In a new book, urban revitalization expert Alan Mallach argues that much of what you think you know about cities today is wrong.
These young and educated urban-dwellers are often portrayed as both a blessing and a curse: As they're restoring old row homes, drawing in organic grocers and trendy coffee shops, they're also driving out long-time residents who can no longer afford rent. Indeed, in many Rust Belt states, the urban revival represents a lone bright spot after decades of economic decline.
A 2017 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, for example, argued that "gentrification threatens diversity of Baltimore neighborhoods." Likewise, gentrification has emerged as a major issue in Pittsburgh, where Mayor Bill Peduto issued a number of executive orders in 2017 aimed at combating the effects of gentrification on housing prices.
In a new book, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and an expert on urban planning and economic development, argues that this narrative, while true in some neighborhoods and some cities, is woefully incomplete. In most cities, while a few favored neighborhoods are seeing the kind of revival the media talks about, many more neighborhoods are sliding in the opposite direction—into concentrated poverty, disinvestment, and decline.
Mallach sat down with Pacific Standard to answer our questions about neighborhood decline, urban revitalization, and the people left behind.
The central theme of your book is that this popular narrative around urban revitalization and gentrification is true in a very small number of cities—places like San Francisco and Seattle—but that, in a lot of other cities, it's at best incomplete. What's going on in these other cities?
The narrative is true to some degree in a lot of cities. If you go to St. Louis or Pittsburgh or Baltimore, there's no question that there's some revival. There's definitely Millennials moving into these cities, and there are neighborhoods that are becoming gentrified, however you exactly define that.
But that's only part of the story. What's happening is true of a relatively small part of the city—maybe 10 or 15 percent. What's happening in the rest of the city is very, very different. It's poverty, segregation, and neighborhood decline. On top of the fact that these cities have large numbers of neighborhoods that have been in really bad shape for decades, you're also seeing lots of neighborhoods that were fairly vital working-class neighborhoods 10 or 20 years ago are now falling apart.
In the book, you talk about big-picture drivers of the urban revitalization that we're seeing in some neighborhoods. One such driver is an economic shift—specifically, the rise of the "eds and meds."
There's an interesting thing that's happened in the United States economy over the last 50 or 60 years. If you go back to the 1950s, manufacturing was a huge part of the economy; health care and higher education were almost insignificant, certainly by comparison.
Over the years, that has flipped. Today, manufacturing is a much smaller part of the economy. And this is amazing: The population of the U.S. has roughly doubled since 1950, but health-care expenditures have increased by 25 times. So close to one out of every six dollars in the U.S. economy is spent on health care.
Why does this matter for the cities? Because a lot of cities, especially places like Baltimore and Cleveland and St. Louis, had huge infrastructure in health care and higher education (which was growing, though not quite as fast, during the same period). As health care and higher ed grew, the cities that had these places—places like the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Barnes Jewish Hospital, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—benefited from that. All of a sudden, these hospitals and universities became massive centers of economic activity and job generation. The cities—their economies just shifted from what had been manufacturing to a new economy based on health care and education. In a lot of these cities, there are about as many jobs in health care and education today as they had 50 or 60 years ago in manufacturing.