Housing, Part 3

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

I just returned from St. Paul. In the early 1970s, as part of the War on Poverty, I lived and worked in a St. Paul neighborhood called West Seventh. On this and in previous visits I observe a drastically changed West Seventh. Its anchor, the Xcel Energy Center, opened in September 2000 as the home of the Minnesota Wild. (Lady Gaga performed there just after I left; too bad she missed me.) There are two hotels, one just opened. Several restaurants and bars line West Seventh, including a brand new brew house. Several medical facilities are there. A short walk down a hill leads to a string of condos on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
As I walked around West Seventh and around a couple other St. Paul neighborhoods, I thought about Richard Florida, who caused a stir with his Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books [2002]; www.creativeclass.com). A city can recover from its post-industrial slump, Florida says, if it can attract and retain a sufficient number of educated young adults. The way to do so includes universities, trendy neighborhoods, an art scene, sports venues, public transportation, medical and research facilities, skilled jobs and more. Florida uses charts, a global creativity index and examples, including (on the positive front) Austin, Seattle, Boston and more. He implies that any place has the potential to thrive. Thus for a time his book and his talks were popular with regional meetings of mayors, at business conferences, among urban planners and professional associations and even some church organizations.

Now, however, Florida realizes that his prescription has a downside. Yes, “the concentration of talent and economic activity” makes a place thrive, he writes in The New Urban Crisis (Basic Books, 2017). But… think about it logically… those places might perhaps be any place, but cannot be all places. In fact, says Florida (again with demographics, charts and several lists of “star cities”), a concentrated thriving place causes inequality and eventually undermines the wider society, including the trendy place itself. Whereas 15 years ago Florida celebrated one side of the story, he now concentrates on the downside.

Housing issues are a big symptom of the downside—including wide disparity in real estate prices, lack of affordable housing, differences in municipal services and persistent discrimination. A thriving part of town, Florida convincingly shows, is not merely adjacent to another part of town. Concentrated urban prosperity contributes to “chronic, concentrated urban poverty…which remains the most troubling issue facing our cities.”
A handful of new books wail against gentrification. (These books will be considered in a subsequent blog.) Florida, who once was an unabashed proponent of gentrification, admits the obvious: Gentrification displaces the elderly and poor; it pushes them into neighborhoods that already have too much poverty. But “direct displacement of people by gentrification is not as big an issue as it is made out to be,” Florida explains. It is only a part of the inequality problem which unfortunately “is driven by the same economic motor that powers growth.”

Some illnesses cannot be tackled wholesale and head on. A change in behavior, however, gets at the illness indirectly. That is, treat the symptom to attack the bigger cause. Within that framework an affordable housing effort undertaken by the community organization in my own Chicago neighborhood, Southwest Organizing (www.swopchicago.org), might be the solution to global inequality. SWOP’s rehab of vacant structures will, of course, assist those families who move into the apartments. With some interplay among other advocacy groups and interested developers, this neighborhood project could be replicated and thereby somewhat offset the downside of the trendy growth that occurs in other Chicago neighborhoods and with more pinball effect the project could have some global implications.

Moralizing is not productive. A revitalized neighborhood is hardly in itself a bad thing. The best future for West Seventh, for all of St. Paul, for my neighborhood and for all of Chicago requires intense interaction among many imperfect institutions—each calling the others back to their original good purpose and each contributing to thick relationships that minimize each institution’s occasional miscues and shortsighted behavior.
To be continued with more housing examples…

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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