Alan Mallach’s The Divided City
is the best and most relevant book written on urban planning and policy in post-industrial cities in the 21st century. This book is not only packed with information and ideas, but is well-written, enjoyable, and engaging.
From the moment that I cracked it open, it demanded my attention, because it brings a much-needed focus on Rust Belt cities (or the more politically correct “Legacy Cities”, if you prefer) at a time when the national urban policy conversation, particularly with regards to affordability, housing policy, and gentrification, is completely dominated by the superstar cities on the coasts.
The Divided City reminds us (including some living in the Rust Belt, who ought to know better) that while downtowns and some favored close-in neighborhoods may be thriving, the vast majority of urban neighborhoods in our older post-industrial cities, which were traditionally middle-class or working-class places, are getting worse, and experiencing “visible, potentially irreversible decline.”
Mallach does the world a great service in sounding the clarion call that all is not well in the cities of the Rust Belt. In my work, I continually encounter people who only know about urban policy and demographics from what they read in the media, and are visibly shocked to hear that cities like Cleveland and Detroit are still rapidly losing population and middle class wealth.
There are articles and blog posts aplenty focusing on the (very real) improvements in a small handful of revitalizing neighborhoods, running the ideological gamut from mindless chamber of commerce boosterism to far-left gentrification hand-waving; but it is rare to read anything about the equally very real, and worsening, problems of poverty, disinvestment, and segregation that affect exponentially more urban residents in these cities.
We hear a lot about the potential evils of hipsters, coffee shops, and bicycles, along with murky allegations of displacement by gentrification, levied by activists and academics.
We hear far less about the thousands of primarily black middle class residents moving from previously stable urban middle class neighborhoods to the suburbs every year (displacement by decline), while the poor are left behind in crumbling communities, trapped in concentrated generational poverty.
So, this book provides a much-needed corrective to the conventional media wisdom about cities. A few cities, primarily the largest and most-influential coastal ones, are firing on nearly all cylinders, economically speaking. There are a fair number of newer cities, primarily in the sunbelt, that are also doing quite well - although it will remain to be seen whether this will be the case in a few decades, when the sheen begins to wear off, or when the water runs out.
But there are many other places, primarily in the Rust Belt, where evidence of the 21st century urban revival is patchy, scant, or non-existent. This book reminds us that cities are dynamic, fluid, and geographically diverse places, which are revitalizing in some areas and declining in others. The relative proportion of resurgence to decay varies greatly from city to city, and this is where Mallach appropriately spends much of his time.
An entire chapter is devoted to the “Eds and Meds” economy that has sustained Rust Belt cities, to varying degrees, since the collapse of the manufacturing economy in the 1970s. It discusses the ways in which the health care and education economy has affected these cities, ranging from Pittsburgh, where it has been transformative; to Baltimore, where the results are a bit more mixed; to cities like Youngstown, where it helps keep the ship afloat, but just barely - and the water is rapidly pouring in.
How will the “Eds and Meds” economic base fare as the 21st century wears on, particularly in light of demographic changes, and spiraling, out-of-control education and health care costs? Is an economy that runs on these sectors really enough to sustain equitable economic growth? It is nice to see someone ask, and at least begin to wrestle with, these questions.
This book also provides a thorough, nuanced, and much-needed discussion about race and concentrated poverty. The untold urban story of this still-young century is how segregation, urban decline, abandonment, and disinvestment has never been worse in the hundreds of neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black and poor.
The Divided City addresses the fact that our society has largely given up on even talking about racial integration and the importance of mixed-income neighborhoods, let alone actually doing anything to create them. Today, there is a palpable cynicism and fatalism, even among left-leaning urbanists, which simply believes that it cannot be done.
Across the political spectrum, we seem to have resigned ourselves to racial segregation. And while the right has always resisted these efforts, even people on the center-left have largely given up on any type of economic integration that involves creating opportunities for the poor to live in better housing, closer to jobs, in affluent suburbs. Meanwhile, people on the far-left are increasingly hostile to the notion that the affluent should move back to the urban core to live near the poor.
Which brings us to gentrification - a word that neither Mallach, nor I, particularly care for, because different people use it to mean so many things. The discussion here provides a much-needed reality-check.
Mallach, whose social equity credentials are impeccable, is not at all unsympathetic to concerns about displacement in revitalizing areas. But he makes a powerful case that, particularly in the Rust Belt, these concerns more often boil down to worries about what could be, rather than serve as a realistic assessment of what is.
He explains, at length, why the changes that are occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities.
Mallach points out, with good research to back him up, that gentrifying areas are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain: "Indeed, the idea one hears that urban demolition is a stalking horse for future gentrification is yet another urban myth; in reality, it more often creates a moonscape of vacant land that all but guarantees gentrification will not take place.“
Although it may come as a surprise to people who learn about gentrification from blogs, podcasts, and social media, "predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods."
Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of Black and Hispanic neighborhood avoidance. A handful of writers, like Pete Saunders, are beginning to drive home the point that black neighborhoods continue to be bypassed by reinvestment, and that "displacement by decline” is a far larger problem than displacement by gentrification in places like the south side of Chicago and Detroit.
The Divided City touches on this as well. In 2005, for example, Detroit had more than 68,000 middle class black households - defined as families making $50,000 or more. By 2015, the number (with income adjusted for inflation to $60,680) had dropped to 35,500 - barely half as many. While some of the change was due to these same households losing income, there is no doubt, based on the data, that much of the change was due to black families decamping for safer, more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs. One poignant passage describes how many families held on for years “driven by pride in their neighborhoods and loyalty to their city”, and tells the stories of those who left the city with ambivalence, mixed emotions, and anger that it had finally come to this.
One of the most important threads that runs throughout this entire book is the far-too-often overlooked fact that neighborhoods change. They are never truly sitting still, and they cannot be preserved in amber. The Nepali neighborhood used to be the Italian neighborhood. The black neighborhood used to be the white neighborhood. The poor neighborhood used to be the middle-class neighborhood. The wealthy neighborhood used to be the working-class neighborhood.
Neighborhoods change when Republicans are in charge, and they change when Democrats are in charge. With foresight, outreach, empathy, and wisdom, neighborhood change can be managed in ways that promote justice and equity, but the change itself will not stop. Most neighborhoods are somewhere along a continuum between getting better and getting worse. The trick is figuring out how to get them better, or at least to stop them from getting worse.
Which brings me to the last two chapters of the book, which deal with power, politics, inclusion, and opportunity. This is where all of the analysis and assessment runs up against the question “So how precisely do we build stronger, more equitable neighborhoods and cities?”
Mallach is smart enough and pragmatic enough to acknowledge that neither he, nor anyone else, has all of the answers. But he leaves us with some solid and wise thoughts about a path forward for our older post-industrial cities.
He addresses the “U-Haul” school of urban policy, espoused by people like Kevin D. Williamson and Galen Newman, which gives up on our foundering places altogether, encouraging everyone to abandon their friends, family, and community, and head for greener pastures. While this, of course, can be a solid course of action for an individual person or household, it is suicidal as a regional economic development strategy. Even smaller cities like Flint, Scranton, and Youngstown are large enough to ensure that even when tens of thousands of the best and the brightest leave, the city will not be disappearing. The rest of the population, now poorer and more uneducated, and the place, with its worsening problems, will remain:
As a nation, we must decide what we want the future of these cities to be. Our present course relegates many cities to a sort of limbo, where, despite their best efforts, they drift gradually downward, losing jobs, becoming gradually poorer, and offering progressively less hope for those who live there. Is that the only vision that we have for hundreds of small cities and towns that dot the American heartland?
That would be, in my opinion, tragic. These cities are not disposable places, roadkill on the highway of capitalist creative destruction. They are real places, with rich histories, full of real people. They have real assets.
How do we harness these assets? How do we create more of them? Do we need a new Marshall Plan? More downtown entertainment venues like casinos, convention centers, and stadiums? Incrementalism? Revolution?
Mallach addresses these questions, counseling a kind of focused, visionary pragmatism that avoids the two extremes of timid incrementalism, and radical utopianism. Of the two extremes, given the history of urban policy in this country, he makes the case that utopian thinking may be worse, arguing that incrementalists, for the most part, do no harm. Utopians often do, or would if they could:
I have little tolerance with the line of argument that holds that all efforts are in vain as long as the underlying economic or political system falls short of the ideal. Representative democracy and the capitalist economic system, for better or for worse, are the two conjoined frameworks that have defined the reality of American life for well over a century and are likely to do so for the next century as well, assuming Western civilization survives. Moreover, should they be replaced by anything fundamentally different, whatever that is will probably be much worse. Finally, although I share many people’s belief that many things about American society need fundamental change, including the racism that remains so resistant to change, I see radical change as being at best a distant prospect. I do not believe that we should forgo the opportunities that exist to change the lives of people and their communities in important ways, even while injustice and racism may continue to exist, in the interest of a far-off and most probably illusory better society. That posture is a luxury of the affluent that the poor cannot afford.
The Divided City has sound advice for city leaders, arguing that it is crucial that they step back from daily crises, difficult as that sometimes is, and think about systemic issues and power structures in their communities. Lack of money and federal support are not the primary impediments; lack of strategic thinking, and lack of willingness to change the status quo are.
Mallach echoes Richard Florida, Bruce Katz, and others who are arguing that top-down solutions from Washington are neither forthcoming, nor desirable, and says that people who believe that massive federal programs are the solution are making the mistake of thinking that money equals progress. All money equals, he says, is money. Change will only happen if the networks of people who make local decisions want it to happen, or can be persuaded to let it happen, regardless of what the federal government does.
On this point, and others, Mallach, who is unashamedly a liberal, displays a refreshing willingness to traverse ideological boundaries. He references J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, to illustrate a point about the difficulty of fixing what ails our places, and by doing so commits the thoughtcrime of citing an author and a book viewed as strictly verboten in left-wing circles.
The ideological fluidity and freedom of thought which The Divided City exhibits is like a breath of fresh air in today’s toxic and stultifying political environment.
Most of us recognize that the political right checked out of the urban conversation a long time ago. With the exception of brilliant thought-leaders like Charles Marohn and Aaron Renn, maverick publications like The American Conservative, and a handful of other unsung heterodox urban policy people; the right vacillates between calculated indifference and unabashed hatred for cities. Jack Kemp is all but a distant memory.
The political left, meanwhile, spellbound by the Dada performance art that bills itself as the Resistance in this absurd age of Trump, staggers drunkenly between a wonky and bloodless urbanism, and an increasingly strident and unhinged leftism.
None of these approaches are what our cities need. And, coming full circle, this is why this book is so vitally important. It won’t give you all of the answers that you seek, but it will cause you, dear reader, to rethink what you know to be true about our cities and their neighborhoods, and about how best to help them.
Alan Mallach has spun together what could have simply been many disparate threads of straw, and has instead spun an accessible and engaging tapestry of gold, useful to practitioners, academics, and citizens of this still great republic. That he has done it in such an understated and reasonable way, is all the more to his credit.
I have no doubt that this book will go down as a classic on urban planning and policy. A new generation will read it, and be inspired to think differently about our places, and the people who inhabit them. It is the right book, for the right time.