Guest post by Michael Bell
in response to Suburban Renewal
“Slums,” as well as blight, is ALWAYS in the eye of the beholder. The 2005 SCOTUS decision in Kelo v. New London made the view of municipalities the preeminent view when it enabled eminent domain for economic development (PDF). Topeka’s foundational neighborhoods aren’t so much blighted as neglected. For decades.
These were my comments to Strong Town’s Chuch Mahron when he visited Topeka on Oct. 28, 2019:
“I attended the Strong Towns presentation at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, October 28, 2019, at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.
“There were good discussions last night. As you may know, I’m a big believer in bottom-up planning and policy making. The existential ‘Complex vs. Complicated’ dichotomy, explained by Strong Towns’ presenter Chuck Marohn, was so instructional for how cities develop, thrive, wither, and fail, and all of the destinations situated within those outcomes (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/5/27/do-you-want-to-know-what-works). As I said last night, it provided a great macro view of things, but that dichotomy by itself is insufficient to explain what has happened historically in communities of color. The economic and financial components of how cities develop never fully take into account the social component of racism.
“Suburbs developed after WWII. Federal policies helped spur suburban development. Yet those policies didn’t invite people of color to the tract housing being built on the peripheries of cities. That wasn’t economically motivated. That was socially motivated by racism.
“Meanwhile, white flight left an eroded tax base and its associated harms: declining schools, decreased economic development, dilapidated housing, shuttered businesses, vacant lots, and increased crime. That list is not exhaustive. While the attentions of most cities moved to the suburbs as the aforementioned harms took root, those same attentions left the centers of cities, where people of color were redlined, to wither and die. None of that was economically motivated. That was socially motivated by racism.
“Another thing that Marohn spoke on tonight that I thought was important was that how poor neighborhoods actually present the best economic value and opportunities in cities (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborhoods-make-the-best-investment). The problem with getting that idea and data before those who can implement those things is that the shiny baubles that tend to guide development in cities are rarely seen as being located in poor neighborhoods. Since I first became an advocate for Topeka’s poor neighborhoods in 1996, the number of NIAs (the city’s poor neighborhoods defined as having at least 51% of their populations at or below 80% of Area Family Income, as defined by the federal government) has INCREASED from 16 to 21. But overall investments in those neighborhoods HAVE NOT increased.
“The economists and physicists Marohn referenced tonight, with their tables and side rules, as being ascendant during the 20th century rarely addressed the social component of racism. Marohn thinks the 21st century will be defined by sociologists and psychologists. Perhaps, if Marohn is right, there will be greater discussion of racism as it impacts the health of cities.
“Politicians, ultimately, are perhaps the least trustworthy barometer of where public thinking is truly headed. Being elected and reelected rarely lines up with bottom-up planning and policy making. Top-down is easier for them. It’s more efficient for them. It’s less complicated for them. And it leads to a very bad relationship with US.
“Marohn was pretty clear about what has to happen if cities are to become viable moving forward. It will be up to US to carry that message to our city leaders and to insist that they heed the warning.”
For me, “the intentions of Urban Renewal” were NEVER noble. The intentions of Urban Renewal were to carry out in real time redlining and the other governmental policies that were targeted at Black and Brown people to keep our society separate and unequal.
I like the idea of at least examining the option of localizing interstate traffic, which could return the area that was The Bottoms to residential and commercial use, and most importantly while investments in The Bottoms is not possible today, making investments in the low- to moderate-incomes that literally surround downtown IS possible and should happen because, once again, poor neighborhoods actually present the best economic value and opportunities in cities. Investing in those neighborhoods necessarily multiplies investments in the downtown core and provides both residential and commercial opportunities for those who want to live closer to the city’s core. Ward-Meade, Historic Old Town, Historic Holliday Park, Central Park, Monroe, and the East Topeka North and South NIAs are the neighborhoods directly involved, and if one jumps the river the Historic North Topeka East NIA is included. As much as we hear about downtown development we DON’T hear about these downtown-adjacent neighborhoods that also contain most of the city’s history.
Our efforts in Topeka are being opposed with the same words, vitriol and actions one sees in many other cities trying to proactively address law enforcement run amok. I think that’s been the biggest surprise for some people here: that racial animus could happen in Topeka, KS even though many Topekans had been saying that for many years.
One possibility regarding turning back the clock is that those who want a return to the days when Blacks knew their place are beginning to understand that their run as the only voice the nation hears and heeds is coming to an end. When cornered, an animal will fight his hardest to survive. Things will get worse before they get better.
But I’m here to tell you that those working for change will fight at least as hard.