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.