Urban Revival and Suburban Poverty

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

Urban Revival and Suburban Poverty

The N.Y. Times recently reported that the population of downtown Kansas City, Missouri has increased 50% over the last dozen-plus years. Entertainment venues, restaurants, the arts, higher education and office firms have likewise invested in downtown. Urban planners and developers there predict downtown residents will double within a few years. Kansas City is just one example of a remarkable trend.

This trend of urban revival was first pointed out to me in the early 1980s when Ed Marciniak (1917-2004), legendary Catholic labor leader and urban character, suggested we go for a walk around Chicago’s South Loop. “The Loop [Chicago’s term for downtown] is gradually expanding and repopulating,” he mentioned as we set out.

These strolls continued over many months to include Little Italy, East Humboldt Park, Cabrini-Green, Chinatown and more. We went to many delis for lunch; chatted with contractors; made appointments with officials, school principals, pastors, community activists, real estate agents and executives. We read hundreds of neighborhood newspapers—both current issues and library collections.

“This is something like gentrification,” Marciniak observed, “but different too.” When we reflected on and then published our findings, we called the phenomenon the new inner city. The trend, we noted, contained opportunity in general. But we also said it contained difficulties for the poor.

The current recession put the trend into a freezer. A booming real estate market peaked in early 2006, but then in December 2008 and following real estate experienced its biggest drop in U.S. history. Now, however, there is a qualified recovery. And thus, the N.Y. Times reporter in Kansas City is the latest of several writers who are resuming the walks Marciniak and I made in the 1980s.

Gentrification is a simplistic term for the changes, writes Alan Ehrenhalt in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (Alfred Knopf, 2012). “A better term is demographic inversion,” something not specific to one factor or another. It is rather “the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.” Ehrenhalt’s examples in Chicago include the South Loop/University Village, Logan Square and a thorough case study of Sheffield/DePaul University.

The current recession did not really alter this trend, says Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs (Penguin Press, 2013). It is the result of lifestyle changes, immigration patterns, global economic factors and more. The appeal of suburban life might persist, Gallagher writes, but the suburban locales of the 1950s to 1970s are passé.

Cautions are in order.

#1. Not all cities will succeed in revitalizing, explains Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City (Penguin Press, 2011). “Human capital, far more that physical infrastructure” or other components, is the key. It is not primarily a matter of financing a new hockey facility or offering tax incentives to 20 riverside restaurants or putting 15 art studios in abandoned warehouses or bringing back streetcars. Cities attract and retain people rich in human capital (immigrants and young professionals) by facilitating “face-to-face relationships” in colleges, workplaces and sidewalk cafes. Not all cities have enough social opportunity and thus not all will enjoy a rebirth.

#2. These positive trends accelerate the isolation of the poor, making it exponentially more difficult for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Plus, as a subsequent column will detail, an area’s new inner city parallels its aging, poorer first ring of suburbs.

Marciniak and I were disappointed that with an entrepreneurial exception or two the parishes situated in the path of an expanding inner city were pulling the plug, particularly on their grammar schools. So-called pastoral planning seemed limited to the physical status of church buildings and the availability of a priest for that parish. Has the strategic plan of city churches changed much since 1980? To be continued…

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.