Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Historic Over-the-Rhine (Part 3 - exciting progress portends a national model)
There’s a new narrative going around about place. Like so many narratives, it’s based on a perceptible grain of truth, but then has a degree of exaggeration that the evidence can’t support.Portland’s Pearl District (Flickr: Can Eldem)
Cities, we are told, are becoming playgrounds of the rich. Last week, Quartz headlined Richard Florida’s recent talk about the future of cities as A world famous urbanist says New York becoming “gated suburb.” Florida is more nuanced in his talk–highlighting a handful of neighborhoods where rich families are living in large apartments (with garages!) in the city’s upper east side. But the nuance gets lost in the journalistic retelling that focuses heavily on Florida’s warning that urban revival has a “dark side” that is creating “winner take all” cities.
It’s certainly true that we’ve witnessed a considerable rebound in the condition of America’s cities. After decades of decentralization and urban decline, things have started turning around. Population in a few cities began growing in the 1990s, and after 2000 even more cities moved forward. In 2013, Brookings Demographer Bill Frey noted that cities had grown faster than their surrounding suburbs for two successive years and that this might constitute a “big city growth revival.”
The corollary of this narrative of city revitalization is that the suburbs are becoming poorer. The most definitive statement of this claim came in the Brookings Institution’s 2010 report, The Suburbanization of Poverty, which concluded: “By 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country.” The Brookings report showed that more poor people now lived in suburbs than in central cities and that suburban poverty was growing faster.
Statistically, both those statements are completely true. But let’s spend a minute unpacking that analysis. First, it helps to know how Brookings defines “city” and “suburb.” It defines city as the largest municipality in a metropolitan area, and “suburb” as virtually everything else. It turns out that by that definition roughly 70 percent of the metro population now lives in suburbs. So it’s hardly surprising that a majority of the poor no longer live in central cities.
The second part of the claim is that poverty is growing “faster” in suburbs. While that’s true, it’s from a far smaller base. But despite faster growth, poverty rates—the share of people living in suburbs who are below the poverty line—are far lower than they are in cities.
What’s more, dividing all urban space into just two categories (city and suburb) and reporting totals for each makes it seem like poverty is somehow increasing and evenly spread in every suburb. But that’s not true. Some poor suburbs are the older, first tier towns just outside the larger central city. For example, Camden and Hoboken New Jersey, East Hartford, Connecticut and Fall River Massachusetts–all struggling older cities are technically classified as–“suburbs” in the Brookings typology.
Alan Ehrenhalt made these kinds of claims that theme of his book, “The Great Inversion.” In it he argued that the half century long pattern of wealthy people living in the suburbs and the poor being concentrated in the central city was inverting.
As a description of the direction of change, these stories are right: many city neighborhoods are attracting more better educated and higher income residents. And some suburbs—usually older, blue collar ones—are seeing a growing number of families living in poverty.Wildly overstating the trend
But the narrative of “rich cities, poor suburbs” represents a vast overstatement of the scale of these changes.
The magnitude of these changes hasn’t yet come close to fundamentally altering the pattern of income and urbanization in the US. It is still the case that the poor are disproportionately found in or near the city center, and the wealthy live in the suburbs.
Rather that using a crude binary classification of cities and suburbs, with cleavages drawn at arbitrary and often random political boundaries, it is much more illuminating to look at the exact pattern of correlations between neighborhood income and distance to the central business district. The University of Virginia’s Luke Juday has mapped this data to illustrate the relationship between centrality (distance to the center of the central business district) and income. (It is available on the web at http://statchatva.org/changing-shape-of-american-cities/). Helpfully, Juday has made this calculation for 1990 and for 2012 using Census data.
Here’s what the poverty gradient looks like for the average of the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The vertical axis shows the poverty rate (higher is poorer) and the horizontal axis shows the distance in miles from each neighborhood and the center of the CBD. (Values near zero are neighborhoods in and near downtown, higher values represent the more distant suburbs).
Data for 50 largest US metro areas, 1990 (orange), 2012 (brown)
Here’s what these data show. First and foremost, poverty rates are highest in the center and lowest toward the suburban fringe. The farther you get from the center, the lower the poverty rate. So despite talk of “gated cities” and “poor suburbs,” the so-called great inversion simply hasn’t happened yet. If you look closely at the difference between the poverty line for 1990 (orange) and 2012 (brown), you’ll see there is a difference. Poverty rates are now somewhat lower in the center than before, and somewhat higher in the suburbs than before.It will be many decades before city poverty declines to suburban levels
It’s useful to do the mental exercise of estimating how long, at current rates of change, it would take for poverty rates to equalize across the metropolitan landscape (i.e. for the line to go from downward sloping left-to-right to nearly flat (meaning equal rates of poverty everywhere). And note: this would not be an imagined Paris-style inversion, where the rich live in the center, and the poor in the suburbs, but just simply an equal level of poverty across the metro region.
In the 22 years between 1990 and 2012, the central city poverty rate (1 mile from the center of the CBD) declined from 26 percent to 25 percent, while the poverty rate 20 miles away in the suburbs increased from 7 percent to 9 percent. Poverty in the center was on average 15 percentage points higher in the center than in the periphery. The gap between the two areas thus closed by 3 percentage points. At 1.5 percentage points per decade, it would take until the end of the century before poverty levels equalized between the urban core and twenty miles out.
Unless there’s a tremendous acceleration of this rate of change, an actual inversion is several decades away. And the idea that these lines would be inverted, i.e. sloping upward and to the right, meaning that poverty was higher in the suburbs than in the center, simply shows almost no signs of happening.
To be sure, a few neighborhoods have seen dramatic change, but to conclude that entire cities are becoming “gated suburbs” is a wild exaggeration of what so far, is a vary modest trend that has slightly ameliorated the centralized pattern of poverty in the US. The overall pattern of poverty in New York has hardly changed since 1990; the highest poverty rates are between 5 and 10 miles from the city center, and are more than triple the poverty rate in suburbs more than 15 miles away.
While the high profile gentrification of some urban neighborhoods attracts widespread media attention, the real story of neighborhood change in the United States is the persistence and spread of concentrated poverty. Over the last four decades, only about one in twenty urban high poverty neighborhoods rebounded—meaning that they went from a poverty rate of more than 30 percent in 1970 to less than 15 percent in 2010. (Fifteen percent is roughly the national average poverty rate). In that same time, the number of high poverty neighborhoods tripled, and the number of poor people living in them doubled. And these neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—which Raj Chetty’s work shows are toxic to the children growing up there—are disproportionately concentrated in central cities.How can we harness this change to tackle real problems?
Rather than raise the alarm about what is in the vast majority of cities a very slow-moving non-crisis, our energy might be better spent thinking about how we might leverage the growing interest in urban living into a force that will undo the pattern of income segregation that has characterized the last half century or so of suburbanization — what Robert Reich called the secession of the successful.
Cities have been plagued for decades by desertion and disinvestment. The middle income families that could provide the fiscal and civic support for a vital city have been exiting. Now that some younger people are starting to come back to invest in city neighborhoods, commit to city schools, and exercise citizenship, there’s a huge opportunity to leverage this momentum to address the city’s poverty and segregation problems.
There are some practical policy steps that every city could take to make sure that the benefits of revitalization are widely shared. For one thing, revitalization means new jobs in or near places that have long been said to suffer from a “spatial mismatch.” Training and placing local residents for jobs in everything from construction (building and rehabilitating housing) to working in the growing retail and service businesses that are expanding in cities would directly address economic needs. The good news, as we’ve shown at City Observatory, is that the decentralization of job growth that has proceeded for decades is at an end, and jobs are moving back into cities.
Cities can also tap the added investment associated with revitalization to create more affordable housing in revitalizing neighborhoods. That’s exactly what Portland has done—dedicating about a third of the tax increment revenues from new housing development to pay for subsidized housing in urban renewal areas. The city’s tony new Pearl District is home to galleries, restaurants, theaters, high end condos and new market rate apartments. It also has more than 2,300 units of affordable housing, subsidized by tax increment financing. The result, far from being a “gated suburb” is a lively, walkable mixed income neighborhood with more economic diversity in a small area than any other part of the region.
There’s no reason why cities can’t use the economic momentum created by the interest in city living to build more affordable housing in revitalizing neighborhoods and create the kind of just, inclusive communities that we all seem to think would be a good idea. If we view economic integration as an important objective, the trends we see in cities ought to be regarded as shining examples of opportunity, rather than an inevitable “dark side” of the urban renaissance.
The apocalyptic exaggeration of nascent trends generates headlines but it’s a poor basis for making sensible policy. For too long, urban policy in the United States consisted of little more than triage and managed decline. If we’re really optimistic about cities, then we ought to be focusing our attention on constructive ways to manage this historic opportunity.
What the price of parking shows us about urban transportation
Yesterday, we rolled out our parking price index, showing the variation in parking prices among large US cities. Gleaning data from ParkMe, a web-based directory of parking lots and rates, we showed how much it cost to park on a monthly basis in different cities. There’s a surprising degree of variation: while the typical rate is somewhere in the range of $200 a month, in some cities (New York) parking costs more than $700 a month, while in others (Oklahoma City) its less than $30 a month.
As Donald Shoup has exhaustively explained in its tome, The High Cost of Free Parking, parking has a tremendous impact on urban form. And while Shoup’s work focuses chiefly on the side effects of parking requirements and under-priced street parking, we’re going to use our index of parking prices to explore how market-provided parking relates to the urban transportation system.
In the United States, the majority of commuters travel alone by private automobile to their place of work. But in some places–in large cities, and in dense downtowns–more people travel by transit, bicycle or walk to work. It’s worth asking why more people don’t drive: after all the cost of car ownership is essentially the same everywhere in the US. The short answer is that in cities, parking isn’t free. And when parking isn’t free, more people take transit or other modes of transportation.
To see just how strong an explanation that parking prices provide for transit use, we’ve plotted the number of transit trips per capita in each of the largest metropolitan areas against the typical price of a month of parking in the city center. Each data point represents a single metropolitan area. There’s a very strong positive correlation between transit rides per capita and parking rates. Cities with higher parking rates have more transit rides per capita than cities with lower parking rates. The statistical correlation between the two measures is extremely strong: the coefficient of determination (R2) is .83, suggesting that parking rates statistically explain 83 percent of the variation in transit use among cities.
Its worth noting that this relationship is based on extremely coarse data about both parking prices and transit use. We’ve measured transit use for entire metropolitan areas (including dense centers and distant suburbs) and looked only at parking rates in and around the city hall of the largest city in each metropolitan area. A more nuanced examination of parking rates and transit ridership (one, for example, that looked at parking rates and transit use in particular neighborhoods), might show an even stronger relationship.
What this points out is that private car commuting is extremely sensitive to the price commuters must pay. For most commutes, commuters don’t have to pay for parking–their employers provide (often by regulatory fiat) “free” parking. When confronted with paying the cost of parking (and the average is about $6 per day at a monthly rate), many more people choose to travel by other modes of transportation.
This suggests that there is much more opportunity to influence travel behavior by pricing than we commonly appreciate. In effect, what pricing of parking in some metropolitan areas is doing is correcting for the market failure of not pricing roads.
As we’ve frequently noted at City Observatory, we don’t directly charge for road use in the United States. Motorists pay some road use fees, based almost entirely on fuel consumption (which, incidentally, don’t come close to covering the cost of the roads system). Importantly, the way we charge for roads through fuel taxes bears no relationship to the roads motorists actually use, or the time that they use them. And, as a practical matter, the cost and capacity of the road system are largely shaped by peak hour travel in urban places.
Its worth asking why private sector firms build and operate parking lots in some locations (and not others) and why car owners pay much higher rates to park in some cities than others. An essential fact of private car travel is that it requires that owners have a place to store their vehicle at their origin and at their destination. In urban centers, there’s more demand for travel–and parking spaces–than can be met, with the effect that the price of parking is higher than elsewhere. In effect, private parking lots capture the the value associated with peak period car travel to dense urban destinations. Because we don’t charge for the use of the roads during the peak hour, private lots are able to capture some of the economic rents associated with access to the urban center at the peak hour.
The high value that people attach to access to urban centers is attracting a disruptive new entrant to the urban transportation market: ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Our data show that the growth of these services–as proxied by the Brookings Institution’s recent estimates of the growth of non-employer transportation service providers–is also closely correlated with high parking rates. In the following chart, we show the correlation between city parking rates (on the vertical axis) and the number of transportation service non-employers per 100,000 metropolitan population. As with transit trips, there’s a strong, positive correlation. The coefficient of determination is .68, implying that parking prices statistically explain about 68 percent of the variation in the penetration of ride hailing services among metropolitan areas.
This makes perfect sense: the richest market for ride-hailing is going to be in those places where it is most inconvenient and expensive to park a car. Ride hailing is highly attractive if one’s alternative is to drive your own car, and have to hunt for, drive to, and then pay for parking. Conversely, if parking is free and abundant at your destination, there’s much less incentive to use Uber or Lyft, particularly if one already owns a private vehicle.
The strong relationship between parking prices and transit use, and between parking prices and the uptake of ridesharing has important implications for the future of urban transportation. First and foremost, it serves as reminder that prices offer powerful incentives that shape travel behavior. Transit is most heavily patronized in those cities where motorists have to pay relatively high prices for parking, and least used where parking is free. Second, it suggests that the most lucrative markets for ride-hailing services will be in relatively dense places (with lots of potential customers) and where parking is more expensive or scarce (making ride-hailing more attractive). We would expect low density suburbs and rural areas to be the least attractive markets ride-hailing services. Third, the price of parking currently operates as a kind of surrogate or shadow-price for roads in dense central cities. Fewer people drive, and more people take transit another modes, because of the high cost of parking. But as ride-sharing services expand, the constraint on demand for car travel in central cities imposed by high parking prices will disappear, with the effect that there will likely be much more demand for on-street travel. While city streets are un-priced, peak hour travel by Uber and Lyft is not. In fact, these operators both utilize surge pricing. As a result, it seems likely that the growth of ride-hailing, particularly with services that use surge pricing, transportation providers will capture some of the economic rents associated with peak period congestion. Profits for this sector are built in part on capturing the scarcity value of urban streets, which are un-priced or under-priced for both vehicle movement and storage.
The price of parking is an under appreciated aspect of the urban transportation system. As we wrestle with the disruptions from ride-hailing services, and perhaps soon, autonomous vehicles, what happens to parking prices could have major impacts on our cities.
People have been asking me why I moved. I’ve given them answers and sometimes they’ve not been as foolproof as I’d liked for them to be. And now a month out from the move, I feel like I can answer the question a bit better.
“But you can buy a cheaper house here. Food’s really expensive out there. You know, there’s racism everywhere. No, we didn’t call all the time and it may have seemed we weren’t there for you, but we were.”
I’d like to remind everyone that I’m from North Carolina. I heard all these things when I left for Kansas City and then some.
This is not to lay shade on any one factor of why I ultimately decided that Kansas City wasn’t going to be end game. In fact I’m going to start with a pretty easy one.
I can walk here. And when I walk, I find myself at a reasonable destination. And when I can’t walk, there’s a bus within 10 minutes and maybe even a bike too. It sometimes takes me 30 minutes to an hour to get somewhere across DC. It used to take the same to do so in KC.
What’s the difference? It’s been both necessary and fulfilling to have to propel myself. Granted, the weather here hasn’t been horrible, besides being wet, yet. But I now own real winter clothing, I can get through the winter just fine. I thought saying goodbye to my beloved Betsy (and yes I did love my car a lot), was going to be more shocking than it has been. In fact, even as folks consider getting cars with all the turmoil with Metrorail and suburbanizing jobs, the stress of calling an Uber after a missed bus pales to being faced with hundreds of dollars in fines and maintenance.
Secondly, DC, if we go with how the Great Migration went, is my natural second homeland. If I was going to leave for a greener pasture, this is the one that my ancestors had chosen over and over again, with the help of rail lines and even horse and buggy. Plus, if I need to travel in and out of DC, I don’t feel like I’m constantly making a mini Great Migration of my own. I constantly felt like I was living in two worlds and I needed to be cultivating both.
Speaking of those two worlds, it was really three. I’d already moved my heart to DC, long before I moved my body and my body was forever punishing me for being without its soul. It wasn’t as bad when I lived in North Carolina, because my body always knew its soul was only a 5.5 hour drive away (and yes only five and a half because I drive efficiently up I-95 or U.S. 29). And now that I’m in DC, and have both parts of my being connected, I feel less like I’m fighting.
And at the end of the day, a new cut of barbecue couldn’t make up for the absence of the community and my soul I was desperately seeking in the metro.
You guys know I’m all about full disclosure at this page. So I’m going to bring something up that the Kansas Citians don’t always like for folks to know about. That thing is the one-year freeze. I get it, if you only expect people to come and go. If a person starts showing signs early that they are plotting an exit, why engage?
If I had been honest to myself in the early days, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much that I didn’t make as deep of connections as I wanted to in Kansas City. Now as I said before, folks made it clear that if I was dying, they would know about it or they would make sure I didn’t die. But what about making sure I don’t cry? What about making sure I don’t have to beg and plead for what I need?
I’m going to pause the post for a minute to lighten the mood and put in my musical interlude of my new D.C. centric Spotify playlist:
I left town for the first time since I moved when I went to Roanoke for CityWorksXPO the other week. I cancelled the rest of my trip home to Greensboro, for two reasons. One, I don’t like driving in the rain. And two, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to go home on I-95.
Let’s take a moment and notice what I did there.
Now no shade to Greensboro. It taught me the sheer joy of popping out of the Dupont Circle metro and meeting Krispy Kreme’s hot light. I recognize that bit of Texas Pete-drenched breader in the Bojangles smell I smell faintly at the Union Station metro stop. When I carry my Harris Teeter reusable bag with the big N.C. State block S on it, even the Carolina fans stop and say hello. We then ask each other where we got our best Nats and D.C. United gear. One day we’ll get pro baseball and soccer in our home state, but until then, we can borrow DC’s.
And of course, had people before me not taken that migration up I-95, I wouldn’t know the joy of Busting Loose in the Chocolate City.
Speaking of Nats. Can I get the right Natty’s on a tap? We’re regional. And seriously Cookout and Biscuitville, it’s time, come on up the road. Lots of hungry Carolinian Washingtonians are waiting for you.
In the meantime, I’m off to the corner cafe with the croaker fish and that hot dog spot that carries slaw along with its chili, mambo sauce and those half-smoke things people keep telling me about, that in all my visiting, I’ve never had chance to eat. I’ll be riding there on Capital Bikeshare and I’ll be trusting Metrorail to get me home, as long as it still continues to run late in the evening.
I’ll still use Kansas City in my banner. You guys possess one of the coolest things in the world and that’s being in the center of it all. And the better streetcar. And a can-do spirit that rivals so many. Plus, DC really doesn’t have a skyline and you guys do and I like dramatic illustrations of my love for all things urban and cities.
Plus, I won’t be a stranger. But when I come back to visit, I’ll come back with my soul in tact.
I’m Kristen. Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com.
A friend recently expressed an interest in how some cities are reforming their land use regulations. “I mean, there are places like LA that say they’ve thrown out the code books and are rewriting their zoning.” My short response was… No. The reality is that the city plays an expensive and byzantine game of cat and mouse with each individual neighborhood.
There’s a little sliver of brassiere shaped land wedged between the Los Angeles River and the Golden State Freeway that sums up a lot of what constitutes the land use regulation process in LA. When poor Mexicans were forcibly removed in order to build Dodger Stadium in the late 1950’s they resettled in this inexpensive semi-industrial zone called the Elysian Valley, which is also commonly known as Frogtown.
It’s been a solid working class neighborhood for decades. Families have long managed to own modest homes and live in respectable obscurity among the auto body shops, plumbing supply warehouses, and municipal maintenance facilities.
In recent years the adjacent neighborhoods of downtown Los Angeles, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Atwater Village, and Glassell Park (all previously ignored and undervalued) have become newly fashionable and prohibitively expensive. Pent up market demand acts like a balloon – if you squeeze the middle the ends bulge. In this case home buyers, renters, and businesses have scoured the area looking for alternatives. Frogtown is a centrally located and relatively affordable compromise.
Design firms, architects, photographers, tech incubators, high end specialty fabricators, and other such enterprises have moved in to the nondescript buildings of Frogtown. If you’re willing to celebrate concrete block walls and corrugated steel as honest industrial materials you can create the trendy Dwell look with paint and landscaping on the cheap. Compare this process with the expense of restoring a more exotic historic property in a tony neighborhood.
Art Yanez is a Los Angeles native and the son of immigrants. He’s also the principal of FSY Architects. He purchased three contiguous parcels in Frogtown and created a campus for his firm.
The space incorporates pre-existing industrial warehouses as well as new construction with shops and offices that are now rented for supplemental income. The architecture firm’s own offices are currently oversized to accommodate anticipated expansion as business continues to ramp up. But construction is a cyclical industry, so the space can be subdivided and rented during future downturns.
The new building achieves the legally required off street parking standard as well as the fire marshal’s demand that a full size fire engine be able to drive around the entire structure in an emergency. The parking is convenient (this is Los Angeles after all), but the outdoor space does double duty as a plaza for human activities on occasion. Strings of cafe lights, movable furniture, potted plants, and people transform the place quickly and easily.
Part of FSY’s strategy was to create a place that would activate the entire community, not just a building containing offices. The initial concept involved repurposing shipping containers and pressing them into service as small shops. The building code wouldn’t permit that so a stick built version mimics the container look and scale. Actual containers are parked in back and are used for low cost storage. Local artists were invited to install distinctive motifs for the exterior of the corner cafe. All of this was as-of-right construction within the established city code.
For the last century the Los Angeles River has been a concrete industrial drainage canal sealed off by barbed wire fences and cinder block walls. Most people in LA have no particular relationship to the “riverfront.” But that’s changing as city officials have announced a billion dollar program to transform the river into a ribbon of green and blue public amenities lead by none other than starchitect Frank Gehry.
The success of small infill developments in Frogtown along with the city’s plans to transform the river have attracted large scale production developers. Previously ignored sites began to sprout upscale apartment buildings and condo complexes on dead end streets at the river’s edge.
This process was viewed with scorn by existing property owners and community organizers who haven’t forgotten how their families were bulldozed to make way for Dodgers Stadium. So they lobbied for new regulations to make it harder to build anything new and to work around the perception that political figures are corrupt and on the take for developer’s money. The new regulations now make projects like Art Yanez’s building non-conforming and subject to special review processes for height, bulk, and so on.
The result is that now only very small projects can be built as-of-right, and only very large and expensive projects can overcome the newly implemented regulatory hurdles. All the incremental in-between projects that might have been built are now much less viable and far more expensive to push through. This is what land use policy actually looks like on the ground.
The night before I wrote this post, I got a present. The present was that the National Geographic website dropped some of the HELOC residential security maps, commonly known in the profession as the redlining maps, into an article, highlighting the amazing work done by the Mapping Inequality Project.
If you haven’t already, go to that site and play with their maps. I was able to grab Kansas City.
They left out Durham on this version of their maps, but here it is
And my current place of residence, which I happened to snap a shot of here, when I was at another event where another group of folks pulled together a wonderful exhibition of why this happened and where.This is why I talk about “redlining” when I talk about the creation of the hood. The “hood”. The “barrio”, the “Whitetopia”, the “ghetto”…
…are real and they are real on maps and sadly, we are nowhere near getting away from these barriers. Yes, even in areas that are gentrifying and moving from red to yellow and blue.
The one key reason that those maps haven’t changed that much.Education, namely education of our children.
But you say, we have so many choices and there are so many educational providers and I really just want my kids to get their best shot. Oh and my neighborhood didn’t exist back then. And we have black and brown neighbors and they are so nice. We let their kids play in our sunroom and on our wooden swing set.
Your kids, but what about all kids. What about that abandoned school down the block. The one they said was “low-performing” and had “low-enrollment”? And can we mention the mere fact that you have a sunroom and one of those wooden swing sets from Home Depot puts you in a different class level than quite a few Americans? Where did the remaining 5 kids go? You would hate to have a rotting building sitting in your neighborhood waiting for development, so why let that other neighborhood have one too. Or not turn it into the condo building that the “hipster” neighborhood did.Ok, it’s “Kristen’s Personal Story Time”.
Today, I’m going to tell you about how I came out alright, despite starting my schooling in what were legally the “inner-city” schools when I started kindergarten in 1991.
My first caveat is that in North Carolina, we actually go to public schools under one county district, but many different zones. When I started school, I was still in the Greensboro City Schools District. My parents worked in the Guilford County Schools District and there was a High Point City Schools District. That all changed in 1993 when all the schools merged into one county district under the Guilford County Schools banner.
Yes, people fought. But fast forward 23 years and the Guilford County Schools district has an 86% graduation rate and we now have a program to ensure college gets funded for all kids. Oh and some schools, the ones we consider our high performing ones, graduate 100% of their students. And they pull students, by their personal choice and test scores, from across the entire county. And some of those schools are housed with students deemed troubled by their home schools. Others are your typical extremely “gifted” student holes. Others, the directionals, one which I’ll talk about going to in a bit, are what have become the “suburban” districts through migration, both of locals and of transplants used to a more segregated and suburbanized school environment.
However, that’s at the high school level. What about the elementary level? When I went to kindergarten, my school was up the street and around the corner. I could have walked and sometimes we did but my mom was waiting for me most days in the car rider line. I wanted to ride the school bus, but we lived to close to the school.
However, my mom, who had taken a break from her own classroom teaching of middle schoolers and was raising and pre-schooling me at home while my dad continued to go work for the school system as an electrical maintenance man and wire homes and do other residential and small commercial electrical contracting jobs on the side, didn’t like my school.
I know I was getting teased a bit and I was also easily distracted, to the point I had to start going to school earlier, so I could adjust to my surroundings. My mom also tells me my classmates bothered me a whole lot more than I remembered. Plus, my teachers wanted me in “gifted” classes and my mom wanted me to be in a regular classroom, where everyone had a fair shot at learning the same things and I wouldn’t feel like I was so “gifted” I couldn’t learn anything any more and that I was too perfect to learn.
Rather than ship me out to the suburbs, which in reality, were just the 1990s subdivisions being built on old farmland around the existing farm towns and their respective “county” schools, I got moved to the school zone right next door. School became a 15 minute walk instead of a five-minute walk, but my mom was right there with me in the car rider line. Mom also made cookie bags for my classmates at Christmas, became friends with my teachers and was on the PTA, with a handful of other working class parents, some of color, some with English as a second language, all upwardly mobile in their own way.
In fact, many of those parents moved on, much like my mom and I did, but we moved on for a different reason and we now live in a similar, but further out neighborhood. Ok, she lives there, but that house in the neighborhood I went to my final elementary school in, is still there. Had we lived there and not the apartment we lived in when I was in the fourth and fifth grades, I could have walked to school, because the school is behind the houses on the next block. Or I could have stayed in our old house with dad and stayed in my same school. Gone to middle and high school not too far away.
However, for middle and high school, I got a special exception to join my mom in the county “suburban” school zone where she was teaching middle school. My own mortification and fear of failing in front of my classmates, many who my mom taught their seventh grade year, and in front of my mom’s teaching colleagues, kept me in line. At the time I attended my high school, it shared one of its buildings with my middle school and I went to my high school classes upstairs and came back to my mom’s classroom in the evenings to wait to go home. On 9/11/2001, I ran to my mom in the covered walkway between the high school and the shared building after school relieved that she and I was still alive. There was not a cloud in the sky that day…and as you see, I’ve digressed greatly.
However, a few things to wrap up my personal story. I had involved parents, who didn’t let their financial means keep them from trying to be engaged parents. But, both parents weren’t working and my mom had an education degree and still commanded even her PTA meetings much like she did her various classrooms over the years. There was funding for the special program at my second elementary school. By the time I got to my third elementary school, my mom was working again due to my parents’ divorce and my dad was servicing the schools in my zone of the district. People knew my parents and they knew me and they knew our struggles and they wanted to see me succeed.
However, there are other classmates of mine, especially at the second elementary school whose parents weren’t as involved, yet they still managed to find a way to success. I attribute it to the values set by the administrators and teachers at that school, to love us all equally. Plus, that neighborhood is one of the unique neighborhoods in Greensboro, in that it houses so many people of all races, income levels and education levels, it has resources and it has a people committed to political unity. If we want to put it in DC terms, I was in Takoma Park. And if that neighborhood (which will remain nameless, because things have changed a bit and I want this to be a universal story) and Takoma Park could do it, there are others that can too.
However, we need neighborhood schools, run by a central district over a reasonable geographic area, and we need diverse neighborhoods. Also, the other caveat, in the map above, some of our Takoma-style neighborhood was blue and some of it was green and yellow. It was never hazardous. Why Takoma was hazardous baffles me, but so do a lot of the maps.
I’d like to think that my parents beat the odds. I’d like to think my neighborhood was special. But it isn’t.
NPR recently reminded us of that when it talked about how much our school choice is dependent on the old redlining maps and is solidified by the loss of schools or the lack of investment or completely homogeneous by both race and class and language skill schools. And many of you have heard the This American Life episode series about the Chicago schools.
Many of you, who otherwise support walkable communities, transit improvements, diverse types of housing and other things seen as urbanist, get stuck when it comes to the schools. Even those of us of color get stuck, much like in this well known New York Times article.I do think we can start chipping away at the education paradox of urbanism. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise, those maps will forever be rainbow-colored and not in a good way.
I’m Kristen. Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com.