The Specter of De-Gentrification: The Once and Future Suburb

Flickr / Timothy Vollmer

1. Urban Renaissance—or False Dawn?

One of the most consequential societal trends in the last thirty years has been gentrification. In many American metropolises, gentrification has turned the term “inner city” on its head.  The old image was of a poor, blighted ghetto; the new image is of an affluent yuppie/hipster playground.

The old “white flight,” back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, was about whites moving to the suburbs, mostly fleeing crime. The new “white influx” has been about whites, as well as other Americans, feeling that, in an era of reduced crime, it was safe to head back to the concrete canyons.

Indeed, the gentrifiers themselves played a major role in reducing crime. Utilizing their political and organizational skills, they agitated for more policing, and they even formed volunteer neighborhood watch patrols, the most famous of which is the Pink Pistols.

These “urban pioneers” were typically raised in the suburbs, which were, however, deemed to be boring, even stifling. Oftentimes the vanguard elements of gentrification were LGBT; they particularly savored the liberating sense of personal freedom, far from their parents, far from stricter standards and codes. Indeed, some gentrifiers found themselves re-inhabiting the very same neighborhoods that their parents or grandparents had fled decades earlier.

Yet gay or straight, gentrifiers found that they were able to buy real estate in depressed urban areas on the cheap. And they further invested as they restored, for example, old brownstones in Brooklyn or old row houses in Fell’s Point, Baltimore.

Yet gentrification is not just an East Coast phenomenon. The Wrigleyville and Streeterville neighborhoods in Chicago were once mostly slums and derelict warehouses; now they are thriving bohemias, home to Starbucks and Trader Joes.  And on the West Coast, the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles—back in dreary 1981, the location of the dystopic film Blade Runner—has been a marvel, as have the comebacks of inner-city San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

But of course, no trend goes on forever. Thus all the recent movement to, and all the massive investment in, the cities could be stopped, or even reversed and liquidated, in the next few years. Why? Because, once more, of the impact of urban street crime.

As we have seen, gentrification is a function of safety; the young and the restless might be up for a little yeasty adventure in the big town, but they don’t wish to be mugged or murdered—that’s taking the urban experience too far.  So we can say: Where there is no public safety, there is no urban renaissance.   

And here we can pause to observe something interesting. While gentrifiers are often vocal in proclaiming their commitment to “diversity,” their deeds don’t always match their words. In fact, one effect of gentrification has been to push out pre-existing urban populations, mostly minority. It’s a simple matter; two different families can’t live in the same home.

In 1980, for instance, the population of the District of Columbia was 70 percent black, even as the number of residents in D.C. had fallen by a fourth in the previous three decades.

We can declare that much of the District’s population shrinkage was the aforementioned “white flight.” And yet also, some of that shrinkage was caused by federal “urban renewal” programs—that is, the mostly failed attempt to revitalize declining cities by building highways, stadiums, parks, and public housing.

Urban renewal was a major feature of the liberal Democratic agenda in the 50s and 60s, and yet, interestingly, black population numbers often fell in the wake of these construction binges; indeed, back in those days, many critics derided “urban renewal” as Negro removal.

Needless to say, the federal government, as well as the big real estate developers who benefited from the spending, have always hotly denied that urban renewal was about anything so crass as simply moving African-Americans out of the way.

Yet the fact remains that a black exodus has been happening; blacks are now the minority in D.C., even as the black population in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, has burgeoned to nearly a million.  In other words, the “white flight” of a half-century ago is the “black flight” of today.

Meanwhile, gentrification has continued. As the Washington Post reported in April, the hottest zip code for DC real estate is the mostly black Trinidad neighborhood in the once-shunned northeast quadrant of the District.

In fact, by many reckonings, Trinidad is still a slum, but gentrifiers see charming 19th-century rowhouses in which to live, and real-estate speculators see abundant opportunities in which to flip.

As noted, this trend is nationwide. In the words of urban geographer Joel Kotkin,

In the nation’s whitest major city, Portland, African-Americans are being driven out of the urban core by gentrification, partly supported by city funding. Similar phenomena can be seen in Seattle and Boston, where long existing black communities are rapidly shrinking.

The veteran reporter Alan Ehrenhalt summed up the situation in his recent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. That is, urban populations are inverting: whites move into the central city, near the monuments and museums, while African-Americans—and, increasingly, Hispanics—move to the suburbs.

We can further observe that government policies have helped to facilitate this population transfer. The rise of charter schools, for example, has made it possible for gentrifiers to carve out special “gentry-only” school districts within larger urban school systems, while at the same time, Section 8 housing vouchers have made it easier for the poor to migrate to the ‘burbs.

And sometimes, the public-policy choices are even more overt: In Chicago, back in the 1940s, when the Cabrini-Green public housing complex was built on the Near North Side, the site was far from Chicago’s Loop (downtown). Yet in the decades since, the economic hub of the Windy City migrated northward. And so, not by coincidence, the last unit of Cabrini-Green was demolished in 2011.

Today, the turf of the former Cabrini-Green is home to multimillion-dollar condos and townhouses. Furthermore, it is an article of faith in Chicago’s African-American community that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close public schools in mostly black areas is part of a deliberate strategy to “whiten” the city.

Yet this gentrifying trend, as huge as it is, could be meeting its nemesis—namely, something even more huge: crime. According to the FBI, after declining for a quarter-century, the nation’s crime rate is on the upswing. And in most big cities, the crime increase, including murders, is pronounced.

Some of these crimes have become national news. On July 10, Seth Rich, a digital staffer at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, was shot and killed in an apparent street crime. In light of the subsequent computer hack at the DNC, Rich’s death has launched many conspiracy theories, involving Wikileaks and even the Russians, but so far, at least, the most plausible explanation is that it was, as the police say, a “botched robbery.”

After all, the gentrifying D.C. neighborhood in which Rich was killed, Bloomingdale, has been hit hard by surging crime. As The Washington Post reported,

There were two robberies in the city in the hour preceding the shooting, both more than one mile away. Three people were robbed at gunpoint and another person was carjacked within four days in June on Flagler Place, near where Rich was shot. Police report 20 armed holdups in Bloomingdale so far this year, compared with eight at this time in 2015.

Normally, and in the past, such a crime-spike would have summoned up articulate and forceful demands for more law enforcement; the gentrifiers are, after all, a powerful and connected group, fully mindful that urban safety is a key to their existence.

Yet this isn’t the past, and these aren’t normal times.

2. The #BlackLivesMatter Backlash

If the recent reduction in crime was good news for gentrifiers, it was bad news for criminals—more of them are now in jail. Indeed, even as the crime rate has fallen, the prison population has risen, from around 3.5 million in 1990 to around seven million today.

To many Americans, probably most, this is, well, justice.  If criminals commit crimes, they should go to jail.  And, as a positive result, if more crooks are in jail, there’s less crime.

Yet to others—mostly on the left, but also including many Cato Institute-type libertarians—this bulging inmate population is an outrage, and a costly one at that.

Indeed, to some, the whole thing, this “era of mass incarceration,” is a racist plot.   Inspired by groups such as #BlackLivesMatter, the Main Stream Media have trumpeted allegations of “systemic racism,” turning street rage into a major industry.

The hottest flashpoints, of course, have been incidents in which the police have used deadly force against African-Americans.  So if we follow the news, we know their names: Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; Eric Garner in New York City; Laquan McDonald in Chicago; and, perhaps most consequentially, Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Yet we can note that none of the deceased were choirboys.  Eric Garner, for example, had been arrested 30 times. As for Laquan McDonald, as a juvenile, he had “a history of arrests for drugs and petty crimes,” and on the night he died, he was seen breaking into cars; he was shot with a knife in his hand. As for Freddie Gray, he, too, had a long rap sheet—a total of 18 prior arrests. And as for Michael Brown, at age 18, he had no known arrest record, but he was videotaped committing a crime just minutes before he was killed—a death that even Barack Obama’s Department of Justice ruled was “justifiable homicide,” that is, self-defense on the part of the policeman.

Yet even so, the combination of #BlackLivesMatter, the MSM, and, yes, the Democratic Party has confected a narrative of police oppression. And it’s worked: Today, few Americans can name any of the five police officers killed in Dallas, or the three officers killed a few days later in Baton Rouge, but the names of dead criminals are well remembered.

Moreover, while the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is repeated constantly on the news, such alternative formulations as “Blue Lives Matter,” or even “All Lives Matter,” are hooted down as somehow racist.

And now, Freddie Gray, who died in 2015, is achieving even more posthumous renown: The Obama administration has used his death as an opportunity to force a massive revamping of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).

Of course, the MSM is giving the story the biggest possible play; here’s the headline atop the August 10 Washington Post:Baltimore officials, Justice Department promise sweeping overhaul of city police.” And here’s The New York Times: “Justice Department to Release Blistering Report of Racial Bias by Baltimore Police.” Not bothering anymore with even the pretense of journalistic objectivity, the Times simply cheer-led the proceedings:

The Justice Department has found that the Baltimore Police Department for years has hounded black residents who make up most of the city’s population, systematically stopping, searching and arresting them, often with little provocation or rationale.

To “prove” that BPD had acted unjustly, the Times pounced on this data point:

The most pronounced racial disparities were in arrests for the most discretionary offenses: For example, 91 percent of those arrested solely for “failure to obey” or “trespassing” were African-American, even though the city is 63 percent black, the report found.

Given that a full 52.6 percent of BPD is minority, it might seem implausible that the force is a hotbed of racism. Indeed, it might be fair at least to ask if the disparity in arrests could be correlated to a disparity in misbehavior.

Yet such questions are never considered by the MSM in its rush to judgement; here’s the headline from The Atlantic: “The Horror of the Baltimore Police Department.”  Got that? The horror.

Indeed putting on its highest hat, The Atlantic offered this warning to BPD: The MSM is not only watching, but also waiting—fully expecting that the authorities will prostrate themselves before “the community”:

Identifying the problems is different from solving them, however, and the report shows the enormity of the task Baltimore faces now, first in rebuilding its department and then in rebuilding trust with its black residents.

As an aside, we can observe that the BPD case illustrates how the left wins, time and time again, even without elections; by threatening litigation, the feds can impose changes on local behavior, even if no citizen ever has a chance to vote on the matter, and no politician is ever put on the record, pro or con.

Okay, so far, there’s nothing really new: The media have a soft spot for criminals, and a hard edge against the police. Duh.

Yet in fact, there is some big news here—news that will affect the safety and property of all Americans, but also, especially, the gentrifiers.

3. The Backlash Against “Broken Windows”

Included in the Justice Department’s 163-page report on BPD is a severe and comprehensive critique of most current policing, nationwide. As the Post put it,

The highly critical report is also an indictment of “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing, which seek to quell crime by targeting minor offenses. Once heralded as groundbreaking crime-fighting strategies, they are now the subject of intense scrutiny amid the national debate over racially biased law enforcement.

Let’s take a moment to unpack those two phrases:

“Zero tolerance,” of course, is well understood.  Seeking election as mayor of Baltimore in 1999, Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, pledged “zero tolerance” for petty crime, or any crime—and he meant it. During his eight-year tenure in city hall, the arrest rate went up, and the crime rate went down. (Unfortunately for O’Malley, his tough-on-crime record came back to haunt him; liberals excoriated the former mayor during his short-lived presidential bid.)

As for “broken windows,” that’s a theory, related to zero tolerance, that dates back to the pioneering work of criminologist George Kelling. In a landmark 1982 article, Kelling outlined his idea, that the key to stopping major crime is stopping petty crime.  As he put it,

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.

Such broken windows, Kelling continued, constitute “untended” behavior—and that’s trouble in the making:

“Untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls.  A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed.  Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store.  The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates.  People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off.  Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

From such small-scale laxness, Kelling added, it’s but a short jump to more serious crime. So the answer, he argued, was to have fewer cops in patrol cars, responding only to emergency calls, and instead to have more cops walking a beat, sniffing out trouble before it could start.  And so, Kelling concluded,

The police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.

Kelling’s “broken windows” theory was controversial. We can observe that any sort of change is controversial: Police departments didn’t like being told they weren’t doing their jobs right; moreover, individual cops didn’t particularly want to get out of their cars or station houses on cold or snowy nights, just for the sake of telling a loiterer to “move along.”

Yet Kelling’s idea had one thing going for it: it worked. In 1993, the “broken windows” approach was embraced by New York City’s new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and the strategy was a spectacular success.

Soon, just about every city in the country had adopted the idea, and crime rates, nationwide, plummeted. The biggest winners, of course, were the people—many of them minority—who weren’t victimized. And included, too, in this happy non-victim category were the gentrifiers. Yes, it was better policing that enabled the yuppies to move back into the cities and thrive.

4. The Democrats Purge Themselves

Interestingly, in the 80s and 90s, Democrats, many of them, were on board with tough anti-crime measures. It’s a little-known fact that former New York Police Department chief Ray Kelly, Republican Rudy Giuliani’s strong right arm in his mayoral war on crime, was actually hired in 1992, the year before Giuliani took office, by his Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins. Yes, Giuliani deserves full credit for backing Kelly to the hilt, but the hapless Dinkins, too, was trying.

Also in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton had his celebrated confrontation with rapper Sister Souljah. She had advocated the killing of white people, and so, in June of that year, Clinton called her out on it, expressing the revulsion of most Americans.  Indeed, to this day, a moment when a politician does the right thing, even if it offends a key part of his base, is known as a Sister Souljah Moment.

Yet of course, in the end, before the larger jury of the American public, Clinton was handsomely rewarded. Yes, his words rankled a few, but he won the November election in a landslide.

But that was then. Today, Black Lives Matter-type activists have a complete hammerlock on the Democratic Party, and so Hillary Clinton, panting after the 2016 nomination, has felt compelled to walk back the Clintons’ earlier centrism. In particular, Hillary, on behalf of her husband, has repeatedly apologized for Bill’s signing of a tough 1994 crime bill.

Moreover, the 2016 Democratic platform is a feast of leftist cliches about crime, including,

Democrats are committed to reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration.

Indeed, the platform uses the word “incarceration,” dismissively, a total six times, and also includes a lengthy discussion on ending “systemic racism.” So if the Democrats win this year, the Justice Department’s assault on BPD is sure to be replicated, many times, across the country.

So there you have it: The Democrats have gained the favor of #BlackLivesMatter, but they have given up on the anti-crime issue; Hillary didn’t even bother seeking the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, which had endorsed Bill in 1996.

5. The Republicans Return to Law and Order

As this author has noted, “law and order” has been a winning issue for the Republicans since 1968. In addition, I have been arguing for years that, going forward, law and order is a strong message for Republicans.

And yet curiously, recent Republican presidential candidates have not wanted to touch the issue. In his September 4, 2008, acceptance speech, John McCain didn’t mention “crime” or “law and order”—not even once. Similarly, in his August 30, 2012 acceptance speech, Mitt Romney also made nary a mention “crime” or “law and order.”

Why did these Republicans have nothing to say about such a gut issue? Perhaps they were overtaken by political correctness; after all, any utterance of the words “law and order” makes the MSM furious. Perhaps also, McCain and Romney, both rich men living behind high walls and phalanxes of security guards, had just never thought much about crime.

Donald Trump, of course, is different. Growing up as he did in pre-Giuliani New York City, he saw urban crime up close, and it obviously made a deep impression on him; as far back as the 1980s, stern opposition to criminality has been a consistent theme throughout his public life.

So in his acceptance speech to the Republican convention, Trump used the phrase “law and order” no fewer than eight times. As Breitbart News contributor Mickey Kaus quipped, in Cleveland we saw a glimpse of “President Truliani”—that is, a fusion of Trump and Rudy Giuliani.

Of course, Trump isn’t in a position to do anything about crime, because he’s not president. And the RealClearPolitics average has him down 7.7 percent. One might be inclined to believe that a consistent focus on law and order would help Trump’s campaign, but then, there are a lot of things Trump could have done, and could be doing, differently.

In the meantime, though, the gentrifiers might be well advised to prepare for the worst.  Although of course, to compound the complexity of things even further, we can surmise that vast majority of gentrifiers are actually supporting Clinton. Go figure!

6. The Future

As we have seen, the urban renaissance of the last few decades was dependent on low crime rates. Crime doesn’t have to be low everywhere, but it must be low where the gentrifiers themselves actually live.

To illustrate, we might consider this scenario: In Chicago, a young mother, a member of the gentrification generation, is pushing her baby carriage down the street in Wicker Part, a newly hot “transitioning” neighborhood. Yes, the murder rate elsewhere in the city is high—nearly 100 people shot in a single week in August—but at that moment, in Wicker Park, the mother needs to be confident that she and her child will be safe as they perambulate their way to the drug store.

We can add that in recent years, the cops were on watch, keeping clusters of young people from becoming marauders. Unfortunately, today in Chicago, the situation has changed; according to the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, police stops dropped nearly 90 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

Thus the lowlifes are once again free to parade around with their weapons of choice.  Surveying the new status quo in the Windy City, one former police official told MacDonald, “Gangbangers now realize that no one will stop them.”

We can instantly observe that urban youths are most likely to be the losers as a result of this “liberation”; is is they—the innocent as well as the guilty—who are most likely to get shot.

And yet others, too, are more at risk. So that young Chicago mother in Wicker Park, wheeling her child on the way to pick up a prescription, is now left to wonder what those young men standing in her path a few yards ahead might have in mind.

We can observe, as an aside, that it’s possible to imagine many ways in which new technology could make that mother—and all Chicagoans—more safe, such as additional security cameras and maybe even drones.

And yet it’s a safe bet that Black Lives Matter—joined, of course, by the ACLU—would ardently oppose any such augmented surveillance. Indeed, given the prevailing politics of the cities, who doubts that the anti-anti-crime forces would get their way?

Needless to say, after enough unfortunate incidents, the gentrification trend will become the un-gentrification trend, which would be greatly pleasing to progressive activists.

And yes, the liquidation of gentrification would mean the abandonment of many billions of dollars of urban investment. Yet not many people want to risk a cerebral contusion, or a gunshot, for the sake of a quaint brownstone.

So as we step back and think about cities in post-war America, we can see long trends: first, the trend of suburbanization, as whites (and others) fled crime in the cities. And second, the trend of gentrification, as the young and the affluent moved back downtown.

Yet if the crime surge continues, we’re now on the edge of a third long trend: re-suburbanization. Yes, the suburbs are as “boring” as they ever were, but personal safety is not boring. Okay, actually, maybe safety is boring, but for the vast majority of Americans, that kind of boring is good.

Indeed, if the situation gets bad enough—if, say, Hillary wins a second term—even the most determined gentrifier will reluctantly agree that the era of de-gentrification has begun.