor and run-down, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

If, on the other hand, parts of the city begin to attract new residents and investment, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

Sometimes, it seems that the only thing that people dislike more than the status quo is doing anything substantive to change it.

In Akron, 81 percent of the people who work in the city, and earn over $40,000 per year (hardly a king’s ransom), live outside of the city. It is unclear how Akronites living in poverty will be better off if these people remain in the suburbs.

Let’s get concrete. If you are a well-educated, middle-, or upper-income person (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), and you live in an economically diverse urban neighborhood, is your presence a bad thing for your community?

Should you move, instead, to a suburban community that is likely to be highly segregated and economically homogeneous?

If you are an entrepreneur starting up in the urban core, should you decide to open your business somewhere else? And how, precisely, will doing that help the community that you are leaving behind?

When middle-class people return to urban neighborhoods, they have some disposable income, which helps create markets for retail and small businesses that in turn provide basic services and job opportunities for the urban poor.

This means that urban residents who are struggling to get by may no longer need to over-extend themselves to purchase a car, or endure long and inconvenient bus rides to access entry-level jobs and basic services in far-flung suburbs. Instead they may be able to save time and money by walking to businesses in their own neighborhoods.

With the return of middle- and upper-income residents, long dormant business districts and housing markets may begin to approach at least minimum levels of functionality and attractiveness to prospective entrepreneurs, investors, and residents.

For existing urban homeowners, the gradual rise in property values, in areas with extremely depressed and artificially low home prices, often means the difference between a house being rehabilitated, or it beginning a tortuous cycle of neglect and decline culminating in demolition.

This is especially important in the legacy cities of the eastern Great Lakes, where low property values and a glut of vacant and abandoned properties, rather than financially crippling housing costs, are the largest real-estate challenge. And unlike superstar cities on the coasts, cities in this region still have large percentages of households that are comprised of working-class homeowners living in single-family homes.

Take it from someone like me, who lives in a city with 96,000 housing units. Of these, only 16 single-family homes were built last year, while nearly 500 were torn down, and the median value of an owner-occupied house is $78,000.

To be sure, the return of new housing, small businesses, and more affluent residents is not a panacea, and there may be legitimate concerns, at some point, about rising rents and higher property taxes for existing residents.

But in the end, I have yet to see a proven model for improving economic conditions in an urban neighborhood that is predicated on ensuring that concentrated poverty remains. Maintaining the status-quo in urban neighborhoods, in the name of opposing gentrification, will do nothing to help the poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Cities typically begin to rebound with small successes in individual neighborhoods, attracting new housing and jobs, and eventually building upward and outward from there—setting the stage for further incremental investment by the private sector.

If we urbanists truly believe that socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods are as important as is often claimed, we cannot panic every time a new house is built, a new person moves in, or a new business opens. These are overwhelmingly good things for neighborhoods and cities that have seen precious little investment for decades.

Should we remain vigilant, and work together, in a cross-sector manner, to help ensure that the rising tide is actually lifting all the boats?

Absolutely.

Should we double-down on the status-quo in our region—one of entrenched poverty and racial segregation, because we are afraid of what any type of socioeconomic change could mean for a neighborhood?

Absolutely not.

Squelching private investment in the urban core is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. It will only serve to ensure that lower income, middle income, and upper-income people continue to live apart in separate and unequal enclaves, and it will make social and economic conditions in our urban neighborhoods worse rather than better.

If we are really serious about breaking down barriers in our neighborhoods, and celebrating socioeconomic diversity, then we have to come to grips with what that means and what that looks like.

Yes, it is complicated and messy, but it is simply not good enough to say that the status quo is unacceptable. We need more than words. We need to act. We need to fight the correct enemy. We need to do more than curse the darkness. We need to light a candle [2].

We don’t need more top-down economic silver bullets. We need collaborative, incremental change—person-by-person, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, informed by humility, prudence, sensitivity, wisdom, and love for our neighbors.

Working together, we can become a much better connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place. The only people who can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

It’s not enough anymore to be against something. It’s time to be for something.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 22 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground [7]. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "We Should Not Fear Gentrification In the Rust Belt"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On January 4, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

Objections to gentrification are often from a relativist perspective, rather than an absolutist perspective: Compared to the average low income, employed family in the US, even the upper classes of much of the pre-20th century had a relatively worse lifestyle in everyday matters such as plumbing, water quality, heating, safety on the street or when travelling away from home. For the poorest in the US today, access to basic education opportunity, a fair legal system, representative government, and even health care surpass previous generations and most of the developing world. It is the relativist position that has swayed so much contemporary thinking. I do not endorse that disparity in itself is evil, as long as more than the basic needs of life, especially opportunity, are available to all.

We were told that ‘white flight’ was morally wrong from 1940s – 1970s. [Real estate practices may have been immoral, but not necessarily the actions of those who sold-up.] Now the grandchildren of those who left are being castigated for returning! They are accused of ‘destroying the culture’ of the neighbourhoods and driving-out [purported] long-term residents. This is all relativist. We either have the right [or the power] to live where we can afford, or we don’t. Social engineering rarely has a pretty outcome, no matter how noble the intentions.

There are just too many success stories of immigrants who arrived with no English, little skill, and few resources other than ambition and a willingness to sacrifice and work hard, who now can afford a very decent lifestyle for their family, to blame the plight of those being replaced by gentrification completely on historic inequities.

Thank you –

#2 Comment By Professor Nerd On January 5, 2018 @ 11:35 am

@Whine Merchant. Agreed. In a class I taught years back a Latina student said, “You’ve been complaining all semester about the middle class leaving the city, now you’re complaining when they are moving in.”
Point taken.
That said, I’m sure Mr. Segedy is also familiar with the problems of the newcomers immediately complaining about the habits of people who have been there a long time. In “Black on the Block,” Pattillo details Buppies moving into Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side and raising hell about outdoor grills.
If the middle class wants to be in the city- great! But be tolerant of working-class folkways.

#3 Comment By Quimbob On January 5, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

In Cincinnati, folks tried to make a neighborhood for the poor. Surprisingly, housing conditions plummeted, businesses left, and crime, especially vice, exploded. This was explained away as racist conspiracy.
Now that area is seeing investment by residents and businesses.
and people are howling.
I never understood the notion that I should be able to live wherever I want.
I should be able to live wherever I can afford to, period.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 6, 2018 @ 6:12 am

“I never understood the notion that I should be able to live wherever I want.
I should be able to live wherever I can afford to, period.”

And when businesses were denying said access —

And when suburban and urban communities were denying said access to housing, in spite the ability to pay —

It’s bound to leave strange legacies as noted. Things have changed one says, to a century of practice is met with a jaundiced eye.

No disrespect intended, but it’s a long article to say, economic prosperity, spread horizontally, is the best cure for what ails a city’s poorest residents, even if a century of practice of worst practices haven’t changed.

What oi would be curious to know is what is bringing people back to urban living and how that might play a role as to the depth of the economic spread.

#5 Comment By Joe On January 6, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

There is one investment that could be made in the Rust Belt and across the middle of the country that would never stop giving, where the jobs would survive for ever and rarely have any staff reductions. It would be a huge cost savings. A win win. Now with technology we can MOVE EVERY DEPARTMENT IN WASHINGTON TO MORE APPROPRIATE LOCATIONS IN DETROIT, CLEVELAND, TOPEKA, LOUISVILLE and other regional low cost bases where we can give people great jobs, get real commitment and performance and leave Washington to the elite.

#6 Comment By cka2nd On January 7, 2018 @ 6:01 am

This may not be fair, but without reading this piece, I did a word check on “manufacturing,” “union,” “wage,” “public” (as in housing) and “rent control” and got bupkus. Rather than rehashing the arguments I used to have with my brother, who once described himself as “the most conservative housing advocate in the State of New York” – an opinion seconded by the head of the statewide association representing non-profit housing organizations – I’ll just say what I’ve long thought about housing as a distinct issue of its own.

If we don’t deal with the job issue – from wage stagnation to union-busting, from zero-hour contracts to automation, and so on and so forth – and if we don’t rein in the power of capital relative to labor, and rein capital in hard, then all will be for naught. Housing will continue to be a cruel joke of an issue, social services will be underfunded on the one hand and increasingly punitive on the other, infrastructure will continue to decline, and society and ultimately the planet are doomed. Or, as EliteCommInc. said, “economic prosperity, spread horizontally, is the best cure for what ails a city’s poorest residents, even if a century of practice of worst practices haven’t changed.”

And one more request for the editors, the board of the American Ideas Institute and the New Urbanists gathered around TAC: Bring back The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation! It’s a natural fit for the New Urbanist movement, and did wonderful work dissecting – and vivisecting! – libertarian arguments and “research” on public transportation issues.

#7 Comment By Monte McKenzie On January 8, 2018 @ 10:49 am

good , until we can we can get electricity by plugging into a current bush, we will need some form of energy development !
Google, LFTR Thorium , IAEA Thorium ,Wiki, thorium at OAKRIDGE 1950’s Next Google “SMU Geothermal, WV then final report.
Shared buildings “apt’s” is the only solution for housing and mass transit only system for supplying goods and services Jobs need to shared so all are productive and have average income. Then people can spend more time learning and talking to reinvent the society by concensus .

#8 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On January 9, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

Many years ago I had to paint a house in Ohio like a house that is pictured in the photo to the article. It was not easy. There are well-groomed towns in Ohio, but you can stumble upon homeownership in the form of an old mobile-house, with a dozen rusted cars on the lawn among which chickens wander, horned animals graze..
I drove through Akron along the motorway to Niagara Falls. Until now, I remember the luxury yachts and boats moored on the coast of the great lakes. Ways and roads are different for everyone. My compatriot from Russia, a young man, the father of three children, was driving through Detroit last December. At this time, there was a gunfight, and he received a random bullet in the head. At the beginning of this year, doctors stated the death of the brain, disconnected the artificial respiration apparatus, but his death saved the lives of four Americans who had his organs transplanted.
To light a candle is a good idea.
The question is for what or for whom?
To remember people who left us or to light a dark room? It seems to me that the matter is not in the income of 40 thousand dollars a month, because people are very resistant to difficulties and hardships.
[8]
Most likely, differentiation and inequality will be strengthened in the future.
But people seek meaning in life even if this life is gray, monotonous and poor.
They need to feel that life matters. Perhaps it makes sense to look for answers to these questions in religion rather than in socioeconomic programs?
[9]
It’s not enough anymore to be against something. It’s time to be for something
I am for a major investment in Christianity.

#9 Comment By Winston On January 9, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

Rust belt is victim of corporate concentration and decline of innovation, plus sprawl. Also, it has GOP leaders who cannot tell that austerity is bad fr businesses, so low taxes are not sufficient to make up for that.
This is common sense:

[10]
The evidence piles up: Austerity poisons economic growth
[11]
In Today’s Ohio, ‘Home Rule’ Is Not About Cities Being Self-Governed; It’s Cover For State Officials Moving Economic Growth To The Exurbs

[12]

Bloom and Bust
[13]

Why the Midwest Can’t Catch a Break

Beyond de-industrialization and consolidation, GOP politicians have dismantled the public infrastructure of the heartland.

And do check out Stigler Center of of Chicago’s ProMarket blog.
[14]

#10 Comment By Claude On January 10, 2018 @ 9:48 am

cka2nd said, “Bring back The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation!”
As the saying goes; you can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.
[15]
They need to add a link and work a little harder to keep the transit page current.