The White City


Among the media, academia and within planning circles, there’s a generally standing answer to the question of what cities are the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities. The standard list includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver. In particular, Portland is held up as a paradigm, with its urban growth boundary, extensive transit system, excellent cycling culture, and a pro-density policy. These cities are frequently contrasted with those of the Rust Belt and South, which are found wanting, often even by locals, as “cool” urban places.

But look closely at these exemplars and a curious fact emerges. If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.

In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group.

The progressive paragon of Portland is the whitest on the list, with an African American population less than half the national average. It is America's ultimate White City. The contrast with other, supposedly less advanced cities is stark.

It is not just a regional thing, either. Even look just within the state of Texas, where Austin is held up as a bastion of right thinking urbanism next to sprawlvilles like Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston.

Again, we see that Austin is far whiter than either Dallas-Ft. Worth or Houston.

This raises troubling questions about these cities. Why is it that progressivism in smaller metros is so often associated with low numbers of African Americans? Can you have a progressive city properly so-called with only a disproportionate handful of African Americans in it? In addition, why has no one called these cities on it?

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

This lack of racial diversity helps explain why urban boosters focus increasingly on international immigration as a diversity measure. Minneapolis, Portland and Austin do have more foreign born than African Americans, and do better than Rust Belt cities on that metric, but that's a low hurdle to jump. They lack the diversity of a Miami, Houston, Los Angeles or a host of other unheralded towns from the Texas border to Las Vegas and Orlando. They even have far fewer foreign born residents than many suburban counties of America's major cities.

The relative lack of diversity in places like Portland raises some tough questions the perennially PC urban boosters might not want to answer. For example, how can a city define itself as diverse or progressive while lacking in African Americans, the traditional sine qua non of diversity, and often in immigrants as well?

Imagine a large corporation with a workforce whose African American percentage far lagged its industry peers, sans any apparent concern, and without a credible action plan to remediate it. Would such a corporation be viewed as a progressive firm and employer? The answer is obvious. Yet the same situation in major cities yields a different answer. Curious.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It's easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

In contrast, the starker part of racial history in America has been one of the defining elements of the history of the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and South. Slavery and Jim Crow led to the Great Migration to the industrial North, which broke the old ethnic machine urban consensus there. Civil rights struggles, fair housing, affirmative action, school integration and busing, riots, red lining, block busting, public housing, the emergence of black political leaders – especially mayors – prompted white flight and the associated disinvestment, leading to the decline of urban schools and neighborhoods.

There's a long, depressing history here.

In Texas, California, and south Florida a somewhat similar, if less stark, pattern has occurred with largely Latino immigration. This can be seen in the evolution of Miami, Los Angeles, and increasingly Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. Just like African-Americans, Latino immigrants also are disproportionately poor and often have different site priorities and sensibilities than upscale whites.

This may explain why most of the smaller cities of the Midwest and South have not proven amenable to replicating the policies of Portland. Most Midwest advocates of, for example, rail transit, have tried to simply transplant the Portland solution to their city without thinking about the local context in terms of system goals and design, and how to sell it. Civic leaders in city after city duly make their pilgrimage to Denver or Portland to check out shiny new transit systems, but the resulting videos of smiling yuppies and happy hipsters are not likely to impress anyone over at the local NAACP or in the barrios.

We are seeing this script played out in Cincinnati presently, where an odd coalition of African Americans and anti-tax Republicans has formed to try to stop a streetcar system. Streetcar advocates imported Portland's solution and arguments to Cincinnati without thinking hard enough to make the case for how it would benefit the whole community.

That's not to let these other cities off the hook. Most of them have let their urban cores decay. Almost without exception, they have done nothing to engage with their African American populations. If people really believe what they say about diversity being a source of strength, why not act like it? I believe that cities that start taking their African American and other minority communities seriously, seeing them as a pillar of civic growth, will reap big dividends and distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

This trail has been blazed not by the “progressive” paragons but by places like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Atlanta, long known as one of America's premier African American cities, has boomed to become the capital of the New South. It should come as no surprise that good for African Americans has meant good for whites too. Similarly, Houston took in tens of thousands of mostly poor and overwhelmingly African American refugees from Hurricane Katrina. Houston, a booming metro and emerging world city, rolled out the welcome mat for them – and for Latinos, Asians and other newcomers. They see these people as possessing talent worth having.

This history and resulting political dynamic could not be more different from what happened in Portland and its “progressive” brethren. These cities have never been black, and may never be predominately Latino. Perhaps they cannot be blamed for this but they certainly should not be self-congratulatory about it or feel superior about the urban policies a lack of diversity has enabled.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

This article is a perfect example of intellectual dishonesty

Guess what folks? There aren’t nearly as many African-Americans in the western states. I know this must be a shock to some of you, and it would seem as if the author is completely oblivious to this basic fact as well.

So, cherry-picking only WESTERN cities that are progressive, and then criticizing them for their lack of substantial African-American populations is about as intellectually dishonest as you can possibly get. This author should be fired if he hasn’t been already.

Even a first-year journalism student can simply take a look at a map of ethnic distribution across the US, and he or she will see that the majority of African-Americans reside across the southeast and within the large metropolitan areas. In the southwest we see many more Latinos, in the northernmost states we find the bulk of those with Scandinavian ancestry, and so on, and so on…

Sure, Austin doesn’t have as high an African-American population as Dallas-Ft. Worth or Houston, but you are talking about two of the most massive urban areas in the entire country (4th and 6th, respectively), in a state where the majority of African-Americans live within these massive urban areas. Do the readers of this article not realize how small an African-American population exists, for example, in a western state like Oregon? Naturally you aren’t going to find as high a percentage of African-Americans in a city like Portland as you are in the bigger cities to the east, but that goes without saying. So WHAT IN THE WORLD does that have to do with progressives? NOTHING. It’s like saying there aren’t enough Latinos in Maine, and then somehow blaming the progressives in Maine for it.

How much more obvious could this be, people?

Why didn’t the author look at the OTHER progressive areas in the country, like ones in the east? Even if we exclude the progressive areas in-and-around the massive eastern cities, there are still other progressive small cities and such, even in the southeast. Ever heard of Athens, GA? …or Chapel Hill-Carrboro, NC? These kinds of places are very progressive, and have African-American populations at or above the national average.

Oh no! The author’s blatantly-dishonest theory begins to shatter!

In fact, Chapel Hill-Carrboro is by far one of the most progressive places in the entire nation, with Carrboro electing an openly gay mayor, and the cities of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Durham harboring a HUGE illegal immigrant population due to their sanctuary laws (and the new nickname for the RDU-CH area is the “Cinco Circle”, due to an estimated 600,000 immigrants or more moving into the area over the past decade or so). On top of that, Chapel Hill-Carrboro offers hands-down the best public education K-thru-Doctorate of anywhere in entire country, and their local governments were among the first in the nation to condemn the invasion of Iraq and the abuses within the Patriot Act. How much more progressive can you get? The fact is that Chapel Hill-Carrboro is so progressive that it makes Berkeley and San Francisco look like a bunch of rich yuppies in comparison.

But… but… there must be lots of crime due to all those immigrants and African-Americans, right?!

Sorry to disappoint, but in fact it’s just the opposite. Chapel Hill and Carrboro each have an average of ZERO murders in a given year. It’s not only one of the most integrated and culturally-tolerant areas in the entire world, but it is also one of the safest.

Yeah, all that progressive-melting-pot stuff sure is bad. I think I’ll roll my eyes now.

This article is so unprofessionally-written that it is beyond laughable. The author should be ashamed of himself, as should anyone who can’t see how he has cherry-picked his statistics to perpetrate a bold-faced lie. Reminds me of a certain fake “news” network on tv...

Athens has tons of crime & poverty!

And Chapel Hill-Carrboro is 13% black. Looks pretty average to me.

But that's beside the point. It's not that black people ruin things. They don't. It's that racial division creates resistance to development of public infrastructure. You did a pretty lousy job of proving these cities are progressive on transit.

White conservatives are moving to the suburbs.

White liberals have are gentrifying the urban cores.

Neither side has solved the problem of racial division. They both just avoid it. I think liberals get a pass on this because conservatives are too invested in the idea of colorblindness.

BTW-I'm beginning to wonder if you're a troll. The phrase "melting-pot" has been out of style for decades.

I'm glad this article set

I'm glad this article set off an alarm that screams 'No More Mortgage' in someone else's head! While I do appreciate the reporting doing their best, I do feel like there were several gaping holes in their research. It IS true that the farther west you travel, the percentage of African Americans decreases. I hope they do a follow up to this article with some real facts.

On the contrary, mass transit is heavily used in Portland

@ elle, regarding "Portland- No one uses the public transit there anyways!"

I found your thoughts on race and racism thought provoking, but I have to say, I think your perception of the use of mass transit and cycling in Portland is inaccurate. I'm not sure what part of Portland you lived in, nor am I sure when you used the rail or bus transit, but clearly it was some off-peak Sunday evening... I'm used to standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the bus, light rail, or street car at commute time. Your co-workers who were joking about funding the mass-transit that "no one uses" must have had their heads in the sand as deep as you did while you were living here.

Equally laughable was your comment "Everyone drives in Portland! Did I just let out the dirty little secret? The bike paths go unused!"

Really? Have you ever been stuck in the queue on the approaches to the Hawthorne Bridge at commute time? I've been among dozens of cyclists at a time, waiting their turn to approach the bridge IN A HOWLING WIND AND RAIN IN JANUARY. Try it on a nice July morning, and it's two blocks of cyclists abreast. Plus, if you knew your cycling etiquette/city ordinance, you'd know that the people frowning at you for riding on the sidewalk had good reason to do so, since it's not allowed on downtown sidewalks (and it's ludicrous to do so, given the abundant bike lanes.)

I'm not being defensive when I say this (I'm mostly just puzzled,) but sorry that our fair city didn't work out for you. I hope whatever city you decide to inhabit henceforth doesn't get the same jaundiced view from you. A city is only as good or progressive as its citizens involvement in creating positive change allows.

Portland- No one uses the public transit there anyways!

I love the article, and love the responses even more. Let's all just be honest about these issues!

I can comment about two cities; Portland, Orgeon, and New York City (Brooklyn in particular). I'm a native New Yorker, and have lived in the city proper for 11 years, and before that the (planets away) suburbs of New York (Westchester).

I interned in Portland for a summer. Beautiful city. How clean the public transit system is compared to New York! It's like taking a train through a rain-forest. Note, it is not *underground (nightmare/hellhole) like New York's is either. Beautiful views of trees the whole ride... like being in a theme park. That being said, as someone who wanted to save money for the summer there, and use public transist and bike instead, NO ONE USES THE PORTLAND TRANSIT SYSTEM... VERY FEW. There's always a seat, and usually more empty seats than people. Everyone drives. It was a big joke among my co-workers that they were funding a transit system no one used. I was able to get around good enough on it, but it stops running around midnight.

Portland is SMALL enough that one can bike around it easily- that being said, no one does, and I was frequently frowned upon for riding my bike on the sidewalk (as all the mexican and asian delivery men do all the time in New York), and many times it was assumed I was a prostitute, just because it is so odd for a woman to be out out there past midnight on foot or bicycle (again, nothing like the city that never sleeps, NYC). New York has much more bike traffic. Everyone drives in Portland! Did I just let out the dirty little secret? The bike paths go unused!

Portland does have a seedy side, almost a gay redlight district that permits odd forms of public prostitution. I once saw a black hooker there with her face painted white, like some kind of odd kabuki get up. Strip clubs are very popular with the bored, progressive portlanders.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, I live in a white immigrant area (working class) and I deal with reverse racism from blacks, asians, etc, somewhat frequently (although 99% of them are just fine to me, the times it does happen are very upsetting- and yes, I do fight back). Brooklyn is completely segregated, and even when rich yuppie whites move into black neighborhoods and gentrify it, the blacks and whites exist in parallel worlds; it is never really integrated, even if it is integrated. The cafes and bars are filled with whites.

So yes, both my friends in the expensive, all-white Village section of Manhattan, and people in Portland, and the whites I grew up with in the suburbs have no idea or common understanding of my experiences with race- you can't be a racist if you don't live around other races or experience racism yourself.

My ex-best friend in Portland was a black guy (the Obama election destroyed our friendship) who admitted he liked living in Portland because he could avoid big city racial tensions and because "it's pretty white". All of his male and female friends are whites- progressive whites who put him on a pedestal and idolize him because he is black.

Those who do not experience boots-on-the-ground diversity first hand (in neighborhoods, inter-personal relationships, roommate situations, work situations, etc) have no right to comment on it.

I recommend interracial relationships/"friendships"/marriage and more importantly, interracial divorce, as a way for others to lose that white guilt. Get screwed over by a black friend or non-white boyfriend or girlfriend... then tell me how much you pity them for belonging to some "oppressed group".

I'm an ex-liberal on race myself, and I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams I'd be writing any of this.

What does progressive mean?

Britain has just had a general election which has led to a Conservative led Coalition government. There was a brief attempt between Liberal Democrat and New Labour politicians to attempt a "progressive coalition" to stop the Conservatives forming a government. The fear being that this would be regressive. These self-styled progressives failed.

Yet the measures that the Conservative led Coalition government are pursuing are no different to those that progressives advocated:

-Tightening of immigration controls
-Foreign military adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan
-Extension of the retirement age towards 70
-Dismantling of Welfare measures in the name of relieving "dependency"
-Forcing people to take low paid private work to reduce "worklessness"
-Pushing for pay cuts for public sector employees (>25% of workforce)
-Abandoning commitments to annual house building targets
-Strengthening the Town and Country planning legislation

It seems that any fool can call themselves a progressive. The word is reduced to flattering those with moralities. No doubt the progressive city administrations would dearly love to have greater social diversity. To be less conspicuously white.

What is not meant is the nineteenth century idea of progress, that raising productivity through industry could better support a greater population, and so that all in society might have a better standard of living. The workforce found they had to organise to demand that better standard of living from those who owned industry.

It used to suit capitalism to promote industrial development and the promise of progress. Now capitalism is in retreat from investment in industry, and in that retreat prefers to argue for environmentalism as a progressive morality.

It is not that the progressives are against blacks. They would be shocked to be accused of racism. It is that the self styled progressive capitalists want to make a virtue out of protecting the environment from people. By "people" they can't help but mean those who are seen as surplus to forms of employment that have less need for investment to raise industrial productivity.

It is progressive to aspire to being post-industrial in a world where industry can be expanded globally using more labour instead of machinery. If these progressive cities are able to be more white than most it is because most cities rely on their work being done by diverse populations in other places. Surely this is the geographic point that Aaron Renn misses.

It wouldn't matter if a city were all black. Self-sufficiency in a city is a green myth. The citizens would still depend to some extent on the work being carried out by other diverse people in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and in other declining industrial nations with legacies of immigration. Of course there is no all black city in the developed world, and that would be no better than an all white city.

London is no different in that international interdependency. While less white than it used to be, being blacker or browner makes it no less progressive in the contemporary sense: being prepared to keep foreigners out, and not seriously opposing the killing of some singled out for military intervention. There is little chance that employees in London in all their diversity will organise themselves to demand a standard of living as would have seemed sensible at times over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most with mortgages are hoping that house price inflation continues, and that they don't find themselves workless.

We've got to get over the post-industrial moralism of the term progressive, since the idea of progress has lost the nineteenth century materialist promise that capitalism could not, and still cannot, fully deliver.

There is no post-capitalist prospect at present. There is only austerity dressed up as post-industrial environmentalism by what claims to be progessive capitalism.

Ian Abley

Texas cities images are flat-out wrong

"Even look just within the state of Texas, where Austin is held up as a bastion of right thinking urbanism next to sprawlvilles like Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston."

How is Austin held up as a bastion of right thinking urbanism? Austin has no light rail. Dallas and Houston do. And outside of the Austin city limits, there is very little control of development -- good or bad -- in the unincorporated areas. The state of Texas allows counties very little power. Outside of city limits, almost anything goes. In this sense, Austin can end up just as much of a "sprawlville" (and is already getting that way) as Houston and Dallas. The city of Austin has no control over what happens outside of its city limits. Where do you think most of the new developments and neighborhoods are going up? Heard of Cedar Park, Leander, Round Rock, Pflugerville, Buda? Likewise, just like the Austin city limits, there is zoning (Dallas) and land-use controls and ordinances (Houston) in each of those cities limits.

The Texas cities are all more alike than different. The overrated PR out of image-conscience Austin and overhype by the clueless national media seems to have some people convinced otherwise...

comments on white city article

while I appreciated your articulate thoughts on how race plays a huge role in the ways our nations cities develop and are viewed, I have some thoughts I'd like to share that run contrary to your point of view.
I have lived in two predominately white cities in my life, not because I was looking for that situation, but because my work happened to be there. in both of these places, the consensus is, that wherever there are large black communities, there is more crime, more next-door-neighbor noise, more loud booming car stereos sliding up the street at 4 in the morning. and these aren't just ignorant, aberrant thoughts bobbling around in the heads of some red neck hillbilly's heads, there is some truth in that, and that has to be acknowledged. It ought not be frowned upon so heavily that people would like to move to communities where they feel safe, comfortable ,and can have a sense of peace. Afterall, isn’t that why we don’t all live in trailer parks?

I have read this article

I have read this article twice now, and I have to agree with both the author but also with many of the commentors (definitely not everyone, though). Ultimately, you have to value diversity in order to agree with the author's argument, which is why I generally do agree with his conclusions. It is challenging to live in a heterogeneous environment because it is simply less comfortable. However, it has also enabled me to understand my neighbors and fellow citizens so much better through actually living among them! When I first moved to St. Louis four years ago fresh out of college, I thought this place was the most racist city in the country. However, I have seen over the years that we're not unique; everywhere where there is a large population of blacks you find racism, segregation and the like (mostly directed at blacks by everyone else). The point is, as others have pointed out, race is still number one when many people decide where to lay down roots. It is so easy to tell disenfranchised minorities that "in this day and age..." just get a job! As someone else has said, we first need to invest in our schools and our communities to ever expect to see a positive change. Until then, I will continue to choose to live in places where it is not only economically diverse but racially as well. I love my neighborhood and even while admitting its few shortcomings, I wouldn't trade it for Portland or Denver ever. St. Louis is progressive because we CHOOSE to live among people who aren't like us. Not to say that there aren't homogeneous neighborhoods or racial attitudes that exist still - many people refuse to live in the city limits, or north of Delmar if they're white, or east of Kingshighway even. But there is a growing population of us - black, white, whatever - who are throwing those old attitudes aside. It will take time, but I have hope for the future. BTW - I can afford to live in St. Louis. Not so much in Portland.

this article is upsetting...

...not because of the conclusions it draws but rather because it has been published as a 'new geography' article. As a geography student, this article greatly offends me. How can it offer this analysis (or lack there of) without unpacking why it might be that white cities would be (can be) more progressive? This article offers a superficial analysis. It is certainly not enough to write, "It's easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics." Have we forgotten about the country's continued racism and segregated society? The United States, the great capitalist society, has such gross inequality based on racism that a situation where minorities and the poor (often correlated) need to work two jobs (often as single parents raising children). Not to mention the many other concerns and stresses that makes it hard or unrealistic to think about sustainability or biking to work. White Americans, white portlanders (to make generalizations like this article does) have easier more secure lives in terms of jobs, food, the safety and success of their children, etc. White people are generally able to focus on other issues beyond themselves; they are not dealing with the stress of rejection or reintegrating into society after being in jail for the past 20 years of their life. If Aaron Renn really wants to make this argument I suggest he think through it a bit more.