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Samuel Ratensky Memorial Lecture Transcript

We are pleased to share the recent presentation made by Alan Mallach on the occasion of the Samuel Ratensky Memorial Lecture. The annual Ratensky Lecture, organized by the AIANY Housing Committee,  honors Samuel Ratensky (1910-1972), an architect and housing official who was responsible for major New York City housing initiatives. The lecture series recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of housing and community design. A city planner, advocate, and writer, Mallach is nationally known for his work on housing, economic development, and urban revitalization. His presentation offers a well-informed view of current issues facing our cities. As Mallach notes, “A city cannot be a successful city without a strong economy, without strong neighborhoods, and without a diverse, productive population with opportunities to improve their lives. The last, after all, was – and should still be – the traditional promise of the city.”

– Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, 2014 AIANY President

In 1971, I had a visit from a young legal services lawyer named Peter O’Connor who was preparing a suit against a town in South Jersey. The town was named Mt. Laurel, and it was being sued on behalf of the town’s long-established but poor African-American community, which had been repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to build decent affordable housing for their members by Mt. Laurel’s zoning code.

That case led to the two NJ Supreme Court decisions, in 1975 and in 1983, that put the brakes on the use of zoning as a tool to exclude, although only up to a point, and established that every municipality had a legal obligation to provide its “fair share” – a loaded term, as it turned out – of the region’s need for affordable housing. That, in turn, prompted the NJ legislature to enact the NJ Fair Housing Act in 1985, which led to some 30,000 units of affordable housing in NJ suburbs over the next 15 years.

These cases were a big part of my life during those heady years. I worked with some remarkable people, particularly Paul Davidoff, who was one of three people I think of as my mentors in terms of helping to shape what my life has become. I became, I can say without false modesty, the “go-to” planning expert for people challenging exclusionary zoning.

We were doing righteous work. I believed then, and believe now, that stripped of its planning pretensions, zoning in the United States is first and foremost a legal edifice constructed to foster economic segregation and preserve the wealth of the haves against the have-nots. And we were challenging that edifice, and digging away at its roots – so that people of color, people of limited income and less wealth, could share in the opportunities that suburban growth had created around our waning, declining central cities.

But there was a dark side to the battle against suburban exclusion, a hidden subtext. We didn’t think about it much, but it was part of the American zeitgeist in the 1970s – the belief that cities just might be doomed. In fact, NJ Chief Justice Wilentz made it all but explicit, when he laid out the rationale for his famous Mt. Laurel decision:

“Cities are not the sole victims of exclusionary zoning. The damage done by urban blight and decay is in no way confined to those who must remain in our cities. It affects all of us. […] The continuing disintegration of our cities encourages business and industry to leave New Jersey altogether. […] In sum, the decline of our cities [is] a disease threatening us all.”

Things have changed so much that it is difficult to recreate the mindset of those days. It wasn’t

only the riots, the threat of which pervaded peoples’ thinking about cities for years – in fact, virtually every urban policy initiative of the 1970s was justified by its proponents as a means of preventing, or at least discouraging, another wave of riots. It was a sense of helplessness. America’s older cities seemed to be caught in an inexorable cycle of decline, driven by suburbanization, deindustrialization, and the shift of population to the Sunbelt. Middle-class whites were fleeing, neighborhoods were seemingly collapsing overnight, factories were closing down, buildings were abandoned, and downtowns were turning into ghost towns.

It was the era when books about urban American – to pick three that are still on my shelves – bore titles like Cities in Trouble, Sick Cities, and Cities in a Race for Time. It was the era of Howard Cosell’s famous cry from his perch at Yankee Stadium: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!” and Roger Starr’s call for planned shrinkage in pages of the New York Times. It was also the era when we blew up that equivocal monument of Modernism, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis. Of course, by now we’ve blown up so many public housing projects, we’ve lost count, but in 1972 the decision to do so still carried both symbolic and substantive weight.

It’s not that we were wrong in fighting exclusionary zoning. On the contrary, exclusionary zoning was, and is, a pernicious practice. Moreover, by the 1970s, America’s suburbs had already begun to garner a disproportionate share of jobs, opportunities, and public and private wealth – which they still have today. But at the same time, our efforts were at least in part also motivated by the widespread feeling that the cities were perhaps beyond repair, and that if suburbia was to be the future of America, then by God, the prosperous white middle-class needed to share it with people of color and the less affluent.

Yet the ground was shifting, almost imperceptibly at first, and then more powerfully and more visibly. It turned out the cities weren’t dead after all. It’s hard to tell when, where, and why the change happened. My guess is that it was in the 1990s. While there were people fixing up brownstones on the West Side and Park Slope, in Society Hill in Philadelphia, and Capitol Hill in DC, those events were outliers, small in number and often abetted – as in Society Hill or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – by millions of dollars in federal urban renewal subsidies. They were no more than a blip on these cities’ otherwise downward trajectories.

A number of different things began to happen in the 1990s. First, the cities started to become safer, most famously here in New York, but not only in New York, throughout the United States. It’s hard to overstate how important that was.

Second, suburban growth began to slow down as gasoline became more expensive, and at around the same time, large numbers of suburban communities – particularly on the East and West Coasts – decided they really didn’t want to grow any more.

Another factor that I think people often overlook is the cumulative effect of immigration, which began in serious numbers in the 1970s.

The economic restructuring that was taking place all over the developed world was another major factor. Contrary to widespread expectations, changing technologies, and the growing role of the knowledge industry in the world economy, did not usher in a new decentralized era in which people would communicate electronically from tropical islands, but one in which, ironically, face-to-face interaction and the clustering of talent would become far more important than during the industrial era.

But the final touch was the arrival of a new, younger generation – people very much part of the technological revolution – for whom their parents’ horror stories of how they fled the cities for the safety of suburbia back in the 1960s or ’70s were just stories, ancient history. To them, the suburbs where they grew up were not a haven from collapsing cities, but a place they wanted to escape from. They were, let’s face it, bo…ring.

This generation, Gen Y or Millennials, is the most urban-minded in modern American history, and the better educated they are, the more urban they are. Millennial college graduates are flocking to the cities in unprecedented numbers.

As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic change not only in the reality of our cities, but in how we see cities. It’s telling that the iconic “cities” book of recent years is Ed Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City. One writer has called the return to the cities “the new American dream,” while another has called it “a historic urban reordering.” Topping them all, a recent piece on Atlantic Cities has dubbed our era “the golden age of American cities.” Even by the normal standards of American hype, this is all a bit much. But the changes are real, and they are important.

Meanwhile, my own personal trajectory had begun to take me back to cities. I have always loved cities, from my childhood when my parents let me wander pretty much unhindered around Tel Aviv, where I grew up, and from my college days when I was perhaps the only member of my Yale class who actually got to know New Haven beyond the immediate vicinity of the campus. That’s probably not literally true, but I never met a classmate who shared my fascination with the city. After all, it was the 1960s.

Another thing I realized, as we wrangled with suburban mayors and planners over 20 units here or 50 there, was that – however important those units would be for those 20 or 50 families – in the larger picture of housing needs and opportunities, what we were doing was mostly symbolic. Let me explain.

Newark alone has 47,000 households with incomes below $35,000, or roughly half of the area median income. If, somehow, 500 houses or flats those folks could afford were built in Newark’s affluent suburbs each year, and people from Newark filled half of them – both pretty optimistic assumptions – after 10 years, barely 5% of Newark’s low income families would have been able to move to the suburbs.

The other side of this story is that, in something of an ironic touch, while we were fighting our fight, lower income families were moving from the inner city to the suburbs all along, in ways that had nothing to do with our struggle against exclusionary zoning. They were not moving to new developments purposely built for them by well-intended nonprofits. Such developments were few and far between.

In almost every metropolitan area in the United States, particularly those in the Midwest like Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland, lower income urban residents have been moving to inner ring suburbs – typically the suburbs built soon after World War II with a mixture of modest ranchers, Cape Cods, and garden apartments. As the first residents of these towns and villages have died off or moved to Florida, and their children largely moved elsewhere, they have become the destination for thousands of struggling urban out-migrants.

These families were simply taking advantage of opportunities the market was offering them to improve their lives. Market choices – by which I mean the separate decisions of thousands of consumers voting with their feet – was trumping conscious social policy. As is also often true, though, the outcomes of the market have not always been positive, either for the people who are moving or the communities they’ve moved to.

This migration, with its unmistakable racial overtones, is the subtext for what is going on today in Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson is in the heart of what is known in the St. Louis area as “North County,” a section of St. Louis County that has seen a dramatic transformation, not only in racial makeup, but in economic status – and in tenure, because a big part of what’s going on is also a shift of thousands of homes from homeownership to absentee ownership, and their occupants from homeowners to tenants.

Ferguson is not unique. It could be Park Forest, Illinois, Redford, Michigan, Euclid, Ohio, or Prince Georges County, Maryland.

My belief that cities were not only the critical housing battleground, but central to America’s future, led me in 1990 to take up a newly-elected young mayor’s offer to become director of housing and economic development in Trenton, New Jersey.

I will not regale you with war stories, or my achievements and my embarrassing failures, although I have plenty of both. I’d like to talk instead about some of the things I may have learned from eight years of trying to rebuild one of America’s distressed cities.

Relatively speaking, it’s easy to build affordable housing. That may sound crazy, and yes, I’ve done enough to know how complicated it is, how many moving parts there are, how many frustrating things can go wrong. But ultimately, building affordable housing is a technical problem. That, plus the fact that it generates a lot of cash flow for organizations, and creates lots of great opportunities for groundbreakings and photo ops, is why cities, and funders love it.

What’s hard is building communities; safe, healthy, viable neighborhoods. Sometimes affordable housing can help, but sometimes – more often than most of us would like to admit – it hurts, and destabilizes the neighborhood it’s supposed to help. This is particularly true in cities – like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Dayton – which have a surplus of housing and where prices are already dangerously low. But ultimately, hurt or help, building housing and building communities are two different things. And I think a large part of the community development field lost its way in the last couple of decades because they became so involved in building housing. They lost sight of the idea that their goal was supposed to be to build communities.

So how do you build neighborhoods? I’m not sure, but I think I learned one thing about how not to build neighborhoods, and that is by encouraging the creation – or perpetuating the existence – of neighborhoods made up entirely or mainly of poor and near-poor people. I don’t know that I had thought very deeply about urban housing markets before going to work in Trenton, or about how they affect neighborhoods, but the main thing I learned can be summed up in a short paraphrase of James Carville’s famous line – it’s the market, stupid.

Neighborhoods can thrive only when people who have choices, choose them. It’s about people deciding which neighborhood to move into, and it’s about people deciding whether to move when they have the means and the opportunity to do so, or stay in their present neighborhood. Being a neighborhood where people choose to stay or move to doesn’t guarantee it will thrive, but a neighborhood where people don’t want to stay in or move to, and where the only people who live there are there because they can’t afford anything else, is likely to be a failed or failing neighborhood. Ultimately, it’s all about choices people make. Choices they make for their reasons.

Part of the problem in getting this point across is that, I think, many people in community development tend to think prescriptively about what people should do. They should stay and build their neighborhoods. They should get involved in community organizations, and come to meetings, and build block groups, etc., etc. There are actually a few people who do these things, and keep on doing them year after year, and God bless them. But I would suggest it is neither ethical nor realistic to ask the typical resident of an urban neighborhood, who wants to live a normal life, work, and raise a normal family under as decent conditions as they can muster, to subordinate those goals to what is, in the final analysis, an abstraction.

Fast forward. After eight years, I left the city of Trenton. Having spent most of my time since 1999 thinking, writing, and talking about cities, I find my thinking is infinitely better for my having spent time in the trenches, and would urge anyone who aspires to be a serious scholar of our cities to spend a solid number of years doing likewise.

This is where the Millennials come in. If an urban planning Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in 1975 and awoke in 2000, he would not have been able to believe his eyes. America had gone urban. Not only were urban downtowns vibrantly coming back to life, but cities like San Jose and Tucson were trying to retrofit themselves as “real” cities with mixed-use developments and streetcars, and the hottest thing in suburbia were New Urbanist subdivisions and quasi-urban, so-called ”lifestyle” shopping centers.

Now, in some cities, what a lot of people thought was urban revival was actually a toxic brew of real estate speculation and subprime lending. Newark, where house prices more than doubled from 2000 and 2006, is a good example. Detroit is another. What happened in Newark was not about revival, but totally about speculation and subprime lending pushing prices to levels that could not remotely be justified by the economy, the demand, or the incomes of people in the city. Newark is now back where it started – actually below where it started. Detroit, despite a lot of media chatter about rebirth, is far worse off than it was 10, 15 years ago.

But a lot of it was and is real. A process of urban transformation that began in the 1980s and ’90s with cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle has spread into the hinterland. Driven mainly by the march of the Millennials I mentioned earlier, parts of Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati have changed to an extent that our Rip van Winkle would not recognize them. St. Louis’s Washington Avenue was the city’s garment district 100 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, it was a canyon of abandoned factories and warehouses. Today, it’s a vibrant urban boulevard. The old factories are now apartments, condos, stores, and sidewalk cafes. Ten years ago, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati was largely abandoned, with barely 10% of the population it had 50 years earlier.

These areas have bounced back strongly from the recession and the end of the housing bubble. Jobs and businesses are growing, and house prices are taking off. In Washington, DC, for example, the price collapse that saw the average American house lose 1/3 of its value hardly registered.

So, perhaps this really is a golden age for America’s cities. Can we declare victory and go home? Not so fast. First, not all cities are sharing in this boom. A lot, particularly smaller cities like Flint, Youngstown, and Camden, are still stuck in the downward spiral they’ve been in since the 1960s or ’70s. But an even larger issue is that of who is gaining, and who is losing, as America’s cities change.

As our society becomes increasingly unequal, and the gap between the haves and have-nots gets wider and wider, these trends are playing out in very distinct, and highly troubling, ways in our cities.

The fact is, a rising tide does not lift all boats. Sometimes, it might even swamp them, leaving them worse off than before. That is what’s happening in our cities. Most of the world thinks of New York City as a rich city. But it’s really a poor city with some large rich pockets.

In St. Louis, while Washington Avenue sparkles, and restored houses in the nearby Central West End sell for half a million and up, areas only a few blocks away languish. Not only New York, but almost every city in the United States, can be called a tale of two cities.

The devastation of St. Louis’s Northside is not new, but is spreading. Neighborhood after neighborhood in our cities – areas that somehow managed to survive intact into the new millennium – are falling apart: losing jobs and population, and losing the demographic and economic glue that held them together for 50, 80, or 100 years – homeowners, stable families and people with jobs. These are once prosperous middle-class neighborhoods like East English Village in Detroit, middling areas like Price Hill in Cincinnati, or working-class ethnic communities like Dutchtown in St. Louis.

Middle-class flight – but now it’s the African-American middle class that’s fleeing – loss of income, loss of jobs, demographic change, family breakdown, foreclosures, crime, troubled schools….the list of forces still destabilizing urban America has not changed since the worst days of the 1970s, and, in some cases, has gotten longer. Revival is concentrated in a few small areas – usually the downtown along with the area where the major universities and medical centers are located, and a few favored, perhaps gentrified, residential pockets. These areas all together rarely add up to more than 5% of a city’s area.

For those pockets, this may indeed be a golden age. But if you leave out a few outliers like San Francisco or Washington, DC, most American cities are getting poorer, and the gap between rich and poor even greater. Forty or 50 years ago, most people in cities lived in middle-income neighborhoods, areas with a mix of people with higher and lower incomes. Today, only a diminishing minority do. Our cities have increasingly sorted into areas of the rich and areas of the poor. The center has not held.

Milwaukee is a case in point. Gentrification is taking place, at least it seems to be – but only in one small pocket, an area along the Milwaukee River across from downtown. But the more important story in Milwaukee is what’s going on almost everywhere else in the city.

I want to make two points about this. First, it’s not just Milwaukee. If you set aside the coastal cities like Washington or San Francisco, the pattern is pretty much the same in almost every other American city – for every small pocket where lower income people may be displaced by gentrification, there are vast areas where lower income people are seeing their quality of life decline, and what little wealth they have disappears as their neighborhoods decline. Second, neighborhood decline disproportionately harms people of color.

The increasing gap between rich and poor in our cities is also a racial gap, while the modest but significant income gains – in relative terms – that black households made in the 1990s have been wiped out in city after city. The gap is turning into a chasm.

This is the other side of today’s urban success story.

I’d like to close with some thoughts about where all of this might be leading, and where we might go from here. They are not, however, optimistic thoughts.

What we are seeing is not simply a local phenomenon, but something that is driven by national and global trends. What’s happening in cities reinforces those trends. And we’d be making a terrible mistake if we didn’t recognize that these trends work to the advantage of a lot of people. I’m not talking just about the so-called 1%, but about a far larger slice of the population, the roughly 30% who have college degrees, generally have good jobs, and increasingly share a taste for and the ability to support the type of urban environment that has emerged in the downtowns of our cities.

We need also to recognize that the inequality and polarization we’re seeing in American cities is not a simple phenomenon, but is multidimensional and systemic. It is both a people and a place issue. It is about inequality of opportunity and resources for people and families. It is about inequality of place conditions within cities, it is about inequality of cities within their regional framework, and the inequality of regions within the global system. Despite their revival, the great majority of American cities are still poor and struggling financially compared to their suburban surroundings, and most of their metros are falling behind the nation’s few globally competitive regions.

In that light, single strategies pursued separately are unlikely to lead to systemic change, even though they may benefit some individuals. Systemic change can only happen if many different strategies are pursued simultaneously.

I am not optimistic about seeing much in the way of change any time soon. The ability of local actors to affect the forces driving inequality is limited, and constrained by the weakness of our governance systems and the fraying of our civil society. Moreover, the urban feedback system can easily mean that steps pursued to address one dimension of inequality end up making another worse. If job opportunities are created for some inner-city residents without improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods, they may move to the suburbs, further isolating those who remain. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – just that we need to recognize the complexity of the challenge, and avoid simplistic, so-called solutions, however well they may play in the blogosphere.

I would very much like to say that the trends toward ever-greater inequality and polarization that we’re seeing today are not sustainable, and that ultimately the 1%, and the 30%, will wake up and realize that their own self-interest demands that we address the challenge of inequality, not only in our cities, but in our society as a whole. I’m far from sure that’s the case. After all, mediaeval cities survived for centuries, and in our own time, innumerable third world-cities maintain levels of inequality far exceeding our own.

It frightens me to think that this could become true of the United States.

The real issue is whether these are the sort of cities, and the sort of society we want. I don’t think so, and I am given hope by the growing number of mayors and civic leaders, beginning with Mayor De Blasio here in New York and Mayor Peduto in Pittsburgh, who share that conviction and don’t want to just talk about inequality in their cities, but to do something about it.

Their efforts are unlikely to bring about the economic transformation or the fundamental national policy shifts that many people call for. We are not going to undo globalization, or replace capitalism with something else, at least in my lifetime. And even far more modest changes are blocked by the seemingly permanent stalemate in Washington and the extent to which national politics has become dominated by big money and special interests.

While I am deeply frustrated by our inability as a nation to even begin coming to grips with this issue at the national or global scale, at the same time over many years as a planner, I have also become increasingly dubious about grand, “make no small plans” thinking. There is something to be said for local, incremental, pragmatic – and hopefully strategic – action. And perhaps, ultimately, the cumulative effect of local, incremental steps, will add up to something far larger. It is certainly a fight worth fighting.