Webcast Recap

On Friday, July 11, the Comparative Urban Studies Project hosted a book launch for The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville with the author, Derek S. Hyra. Mary Pattillo, Chair and Professor of the Sociology Department at Northwestern University, Margery Turner, Director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Honorable Keith L.T. Wright, New York State Assemblyman, commented on Hyra's book and discussed the economic transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville, two of the most celebrated black neighborhoods in the United States. The discussion was moderated by Blair A. Ruble, Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Project.

Derek Hyra traced the history and characteristics of urban poverty and development in the US since the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, issues such teen pregnancy, school dropout rates and crime created concern about breaking up the concentration of poverty in inner cities. In the mid- to late-1990s, the United States experienced a second urban renewal. Low-income areas close to downtown were revitalized and poverty moved to from inner-cities inner-suburbs. Hyra analyzed the dynamics of 21st century re-urbanization, examining the social, political and economic forces driving urban renewal and using Harlem and Bronzeville as cases that symbolize trends in the redevelopment of America's cities.

Harlem and Bronzeville have experienced a surge in property values and increases in median family income but do not follow old patterns of gentrification. Their transformation is occurring without white influx as the two neighborhoods remain predominantly black: Harlem's revitalization brought the area's white population from 1 to 1.5 percent while Bronzeville's rose from 2 to 4 percent. Instead of attracting white professionals, redevelopment in Harlem and Bronzeville attracted black doctors, lawyers and professionals connected to the global economy.

Comparing urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s with more recent revitalization, Hyra emphasized that federal policy plays a critical role in successful redevelopment. Hyra also underscored that economic globalization is critical to understanding the current redevelopment process. Market pressures from the global economy drove the expansion into Harlem and Bronzeville and were key to attracting professionals as residents. Such redevelopment has not occurred in cities not connected to the global economy, such as Detroit, observed Hyra.

While most members of the urban black community did not benefit from urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s, today certain segments of the African American population are benefiting from investment in real estate and businesses. Moreover, black homeowners have been building equity. The intersection between race and class is key to understanding who benefits and who loses from urban renewal, argued Hyra. City political structures and control over resources are key to understanding different outcomes in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, Mayor Daly governed as a unitary actor while New York dispersed control among a range of individuals and institutions. These structures shape civic engagement and have consequences for the type and level of displacement occurring in inner-cities.

Hyra concluded with a set of policy recommendations. First, Hyra used Harlem to demonstrate the importance of viable public housing. If funding is not maintained, public housing decays and is ultimately abandoned or destroyed. Next, Hyra urged support for Section 8 rental voucher programs and mobility counseling instead of simply transplanting poverty to the suburbs. Finally, the government must allocate resources to areas address increasing suburban poverty.

Mary Pattillo praised Hyra's work for drawing innovative connections between globalization and local development of American inner-cities. She discussed the role of black professionals in the transformation of neighborhoods, reflecting upon their role as brokers for white power and their relationship with long-term black residents. Each stakeholder—black gentrifiers and old-timers, city planners, progressive observers, and scholars— may hold different concepts of the urban ideal. "What do we really want?" asked Pattillo. While Harlem underwent a business transformation, Bronzeville experienced a social services transformation, illustrating how revitalization can have different, yet equally successful outcomes. Demolishing public housing in Chicago created huge rates of displacement while in New York, public housing exists alongside skyrocketing market housing, with little in the middle. It is unclear which outcome is better, concluded Pattillo.

Margery Turner discussed the policy implications of urban redevelopment. She argued that 20th century policies were racially destructive, fueled disinvestment and reinforced market forces that were fundamentally prejudiced. Turner articulated an obligation not only to reform policy, but also to correct the failures associated with previous policy.

Turner said that Hyra's book is the story of an initial round of renewal efforts that have achieved some success and that Hyra's research should help to reevaluate and refocus urban redevelopment. Turner listed today's greatest redevelopment problems. First, public resources are invested in order to accelerate the private market, which has led to displacement and exclusion. Second, the federal government has reduced subsidized, affordable housing units when it should be erecting affordable housing in exclusive neighborhoods. Poor families have not been given a voice in the redevelopment process. Finally, relocation vouchers are not user-friendly and progress toward racial integration is stagnant.

According to Turner, successful urban renewal depends on adequate federal funding and locally tailored policies. Turner concluded by outlining several policy priorities: First, federal funding must be accompanied by federal mandates, which can hold cities accountable and prevent displacement; Second, Turner echoed Hyra's call for early intervention to preserve affordable housing options; Third, governments need to pay for and enforce community engagement, give residents a voice and invest in community-building to bring old and new residents together; Finally, the voucher program needs to be administered effectively in order to serve as a positive tool.

Turner closed by posing a question. She asked if it is acceptable for neighborhoods undergoing revitalization to remain racially homogenous, as both Harlem and Bronzeville have. Turner answered, saying that black homogeneity often leads to starvation of resources and that separation perpetuates misunderstandings and prejudices. Not every neighborhood has to be the perfect blend of races but that separate but equal is not an ideal situation, concluded Turner.

Honorable Keith L.T. Wright, New York State Assemblyman, who was born, raised and still resides in Harlem, discussed urban renewal in his neighborhood. In the 1980s, the main commercial corridor was jumpstarted in Harlem. Wright discussed the impact of visionary black politicians such as Congressman Charles Rangel and Mayor David Dinkins. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office in the early 1990s, 80 percent of the land in Harlem was owned by the City of New York. Harlem was so undeveloped that it was referred to as the "new frontier". Giuliani drove the development of luxury property, retail chains and bank branches.

Wright described the gentrification of Harlem as a double edged sword. He highlighted the need to preserve the character, culture and community of New York's neighborhoods, reflecting on the clash between new residents and established traditions in Harlem and the constant challenge to balance interests.