The drive up South Halsted Street to the campus of my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, reveals how much this section of the Near West side of Chicago has changed in the last 10 years. Once a blighted area of vacant storefronts, ramshackle houses, and trash-strewn lots, the area now called University Village is, today, an upper-middle income neighborhood of luxury condos, $700,000 townhomes, lush lawns, trees, and upscale retail shops. The neighborhood offers a ten minute drive to downtown Chicago and the Museum Campus, a bike trail, a huge medical district to its south, and easy access to expressways, public transportation, and UIC’s outdoor running track. It took a while but, beginning with the razing of several dilapidated and “notorious” housing projects nearby, the neighborhood has been redeveloped into a cleaner, “greener,” safer community. The question is, for whom?
Do all groups benefit equally from the “greening up” of urban communities? What has “greening up” meant for the urban poor and low-income groups in University Village, and in urban communities in other cities? And how might answers to these questions serve to inform the planning and re-development of urban communities in the future?
- Research finds that lower-income groups are often forced out of a community when higher-income groups move in. When this happens, ”gentrification with displacement” is said to occur. Property values often increase in gentrified communities, but so do taxes and other expenses. In what became University Village, many poor and working class residents moved out of the area because they could not afford the increased rent, property taxes, assessment fees, and othercosts.
- Partly because of the correlation between income, race-ethnicity, and residential patterns, many of the people moving out of gentrified communities in inner-cities are African American or Latino. Confronted with a shortage of affordable housing in the city, minorities and low-income groups may move to areas outside the city, where housing is cheaper. The Brookings Institute reports, in fact, that a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metropolitan areas now live in suburbs, and the number of poor people living in suburbs is increasing five times as fast as the number of poor people living in cities.
- In Chicago, some suburban communities are experiencing problems traditionally associated with inner-city communities (e.g. housing shortages, concentrated poverty, and drugs). Thus, another potential adverse side-effect of “greening” may be the displacement of urban problems to other communities rather than the resolution of such problems. If the ultimate goal of “greening up” communities is to improve the quality of life for everyone, including those of future generations, then simply transferring problems elsewhere defeats the purpose of “greening” in the first place, doesn’t it? And how does transferring poor folk and problems that disproportionately affect them (such as a diminished ability to control where they live) advance “environmental justice?” It doesn’t.
No one group should have to shoulder more environmental burdens (such as pollution) than any other group). Group disparity in exposure to environmental hazards is one factor that led to the development of the environmental justice movement. Most of the 450,000 abandoned waste sites (brownfields) in America are located in or near low- income, working-class, and minority communities. The poorest of the poor often live within one mile of a brownfield. Most African Americans (71%) live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. Asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room three times as often as whites, and that blacks die twice as often from asthma as do whites.
To work against the potential adverse effects of “greening- up” urban communities, we need to avoid simple, quick, short-term solutions. Research suggests that urban renewal programs that focus on a single factor (such as tearing down or refurbishing dilapidated housing) simply do not work. Providing affordable housing does not help much if people lack the income and the education or training that would allow them to maintain a dwelling. Thus, we must not only increase the availability of affordable housing but also create more jobs at a livable wage, increase access to health care, and fund job training and education at higher levels. Improving the quality of life for lower-income families is a monumental task, but a more comprehensive approach can ensure that all groups live healthier, longer, and more productive lives. And it is this promise that gives some sweetness to what might otherwise be an entirely bitter visit to University Village.
Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies