September 14, 2017; Next City
This year, the National League of Cities (NLC) lauded Decatur, a tony inner-ring suburb of 22,000 located near Atlanta and next to Emory University, for its diversity initiative, ranking its program second in the country among cities with fewer than 50,000 people. Indeed, Decatur has been promoted by NLC as “a model of inclusion. Last month, NLC rereleased this June 2017 post as a counterpoint to the white supremacist violence that erupted in Charlottesville.
Yet the story of Decatur is complicated. While official city policy promotes diversity, the displacement of longtime residents of color by wealthier, white residents—popularly known as gentrification—has long been a major force in Decatur, with the city losing approximately 70 percent of its Black population between 1980 and 2013.
Historian David Rotenstein, writing for Next City, highlights some drivers of this shift. Citing Peter Moskowitz’s book, How to Kill A City, Rotenstein notes that city policies often foster displacement by creating an “environment where gentrification is viable and profitable. Zoning, business licensing, public schools, policing and code enforcement all…[help] developers and investors to enter spaces where disinvestment and oftentimes decay have long ruled.”
Decatur’s current cultural diversity initiative, called “Better Together,” was released in December 2015 after an extensive 12-month public planning process that involved 1,500 people. The task force formed initially in response to racial profiling in the city. A galvanizing incident in 2013 precipitated the task force’s creation, when a former Black school board member was stopped by police while peacefully walking in his own neighborhood.
Rotenstein is a skeptic of Decatur’s approach, labeling Better Together an “ambitious public relations campaign disguised as a diversity initiative.” But even if Rotenstein is mistaken about the sincerity underlying the city’s current program, there is little doubt that the present diversity effort was launched well after significant gentrification had occurred.
The recommendations in the Better Together report focused on six areas:
- Support community participation and engagement among all members of the city’s population.
- Prioritize racially just community policing by improving relationships between community members and law enforcement and ensuring all community members are treated in a just way with equity and respect.
- Ensure the availability of diverse and affordable housing in order to prevent the displacement of existing residents and provide for a variety of housing types and prices.
- Cultivate a welcoming and inclusive retail environment for serving a diverse clientele.
- Maximize the use of public spaces for the enrichment and well-being of all Decatur residents, workers, and visitors.
- Facilitate low-cost transportation options for people of all ages and abilities.
Rotenstein calls attention to the conflicting objectives that drive city officials: “On the one hand, Decatur municipal leaders have groomed an image touting diversity, while on the other they have failed to curb the real estate speculation that has contributed to the city’s economic and racial homogenization.” In sum, Rotenstein’s point is that cross-cultural understanding is a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition to achieve diversity. To be successful, cultural diversity efforts must be matched with economic supports that preserve communities in place.
Certainly, Rotenstein has a point. For example, in theory, the third goal of Better Together aims to combat gentrification and “prevent the displacement of existing residents.” But the most robust policy proposed to do so is a weak statement to “improve upon the City’s existing density bonuses to encourage developers to build affordable condominiums and apartments.” The other actions include improving web communications, hosting conversations, and having another task force on affordable housing. Quite clearly, density bonuses for affordable apartments and condos alone are hardly sufficient to, as Rotenstein puts it, “erase the municipal policies that created the conditions forcing municipal officials to confront racism, diversity and inclusion.”
Of course, Decatur is hardly an unusual case, as gentrification has become a widespread phenomenon. Efforts to measure and assess the extent of gentrification are, however, to say the least, uneven. Forbes magazine conducted its analysis by looking at how quickly income levels are rising in the central city versus the overall