12 March 2006

Race, Cities and Gardens

The one time I visited Atlanta, some ten years ago, it felt like a lively but not especially comfortable place to live. Parts of the inner city were picturesque, but were obviously crime-ridden as well, while the suburbs were opulent but, well, suburban. As a result of the sprawl typical of many American cities, but especially pronounced in Atlanta, everybody went everywhere in private cars, and the traffic jams were nightmarish.

Now, according to this New York Times article, crime is down, the economy is booming, and people are streaming back into the inner city to live. Good news, you'd think?

Not according to some, who are "concerned" that as a result African-Americans may no longer constitute a majority of the city's population. To which I can only respond with a big "So what?" In the past half century dozens of American cities have shifted from white majority populations to black majority populations and anyone who tried to raise alarms about that would be considered, probably correctly, as a racist. So how is it any different to start yapping, "There goes the neighborhood" when white people start moving in?

I've seen a similar phenomenon at work in San Francisco's Mission District. The (largely white) artsy/bohemian/lefty crowd that have migrated there in recent years in search of cheap(er) rents and local color have been howling about "saving" the Mission from the more prosperous white professionals who followed them once gentrification's shock troops had helped pacify the neighborhood and opened a few cappuccino joints. Their argument: the Mission is "historically Latino," and should be preserved as such.

Since many of the radical gringos are recently arrived from Kansas or LA or the equivalent, they can perhaps be forgiven for their lack of local knowledge, but the fact is that Mission is no more "historically" Latino than historically Irish, which is what it was up until the 1940s, when large numbers of Latino immigrants started moving in. More to the point, when did it become "progressive" to try and segregate a neighborhood or city on the basis of race? Would it have been acceptable back in the 1940s or 50s to claim that Latino immigration was "threatening an historically Irish neighborhood"? I don't think so. How, then, can the reverse be true?

The fact is that all cities - living, thriving cities, anyway - change constantly. Neighborhoods that were desirable or hot or edgy become clapped out or cool or sedate; the people who were there move to some new part of town and make it reflect their needs and aspirations. It's only in culturally moribund places, or those in the grip of a misguided identity politics, that people attempt to freeze things in place in accordance with their vision of how a city or a society "should" be.

A not dissimilar mentality was at work in the hideous disfigurations and dislocations done in the name of "urban renewal" during the latter part of the 20th century; the high-rise slums and the once lively streets now reduced to little more than flyblown traffic corridors provide eloquent but brutal testimony to the attempt to introduce "rational" order into what should be an organic process. If you doubt this, look at the cities or sections of cities considered most desirable, where almost everyone would like to live if they could only afford it. Whether you're talking about San Francisco's Victorian neighborhoods or Manhattan's brownstone and redbrick terraces, almost without exception they were developed - and, in modern times, redeveloped - almost completely independently of central planning or political ideology. Conversely, look at the neighborhoods where people live only if they can't possibly afford to live anywhere else: rife with public housing and "planned" communities.

Does that mean the government should play no role in helping to develop housing or housing policy? No, but it needs to do so with a far lighter hand, more along the lines of a gardener who instead of willy-nilly tearing up the ground and trying to reshape it to suit his vision, instead patiently observes the lay of the land, tries to understand the way things grow naturally there, its assets and drawbacks, and only then begins to work, not as overlord, but in partnership with the natural forces that will, after all, outlive his puny efforts by a few thousand millennia.

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