Shrunken hopes in urban America

By Michelle Chen Apr 24, 2009

The recession is trampling communities around the country, but some cities are trying to get ahead of the curve by shrinking their own footprint. Declining cities like Flint, Michigan’s famously depressed auto-factory town, are deconstructing themselves to preserve what’s left. Smart planning? Cannibalism? A little of both? The project of “right-sizing” a city could open a political minefield when it comes to issues of displacement and demographic representation. For historically marginalized communities, the decision to pull back the city’s borders could feel a lot like getting the rug pulled out from under you. In an article on Youngstown, Ohio, a once-thriving, now ailing Rust Belt city that is now becoming a model for voluntary urban shrinkage, The Next American City writes:

It’s acknowledged across the board that when cities shrink, the neighborhoods that end up most expendable are typically low-income and often predominantly African- or Latino-American communities.

Yet Youngstown’s chief planner Anthony Kobak expressed hope that the city’s long-simmering racial tensions could be overcome by an inclusive planning effort:

“What we’re trying to do is bring people from all walks of life toward a common cause,” says Kobak. “We want to remove all the racial issues and bring the city to the forefront by suggesting that these are neighborhood issues, not black-and-white issues.” So far, the consensus approach seems to have worked. [Rev. Michael Harrison, pastor of Union Baptist Church in the Northside] who’s black, says African Americans have been granted “equal opportunity and access” in the new plan…

But in light of urban America’s dense history of segregation and displacement—through gentrification, white flight, sprawl and “renewal”—there are reasons to question the benefits of urban downsizing for communities of color. On the other hand, under progressive planning approaches—such as strengthening public transit and expanding affordable and environmentally sustainable housing—withering cities can consolidate resources for those left behind. Nonetheless, top-down reengineering of an urban landscape could easily erode community power. New Orleans is a case study in how redevelopment might end up layering fresh paint over entrenched inequities. Since 2005, the city has been awash in controversy over who will be allowed to “recover.” A series in the Times-Picayune contrasted Youngstown’s proud attrition to the political clashes in post-Katrina New Orleans:

the local debate quickly became radioactive, and the option to shrink the city’s geographic size has been lost. Three years after the storm, nearly every neighborhood has recaptured at least a third of its pre-Katrina population. So the idea of taking entire swaths of the city off the map — after so much time, money and energy has gone into their rebuilding — seems ludicrous. On the other hand, with demographers in agreement that the tide of returnees is ebbing, the chances of a full recovery across the flood zone have dimmed.

The Lower Ninth Ward has hovered in this limbo since floodwaters swept out Black residents and churned up political acrimony. Community advocates have chafed at recovery plans they view as unfair and exploitative, while demolitions of damaged properties have bred fears that the city intends to choke off its Black enclaves. Some rebuilding campaigns, fueled by a combination of star power and grassroots organizing, hold the potential to reconcile social justice goals with sustainability needs. Communities like the Lower Ninth, whose survival has been buoyed by both political symbolism and concrete resistance, refuse to be washed away. But tides of migration and economic crisis can’t be stopped, either. If survival necessitates shrinkage, then communities need the political and human capital to control their destiny, before other forces move in to dictate their fate. Image: Rebuild Green