The education I received getting my Master’s urban planning degree in the 1990s had less to do with the classroom and more to do with developing the Windy City. That’s the nickname given Chicago more than a century ago, not for its weather, but for its gusts of political hot air. The hot issue of my time was planning the city’s high rise developments and rapid growth into nearby neighborhoods. A major land parcels under debate was home to inner city housing projects. The projects were built with the intent to alleviate poverty but had become African American islands battered by desperation over the lack of good schools, public transportation, decent jobs, and grocery stores.
Chicago’s decision to remove the projects from prime urban real estate was repeated by many cities across the country. The residents were relocated to the suburbs, supposedly for their own good, with a promise of a quieter life and self-sufficient families. I drove by one of the new projects and saw that it was definitely quieter. The residents were hidden behind a line of trees in the middle of nowhere, invisible and eerily silent. Their fate was virtually forgotten as Chicago hooked up with developers who gentrified their former home, raised rents through the roof and raked in a fortune.
The term “Inner city” once referred to impoverished downtown enclaves usually of people of color. But cities are changing with middle class African Americans moving into suburbs and gentrification bringing the wealthy downtown. Once again, we are seeing the transformation of metropolitan areas, prompting higher costs of housing and living. Atlanta is the Southern poster child for this booming growth and its challenges. Nashville worries about becoming the next Atlanta according to The Wall Street Journal. Is Chattanooga next?
Should we ask if HUD’s proposal of a 20% increase for low-income renters is in reality a path for developers? Some say it’s a path to self-sufficiency, but we’ve heard “it’s for your own good” before. Should we ask if there’s a racial bias targeting the African American residents especially when biases continue to shape the landscape on a personal level? Walking around a homogeneous Chicago neighborhood that was becoming diverse, I saw the owner of an old house put up a For Sale sign. When I asked why he was moving, he said, “African Americans are taking over here. I’m moving somewhere quiet.”
Racial issues are resurfacing, blossoming, and coming to a neighborhood near you. An African American friend in the Atlanta area shared how a few blocks away, the “N” word was thrown around in an argument at the local Starbucks. He predicts the tensions will intensify given that an outspoken African American is running to become Georgia’s governor.
Racial issues are deeply embedded in our country’s housing patterns, impacting education, healthcare, transportation, and family life. Urban planners need to interweave all of the above into the plans for large developments, but also for smaller ones. For example, there’s a dilemma involving the Chattanooga Zoo expansion and the adjacent gym, a historic facility with many African American patrons. There are attempts to relocate the gym, but if no site is found, it will cease to exist.
Situations like the gym are catalysts for civic activism and while the African American community is too often at risk, there’s a growing understanding that we’re in this together. Activists’ voices are loud and noisy in expanding cities like Seattle, which is attempting to undo gentrification’s displacement. Rather than have to undo, let’s make sure that all parties are heard and developers collaborate, not dictate, for creative solutions. So listen up, wherever you are!