When Jane Jacobs published Death and Life in 1961, urban slums were viewed in a different perspective than they are today. Yet her approach to “unslumming”—rebuilding lives rather than destroying neighborhoods—is more topical than ever.
In the years before “industries of the mind” began displacing manufacturing as the driving force in America’s economy in the 1970s, America was marked by shrinking poverty and a rapidly growing middle class. Slums functioned primarily as places of transition. While waves of immigrants settled into big city slums, many in the next generation worked their way into the middle class. This transition triggered a different, ongoing transition for many slums—for example gateway neighborhoods in Boston morphed from Irish, to Jewish, to Italian, to today’s African Americans and Latinos.
While others moved on, newer residents face a greater challenge. Over the past four decades generational poverty, once associated with the rural poor, has become prevalent in cities. The world’s leader in social mobility in 1970, America now lags behind many western democracies and is falling further behind. The loss of hope prompted by the disappearance of industrial jobs that offered a ladder of upward mobility has taken a devastating toll. While largely invisible to most Americans, conditions in poverty-stricken slums (now “poor neighborhoods” but in reality 21st-century slums) are far more toxic today than when Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published in 1964, first woke Americans to the reality that the poor had not shared in the post-World War II boom. Today, more than half the adult men in many slums have criminal records that essentially bar them from legitimate employment for life; substance abuse and clinical depression are both endemic; urban schools serving low-income neighborhoods often report that fewer than half their students remain in the same school for a full academic year. The list of obstacles to mobility goes on.
Most efforts at unslumming over the past four decades have failed. After the simplistic notion of simply bulldozing slums to remove poverty died with urban renewal, subsequent efforts to revitalize slums have largely failed because they focused on individual issues—housing, economic, social, cultural, environmental, or other dimensions of community building –in isolation. Efforts to cure the symptoms by de-concentrating poverty ignored root causes.
Dramatic changes in demographics are bringing America’s cities back to life, and they offer a sort of post-Jane Jacobs “laissez faire” approach to unslumming: gentrify urban slums out of existence, which actually means dispersing the poor to a new generation of suburban slums. This process is accelerating. In March, 2008, Chris Lienberger reported in The Atlantic that the influx of college educated Millennials and older empty nesters (who today comprise by far the largest segment in most regional housing markets) into urban neighborhoods is in fact matched by exploding rates of suburban poverty. While the impact on suburban communities ill-equipped to meet a growing need for services has been severe, the impact on the displaced poor has been far worse. Often unable to afford a car and frequently without reliable transit options, they lack access to jobs, health care, social services, day care, and other essential needs. As a result, the suburban poor are profoundly isolated and even more insulated from hope. Worse, this displacement fails the “lost generation” of poor who grew up in slums and whose lack of education and skills has left them far outside the mainstream of the American economy.
In contrast, Jane Jacobs’ theory of “intentional” unslumming was prophetic: build communities by building better lives and environments together. New initiatives like HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program embrace the spirit of her work by bundling funding for new schools, parks, and mixed-income housing with a simultaneous focus on job training, public health, education reforms, public safety, and similar efforts closely integrated with each other and design to recreate the ladder of mobility that once made urban poverty transitional. In Columbus, The Ohio State University and the city have partnered to implement another part of Jacobs’s message in Weinland Park, a neighborhood that hosts the city’s highest concentration of Section 8 housing: upward mobility does not have to mean leaving the neighborhood if we create livable neighborhoods. Revitalization is preserving in place all of the neighborhood’s affordable housing stock while creating a new generation of housing and amenities and expanding human and social services. The result is precisely the kind of mixed-income urban neighborhood that Jane Jacobs envisioned fifty years ago.