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Just and Unjust Inner City Public Policies

The featured image is the former burgeoning Black neighborhood of Greenwood, Tulsa, often called “Black Wall Street”, before the Tulsa race massacre.

The public agora, the walkable and compact blocks, the convenience, and the variety of services are all reasons that pull the crowds to city centers, but high population concentration entails several dilemmas, such as overcrowding and income segregation. Historically, not all solutions aimed at improving liveability in the inner city have done justice for their residents.

Inner cities can be said to be built on different periods layers, their morphology evolving along with new technologies like the automobile. In the USA, this process is well exemplified in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood: just east of downtown, waves of immigrants settled organically on what was long ago swampy, fertile farmland – hence the name. Up until the first half of the XX century, Black Bottom fostered the city’s foremost African-American population, who owned shops, churches, and cultural institutions like jazz saloons. But the small wooden houses grew overcrowded and unsanitized, so the authorities drafted plans to modernize the blighted district, essentially insinuating that it had to be leveled. The Housing Act of 1949 legalized slum clearance within the urban areas, while the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 guaranteed funding for a 6-lane interchange surrounding the core downtown of Detroit, at the complete expense of Black Bottom. Altogether, around 17,000 residents were displaced to make way for the I-375 “Chrysler” freeway, leaving no visible remnants of a once-thriving community.

Black Bottom in Detroit (Source: Google Maps)

Segregated ethnic districts, however, are not intrinsically backward or poor. Group solidarity and fortitude are capable of building communities from scratch, through entrepreneurialism and civic service. In the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the historical circumstances helped foster the most affluent hub of African-American excellence, dubbed “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington. The oil boom of 1905 attracted a big community of black workers and merchants from throughout the South, who settled in the Greenwood district. They quickly became self-sufficient entrepreneurs, surgeons, lawyers, etc., running all businesses necessary for a closed economy like theirs: grocery stores, hotels, cafes, theaters, public libraries, photography studios, etc. Civic engagement grew around the daily black newspaper, ‘The Tulsa Star’, which agitated for justice and recognition of black achievement. Sadly, because of racial resentment and jealousy, tensions between whites and blacks escalated into the infamous 1921 Tulsa massacre. In the wake of unjust violence, Greenwood was burned to the ground and the community scattered. One Greenwood survivor’s descendant proposes three steps for a just reconciliation: acknowledgment -educate the public-, apology -show empathy- and atonement -repair the damage as best as you can.

Since small businesses are the heart and soul of inner cities, as we have just seen, a most practical aspect affecting these communities is access to financial capital. Oftentimes the inner city is economically distressed, and mainstream banks do not take the risk of lending credit where it may be most needed. Therefore, to achieve inclusive economic growth and opportunity, the CDFI Act of 1994 created the Community Development Banking and Financial Institutions Fund program, to work with America’s struggling demographics. Another inner- city community pillar is the 525 majority-minority- owned local credit unions, while most of the 250 majority-black credit unions were set up by local black churches. The shared resource pool helps new generations to shrug off decades of systemic racism, like lack of homeownership due to redlining policies and biased credit score records, so as to afford a home mortgage or a college education loan.

In the Netherlands, historically, one inner-city considered undesirable was Rotterdam’s South district, with high unemployment and school drop-out rates. To give residents as well as outside visitors a confidence boost, the local authorities implemented the strategy of place-branding. By adopting the slogan ‘Zuid will Voort (South wants to move forward), while the Katendrecht neighborhood used the rogue catchphrase “Can you handle the Kaap?”, Rotterdam South conveys the image for a lively, yet not for the faint-hearted, inner-city community.

To conclude, just inner-city policies should serve the human beings inhabiting the place. Although paved with good intentions, the urban renewal of the past did not do justice for the inner city. Instead, the most equitable approaches are about keeping and empowering the residents.

Thommy Pantis
Thommy Pantis
Bachelor student of Spatial Planning and Design at RUG's faculty of Spatial Sciences. Interested in public administration, local politics and media.
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