Urban renewal began back in 1915?

This week in North Philly Notes, Dennis Gale, author of The Misunderstood History of Gentrification, recounts the history of gentrification (you probably don’t know).

Gentrification—the physical, economic, and social transformation of poor and working class neighborhoods primarily by middle- and upper-income people—remains one of the most controversial topics in urban studies today. A simple Google search of the term turned up nearly ten million hits. By the time that I began researching gentrification in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s, I had already witnessed its unfolding in Boston. Like most observers, I thought that a new trend was underway. At that time, America’s cities were in crisis and millions of middle-class people were leaving them for the leafy suburbs. The conventional wisdom was that poverty, racial strife, and crime were undermining American urban life.

Although gentrification was far outweighed nationwide by neighborhood decline, it raised hopes that not all middle-class households were abandoning cities. With more research, I learned that gentrification was not a new phenomenon. In fact, its earliest U.S. origins date to about 1915. The Misunderstood History of Gentrification, reframes our understanding of this trend’s origins, its interaction with public policies, and its evolution from “embryonic” to “advanced” gentrification. The critical role played by a burgeoning national historic preservation movement is also documented.  

What we now know as gentrification first gained momentum in Boston, New York, Charleston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. a century ago. In each city, an older neighborhood experiencing disinvestment began attracting newcomers who renovated aging housing and generated renewed interest in inner city living. Perhaps believing that this trend was a mere flash in the pan, observers referred to it variously by terms such as “remodeling,” “regeneration” or “revitalization.” Since the late 1970s, when it became widely known as “gentrification,” online searches of that word have misled people into assuming that the phenomenon itself first appeared at that time. In fact, it dates back sixty years earlier.

Gentrification confounded conventional wisdom—i.e. that once physical neglect, economic decline, and poor and minority residents appeared, older neighborhoods would inevitably spiral downward to the status of “slums.” As official thinking went, only by tearing down slums, relocating their residents and businesses, and building anew, could such places become viable communities. But early gentrification demonstrated that renovation and reuse was not only a feasible alternative, it helped create one of the most desirable neighborhoods in each of the five cities in which it first appeared. And with time, it spread to other neighborhoods in those communities. Moreover, wherever it emerged, the process evolved with little, if any, government financing or bureaucratic administration.

But there’s more. By the late 1940s Congress grappled with the urban crisis by enacting the Urban Redevelopment program. It stipulated that cities could receive federal funds if they completely demolished and cleared older neighborhoods, displaced most existing residents and businesses, and rebuilt with modern architecture and infrastructure. The subtext was clear: only by destroying a neighborhood, could it be “saved.” Gentrification’s lessons—rehabilitating older structures, retaining their historic architecture and scale, and developing a diverse mix of existing and new residents—were written off as a recipe for failure.  

Even after Congress revised Redevelopment, renaming it Urban Renewal, the insights gained from early gentrification were largely ignored. Meanwhile, over the 1950s and 1960s, gentrification was gradually spreading. And opposition to Urban Renewal and other issues led to civil unrest in dozens of cities. Reacting, Congress scrapped the program in the mid-1970s and federal funds were targeted for housing rehabilitation, neighborhood reuse, and greater socioeconomic and racial diversity in declining areas. The new policies rejected large-scale demolition and adopted others that were more compatible with the “reuse and rehabilitate” dynamics of gentrification.

The first American cities in which gentrification surfaced were all located on the East or Gulf coasts. By the 1960s and 1970s though, the trend was metastasizing to San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Vancouver. Public officials were realizing that gentrification posed one essential part of a new strategy to revitalize the nation’s cities. By that time, hundreds of millions of dollars had been misspent on Urban Renewal—money that could have been used to rehabilitate neighborhoods for a combination of new and existing residents and businesses. As The Misunderstood History of Gentrification shows, the relationship between gentrification and Urban Renewal is widely misunderstood today.  

Gentrification demonstrated that not all middle-class people were fleeing cities. It showed that some were eager to live in mixed income and culturally diverse areas. The challenge for public policy has been to find ways to build and maintain socially and economically vibrant communities. Gentrification is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient in the revitalization of America’s cities. President Biden, his domestic policy advisor, Susan Rice, and his nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, are well advised to heed the lessons about urban growth and change evolving over the past century. Avoid policy myopia at all costs. The story of the nation’s cities didn’t begin in 2021. In short, history (still) matters.

Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

Nice Place to Visit

In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

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