Words Matter: Why Development Types Do Not Equal Ethnic Groups

During a conversation at the recent Streetsblog training in Kansas City, I was asked about the name of this site. I stated that often in the media, the word urban has been equated with the word black. Likewise, but not as much, other ethnicities have been tied to areas where they are very populous. With development types as a “safe” proxy for labeling something as an ethnic object or activity, the practice of using  development types  is now ubiquitous. Yet, I wanted to confront that issue head on, by naming my site in an oxymoronic matter. Still why is my site name an oxymoron? It shouldn’t be.

First of all, people of all races have lived in the three commonly recognized types of development: urban, suburban, and rural. A glance at the U.S. Census backs up my claim. Only in New York, Philadelphia and , until recently, DC and Chicago did  bad equations such as white=suburban and black-urban work perfectly. Segregation was and is more of a neighborhood by neighborhood phenomenon. Maybe that neighborhood was a neighborhood of farms and a church versus three-flats and a corner store, but the notion is the same. No one racial group can be tied to one city, unless that city was once an over-sized, segregated government housing project, a segregated suburb with cul-de-sacs and no city hall, or a segregated mill town. The key word here is segregated.

Secondly,  the issue primarily comes from the mainstream media.   Urban development is one thing, but naming something or someone as urban, when they are really just black is a problem. The terms used to describe development are very different than race. It is flat-out lazy for media outlets to continue the conflation of terms, when all it takes is one more pica to state the word development, with a hyphen, next to whatever type it is. Or even better, let’s use the word black (or African-American) or Latino or whatever culture. Political correctness is many times a shot in the foot. It’s great to see the AP back off of using illegal or schizophrenic to describe people, or many other news outlets stop using the full name of the Washington NFL team. Yet, can we get a stronger entry in the Stylebook for development types, that bans their use for people much like illegal?

What re-jogged my issue initially with words was several things, notably a performance of Clybourne Park . Set both a few days before the move of the Younger family in  A Raisin in the Sun‘s move into their new home and 50 years later when a white family wants to come back and tear down the home that was such a prize 50 years ago, I was compelled by what was and wasn’t said. How it wasn’t so much of a thing of race and gentrification as much as it was an issue of trusting one’s neighbors and feeling a shared affinity. How when all the ugly slurs and jokes were stated instead of implied, there appeared to be some sort of quiet resolution. No one leaves either scene happy, but there’s no hiding from any labels, not just racial or development-styles, but feminism, disabilities and even religion (or the practice thereof).

At this point, I want to point out what the dictionary actually lists as definitions for urban, suburban, and rural.  Urban, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary means “of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city.” Sadly, the dictionary is now including online Faebook comments on entries. Even sadder was a woman who noted she’d taken an online quiz that stated she was an urban princess. She went on to state she thought urban meant black. (She appears to be African-American).

Moving on to suburb[an], Merriam-Webster notes three definitions:

  1. an outlying part of a city or town
  2. a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city
  3. plural : the residential area on the outskirts of a city or large town

It’s the first definition I want to highlight, that even a suburb has to be defined by a city. As I’ve stated before, some places think they are suburbs when they aren’t. There is a broader provision for these under this definition, but so many are becoming their own cities and many were self-sufficient towns. Some still are. Nothing here says they equal white. What of Asian Chinatowns, Koreatowns and the like? Just because there’s been some Asian suburbanization does not mean we are losing the entire community to the suburbs. Still, thanks to marketing, as examined by the new book  Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America, much of what we think of as the “suburban” experience was racialized into a white American experience.

Now I come to rural, which  Merriam-Webster defines as “of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture.” Once again, no race in the definition. A heavy Latino rural connection could be traced to the bracero program that brought the first  government-sancioned wave of Mexican migrants beginning in 1942 to work on farms. As time went on, as chronicled in Hannah Gill’s book The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State, migrant farmworkers began to settle in rural areas, some which resembled the rural states in Mexico that these later day migrants came from. She also talks about the growth of Siler City, an outpost I remember being about 20 minutes too long from my grandparents and having a good seafood restaurant. This area is now one of the most rapidly growing Latino communities in the state. None of this explains the “irony” of the large communities of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York City or Mexicans in Chicago, many who descended from the braceros who stayed behind after their visa expired. Of course, we forget that much of the Southwest, home to the majority of our remaining Native American population that is on reservation was part of Mexico. Many Mexicans claim a dual native/Spanish identity that has coalesced into the modern Hispanic/Latino.

As I come to a close, I want to make it clear  we have no room for racialized descriptions of development and development as euphemism for race. Currently, all ethnicities (and class levels) are experiencing some form of loss or pain, whether it’s home value, medical problems, rising tuition, job loss, or a combination of all these and more. People are losing ground in their own neighborhoods no matter where they are located. The mixed-use entertainment and novelty district,  suburban experiment , thinking that sustainability is only for one race, and the complete write-off of rural areas is not working. Sustainability is for all races, anyone who takes breaths of oxygen. If we can just focus on development, redevelopment, or maintenance, kindly nudging change in our communities, then we can finally jump over the hurdle of conflating race with a development type.

  • Development Types Are Not an Euphemism for Race | The Black Urbanist http://t.co/ZLTjT90hY2 via @blackurbanist

  • Development Types Are Not an Euphemism for Race http://t.co/RUWnFTVonv #cities #politicsofplace #rural

  • cyclewrite

    It’s rather interesting this debate about what a neighbourhood is supposed to be like in our minds. Vancouver BC has several Chinatowns, not 1. I’m talking about Metro Vancouver. When you land in our airport, you are in the suburban city of Richmond which 60% of population is of Asian descent: that is huge.
    Closer to the core, is the historic Chinatown near where I live plus a pile of other yuppies. Historic Chinatown has all sorts of conflicting interests…the developer Asian-Canadians just plan to go along and have their condos (fine) and some non-Chinese businesses.
    Then there are those who get nostalgic. there are preserved historic areas.
    By the way, would recommend you drop in Vancouver BC and see “Vancouverism”, the style of urban development, streetscaping and volume of cycling, pedestrians on its streets. Including traffic circles in various areas..with community gardens in the middle.

  • Words Matter: Why Development Types Do Not Equal Ethnic Groups http://t.co/c4n461s0Xs #cities #politicsofplace #rural

  • Words Matter: Why Development Types Do Not Equal Ethnic Groups | The Black Urbanist http://t.co/G3c3yOyzud via @blackurbanist

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