Black Space Matters

Race and place are inextricably linked in America, from the legally permitted segregation prior to the Civil Rights era to the implicit divisions in many cities today.  The current conflicts with authority are playing out in the wide corridors of disinvestment: automobile dealerships, strip malls, pawn shops, and car washes.  These are unforgiving arterials, built for cars and commerce and intended to be experienced at 55 mph, and not the pace of peaceful protests.  The conflict zones are urban spaces marked by abandonment, poverty, and heat.

Violence has migrated from the urban street corner to the suburbs, exploding in places such as Ferguson, MO, and North Baton Rouge, LA.  Racially skewed neighborhoods have spatial vulnerabilities, through the concentration of disadvantage and the lack of transportation options that permits residents to prey upon their neighbors.  As those with the resources to leave do so, the cycle of poverty becomes more acute, the despair more prevalent.  Crime becomes contagious.

Although the practice of redlining (denying services to residents of certain areas, presuming a common racial profile) and racial steering (advising customers to purchase homes in particular neighborhoods based on race) are no longer legal, boundaries remain between black and white communities… boundaries which must be erased.  The Brookings Institute finds, “Economic integration, where rich and poor live side by side, leads to the safest cities.”[i]  Clustering – for protection or support – works only when residents choose to live in a community, not when they are relegated to the leftover dregs of the city.

Urban decay means fewer public services are accessible to residents of vulnerable neighborhoods: parks may be smaller and offer fewer amenities, hospitals may have relocated to distant campuses, and emergency services may be scattered.  Even retail outlets may target low-income neighborhoods for nuisance sales; the ubiquity of convenience stores, payday loans, pawn shops and liquor stores may in turn drive away grocery stores, boutiques, and other desirable sales outlets.

After protracted and spiraling events in the past weeks, the nation is beginning a conversation about how cities can reduce segregation and vulnerability to violence.  Ideas include:

  • Locating new, high-quality public housing in stable neighborhoods to reduce the patterns of isolation, and create direct access to better schools.
  • Extensive, inexpensive, and robust transportation options to diminish the effects of segregation, connecting minority neighborhoods directly to centers of work and leisure.
  • Repairing and restoring black spaces to provide the same services and the same aesthetic qualities as economically-stable neighborhoods.
  • Creating predominately black spaces that are desirable, with elements to promote shared culture and identity, mentoring, and encouragement.
  • Rebalancing economic diversity within the city to ensure that protection, jobs, and opportunities are equitably distributed.

President Obama offered these remarks at a memorial service for the five Dallas police officers that were slain on July 7, 2016: “As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.

“We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.  And then we tell the police, ‘You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.’ We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.”[ii]

Everyone benefits from a more vibrant and engaging community, neighborhoods without borders, safety from violence, better education, and more efficient public services.  Black space matters, because city space matters.