Segregation is real. It is a daily fact of life for millions of Americans. It is a lived reality that, as study after study shows, reinforces social injustice and defines everything from our educational level to our life expectancy. The recent events in Baltimore—and before that in Ferguson and various other cities around America—paired with the rise of the super-tall towers for the super-rich and the spread of McMansions, make it clear that income and quality of life disparities literally have a place in America.
Strangely enough, it is not easy to see this spatial segregation. What makes one row of townhouses into a gap-toothed collection of condemned buildings and crack houses, while another one is home to glitterati and bohos? Why are some apartment buildings protected by doormen in livery and others by metal bars on windows? How come some suburbs now hide meth labs while others’ cul-de-sacs sport air-conditioned nodes in the Facebook and Amazon economy? Why is one area a food desert and a few miles down Whole Foods supermarkets blossom? We all live in the democratic American grid, but we inhabit it unequally.
Traditionally, geography was destiny. The poor lived where the soil was bad, the water too much or too little, the terrain too steep, or the land too isolated. They also lived further from the urban core, in a transportation-defined set of lines that extended as human technology drew out connections to good terrain further and further away from the jobs and power of downtown. The rich lived also higher up, where it was green, and in places where they had access open space. Now waterfront areas are being gentrified, while suburbs are in places turning into slums. Some marginal places are hip, other well-located sites continue to deteriorate.
What remains of the place-based legacy is that it is the areas with the fewest natural characteristics—the undifferentiated plains—that remain the least desirable places to live and thus become homes to those with the least means. Beyond that superficial fact, which does not tell you much, as so much of our country consists of such places, the next determining factor is history: areas that have traditionally, or at least since the Second World War and the Great Migration after that, attracted African-American populations, have been left with fewer schools, services, stores, and other amenities. They have become isolated, far from jobs and opportunities. They have fewer parks and monuments around which to gather—the death in Baltimore happened in a moving vehicle, though it started in an area of row-houses called Sandtown, but the protests quickly moved to downtown, where there were neo-classical centers of power to act as focal points and backdrops.
What is to be done? This segregation is not something we can solve by moving populations by mandate. We tried that in the 1960s and 1970s, and the results were disastrous. At the same time, we cannot just let gentrification and the market-driven segregation of everything from education to food do that again. Nor will such tricks as Form Based Planning or Transit Oriented Development do much for the situation, as they just promote gentrification and different modes of segregation.
What we need to do—or at least try to do—is to invest in those places that need it most. We need schools, libraries, community centers, health clinics, gyms, swimming pools, cafés, and usable open space. We do not need them in big packages, but we need many of them. They don’t even need to be new buildings: We can make use of disused or abandoned structures and lots. We need points of stimulation and openness. For a fraction of what we spend on policing, we could be building our way out of trouble.
My mother and father, who grew up respectively in Detroit and New York, always talked about how a whole world opened up to them when they walked through their lower class neighborhoods (really, slums) to the local Carnegie Library. We need a contemporary version of such portals into others worlds, not just police who are less trigger-happy or the fake eaves of your typical, value-engineered Transit Oriented Development.