Owen Fiss argues that the ghettos and barrios of our metropolitan
areas are profoundly harmful to their residents and to the larger community,
and that there are radical policy alternatives that would produce much
better results. I agree on both points. Genuine and supported choices
to move out of inner cities in a way that avoided merely extending the
ghetto could produce important gains in schooling, in community opportunities,
and in bringing down barriers of prejudice and opportunity. The money
we are already spending on often-counterproductive initiatives could be
invested much more effectively, and we could be connecting many excluded
families to opportunities that are critical to upward mobility in contemporary
American society--better schools with better teachers, middle-class peer
groups, better networks for moving into jobs and higher education, and
proximity to much stronger job markets.
In fact, we are already in the midst of a gigantic relocation
program of poor families from the large housing projects that are being
leveled in various cities. Very strong conditions and services of the
kind developed for Chicagos famous Gautreaux program--providing
counseling, support services, and housing-search help in outlying suburban
communities for residents of Chicago Housing Authority project--should
be attached to all of these moves. The alternative is to create new ghettos
and to overwhelm and resegregate a number of fragile integrated communities
as thousands of poor minority families with housing-subsidy certificates
seek housing in discriminatory markets.
A truly massive relocation program would, however, require
huge investments in new affordable housing and housing-subsidy certificates,
as well as massive changes in land use controls and local rights to control
housing types. And it is difficult to imagine how this could be done when
both political parties are responding to suburban majorities who are hostile
to such policies. Probably we would need a massive social movement, major
political change, and a transformed judiciary to make such changes possible.
These steep political hurdles do not, however, prevent steps
in the right direction. The first such step is to recognize that not all
the positive mobility moves are outward. A significant number of our cities,
for example, have areas of strong gentrification, where young urban professionals
are eagerly turning previously neglected low-income areas and into ultra-fashionable
and expensive neighborhoods. With flexible tools and careful monitoring
of housing conditions, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development
and state and local housing and development agencies, community groups,
churches, and nonprofits could try to identify such areas early and obtain
buildings and land for affordable and subsidized housing. With the right
interventions, minority tenants could ride up with the boom. Funding for
magnet and charter schools and other new school offerings could be tied
to such a package in order to make certain that the new middle-class residents
stayed in place when their children reached school age and provided the
kind of opportunities that diverse schools offer to the children in the
lower-priced housing. Another less costly strategy would be to intervene
strongly to preserve and defend stable, middle-class integration in neighborhoods
and inner-ring suburbs threatened by resegregation in their housing markets
and schools. Such communities now rarely receive serious support, and
there will be a vast increase in the number of such communities in the
next two decades as racial change becomes overwhelmingly a suburban story.
Large-scale black suburbanization began in a few metros in the 1970s,
and is now occurring in many, but usually in the form of spreading segregation.
The leaders of the relatively small list of successfully integrated suburbs
and stable city neighborhoods that have broken the cycle of resegregation
and enjoyed great economic and social success have very good ideas about
what can be done at the local level and what kinds of support are needed
from the schools and higher levels of government. We need a serious national
debate on those issues.
Some constructive relocation initiatives are possible, then,
and should be pursued. But most of us who have been engaged in the exit
vs. redevelopment debates for a long time strongly believe that it is
a mistake to pose these strategies as stark alternatives. The fact is
that integration strategies are very unlikely to be implemented broadly
enough or fast enough to solve the problems that Fiss describes. While
there have been many ineffective efforts to break the cycle of decline
and upgrade urban neighborhoods and opportunities, there have also been
genuine successes and important possibilities remain open. The basic foci
should be on targeting communities with substantial possibilities for
stable and economically diverse populations and making strategic investments
across various functions of government and private lending to reverse
moderate decline or to take advantage of neglected but real possibilities.
Such an approach would, for example, give high priority to provision of
key resources such as competitive magnet schools and housing investment
funds, which would keep middle class families in the community and attract
more of them. It would also increase private investment and build upward
moving spirals while securing affordable housing early in the process.
This approach would be very unlikely to work in long-impoverished and
isolated core ghettos or barrios, but it could be very helpful in other
settings. For example, communities experiencing substantial change in
real estate markets but still largely owner-occupied and with a good,
well-located housing stock primarily have to deal with the initial fear
of transition and the practices of real estate steering to aggressively
fight appearances of urban decay that will stimulate the fears about the
future. If confidence can be restored and demand maintained in the white
as well as the minority markets, the negative self-fulfilling prophecy
may be replaced by beliefs that can sustain integration.
Changing kinds of possibilities also come with massive immigration
and the development of multiracial communities. Much of our growth in
the next half century will be non-white immigrants, mostly Latino and
Asian. Depending on the patterns that develop, these groups may provide
economically productive enclave economies and revitalize deteriorated
communities. There should be a great deal of attention given in the next
few years to figuring out how to keep these neighborhoods open to low-income
black and Latino families, and how to build stable multiracial neighborhoods
and schools rather than new patterns of three- and four-way segregation.
We are already very well into these changes in our two largest states
and the other great entry points for immigrants. So far there has been
almost no discussion or policy development about these possibilities.
These are not cases of classic black-white ghettoization, and there are
surely new possibilities for successful diversity.
I agree that the historic policies have failed and that
others are badly needed and that genuine choices of the kind provided
to almost all whites and middle-class Asians must be made available on
a substantial scale to African Americans and Latinos. We have to think
of our cities as having not only outward momentum of sprawl and spreading
suburban rings but a variety of other trends and interfaces that offer
both threats of growing problems and the possibility of much better outcomes.
Fiss raises one of the most fundamental questions about the future of
our overwhelmingly metropolitan society. After this years presidential
election, which is obviously being dominated by calculated appeals to
white suburban voters and will carefully avoid any discussion of racial
change, I hope we can begin thinking seriously about these issues.