Friday, 10 February 2017

The Inner City - urbanism's dirty secret


From Chicago through Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester to Lyons, Barcelona and Vienna, the Inner City is urbanists' dirty secret. We've spent decades bashing away at solutions and nowhere are we any closer to what the right policies might be.

Just a reminder what it looks like - this is Baltimore:
Take, for example, McElderry Park, a 103-acre area just east of Johns Hopkins University's centrally-located medical center. The neighborhood, which was once middle-class, is now a severe version of the city's downward spiral. About one-third of families there live in poverty, and workforce participation levels are 54%. Nearly three-quarters of residents don't have any college education, meaning they are generally supported either by the government, or low-wage service jobs—which make up an increasingly high percentage of jobs in the city. The neighborhood's physical emptiness symbolizes another discouraging trend, population loss, which is at the heart of Baltimore’s problems.
As Scott Meyer who painted this picture observes, this isn't an anomaly in Baltimore or indeed any large city in the USA. And we know - we see the riots, despair and dislocation in our own cities - that it's not an anomaly in Europe. In the USA, Donald Trump made much of the inner cities in his campaign - in that blunt and divisive style of his, he said stuff like:
“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever...You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”
Set the rhetoric aside for a second, hold back your distaste for Trump - doesn't he have a point? If that sad, declining picture of Baltimore is any guide then these seemingly intractable problems of the inner city are genuine. And Trump is right - if you're a decent parent how are you going to raise your children, keep them out of trouble, keep them alive and off drugs when the only thriving industries are crime and welfare?

And is isn't new. Here's P J O'Rourke from 1991 in New York:
Mott Haven was once a district of substantial apartment houses, comfortable if not luxurious, the tract homes of their day. These sheltered the Jewish middle classes on their way from the Lower East Side to White Plains. Now the buildings are in various stages of decomposition, ranging from neglected paint to flattened rubble. Abandoned buildings are office space for the local criminals, who deal almost entirely in drugs. (There's not much felonious creativity in a modern slum.) Scattered among the remaining turn-of-the-century structures and the empty lots piled with trash are various housing projects with large, ill-lighted areas of "public" space, dead to all traffic and commercial activity. Squalor and overcrowding are often spoken of as almost a single phenomenon, but in New York's poor neighborhoods the lower the population density, the greater the filth and crime.
Or, to make clear this isn't a problem merely of US inner cities, here's The Economist in Paris:
For all the schemes and money, the banlieues are a world apart. From 2008 to 2011 the gap widened between unemployment rates in “sensitive urban zones” and in surrounding areas. Schools have a high turnover of often-inexperienced teachers, gaining merit by doing time in the banlieues. Job centres are understaffed. The unemployed say their postcode stigmatises them. Drug dealers compete with careers advisers to recruit teenagers. “Here, drug trafficking has always helped circulate money,” says St├ęphane Gatignon, Sevran’s Green mayor. “It’s how people scrape by, despite the crisis.”
Every city has its dark side, the place where the crime, drugs, squalor, poverty and despair lives. We've spent millions - we're still spending millions - on these places. We do up the houses, Smarten up the schools. Put in neat pocket parks. We even try to do up the people - schemes of training, child care, job support. And yet if we take a map of England's poorest places from 1968 and a map from today, there's a frightening correlation. For sure some bits of inner London and a few streets of Salford and Manchester are now swish and gentrified. And in the seaside towns and mining villages the collapse of their industry created new places of poverty - Blackpool, half the size of Bradford, has twice as many children in care. But not much else has changed.

We sort of know what needs to be done. That old line about escaping the ghetto - finish school, get a job and keep it, get married and stay married - is still true. But the problem is that not only does this not happen enough, there are young people on the edges of these places - people who start out OK - whose lives collapse them into the slums. Immigration helps, especially immigration from even poorer places, but only when you've an economy that generates the jobs those people need. That's France's crisis - in a country where one-in-ten of working age is out of work, the banlieues have double that rate and even higher rates of youth unemployment. It's no damn use having employment protection, mandated working hours, minimum wages and child care if the result is there aren't any jobs - especially if you're black or an Arab.

Britain's most dysfunctional places are different - mostly filled with native white communities (often mixed with long resident afro-caribbean communities) rather than immigrants. In an economy, even in the North's big cities, that creates jobs, not great jobs but a step on that ladder, too many decide to step aside from that world. A community settling for a half-life on benefits topped up with bits of crime and casual, cash-in-hand work. What's gone is the thing - whatever it was, church, club, union, workplace - that showed those growing up how it worked. There's no-one saying "learn something at school, get a skill if you can, get a job - any job - and keep it, try to make your relationships work".

Instead we get the well-meaning and the bothersome. The former do a lot of good by stopping the whole place falling into utter chaos and letting some few young folk escape the life of the slum. These social workers, policemen, housing officers and folk delivering job programmes are, however, mostly a sticking plaster, more about giving a broken community a hug than fixing the break.

The bothersome on the other hand are different - these are the folk who know better - they want people to change their lifestyle, to conform and are more worried about delivering stop smoking clinics and fat clubs than seeing behind the eyes of their 'clients'. There they'll see someone who wants to know why they should bother being 'healthy' when booze, fags, easy sex and crap telly are the only things that take the edge of pain away from a shit life.

It's no surprise that, in this world, the people most likely to escape are those who've found god. Church, mosque and temple provide a place of calm and the faith a direction - all those beliefs will point to the very things that allow people a road to a better life. Educate yourself. Work hard. Respect others. Do the right thing. In times past we also had secular institutions embedded in these working class places that did the same - trade unions, clubs and pubs (often with sports attached), friendly societies, allotment clubs. A host of activity done by the community not to the community.

These places weren't perfect but, in dealing with the imperfections - sexism, cliqueiness, casual racism - we've lost sight of the good things like community, shared experience and decent role-models. What we have left, with the death of these institutions, are the institutions that are least wanted and most exploiting - crime, landlordism and the external state.

I've often suspected that, in part, we don't want the responsibility of trying to fix these broken places. We've been happy to manage their problems rather than invest in the intensity needed to provide a new hope. For sure, it's easy to say to people "your life, your responsibility" and then make sure they don't starve (while locking up their sons and taking the children off their daughters). But is that really what we should be doing? Or should we be looking for the skeletons of past institutions are trying to breathe new life into them?

It's easy to point at the city as the problem with its lack of personal scale, its busy-ness and its tolerance of wealth and poverty in the same place. But rebuilding the bones of an old community, helping shape strong people - that to me seems worth doing. To do this we need to set aside fifty years of sociological presumption, to lift the stone and see glorious life not nasty bugs. Instead of make people's habits the problem, we should be asking how we build back the social infrastructure that once held places together and pointed people to a better life - even when sometimes those things involve booze, fags, burgers and cake.

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1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

Doesn't detract from your argument, but a lot of these problems are actually in the "outer city" of overspill estates, which are rather like the French banlieus in terms of deprivation, if not demography. They have a further problem of geographical isolation that the classic inner-city doesn't.

Buttershaw, Hattersley, places like that.