The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”?


“There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit.” – Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates


With the recent Supreme Courts strike down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was created to protect minority representation, the headline in the Huffington Post read “Back to 1964?” While some contend the title hyperbolic, the HuffPost lead, if not the strike down itself, reflects the reality of a country still tethered to its discriminatory past.

This reality is reflected in all facets of American society, including urbanism. Specifically, is the “back-to-the-city” movement destined to become 1968 inverted; that is, instead of “white flight” there’s “white infill”? If so, the so-called “game-changing” societal movement will be a process of switching out the window dressing, with the style du jour less lace curtains, more exposed brick.

While debatable, there appears to be a back-to-the-city trend, particularly the inner-core areas of America’s largest and most powerful cities. For instance, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau, Chicago’s core exhibited a 36% boom in its population from 2000 to 2010—a gain of nearly 50,000. Rounding out the top five core-growth gainers were the cities New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. The report finds that, on average, “[T]he largest metro areas—those with 5.0 million or more population—experienced double-digit percentage growth within 2 miles of their largest city’s city hall…”

Who is moving into these “spiky” urban cores?

Whites largely. For example, much of Chicago’s core gains comes from the downtown zip code 60654, in which 11,499 (77%) of the area’s 14,868 incoming residents were white, and where the median family income is $151,000. Other zip codes in Chicago’s core share similar proportions of growth, such as 60605, with 70% of its 12,423 new residents being white. Contrast this with a 5% growth rate for blacks.

As well, according to research by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examining the zip codes with the largest growth in the share of white population from 2000 to 2010, 15 of the top 50 were located in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. Philadelphia’s downtown zip code 19123 grew its population by nearly 40%, and its proportion of whites increased from 25% to almost 50%.  In D.C., the growing core zip code of 20001 increased its white share from 6% to 33% in a mere 10 years. While in Brooklyn, the zip codes 11205 and 11206 showed similar growth dynamics, with overall gains of 15% and 18% respectively, and corresponding increases in the white share of approximately 30%. Also on the Institute’s list are zip codes in not-quite-global cities such as Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Tampa, and Portland, with the vast majority of the “whitening” areas located in, or besides, the downtown core.

Now, why does it matter if whites are leading the charge into those cores frequently championed as evidence of a new social order? After all, it is a step forward, right? Or, as urbanist Kaid Benfield recently wrote:

Inner cities are growing again.  People of means, especially young people, want to be in cities today.  While that carries its own set of challenges, I would submit that addressing the challenges of gentrification is a far better problem to have than coping with massive abandonment and rampant crime.

While that line of argument has merit, what’s missing is a deeper examination about those “people of means”. Specifically, a recent study out of Brandeis University showed the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That said, the people of means wanting to be in cities is largely the same people who always had means, and they are simply taking their means from one geography to the next; that is, from the suburban development to the urban enclave.


Of course many argue that infusing affluence into an area will create broad spillover effects. Tweeted urban planner Jeff Speck:

“A beautiful and vibrant downtown can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. #walkablecity”.

Yet there is little evidence of a “trickle down” effect within “rejuvenated” space. For instance, in his piece examining the aforementioned D.C. zip code of 20001, Dax-Devlon Ross writes:

In 2011 alone, condos accounted for 57 percent of total home sales (276), most at triple the 2000 median price. The zip code now boasts an Ann Taylor, a Brooks Brothers, an Urban Outfitters, enough bars to serve several university populations at once and a mind-boggling 10 Starbucks…

…What’s telling about the zip code’s “new build” makeover is that it did not move the poverty needle. The zip code’s poverty rate is exactly what it was in 1980, 1990 and 2000 — 28 percent — and the child poverty rate is nearly twice what it was in 1990 (45 percent).

In other words, such developmental strategy is a game of whack-a-mole in which the raison d’être for the mole won’t stop until real economic restructuring happens, or until equity truly starts entering into the lexicon of our shared language. Instead, we get the apologia of the status quo that is shifting the same affluence to the same pockets, switch out the spatial aesthetics of the parking lot for the parklet.

Trump Towers Chicago. Courtesy of Northwestern Univ.

That said, there is real doubt the country has the stomach for such discourse, let alone for policy that can affect the prioritization of human and community capital. From the article “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored”, the author suggests that “[r]acial segregation remains Chicago’s most fundamental problem”, and he questions why the issue remained muted during the recent mayor’s race. Answered Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey:

“[Segregation] is a very difficult and intractable problem. Politicians don’t like to face up to difficult and intractable problems, whatever their nature”.

Unfortunately for city proponents, this same inability to face the issue by leading urban thinkers is making the “new urbanism” movement look really old. Asked about the risk of racial and economic homogeneity at the hands of the “back-to-the-city” movement, Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City”, answered this way:

I think you’re going to have class segregation no matter what you do. It would be nice to have people of all classes living right next to each other in gentrified downtowns. That’s probably not going to happen. It is true that a gentrified area tends to become less diverse. Cities can’t solve all problems.

No, cities can’t solve all problems. But neither should cities be used to make existing problems worse. Re-urbanism, or specifically the opportunities it creates for equitable reinvestment, should be respected for what it is: a chance to move forward from a divided, destructive past.

Yet such will take collective will and reflective honesty. Or the ability to look deep in the mirror at the American face and know that behind us is a persistence of failed history.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.

Lead photo courtesy of Columbus Underground.

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Suburbs are Heavily Segregated

The fallacy here is what's implied, not stated. This being New Geography, the point of this site is always to argue that suburban, car-based development is superior (as someone noted, it's an advance for New Geography to admit thqat cities are gaining population).

The piece makes the unarguable point that white households in cities are wealthier than black ones (Asians and Latinos aren't part of the discussion). It talks about a neo-segregationist trend. One could argue that's occuring in the most rapidly gentrifying cities like New York or Washington. Incidentally, many of the White (or other) households didn't "move" to the city, they stayed there after college/young adulthood, rather than moving out.

But the suburbs were all about segregation. People moved to the suburbs for many reasons, but getting away from poor and black people was indisputably a major one. Inequality was rampant and was protected by municipal, county, and sometimes even state boundaries. It would be interesting to see how some of the intra-city indices of inequality stack up against the metropolitan ones. I don't think the city would necessarily come out the worse.

Of course there should be an effort to make/keep revitalizing neighborhoods affordable to a wide spectrum of household types. Many of the governmental and non-governmental supporters of infill and smart growth are already working on that. The earlier stages of gentrification are in fact often marked by a diversification of residents (the later stages not so much). But to say that new people shouldn't be allowed to move in (as the Bay Guardian faction in San Francisco proclaims) or that white people moving to the city are somehow morally inferior to those who stay in the suburbs makes no sense.

Exclusionary suburbs, exclusionary smart growth. Good or bad?

Note, then, my quote from Nicole Garnett in my earlier comment.

Where do you stand on anti-sprawl policies that inflate the price of suburban housing and cut off the "suburbanisation" option just as minorities previously excluded are becoming the chief beneficiaries of the process?

Thomas Sowell, "Green Disparate Impact" and Randall Pozdena, "The New Segregation" are good analyses of this too.

Fortunately many of these people simply move to an affordable, pro growth city; hence the improvement in segregation data. It must be hard to "exclude" anyone from suburbs when houses are available in them for well under $100,000 - in brutally stark contrast to "smart growth" cities.

pro growth city; hence the

pro growth city; hence the improvement in segregation data. It must be hard to "exclude" anyone from suburbs when houses are available in them for well under $100,000 - in brutally stark contrast to "smart growth" cities.
research grant writing

"The fallacy here is what's

"The fallacy here is what's implied, not stated."

I suppose this then give you the right to create the straw man below:

"But to say that new people shouldn't be allowed to move in (as the Bay Guardian faction in San Francisco proclaims) or that white people moving to the city are somehow morally inferior to those who stay in the suburbs makes no sense."

Of course I did not state that. But by prefacing it all through a very subjective, pre-judged statement about my hidden intentions about suburban superiority (I did not state that) then the issue deserves no valid debate.

Again, the Coates quote.

damn those whites!

What do you want people to do? Submit to some housing equivalent of busing to intergrate schools in order to integrate neighborhoods?
People of means want to, can and will live in nice neighborhoods. Those nice neighborhoods will become more diverse only when and if more people of color become people of means.
Public schools will become intergrated when neighborhoods become integrated; not before. Busing was and is bad for public schools.
I would much rather have people of means in the city, the greatest incubator for good ideas that mankind has ever known, as part of the tax base than in the cow pastures where they used to live. That land can revert to use by cows...together with continued use by Tea Baggers!
PS: I concede that the disparity in wealth between haves and have nots, the attacks on public education, the attacks on unions ie...the war on the Middle Class is a disaster for this country.

"Beyond criticism" a helpful attitude?

Why shouldn't public education be getting severely criticised and reforms proposed? It hasn't worked too well so far, so why would "more of the same" be something that should be defended to the last ditch by the teachers unions? Do they care about educating children to compete in the modern global world or not?

Their intransigence on simply "trying new ideas" says a lot.


So first off, I'm surprised to see New Geography acknowledging a "return to cities" after so many articles arguing the opposite is occurring. Which is it, guys?

Second, I think the author of this article has jumped to a big conclusion -- that the return to cities is equally unjust as white flight, without doing much of anything to demonstrate that it is so. What is the evidence that this new movement is equally bad for poor people and minorities if that's what you allege? If so, I am skeptical.

The fact that white people are moving does not in itself prove anything sinister. You seem to suggest because white people are doing it it must be bad for poor people or minorities. I'm not impressed by moral arguments that suggest that if white people or rich people are doing something, ipso facto, it is bad for poor people and minorities. This is a very complicated issue. Obviously there will be many consequences of this movement, some of which are probably difficult for us to determine at this point.

Settings detemined at the behest of wealthy people

The irony is the lack of control or ability for low income and minority populations to "placemake," to use a CNU buzzword, no pun. As wealthy and able people change their desires of where to live, we, are the ones that must adapt as you "placemake." In other words, its your world, we're just playing in it -- actually, not playing, surviving.

I would be in favor of infill if local and state public policy addressed severe displacement and gentrification - simply mitigation not merely helping everyone. You tell me its too complex? I say not enough attention nor resources have been put forth on this topic. I'm glad to see this article raising the issue.

Good comment. I think infill

Good comment. I think infill can be done better, but only if--as you say--there is attention and resources. Just not sure we got the will for it.

Affordability starts at the fringe

"Affordability" starts at the urban fringe. The price of "housing" options in and near the CBD, are always a factor of the price of housing options near and beyond the urban fringe.

Ironically, "smart growth" always forces all the prices up and hence reduces the number of people that can afford the more expensive locations, turning them into de facto gated communities.

The cost of a CBD apartment in Houston is not an obstacle to someone from a racial minority living there. It certainly IS in Boston or Portland (presupposing an overlap between membership of a racial minority and lower incomes).

"Infill" will always be more affordable if the price of land has not been inflated by fringe constraints.

I doubt that there is much actual racial prejudice driving location decisions these days. The fact that both the suburbs and CBD apartments are affordable in Houston will have contributed very much to its low level of segregation. What WILL drive location decisions, is the level of delinquency and crime in a neighbourhood, and "race" is incidental. Well off households from racial minorities will choose better locations too, and no-one will stop them.

Social breakdown in the UK has long since created "white trash" neighbourhoods from which hard working and upwardly mobile racial minorities will flee as soon as they can.