Suburbs of Survival



What if you didn’t have a house to live in? What if the only house you could live in at the present moment, was not a shack, had running water and electricity and a loving parent to make sure you wake up every morning even though your routine is currently more flexible? Oh, and that house wasn’t in a walkable neighborhood, but in a newish low-density area, with free parking? And the cherry: the fact that your family has possession of it proves that black folks, even in the age of bad mortgages, foreclosures and economic inequality, can in fact own and maintain a house?

This is my suburb, and it’s a suburb of survival.

This is Meat and it’s the Tuesday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s when I take a current news event that’s moderately related to what I talk about here and add a bit of my own commentary. It’s  also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing these meaty posts!

So I’ve said before that I live in the suburbs. I lived downtown, but lately, many downtown apartment complexes are becoming vertical suburbs, with no real service providers, and a bunch of novelty items. Nate Hood warned downtown developers to stop building entertainment districts, but some didn’t listen. Those of us who would like to build wealth or take career chances or be creative, can’t actually do that when rent is at or beyond 30%. I and other Millennials would be amenable to paying a little more in rent to be able to enjoy the benefits of a walkable community with a variety of services close by, but not merely to live in the midst of restaurants, theaters and boutiques.  That’s why so many of the big places are losing out on their creatives. We may still travel there, live there, be there, but for some of us Millennials, of all cultures, we are only able to find the stability of income and wealth building we need in the suburbs.

Anyway, it was this article, by Paul Mullins, that highlighted how much the suburban concept was a survival mechanism for African-Americans of varying means, even in the era of redlining. While some cities did not allow Black Americans to truly own their suburban homes or move into certain areas, others, including my own, redlined neighborhoods that when built out, looked exactly like white neighborhoods and offered the same level of community cohesion and personal space.

And even though some people were forced to pay too much for their homes or the mortgage rates are too high, some people still own their homes. Some have owned them for years. And they, like anybody who has a home, know the power of being able to shelter family, traveling renters and maybe even themselves in their second house on the beach.

Many large older cities boast streetcar suburbs — neighborhoods characterized by detached single-family homes, oriented not around cul-de-sacs but around streets with sidewalks connected in a grid pattern. At the center of these neighborhoods lie what we consider the main roads lined with retail establishments. These roads were once served by streetcar lines radiating from the center city — lines financed and built by private companies that could sell the suburban land around their lines to developers and reap dividends.

This is the kind of suburb that the free market brought into being before a series of policy decisions hobbled streetcar companies and subsidized road building and car ownership. Current car-oriented suburban development patterns, where hardly anything is walking distance from spread-apart homes, are not the result of the free market, but rather of a market distorted by multiple levels of subsidy. Though there is not much that individual developers or local planning departments can do to change this situation in the short term, it is worth keeping in mind when envisioning the future built environment.

And this gets complicated by racial segregation and redlining. Urban renewal also throws a wrench into the old streetcar suburb concept as well. Many proper, predominately African-American streetcar suburbs were demolished or reconfigured to be car-dependent development. Gentrification is taking away a lot of dense, service-rich neighborhoods away from those with lesser means, many which happen to be African-American.

Before I close, this does not let developers and planners who choose to not plan sustainably off the hook. Sustainable place-making concepts must not be limited to downtown areas.There are clear health and economic benefits from building services into suburban neighborhoods. The density I want to start seeing starts with making sure more things are in walking distance, in both urban and suburban places, rather than focusing on putting more luxury high-rises in downtown arts and entertainment districts. We should give everyone a chance to have the home that they need and want, while being able to enjoy walking access to the commercial corridors that define neighborhoods and offer places — be they parks or libraries or coffee shops, casual eateries or corner stores — where communities come together, and that make possible a sense of shared wealth, to accompany the private wealth that suburbs symbolize.

This post is part of my participation in #NaBloPoMo, the time of the year when bloggers come together to pump out daily content and connect. Find out more about that project and how I’m participating, here and here.

About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.