September 11, 2014

Lessons from Ferguson: Class, race and inner-ring suburbs

Demographer Pete Saunders in The Guardian thinks events in the Missouri city mean The death of America’s suburban dream.

America’s “inner-ring” suburbs – the group of small, independent municipalities that surround the largest US cities – are undergoing a remarkable transformation. … The suburbs represented the American ideals of homeownership, education, low crime and complete autonomy. They represented, in other words, insulation from the perceived ills of urban living. Now it is that very insulation, which made them attractive in their early years, that may be sealing their doom. …
This pattern of “white flight” to the suburbs was characteristic of American metro areas until the 1970s and 1980s, when newer suburbs – bigger, more spacious, more contemporary – began stealing residents away from the older inner-ring suburbs.   And by the 1990s, more minorities were beginning to follow the same aspirational path as the former white city dwellers before them. Just as previous generations did, minorities sought larger homes, quieter environments and better schools. And white residents who craved insulation from the perils of urban living now saw it coming to their front lawns – again. …
To understand the implications of white flight and “resegregation”, look no further than the north side of St Louis. It was the primary destination for early black migrants, but quickly became an impoverished, isolated enclave. 
This has been an active decision. As black people move into their suburban idylls, longtime white residents flee to other suburbs, or retreat to the highest value enclaves in town. They take other measures, too.
They limit the expansion of rental housing to restrict affordable housing options. They develop a strong law and order environment. And they do their best to insulate themselves, physically and socially, from minority transition. It works, after a fashion – until something like Ferguson shows the cracks. …
Meanwhile, everyone’s talking about downtown cores: a back-to-the-city movement led by well-educated young adults seeking the vigour and dynamism of urban living. Rapid gentrification – a predominantly white phenomenon – is associated with bold new ideas about city life. “Big data” can create a technology revolution, it is argued. Apps can make cities run with greater efficiency. A more pedestrian-oriented environment is the way to make your neighbourhood attractive. Many of the best of these ideas have been filtering through to the newest suburbs, too.
In the middle sit America’s inner-ring suburbs. They don’t enjoy the same attention. They are rapidly growing more diverse yet more impoverished – and are poorly equipped to handle transition, because adaptation simply wasn’t included in their development fabric. Will the time ever come to address their ills? The home of the American dream is ailing.

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Joel Kotkin, argues in The Daily Beast that despite what Ferguson has led many to believe, class matters more than race:

… at the same time that formal racial barriers have been demolished, the class divide continues to grow steeper than in at any time in the nation’s recent history. Today America’s class structure is increasingly ossified, and this affects not only minorities, who are hit disproportionately, but also many whites, who constitute more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor.
Upward mobility has stalled under both Bush and Obama, not only for minorities but for vast swaths of working class and middle class Americans. Increasingly, it’s not the color of one’s skin that determines one’s place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety.

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  1. Attempts to use Ferguson as a symbol for all suburbs is an overreach. There are a specific set of circumstances at work. One can find many examples of thriving suburbs both in the USA and Canada.

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