From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland: A Theory of Change for Legacy Cities


Legacy cities have legacy costs, including disinvestment from the inner city, as well as regional economic decline. The spiral has been ongoing for decades. The new white paper by consultants Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell entitled “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland”, funded by the Cleveland-based neighborhood non-profit Ohio City Inc., examines the systemic reasons behind legacy city decline, all the while charting a path to possible solutions.

Shrinking city theorists say the problem with the legacy city is that people leave. But urban powerhouses such as New York lose more people in a day than the Cleveland’s of the world do in a month. The real problem with legacy cities is an absence of newcomers, as it is this lack of “demographic dynamism”, or “churn”, which has inhibited economic evolution.

To arrest economic decline, cities commonly undertake a patchwork of strategies. These include retention strategies that supposedly “plug” the brain drain; attraction strategies that emphasize placemaking, residential density, and urban amenities; or “big ticket” developments such as convention centers and casinos. The authors take another stance, theorizing that migration is the key to economic development. Cities that lack churn need churn. Without it, legacy cities can act as echo chambers of patronage and provincial thinking.

But churn in itself is not enough. Often, the importance of inmigrants equates to filling condos or restaurant booths. Take the case of Ohio City, an inner city neighborhood bordering Cleveland’s central business district. The neighborhood, home to the iconic West Side Market, has made strides in its recovery. Investment is coming in. Condos are being built. Restaurants are opening. But this is not enough.

In fact the mistake cities make when it comes to reinvestment is to settle with the low-hanging fruit of gentrification. Here, the neighborhood is seen as a center of consumption, with trickle-down effects from increased commerce said to reach low-income residents living in gentrifying, or potentially gentrifying, neighborhoods. This does not happen.

This does not mean the reinvestment going on in neighborhoods such as Ohio City is unwelcome. It is only to say something else is needed. Ohio City needs to be made into a neighborhood that produces, not simply one that consumes.

One way to do this is to ensure that the diversity of race, class, and businesses that currently exist in the neighborhood continue in the face of increasing market demand. For instance, Ohio City is 36% Black, 20% Hispanic, and 54% White. The neighborhood’s race and class mixing has actually increased over the last decade. Ensuring such heterogeneity can remain in the face of market demand is the challenge of the day. To date, no city has systematically ensured a process of policies that prioritizes the long-term benefits of integrated communities over the short-term benefits of consumer-driven gentrification.

The benefits include increased economic mobility for individuals who grow up in integrated neighborhoods. For instance, a new study called “The Equality of Opportunity Project” found that Cleveland ranked 45th out of 50 metro areas in terms of upward mobility. A child in Cleveland raised in the bottom fifth of an income class only has a five percent chance of rising to the top fifth in her lifetime. The study, however, concludes that “upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods”.

Cleveland is at a threshold. The re-investment is coming, and the importance of this infill as a means to arrest its economic and demographic decline cannot be overstated. Yet this will only occur if re-investment is leveraged so as to develop real economic growth. In other words, simply developing “creative class” enclaves in the likes of Ohio City and Tremont will do nothing to transition Cleveland from a segregated, siloed city with high rates of poverty into a globalized, integrated city comprised of neighborhoods that produce human capacity.

Where people live informs them no less than where they work or go to school. Neighborhoods are factories of human capital. Equitable, integrated environments maximize potential. America needs to go past the gentrification model of revitalization. The cities that still have a fighting chance, like Cleveland, should lead.

Read the white paper here.

Home Makeover

Young people are taking their talents to Cleveland, but do local leaders want their ideas or just their pocketbooks?

Middle America is a place you leave. It is the spurned lover. Cleveland is the land that progress left. Life is elsewhere, in New York, San Francisco or — cueing LeBron James — Miami.

Such is the narrative of the Rust Belt, one told by handwringing civic leaders with a sky-is-falling fear. They worry the best and brightest young people will leave and never come back. Eventually, a city that keeps exhaling its youth becomes a town gasping for an urban pulse. This is a city’s worst nightmare: a today with no tomorrow.

Read the rest of the piece at Cleveland Magazine.

Density Can Be Good, Density Can Still Be Used as a Hammer

A Facebook exchange with some folks I respect about my recent article “The Story of Density, Unpacked” that was highlighted over at Real Clear Policy yesterday.

  • Mandy Metcalf Respectfully, density has a lot of actual benefits, such as walkability and sustainability. I agree creative class theory is bogus but I don’t see how that leads logically to a critique of density.
  • Lynn Phares I agree with Mandy Metcalf. Common sense and economic reality are frequently tossed aside in the rush to disprove Richard Florida. He was a hero to planners and politicians but urban/labor economists were often dubious of the power of the creative class. I wish we could move beyond this idea of a “silver bullet” that will magically fix cities. Density helps precisely because it is a more efficient use of resources and it means there are the economies of scale to support the million and one pieces needed for a city to thrive.
    4 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1
  • Richey Piiparinen Thanks for the comments. The essay was not a critique of density as a thing in itself. There are many benefits to dense, livable neighborhoods. The critique was against using density as a facade to facilitate unequal, harmful spatial development of cities that in the long run have greater negative consequences to the neighborhood fabric than benefits. I am focusing on “wealth jamming” here, or creating vertical towers of affluence. I want to move past this story as well, but to do that the story needs to be exposed for the fallacies inherent in it. Then we can get back to density as a sustainable form of development. Not a big sprawl guy after all.
  • Richey Piiparinen Also Lynn Phares and Mandy Metcalf, this is a great read on the concept that came from the piece. Again, density is outcome of great cities, not a goal. The ones making it a goal are the ones benefiting financially, i.e. real estate developers, who, quite frankly, know little about broad economic growth, and how to get there. They know pro formas.…

  • Mandy Metcalf Richey Piiparinen I had missed the subtleties of your point – thanks for explaining further. My perspective is that density must be a strategy that a city actively pursues or it just doesn’t happen. Otherwise it’s just too easy to tear down buildings for parking lots that support sprawl or to allow a house to go up on several consolidated lots in neighborhoods where we want to preserve density. Cities don’t happen entirely organically these days – they follow the rules we set for them. Density will only be an outcome if we plan for it and nurture the demand for density with zoning, parking and street infrastructure policies that support it.
  • Richey Piiparinen I agree Mandy Metcalf. Cities must also plan for equitable, integrated redevelopment as well, or the benefits of density, economically, will get drowned out by the negative effects of segregated societies.

Shrink or Die Trying

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Since the 1950s, Cleveland has been steadily losing population. That means most people who were born and grew up here do not remember a time when the city was growing.

There’s a term for this consistent depopulation: shrinking city syndrome. Definitions vary, but according to a widely quoted 2009 Tufts University study, a shrinking city has lost at least 10 percent of its peak population since 1950. Though Cleveland ranks high in the shrinking city roster—it’s the fourth most depopulated city in the nation, having lost 56 percent of its population since 1950s–it’s certainly not alone in its decline.

If downsizing becomes part of your collective DNA, it’s hard to envision growth. Rust Belt leaders often frame discussions of the future as “How do we dwindle best?”

Read the rest in Belt Magazine.

The Story of Density, Unpacked


Courtesy of NY Times

“The heresy of heresies was common sense”—George Orwell

The stories we tell affect the lives we lead. I do not mean to be abstract here. I mean, literally, the stories that are told make up a kind of meta-reality that soaks in us to form a “truth”. This “truth” affects policy, which affects investment, which affects bricks and mortar, pocketbooks, and power. Eventually, the “truth” trickles down into a more real reality that defines the lives of the powerless.

The story du jour in urban policy is one of density. The arc of the story is that cities are places where “ideas come to have sex”. The lovechild is innovation. The mood lighting is creative placemaking.

The Kama Sutra of density reads this way: creative people cluster in cities that are good at lifestyle manufacturing. The more people that are sardined the higher likelihood there will be “serendipitous” encounters. The more serendipity in a city the better chance the next “big thing” will occur. The next “big thing” will lead to a good start-up, which will lead to an agglomeration of start-ups, termed an “Innovation District”. Detroit becomes Detroit 2.0 then.

The story of density is a seductive story. Society-making is sobering and full of harsh realities. The story of density is seamless, velvety. It is no wonder the story gets sold, implemented, and then told and re-told, despite the validity and logic of the story being pretty awful.

Take the recent New York Times piece entitled “What It Takes to Create a Start-up Community”. In it, the writer interviews urbanist Richard Florida. “Population density, [Florida] said, allows for the serendipitous encounters that inspire creativity, innovation and collaboration,” reads one key passage in the piece.

The story goes on to highlight the emerging tech hub of Boulder as the exemplar of the story of density. One problem: Boulder, a city of less than 100,000, isn’t dense, with a population per square mile of 3,948. The writer moves the goal posts a bit and says the city “is an unusual case of density”, before going on to question whether a start-up community can be created in a city like Detroit that “lacks density”. Yet Detroit, despite being a land mass comprised of one-third vacant land, is denser than Boulder, at 5,144 people per square mile. In all, Aristotle would have a field day with the piece.

Such illogic peppers the story of density, particularly as it relates to the correlation—to say nothing of the causation—between household clustering and tech growth. For instance, in a recent analysis of America’s top “high tech hot spots” by the Progressive Policy Institute, the top 25 counties experiencing the highest percentage of tech job growth reads like a “Where’s Waldo” list, if Waldo was Thoreau-like. There’s Madison County in Alabama (417 people per sq. mile). Utah County in Utah (258 people per sq. mile). Denton County in Texas (754 people per sq. mile). Fayette County in Kentucky (1,043 people per sq. mile). Snohomish County in Washington (342 people per sq. mile).

To be fair, also on the list are San Francisco, Boston, and New York. In the case of Boston and San Fran, the tech clustering is a legacy asset from decades prior, not the result of the story of density. New York, under Mayor Bloomberg, has supposedly gone whole hog on the “idea-sex in the city” script, yet tech is but a speck on the universe that is New York City’s economy.

For example, Kings County, home to Brooklyn, numbers 25 on the list of places with highest percent of tech job growth, yet Brooklyn’s Job Index—calculated as new tech/information jobs between 2007 and 2012, as a share of 2007 total private sector employment—is just 0.4, meaning the number of new tech jobs in Brooklyn represents less than half a percent of total private employment. Given the information sector as a whole is hemorrhaging jobs according to a recent Harvard Business Review, the scaling of tiny tech towns into something that measurably brings home the bacon is unlikely.

But let’s play along anyway, as that’s the power of the story of density: reality doesn’t bite. So, say Brooklyn can become the next Silicon Valley. This likelihood depends on two assumptions that define the story of density: “cooling” a city will draw top tech talent, and then packing them in to luxury condo towers and mixed use districts will form creativity incubators.

First, the idea that manufacturing cool spurs a start-up scene is spurious at best. I mean, has this ever worked? Please don’t say Austin, or any number of college towns or state capitals or places with boutique streets that are weaned off of the government.

What about Boulder? In the piece “How Boulder Grew Into a Hub for Start-Ups”, the writer questions venture capitalist Brad Feld, a huge player in the Boulder tech scene, about what brings entrepreneurs to communities like Boulder. Feld throws his hands in the air:

“People want to live where they want to live. You should figure out where you want to be and build a life around it. Different geographies attract different people.”

Why did Feld move to Boulder?

Actually, I moved here in 1995 because Amy said “I’m moving to Boulder – you can come with me if you want.” And I did.

The second assumption relates to the idea that sardining people will ultimately lead to serendipity and innovation. I smell underpants gnomes. Specifically, in an episode of South Park, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone expose the blind loyalty attached to the façade of “expertise”. The episode goes like this: the characters need a presentation for class. One of the boys talks about a group of gnomes that inexplicably sneak into his house to steal underpants. There’s got to be a reason, right? They confront the gnomes who, claiming to be business experts, explain their business plan as thus: Step 1: Collect Underpants. Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

The story of density has the same logic gap. Step 1: Population density. Step 2: ? Step 3: Innovation. Density gurus will claim Step 2 relates to serendipity. But serendipity is chance. How do you plan for chance?

Even if you could, creative classification is largely a process of homogenization by class, age, and profession, which, according to Rita King of Science House, erodes the possibility of meaningful chance encounters. “Artists bumping into other artists or business people bumping into other business people or Mormons bumping into other Mormons, etc., isn’t real serendipity,” notes King.

Okay, so if the story of density really isn’t about innovation then what is it about? The answer can be found in a recent article entitled “Urban Prophet” in the real estate trade mag Property Week. The piece quotes the then-chairman of US real estate firm Forest City Enterprises, on his reading of Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Classes: “You have given real estate developers the playbook”.

Put simply, the point of sardining is to make as much money as possible for those who have money. This is a truth. But it’s a tough sell to neighborhoods and cities increasingly experiencing the negative effects of real estate wealth jamming, and more broadly, wealth inequality. Enter the story of density to make another “truth”.

The story of density is a fiction and it’s high time we start rewriting the book.

When Fun Goes Bad

When Fun Goes Bad

You take a client to the game. You have a “power lunch.” Work and leisure have long been blurred in the corporate world. And, in the past few decades, they have been blurred by cities as well, in the form of entertainment and cultural districts.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when middle-class job erosion took hold and urban economic development needed a spark, cities began to act like businesses. By the late 1980s, according to scholar David Harvey, cities became entrepreneurial.  Cities asked their managers to act like ad men, using the clients’ funds (otherwise known as taxpayer dollars) to sell a product (Cleveland, say).  The job of the city manager became, wrote Harvey, to make the city “appear as an innovative, exciting, creative, and safe place to live or to visit, to play and consume in.”

Enter the entertainment district, a concept cities used not only to show off their assets, but also to stir economic development.  In Cleveland we had  the Gateway District of the mid 1990s, created when the city  tried to spark economic development with sports tourism. But success was dependent on a winning team (and then LeBron left).

Read the rest over at Belt Magazine.

The Unrise of the Creative Working Class

This piece originally appeared in Belt Magazine.

Scarcity leads to creativity out of necessity. That’s the pop culture meme at least. Think “starving artist,” or the survivors in Survivor. The thinking has penetrated the business culture as well. For example, in the shadow of the 2008 recession, Google founder Sergey Brin, in a letter to his shareholders, writes: “I am optimistic about the future, because I believe scarcity breeds clarity: it focuses minds, forcing people to think creatively and rise to the challenge.”

But a recent book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,  by Ivy League psychologists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, states otherwise. Through years of investigative research, the authors found that people operating from a bandwidth of scarcity don’t have the luxury of preemptive thought. Rather, being in survivor mode saps a person’s cognitive reserve.

“Think about being hungry,” says Shafir in a piece in Pacific Standard. “If you’re hungry, that’s what you think about. You don’t have to strain for years—the minute you’re hungry, that’s where your mind goes.” The mental preoccupation extends to unpaid utility bills, debt, or, more generally, anything that’s life-pressing, he adds. The effect drains resources from a person’s “proactive memory”.

Think of the absence of scarcity, then, as the freedom to think, visualize, and create. The results of Mullainathan and Shafir’s findings have implications for cities. Specifically, it’s widely theorized that cities must innovate to survive, and it is a city’s creative reservoir—which is dependent on the size of its educated workforce—that will nurture innovation. This is how  a city of soot can evolve into a city of software, not unlike what has occurred in Pittsburgh.

But what about  Rust Belt cities struggling with high rates of poverty? Over 36 percent of Detroit’s 700,000 plus are below the poverty line. In Cleveland, the poverty rate is 33 percent of nearly 400,000. The national poverty rate is 14 percent.  This is a ridiculous amount of brain capacity consumed by unforgiving reality.  No wonder Detroit inches to get a leg up. The feral dogs, abandoned houses, and creditors looking for money have eaten up the capability to envision. Hence, the collective exasperation, and the bankruptcy death spiral.

What will save the Clevelands and Detroits? The most prescribed cure is to find a way to attract more educated people. This has led cities across the country to compete for the vaunted “creative class” professional demographic. To urban theorist Richard Florida, to get creative types a city must have “[an] indigenous street-level culture – a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer or between creativity and its creators.”

According to Florida, a city needs to know it is on stage,and compete for the attention of a select demographic. In theatre parlance, this is called “capturing the audience experience.”  In urban place-making parlance it is called  “principles of persuasion” that emphasize novelty, contrast, surprise, color, etc.


Courtesy of Humble Pie Vintage

In other words, cities must become the collective embodiment of Robin Williams.

Then, once you get your audience, you just watch them go,  says Florida, as creativity is “a social process.”  Creativity is bred by “the presence of other creative people.”  The scarcity of creativity in a poor city hypothetically gets filled up by the big-bang spontaneity of two creative types talking, neurologically egged on, no doubt, by a festival performer on stilts in a clown suit sauntering before them.

If this strategy sounds like an overly simplified way to change what ails Detroit and Cleveland, it’s because it is. In fact Florida himself acknowledged this, stating in Atlantic Cities that, “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits [to the poor].”  In fact, because housing costs rise, it  makes the lives of lower- and middle-income people worse.

But cities keep revitalizing this way because it is a feel-good prescription that is politically palatable. Who hates art, carnivals, drinking, and eating?  Displays of abundance provide the incentive to look the other way. Writes Thomas Sowell, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics”.

Where does that leave the millions operating on the wrong side of scarcity? Florida’s answer is for cities to somehow convince corporate America to pay their service workers more. While admirable, I doubt Daniel Schwartz, CEO of Burger King, is listening.

Another option would be refocusing the lens through which modern urban revitalization is viewed. The default setting is to compete for scarcity of the educated elite. Instead, we should alleviate the scarcity from the struggling.  But flipping this script requires cities to give up on the idea that there is some audience that will save them. It is a city’s people who ultimately ruin or save themselves.

In the meantime, the urban play continues. Cleveland is directing $4 million dollars of its casino windfall profits into the creation of an outdoor chandelier  that will hang at an intersection outside of Playhouse Square, the city’s theater district. The design, evoked by chandeliers inside the Playhouse itself, is intended to blur the line between drama and reality, and will “add glittery outdoor glamour to a district that tends at times to look gray and lifeless,”  according toarchitecture critic Steven Litt–all the while making the intersection “feel like a giant theater lobby”.

But the script on Cleveland’s streets is one of hardship, not glittery glamour. Here’s hoping the outdoor chandelier illuminates that scarcity to those walking beneath it.

Midnight in the Rust Belt

This post originally appeared in Belt Magazine.

here is the idea of “Morning in America,” and that of the “Rust Belt.” The first brings to mind an emerging light that will show us forward. The second deals in all that is against us: obsoleteness, the weight of time, and, more generally, the end of days.

The term “Rust Belt” was literally born out of this dark-vs.-light line of inquiry. More exactly, Walter Mondale was up against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Reagan’s brilliant campaign ad entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better”—which began with the line “It’s morning again in America”—had captured American minds.

Loss is not only what we see but the lens through which we see it. Before long, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ad shows various images of beginnings, from the commute to work, to weddings, to the daybreak ritual of raising the America flag. It was a message of hope. Believers and non-believers alike want a reason to have faith, and this was reflected in Reagan’s pulling ahead in the polls.

Attempting to capture the imagination of Americans in his own way, Mondale wanted to expose a certain dire set of economic conditions taking hold in the industrial Midwest, if only to darken Reagan’s sunny-day sentiments. Speaking to a few hundred steelworkers in Cleveland, Mondale said “Mr. Reagan’s policy toward the industrial belt of America is ‘Let it rust.’”

Continuing with the theme, Mondale, invoking those gray days of the Depression and the iconic imagery of the “Dust Bowl,” said Reagan was “turning our great industrial Midwest and the industrial base of this country into a rust bowl.”

Soon thereafter, the term “Rust Bowl” evolved through journalistic messaging into “Rust Belt” so it conformed to other regional monikers, such as the “Bible Belt” and “Sun Belt.” “[A]s the postindustrial replacement for  ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and the ‘Ruhr of America,’” notes author Edward McClelland, “the ‘Rust Belt’ stuck”.

Of course Mondale went on to get trounced. As everybody knows, you don’t win with a narrative of loss.

Narratives matter. Specifically, the stories told and images induced play a significant role in a regional identity. “Narrative is one of the most powerful tools for perceiving the human condition,”writes Michael Mason of This Land Press. “Loss of narrative is loss of life’s meaning.”

In the Rust Belt, our narrative hasn’t been “lost” per se, but rather defined by loss—of population, homes, jobs, etc. Loss is not only what we see but the lens through which we see it. Before long, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Particularly, when your reality is continually colored with threat, responses become primitive. It is fight or flight. That is, folks leave, or else they tend to destroy.

In the recent radio documentary “In the Shadow of Steel,” architecture critic Christopher Hume marvels at the Rust Belt city’s need “to tear itself down, literally and figuratively”.

This kind of “primal” urban planning can get counterintuitive—for example, we demolish houses to get more residents. Freud called this affirmation through self-destruction, the “death drive.” It is a kind of faith in the security of knowing you will lose. Such is life in a region whose compass has been set against the direction of daybreak.

The narrative thread is starting to change, however; this is largely due to a generational shift.

The younger generation simply carries less baggage when it comes to being from Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, etc. This generation was “born into ruin,” and so they know no different. The nostalgia isn’t there, and as such young people aren’t burdened with those heaving loss narratives that are detrimental to carving a new way.

These sons and daughters are not optimists, but realists. Yet they see opportunity in the legacy city because cities with legacies have opportunities. You can see evidence of this narrative reshaping in how the generation as taken ownership of the term “Rust Belt.” Just Google “rust belt” and note the hundreds of ways the label has been co-opted from its shame roots into a narrative of prideful resilience.

After all, the ultimate power of the narrative is derived from what something is, not what it is called. “O, be some other name!” wrote Shakespeare. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

This truth cuts both ways. Specifically, Americans are getting wise to how Reagan’s “morning in America” has played itself out. Jobless recoveries are the new norm. Economic inequities are at historic highs. A generation has been grossly disillusioned.

“Millennials are entering adulthood in an America where government provides much less economic security,” writes Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast. “And their economic experience in this newly deregulated America has been horrendous.”

This, then, speaks to the spuriousness of narrative-building. In other words, just as a narrative of loss can be detrimental, so too can a narrative of “winning.” Notes existential psychologist Irving Yalom: “I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts, it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.”

Ultimately, as the stories of yesterday keep unwinding into the reality of today, reorienting outlooks of who wins and who loses will reshape the way America is playing out. Cities are like stocks, and whether or not to invest is largely dependent on perceived risk. For young people in the Rust Belt there is nothing to lose, and through the shedding of historical loss narratives, Rust Belt cities like Cleveland have much to gain.

After all, a new day doesn’t begin when the sun comes up. It begins at midnight. It begins in the dark. And despite what’s been said, darkness is not the absence of light, but a basic precondition.

In the Shadow of Steel

I was interviewed for this brilliant radio documentary by the CBC’s Ideas about Canada’s Rust Belt city Hamilton. I come in around the 42 minute mark. Overall, if you want to understand a myriad of things about revitalizing Rust Belt cities give the whole thing a listen. I particularly enjoyed the wit of Toronto-based architecture critic Christoper Hume. It is really, really good. You will not disappointed. Kudos to the brainchild Mary O’Connell who also knocked it out of the park, err, I mean rink.

“Gentrification” in the Rust Belt: It Ain’t What You Think

This post originally appeared in Belt Magazine.

City analyses often fall prey to black-and-white narratives. The Rust Belt is either “dead” or “reviving.”  Residents are either suburbanites or city dwellers, gentrifiers or natives, boosters or negative nabobs. These dualisms may make good copy, but they are bad for cities. Narratives influence perception, and perception drives behavior.


For example, according to urban historian Eric Avila, the mid-20th century narrative of middle-class whites moving out of the inner city was partly a cultural production. In Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, Avila discusses Hollywood’s role in segregation through its portrayal of the suburban, bucolic “vanilla city” as the aspirational movement away from urban ills. The “whiteness” of the suburbs was depicted in the Cleavers and Mayberry, and the “blackness,” of the city was portrayed in the “littered streets, dark alleys, and decaying buildings” of film noir.

“Hollywood marketed spectacles of urban decline as mass entertainment,” Avila writes. “Film noir represented the postwar crisis of the public city through its narratives of social disorder and psychological malaise.” He goes on to argue that middle-class whites followed those shadowy narratives right out of town.

Fast forward to today, and the aspirational movement is flowing back to the urban core. Millennials love cities, so the story goes, and today’s city narratives involve beautification and the creation of walkable boutique urban neighborhoods.  Again, mass entertainment has been implicated in creating the narrative. “This is the generation, don’t forget, that watched Seinfeld and Sex and the City and Friends–usually from sofas safe in the confines of the suburbs,” notes urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt. “I think they find suburban life less exciting than urban life.”

Some worry that this new urbanism is simply “white infill,” or white flight in reverse, and as the story of the young and educated flocking to urban core becomes further entrenched, city building will cater to that archetype. Hence, the arrival of the “vanilla city.” According to research by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, from 2000 to 2010 the vast majority of the 50 zip codes with the largest growth in white population were located in or beside America’s downtown cores–particularly in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

Of course the narrative of white infill is the narrative of gentrification, whereby those with means—whites, largely–move into areas inhabited by those without means, whites and non-whites alike. The result is the suburbanization of the city and displacement of existing residents, particularly for coastal, global cities experiencing massive influxes of capital. In the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit laments the digerati boomtown that has left San Francisco unaffordable and without its historic cultural edge. Over at Gawker, Chris Tacy is less diplomatic: “Douchebags Like You Are Ruining San Francisco.”

Meanwhile, in the Rust Belt, urban infill is playing out differently. It is not a dichotomous narrative. For instance, demographic patterns in Cleveland are unfolding so that “the gentrifying” areas are becoming at once younger, less white, and more minority. That is, Cleveland’s gentrification is not characterized by whites returning to the city. Rather, it is a process of middle class reinvestment into areas that are diversifying.

For instance, the Cleveland inner-city neighborhoods that gained the most Millennials from 2000 to 2010 included downtown, Kamms Corners, Old Brooklyn, Ohio City, and Edgewater. Outside of downtown, the white population declined in each neighborhood, whereas the minority population increased–with the exception of Hispanics in Ohio City. Specifically, the percent change in blacks for these five gentrifying neighborhoods increased by 75 percent, though the city as whole saw its black population decrease by 13 percent. The Hispanic population increased by 52 percent in these neighborhoods, compared to 15 percent in the city. For Asians the increase was 109 percent, vs. 12 percent citywide.

One reason for this unusual pattern is the housing crisis in Cleveland, which may have created lower barriers of entry into neighborhoods that were historically “no go’s” for minorities. Migration from the historically black East Side to the historically white West Side of the city has ramped up, with blacks nearly doubling their percent share from 11 to 20 percent in the last decade alone. Combine this desegregation patterning with the fact that younger suburban whites are crossing into the city limits to live, and what you have is a nascent rewiring of Cleveland’s historic divides between suburb vs. city and white vs. non-white.

Why does this matter?

Segregation of race and class kills a region’s economy. For instance, a new study called “The Equality of Opportunity Project” found that Cleveland ranked 45th out of 50 metro areas in terms of upward mobility. A Cleveland kid raised in the bottom fifth of an income class only has a five percent chance of rising to the top fifth. “Where you grow up matters,” said co-author Nathaniel Hendren.

The study, however, concludes that “upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods”.

These demographic shifts in Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities can change long-term economic trajectories. Leaders must go beyond bringing white people back to the city to reverse white flight, because resegregation is not the answer. The answer is not black and white. Its narrative is a shade of gray, and in some places this story is beginning to be told.


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