John W. MillerNovember 01, 2021
Justin Strong grew up in the East End of Pittsburgh (photo composite: America, Catholic News Service)

When Justin Strong was a teenager in Pittsburgh during the 1990s, he learned not to walk through certain neighborhoods. If he did anyway, he was told, he should not wear red. That was a gang color. The East End of Pittsburgh, where he lived, struggled with crime and poverty. The crack epidemic raged. Businesses closed. Many people left.

Then the neighborhood changed. Carnegie Mellon University’s technology programs attracted tech companies, led by Google. Pittsburgh’s thriving hospitals and colleges attracted young professionals looking for housing. Real estate developers followed, buying up properties and building condos and a Whole Foods.

For Mr. Strong, who is Black, the avalanche of investment has been a mixed blessing. It has made the neighborhood safer and more prosperous. He can walk around without fear and no longer has to worry about gangs. There is a Target where he can pick up groceries, clothing and electronics. There is a bookstore, new bars and restaurants, and even a macaron shop.

In “Laudato Si,’” Pope Francis became the first pope to explicitly invoke urban planning. 

But he has seen the Black community struggling with rising rents, low wages and diminished prospects for employment. The same developers who are throwing up new luxury apartment complexes also evicted tenants or bought out owners in order to build. Housing prices rose out of reach. An entire community, mostly African Americans, was forced to relocate into adjacent neighborhoods, causing stress and bitterness as white city fathers celebrated Pittsburgh’s revitalization.

“If you look at history, Black Americans came to this country against their choice, and that’s continued. It’s always Black people moving against their choice, and gentrification is the same thing,” Mr. Strong told me. “At the same time, development is not a bad thing if it’s done right, so it’s a mixed bag.”

The fight in many American cities over gentrification, the development of once-poor neighborhoods into prosperous middle-class boroughs, illuminates how we settle questions of racial discrimination, affordable housing and equality of opportunity. Poor neighborhoods crave investment and development, but not at any cost. Although the phenomenon is most pronounced in so-called superstar cities like San Francisco and New York, it is also occurring in lesser-known pockets of redevelopment around the country. Of America’s top 50 cities, 32 grew more rapidly between 2010 and 2020 than between 2000 and 2010.

More widely, in the 21st century, one of the most important questions that human beings face is how to organize ourselves spatially on a planet that is burning up and is populated with almost eight billion people. With so much at stake, it is no surprise that Catholic thinkers, and the church, are increasingly concerned about urban planning and economic geography.

An Urban Planning Pope

In “Laudato Si,’” his 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis became the first pope to explicitly invoke urban planning. “Those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting,” he wrote, adding that it was important to consider “people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance” and that “urban planning [should] take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.”

The United States has more land available than other countries, and also has had a more mobile population. A generation of Americans moved to the suburbs, and many are seeking now to move back to cities. That has created conflict about who lives where.

The battle over gentrification is the latest chapter in America’s 232-year adventure in housing.

In America, “geography is destiny,” said Jayant Sharma, author of The Diaspora of Belonging: Gentrification, Systems of Oppression, and Why Our Cities Are Out of Place. But there is a difference, he told me, between places like San Francisco, where housing has become unaffordable even for some people with jobs, and the Rust Belt, where there is opportunity to create thriving, integrated cities, if the process is managed properly. As many cities struggle to maintain population, the people who live in them need investment from the outside. “We should be looking at whoever’s already there,” he said. “Look at local talent and local knowledge to develop organically.”

The battle over gentrification is the latest chapter in America’s 232-year adventure in housing. During the first 150 years of this country’s existence, a steady stream of people moved off their farms into various booming cities. As late as 1940, only 15 percent of Americans lived in suburbs. This all changed with World War II. Veterans coming back from the war could not find enough housing in crowded cities. President Eisenhower built the Interstate System of highways. Town planning commissions opened the doors for private developers like Levitt & Sons to build suburban subdivisions all over the country. The G.I. Bill put cash in people’s pockets to pay for tidy suburban homes.

The suburbanization of the United States raised a series of moral questions, especially around housing opportunities for African Americans.

The suburbanization of the United States raised a series of moral questions, especially around housing opportunities for African Americans. Many Black veterans, Richard Rothstein writes in Color of Law, “did not apply for government-guaranteed mortgages for suburban purchases because they knew that the Veterans Administration would reject them on account of their race, so applications were pointless.” Consequently, those veterans “did not gain wealth from home equity appreciation as did white veterans, and their descendants could then not inherit the wealth as did white veterans’ descendants. With less inherited wealth, African Americans today are generally less able than their white peers to afford to attend good colleges.”

Loving Communities

The discussion over race has attracted the attention of urban planners, whose interest in thriving neighborhoods dovetails with the close communities espoused by Catholic social teaching.

At Georgetown, Jamie Kralovec, an instructor in the university’s Urban and Regional Planning department, explicitly draws upon his Catholic faith and Ignatian training in discussing his current work. “If we talk about the original sin of slavery and the way that history endures, that’s manifested in a profound way in how Americans live,” he told me. “I grew up in Chicago, and there were two cities in one city.” When he looks at urban planning, Mr. Kralovec said he sees “this potential, to build just and equitable use of the neighborhood, and bring about all these things Pope Francis talks about, like social friendship and solidarity.”

In surprisingly close accordance with Catholic social teaching, most urban planners say that people should live in close, interactive communities. Robert Beauregard, now a professor emeritus at Columbia University, writes in his influential 2006 book When America Became Suburban, that suburban life “lacked a moral center that would enable people to reach outside their communities and embrace diverse peoples” and “lacked a widely shared sense of purpose.”

And yet, the suburbs were once irresistible for millions of U.S. families. Major cities were overcrowded when World War II ended. Families wanted to raise their children with two-car garages and yards. In 1962, for example, my grandfather, married with five children, was hired as a Washington-based staff engineer for NASA’s moon project. He moved his family from El Paso, Tex., to Bowie, Md, where for $24,000 he purchased a house in one of the new suburbs built by the Levitt family.

In surprisingly close accordance with Catholic social teaching, most urban planners say that people should live in close, interactive communities.

This is where my dad grew up, and what he escaped in emigrating to Belgium with my mom in 1976. When he would take me back to Maryland during summers in the 1980s and 1990s, the place was always a shock. In Brussels, I ran around on my own, escaping to parks, movie theaters and corner stores by myself. I could ride my bike downtown. In Bowie, I couldn’t get anywhere without someone driving me.

For Mr. Beauregard, for all their flaws, the suburbs carried the practical appeal of quality housing at lower cost, as well as an ideological dream that suits this nation’s founding frontier myth. And so the United States, he writes, “reached its continental limits in the 1890s, crossed the urban boundary in the 1920s, and breached the crabgrass divide in the 1960s.”

The impact on cities across America was drastic. St. Louis, for example, lost over 400,000 people between 1950 and 1980, shrinking to 453,085 from 856,796 people.

A Building Frenzy

In the decades after World War II, the United States experienced a building frenzy. Between 1945 and 1960, 24 million housing units were started. The suburbs fueled an economic boom in the decades after World War II, enshrining consumerism as a new national religion.

This shift accelerated with “white flight,” when many central-city residents, perceiving their neighborhoods as crowded and unsafe, left for newly developed suburbs—an option largely unavailable to nonwhite residents, who were legally or tacitly excluded from Levitt-like subdivisions. This “white flight” eventually included many Catholics who may have initially been more hesitant to move, said John McGreevy, a professor at Notre Dame who studies Catholics and migration. “Parishes made massive investments in their physical plants, schools, convents, big beautiful churches, so white Catholics were more likely to stay in the city than Protestants and Jews, and more likely to react violently when Blacks moved in.” When it did happen, the Catholic move to the suburbs forced the closure of many parish schools and churches.

Now the country is changing again. Urban neighborhoods have once again become more attractive in many cities. “There’s traffic in the suburbs, and millennials don’t want to drive to work,” said Derek Hyra, a professor of public administration and policy at American University in Washington, D.C. “We’re starting to look more like European cities, like Lyon and Paris, where poverty is being pushed into the ring of neighborhoods surrounding cities.”

Now the country is changing again. Urban neighborhoods have once again become more attractive in many cities.

Urban planners say that closer communities are desirable to fight climate change. People emit less carbon getting around if they live closer to each other. Surprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic might help. It has made working from home, even in remote places, more attractive, meaning that more communities might develop around homes instead of offices.

In Akron, Ohio, for example, urban planners welcome more people moving into the downtowns. “Akron went from being retail to mostly offices, and now offices are declining with the pandemic,” said Jason Segedy, director of urban planning and economic development for the city of Akron. “And we need that residential component.”

What cities need to do is pursue more aggressive policies of affordable housing by using vouchers, subsidies and other government initiatives, said Sabina Deitrick, a professor of urban planning at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’re still a city where housing is affordable if you have income,” she told me. “If you don’t have income, then we still need to do better in offering housing options.”

Urban planners say that closer communities are desirable to fight climate change.

Local governments in the United States are tweaking zoning rules to change how people live. In a recent account in The New York Times, Conor Dougherty wrote about a recently passed law in California that legalizes duplexes statewide and allows owners to subdivide single-family lots, effectively overturning local laws that prevent anything other than sprawling suburban development. Mr. Dougherty describes the law as an alternative to the two ways that housing has historically been built in the United States, The first is “when acres of fields outside the urban center are turned into wide streets and cul-de-sacs named after trees.” The second “is when a developer descends on an already urbanized neighborhood and, after donating to a few campaigns and feuding with anti-gentrification activists, builds a glass condominium tower or high-rent apartment building.”

But the kind of zoning reform now being tried in California, allowing a different way of development, is a double-edged sword. Increasing the housing stock is good, of course, but the risk is that this could become just another form of gentrification, if renters are pushed out so their landlords can build pricier apartments.

Return to the East End

In the late 19th century, the East End of Pittsburgh, where Justin Strong now lives, became “the wealthiest business district in the country that wasn’t a downtown,” a leisure area packed with “restaurants, shops, and theaters patronized by Carnegie, Heinz, Westinghouse, and Mellon,” Ed Simon writes in The Alternative History of Pittsburgh. But by the 1960s, the white population was moving out, and discrimination by banks and local authorities had forced thousands of Black residents, who had little political power to stop what was euphemistically called urban renewal, into “dystopian public housing skyscrapers with roads routed directly beneath them, sending plumes of exhaust into residences.” By the 1990s, the neighborhood was “written off as an irredeemable ghetto.”

Mr. Strong, after growing up in the East End, dropped out of college to open a bar and entertainment complex called the Shadow Lounge, which gave people in the East End a chance to have their own social hangout spot and helped launch the careers of famous rappers like Mac Miller.

Mr. Strong closed the business in 2013, just as the neighborhood was taking off, attracting a new generation of mostly white residents. He sees in gentrification a wider problem of commodification of basic human activity. “You used to have jitneys [informal cabs] that would take where you needed to go, and if you needed a place to stay, Mrs. Jenkins had a room, and people would talk to each other out on the street,” Mr. Strong told me. “And now you have Uber, Airbnb and Facebook.”

The argument over gentrification is not likely to be settled any time soon. There are tense debates around affordable housing in cities across the country over whether the priority should be to stimulate the housing stock to increase supply or to impose measures like rent control.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strong is going back to college to complete his degree in marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, while managing his family’s 91-year-old dry cleaning company and launching a consultancy that aims to help develop neighborhoods with more equality. “I want to help other cities develop organically,” he said. His aim is 80 percent local businesses and only 20 percent chains.

That, said Mr. Strong, would achieve the ideal kind of gentrification: development without displacement. “I’m a capitalist at the end of the day,” he said. “I’d like to see opportunity here for me, too.”

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More reporting from John W. Miller:

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