The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Sounds like § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 17:11:20
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El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The new utility belt / 2017-02-27 10:18:33
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17

Race and the new urbanism

At New Geography, Aaron Renn takes a Kotkinesque shot at the darlings of urban planners and bike-toting social climbers everywhere:

If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities [e.g. Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver] aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.

In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group…

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I want to propose an alternate hypothesis.

This is something I think about a lot, not least because I’m an aspiring college professor married to an urban planning student who is also a black lady. Who doesn’t drive. And we have kids.

How can we find someplace to live that’s 1) safe, 2) planning-progressive, 3) politically progressive, 4) with good schools, 5) with some good jobs — and where my wife and our children won’t be the only middle-class African-Americans most people in our neighborhoods ever see?

It’s a harder nut to crack than you’d think, not least because my wife is probably keener on places like Portland than I am. I grew up in Detroit, and like big cities that are sometimes a little seedy: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Boston. My wife grew up in D.C., but then moved to semi-rural Georgia (where her family WERE the only middle-class blacks her neighbors had ever seen).

We both love cities. But she doesn’t drive a car, and I don’t ride a bike. There we are.

Now here’s the thing. Why do these little model cities not have very many black people?

It’s worth asking: why do some places have relatively high concentrations of African-Americans? The answer, historically, has been: 1) they are in the South, or 2) they are large, industrial cities that attracted lots of black men and women during the industrial migrations of the first half of this century.

Now, if a city didn’t have a big industrial base forty years ago, it probably didn’t (and don’t) have a big African-American population.

And – if it didn’t commit head-over-heels to industry, it’s probably in better shape now than most of the cities that did.

Hence Renn’s correlation is a classic example of what the statisticians call a missing variable problem. That missing variable is relative industrialization, which drives both the size of the Af-Am population and whether a city is a small-town, new-urbanist model or a post-industrial hellhole. (Sorry, Detroit.)

Let me add too: if a city is a really, really desirable place to live, then it will be expensive. If a city is expensive, then it will largely attract either wealthy adults or young people, students, etc. who are willing to live in small apartments on the cheap. You don’t get a lot of families with four or more kids, and – given the relative income and wealth distribution in this country – you don’t get a lot of black people.

NOW. This doesn’t account for cities like San Francisco, where a once-substantial black population has essentially been driven (and then priced) out.

It doesn’t explain why young black professionals are way, way more likely to move to New York or Atlanta than Portland.

It also doesn’t negate Renn’s observation that one of the things that may attract wealthy and high-climbing whites to cities like Portland is their low black population and relative lack of “urban problems.” It may be a kind of socially-acceptable white flight for greenie liberals. But that’s not anything you can blame on the cities. If it’s true, it’s in the psychology of their residents.


This article sparked my interest when I saw it earlier today. It was unfortunate to take notice that the statistics used to make the author’s point are misleading at best. Comparing the cited statistics against the statistics provided by reveals that the author used a rather curious methodology in presenting their facts.

Which is mostly unfortunate because I think there actually is something there to the article- a good idea we need to investigate. But it is hard to consider it based on the evidence presented in the New Geography link.

i like your take on this article. mostly, though, this article upset me, particularly as someone who is (also) studying urban planning.

first, i think it’s completely fair to have a conversation about certain characteristics of “progressive” cities. but i think that the main problem with the article is the simple fact that the author seemingly equates diversity with the proportion of african-americans in a given city. what’s worse is the implication that for a city to be considered “diverse” (or at least non-white), it must have at least the national average of african-americans in a city.

this is an incredibly narrow-minded view of what makes cities diverse. and carrying this implication further, it seems the only acceptable solution is that cities maintain something close to national averages of various ethnic groups. but this undermines what i think makes american cities great: their heterogeniety. speaking of a city like seattle, which i have some familarity with, yes, it is does not have anything close to the national average of african-americans (and, as thomas mentions, the latest Census count has the proportion of black population in seattle at 7.8%, much greater than the 6.2% that renn states), but that does not mean seattle is a white city. indeed, the city has more than three times the national average of asian-americans. is the proportion of asian-american population not indicative of a diverse city?

as i mentioned, and as i think you do in your post, having this sort of conversation is really a good thing (and i’d also say that i think seattle is exactly the city that might satisfy you and your wife, though it can be a bit schizophrenic as far as good city governance/planning goes). but i think that renn’s article is mostly misrepresentative of the issues at play here.

Yeah, choosing county instead of city makes for wonky results. The city of Minneapolis is 17.7% African-American, compared to 12.4% for the US as a whole. It’s 68% white (vs. 74% US). The surrounding county, however, which includes a number of outlying suburbs, is very white. But of the 44 cities that make up Hennepin County, I probably encounter 4 in a typical month.

We’ve got poor public transit (a bus system and a light rail that runs from the airport to downtown), although I know several people who choose not to have a car, and if you live downtown you need never step outside in the winter. I’ve got a few friends in the Urban Studies program at the U of MN who say it’s top-notch (and the one Urban Studies professor I’ve met – Judith Martin – is fantastic). A beautiful 3-bedroom duplex apartment in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city might run you $875. I hear our schools are solid.

Come to Minnesota!


Tim Carmody says…

I sorta dismiss it at the end, but I actually am intrigued by the idea that the migratory patterns of white people – or at least young white liberals – have fundamentally changed. Thirty years ago, a family in my situation (for simplicity’s sake, let’s say my wife would also be white) would just get a house in Montgomery County or the Jersey suburbs somewhere. Now, though — 1) we’re actually more priced out of those places than we are the fanciest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and 2) traditional white flight and suburban living have become socially unacceptable, or at least bad form.

So instead of keeping our jobs in Philly and moving to the suburbs, we move to Austin, or Seattle, or Minneapolis. Demographically, we might essentially be making the same tradeoff, but we get to 1) continue to enjoy city living and 2) sleep at night without feeling like we’ve bought into our parents’ empty promises.

BTW, Matt has a beautiful anti-suburbia post that’s now, astonishingly, four and a half years old. It should be starting kindergarten soon! You should be so proud.

Len says…

I look forward to getting Tim on a bike.

As further grist for the mill, I’d like to mention a famous mathematical (cellular automata) model of non-racist dots. I tried to find a link with good pictures, nothing came up quickly.

Let’s take a large grid, and at every point, place a dot. There are blue dots and green dots (each of which represents a proud family of the Blue and Green races). The dots are distributed randomly, and each group occupies around half the grid.

Let us imbue these dots with aspirations, visions, and… neighbors – each of the closest 4 dots on the grid is a neighbor. We give the dots some mobility, a set of rules by which they can exchange places, move into vacant lots, construct exurbs and city cores, etc.

So now we’re ready for the point of this Gedankensperiment. We imbue each dot with a very minor preference. They are not racist, but they don’t like being the only Blue dot in a field of Green (or vice-versa). We state that the dots relocate if they do not have at least one neighbor of the same color.

This slight preference, over time, leads to a heavily segregated pattern in the grid.

I just wanted to point out Ta-Nehisi’s takedown of that article.

[edit – link added, TC]

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