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Urban Islands of Poverty and Bowling With Strangers

• August 24, 2013 • 3:16 PM

Market Avenue, one of Ohio City's pedestrian-friendly streets. (PHOTO: COLUMBUSITE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Questioning our understanding of “gentrification” is a necessary first step toward helping people who are stuck in impoverished neighborhoods.

Not all poor urban neighborhoods suffer from the same poverty challenges. In fact, not all poor urban neighborhoods have a poverty problem. The poverty rate may be high, but the community provides a wealth of individual economic development opportunities. Senior vice president for program planning and management at the Urban Institute, Margery Austin Turner:

Given our history, a bunch of the high poverty neighborhoods in central cities with predominately black populations have operated as isolating traps for their residents. But there is another group of neighborhoods that may “look” just as bad, but aren’t traps. Maybe they’re launch pads. They might be poor, they might look bad, they might be undesirable places to stay, but they perform really constructive acculturation, integration, linkage functions. People move into them, do well in them, and move on.

Some high-poverty neighborhoods are traps. Some are launching pads. We treat both places as the same, instead of focusing on the neighborhood residents and what becomes of them. The trapped never leave. It must be a great neighborhood. The launching pads suffer from brain drain. It must be a lousy neighborhood.

A neighborhood with no churn, no people coming or going, is distressed. A neighborhood with lots of people moving in and moving out, sporting excellent demographic dynamism, is healthy. Looking at poverty rates and other place-based metrics won’t capture that distinction.

The lens of demographic dynamism puts gentrification in a different light. Popularly, gentrification means affluent whites moving into poor neighborhoods and displacing long-term minority residents who can no longer afford to stay. Armed with that definition, consider this Cleveland neighborhood:

Ohio City, one of Cleveland’s gentrifying neighborhoods, the percentage of black residents increased from 24% of the population to 34% from 1990 to 2010, whereas the percentage of whites declined 58% to 50%. Given that Ohio City is one of the areas seeing an inflow of 25- to 34-year old residents, there appears to be a meet-up of lower-to-middle-income black families that have migrated from the East Side of Cleveland with younger suburban and exurban whites. The same demographic patterns are occurring in other Cleveland neighborhoods such as Edgewater, Old Brooklyn, and Kamms Corners, as well numerous suburbs, like Lakewood, Solon, and Parma, suggesting a “shake-up” of social capital paradigms that have kept Cleveland not only geographically segregated, but psycho-sociologically segregated.

Emphasis added. Blacks are displacing whites in a gentrifying neighborhood. Typically, that’s as deep as the analysis goes. Group moves in and rents go up. Another group moves out. Gentrification. Social injustice. What are we to do about these lower- to middle-income black families of hipsters destroying the neighborhood?

I overlook the inflow of 25- to 34-year-old residents who make up the expected gentrification demographic. Long-term white residents might be the folks displaced. Another possibility is white flight in response to black in-migration. Neither narrative does an adequate job of modelling the neighborhood change, the demographic dynamism.

Ohio City is a mixer, a neighborhood where a resident can bowl with strangers. Turning Robert Putnam on his head, too much social capital turns a neighborhood into an urban island poverty trap. Weaker ties, a more outward facing network, provides a launching pad to upward mobility. Literally and figuratively, bowling with strangers in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles:

Bowler Tony Nicholas’ own family bought a home in the 1940s, east of Arlington Avenue, at Van Ness and Exposition. At the time, “unwritten law” dictated that minorities could not settle west of Arlington Avenue, noted Nicholas. However, by the 1950s, his family had bought a home on Crenshaw between Adams and Washington, joining other black, Chinese, Japanese, and white homeowners in the area. For black Angelenoes, Leimert Park, Crenshaw, and West Adams offered new and better housing opportunities, especially as South Central’s population bulged. Leimert Park’s African American population demonstrated a solidly middle class orientation, as professionals made up 17 percent of employed black male residents and 19 percent of their female counterparts. With city wide averages of professional employment equaling 8 percent and 9 percent for black men and women respectively, Leimert Park and Crenshaw proved critical for L.A.’s African American middle and working class families.

While much of the city remained segregated, Fuller recalled, Crenshaw and Leimert Park weren’t — and “that’s what made [them] exciting.” Longtime resident and bowler Ken Hamamura agreed, noting that Dorsey High School on Exposition divided neatly along thirds: one third African American, one third Asian American — predominantly Japanese and Chinese Americans — and one third white. As the neighborhood grew more multiracial so too did the bowling.

With its modern technology, the Holiday Bowl provided a better playing experience than most other local bowling alleys, and the competition featured numerous talented bowlers. “Holiday Bowl had the capacity to attract a lot of the better bowlers in the area,” remembers Arthur Sutton, recalling his days at the alley. “And if you want to be the best you have to compete against the best. And I loved that competition.”

The visual flair of the bowlers and their teams spoke to the diversity and enthusiasm at the heart of the Holiday Bowl enterprise. “Different groups would come at different times, and it was almost like looking at Bower ware in action. You know, Bower ware being all colorful, all these shirts were different colors — turquoise and black with yellow writing on it,” noted coffee shop patron Renee Gunther.

Early on many of the bowling teams consisted of local Japanese farmers, grocers, and merchants, all of whom competed in divisions that suited their profession: the Gardener’s League, the Produce League, and the Floral League, to name a few. When the area began absorbing greater numbers of African Americans, like the Nicholas family, the teams changed as well. “[M]y team has one black, one Italian, another Japanense, and Korean Sponsor,” Floral League member Dorothy Tanabe told the Los Angeles Times.

The neighborhood histories of Crenshaw and Boyle Heights (also in L.A.) confound my understanding of gentrification to the point of not being a useful concept. Neighborhoods closed off to outsiders are poor, traps. Neighborhoods teaming with people from someplace else are rich, launching pads. An increasing ability to deal with strangers raises the ceiling on our prosperity. Moving out is often part of the journey. Someone angling for the suburban idyll isn’t forced out or abandoning the city.

For a neighborhood to thrive, people must be moving in. What we call “gentrification” isn’t an existential threat. The same should be said about brain drain. Instead, we demonize both the people who are new to the neighborhood and those who leave, limiting our options of dealing with urban poverty:

We need to connect our responses to concentrated poverty to the metropolitan context. Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all have neighborhoods with high poverty rates – but we can’t help the people in those neighborhoods succeed with the same mobility and community development strategies.

Indeed, and we can’t help the people in those neighborhoods with our outdated notions of gentrification and social capital.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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