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Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, in 1912. (Photo: Public Domain)

Giving Up on Urban Neighborhoods

• May 23, 2014 • 2:00 AM

Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, in 1912. (Photo: Public Domain)

Many of the efforts made to resuscitate dying cities aren’t concerned with dying neighborhoods. Sometimes it’s easier to just amputate the limbs to save the body.

“Like an immune system attached to the virus,” was how Michael Braverman (City of Baltimore) described the attack on vacancy with “data-driven tools for neighborhood revitalization” (PDF). However, the target for city efforts wasn’t where the virus (building vacancy) was densest. Limited resources were applied as triage in order to save the parts of the urban body still showing vital signs of life. Contagion theory in Chicago:

Roseland ranks third in the city for likely vacant residential properties, according to our analysis of foreclosure-related vacancies dating back to 2008. There are nearly 700 empty houses and apartment buildings sprinkled along blocks filled with tiny homes on wide lots. Central Roseland is the hardest hit corner of the community, and no matter how hard neighbors try to maintain a semblance of order — potting plants and manicuring their lawns — their attempts are overshadowed by boarded up houses and weed-strewn lawns.

The housing market there isn’t just in a slump. It’s unconscious. A Chicago Magazine analysis found that Roseland’s home values are among the lowest in the city, falling by 76 percent last year compared with 2006. Yet, the neighborhood got little attention through the stabilization program.

Less than three cents of every federal dollar spent throughout the Neighborhood Stabilization Program made its way to this part of the city. In fact, more money was spent rehabbing the one single family house at 4419 N. Kimball Ave. than the entire Roseland neighborhood. Records show there are three dozen other single family homes and two-flats across the city that got similar royal treatment.

City officials debated from the outset whether to spend the federal aid on blocks that were affected by foreclosures but border a strong housing market or to funnel money into places like Roseland where the prospects for private investment are slim at best. They opted to do both. As a result, nearly one dollar out of every five went to rehab buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods like Logan Square, Humboldt Park and Albany Park.

Emphasis added. Less than three cents of every federal dollar spent made it to the neighborhood that needed it most. That’s intentional. Urban neighborhood triage is national. President Barack Obama’s “Promise Zones”:

Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environment and Regional Equity at USC, said that the Los Angeles “Promise Zone” is much more likely to gentrify than the other two urban locations chosen, east San Antonio and west Philadelphia. Already, prices are rising in Los Angeles as more and more young people want to live within the city.

For that reason, Pastor said that though some city leaders thought the exclusion of South L.A. was misguided, the White House made a smart choice by designating the L.A. neighborhoods that they did. The risk of gentrification and the high immigrant population in the city’s “Promise Zone” will allow the federal government to discover how this experiment in poverty-reduction works in various settings.

“It’s an investment that’s not being made in the four other areas and by those grounds, it’s a pretty solid investment,” Pastor said.

Efforts to resuscitate dying cities aren’t concerned with dying neighborhoods. Amputate the limbs. Sacrifice Corktown. Save our city.

On a few occasions of candor, I’ve heard different sources tell me that the scale of Detroit’s blight was colossal. Shoulders shrugged. Eyebrows raised. A BBQ joint wouldn’t change anything.

In Chicago, some of the neighborhoods are left for dead. I don’t know if the body count is higher in Baltimore than it is Chicago. Safe to say, all of Detroit is a write-off.

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

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