By Lincolnh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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:

  1. Support community participation and engagement among all members of the city’s population.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Cultivate a welcoming and inclusive retail environment for serving a diverse clientele.
  5. Maximize the use of public spaces for the enrichment and well-being of all Decatur residents, workers, and visitors.
  6. 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 metropolitan area. Using this criterion, Forbes finds that, “Four cities—Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco—have dramatically closed the income gap between 2000 and 2015. These four cities have significantly narrowed or even eliminated the city/suburban median household income gap since 2000. In D.C. and Atlanta, the city/suburban gap narrowed by more than 25 percent; in Seattle and San Francisco, the city/suburban gap changed by nearly 20 percent and 11 percent respectively, with both cities now having higher median household incomes than their surrounding suburbs.”

But gentrification is not just a big city issue. A 2017 article ranked Charleston, South Carolina as the nation’s most rapidly gentrifying city, with the city’s Black population falling from 42 percent to 23 percent between 1990 and 2015. Asheville, North Carolina—another place less frequently in the gentrification discussion—ranked number two. focused on the percentage of census tracts (which typically have from 1,200 to 8,000 people) that had seen major shifts in median income, rather than changes in the city-suburb income divide.

The bottom line: gentrification occurs in the North and the South and in blue, purple, and red states. Broadly speaking, the United States is in early stages of the process of reversing historical white flight and reverting to a more conventional pattern resembling that of many European and Latin American cities where wealth concentrates in the center and poverty on the periphery. This creates real challenges for nonprofits, as most poverty alleviation programs focus on urban areas and therefore are often not well positioned to serve low-income suburban residents.

Rotenstein concludes with a statement of what would be required if cities like Decatur wish to truly break with past patterns of gentrification. A lot of the answer boils down to paying much more careful attention to history and place. As Rotenstein writes:

Instead of cosmetic mitigation, cities need to do the hard work of reconciling distant pasts that created segregated housing and fractured communities with more recent policies that privilege developers and wealthier (and whiter) newcomers.

Cities need to…have their most vulnerable residents’ backs. They can do that through equitable affordable housing policies, inclusive zoning, inclusive placemaking, better police training and better attention to how people of color are marginalized, otherized and tokenized in the public sphere.

—Steve Dubb