More Ferguson (Update)

There has been a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing to come out about Ferguson. I’ll try and compile some of it here soon. In the meantime, this piece by Peter Coy in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is neither good nor bad writing, I guess, but it does point to the relationship of metropolitan fragmentation and the political disempowerment of African Americans in St. Louis County as well as suggest that the proliferation of jurisdictions makes goals like economic coordination for development quite a bit more difficult.

Coy tends to overstate the case a bit; the dynamics of the real estate market, employment, and educational inequality can operate to disadvantage minority group members within the borders of large jurisdictions just as much as in small fragmented ones. And no one who has been paying attention to the LAPD or the NYPD, for example, would suggest that things automatically improve for minorities when control of policing is carried out at a large scale.

But, there are important dynamics that do unfold in a metropolitan context, in the relationship among jurisdictions. And the more jurisdictions there are, the greater the force of those dynamics. One of these is the cutthroat competition for revenue-producing businesses. Coy writes:

Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Coy makes a couple of contradictory points: that the race-to-the bottom effect of competitive localism disadvantages some jurisdictions, and he implies that this is the case with Ferguson. Yet, Ferguson is not exceptionally impoverished nor is it distant from many centers of economic activity. Its residents may have to cross municipal borders to go to work, but that’s not illegal (at least not yet).

There’s another piece of the puzzle that links competitive localism to the situation in Ferguson, and specifically to the mutual hostility between the city’s Black residents and the police. Local public defender Thomas Harvey (with ArchCity Defenders) has written a paper addressing this specific linkage (h/t Vox and Sarah Kliff).

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

The key that ArchCity Defenders report is that

the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality.

Put simply, when cities lose in the race to the bottom, many turn to fining their own citizens as a revenue measure. And paradoxically, those with the least means to pay traffic tickets and fines will find themselves targeted for this kind of enforcement because they are also the people with the least means to leave a city that’s oppressively policing them.

Update: See Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, two of the authors of the updated classic Place Matterscomment on this issue in the Washington Post. By publishing this sort of analysis on its Post Everything online venue, Kaplan Test Prep partly makes up for publishing last week’s truly execrable “Do what the cops tell you or it’s your fault if you get shot” post. Read it if you think I’m being ungenerous in my summary.

San Fernando Valley Stuff

Here’s an interesting piece by Ryan Reft on the website of KCET, the Los Angeles Public Television station, evaluating the racial and political contradictions of the “gentleman farmer” ideal that grew up in the Valley, and the way that that ideal fostered a quasi-rural sense of place within the boundaries of the west coast’s largest city. Reft mostly relies on the excellent work of Matt Garcia and my friend Laura Barraclough to evaluate the ways that industry and urbanization and agriculture intersected in the Valley.

I get a little love at the end too, on the subject of the Valley secession movement of 2002.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From the introduction of Christina Hanhardt’s Safe SpaceGay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Duke, 2013):

[i]n mooring a dominant understanding of sexual identity to place, the promotion and protection of gay neighborhoods have reinforced the race and class stratification of postwar urban space…. this has been enabled by the simultaneously flexible and fixed language of threat, in which violence is imagined as the central risk-and thus the defining feature– of gay visibility: the key term of mainstream LBGT politics since the 1970s. It is therefore impossible to understand LGBT political history outside of the social and spatial restructuring of U.S. cities during this time. Nor can one fully understand changing spatial development patterns apart from LBGT politics, especially as white gay men continue to be evoked as arbiters of quality in urban life. (9)

This seems a provocative use of urban historical analysis to understand not only the seeming absorption of mainstream gay politics within a neoliberal and property-driven urbanism but also the ways that neoliberalism, globalism notwithstanding, has developed by appropriating the material and symbolic forms of the multicultural city.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From the introduction to Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

Nevertheless, people do not only learn their identities in narrative form. They learn them practically, as well, as they navigate institutional settings structured by identitarian norms and expectations, and as they experience corporeally the material forms in which those norms and expectations are objectified.

I’m intrigued by this formulation both because it places racialization and because it seems to push back against certain forms of soft multiculturalism that insist on the fluidity of identity or its voluntary nature. As a historian, I work to reconstruct the agency and consciousness of people in the past, and am particularly concerned with the racialized metropolis in the post-civil rights era. This was a time when narrative was in flux, and, in places like Atlanta, segments of an urban Black political elite did tend toward the triumphal in the story they told about race and place, while old institutions changed slowly and metropolitan expansion (white flight and the inmigration of a half million whites to the Atlanta suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s) created new ones with a new set of identitarian norms.

Paul Ryan and Obama on Urban Poverty

Real quick, read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s piece on Jacobin.

Unlike Ryan, Obama has always coupled his condemnations of the black poor with quick nods to discrimination in the nation’s past, but the overwhelming emphasis is in sync with a broad and bipartisan agreement that a culture of poverty and lapsed personal responsibility are ultimately to blame for the disproportionate rates of African American poverty.

The reduction of the real issues confronting black and brown people in America’s inner cities to culture or an absence of “personal responsibility” is a well-worn trope in American politics. It is a logic that is deeply embedded in the more hopeful rhetoric of the American Dream and the false notion that hard work and “playing by the rules” can lead to success and financial fulfillment in our country.

I’ve written the same thought here, but by no means as effectively.

Good Read on Camden, NJ

Matt Taibbi’s recent piece in Rolling Stone on Camden is worth checking out. It’s a piece of immersion journalism, and not a deep work of historical analysis (for that, check out Howard Gillette, whom Taibbi name-checks). But it’s compellingly written, with far fewer swear words than Taibbi usually uses (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and does present an interesting twist at the end about our society’s collective imaginary of how race and social problems are located in metropolitan space:

This is another potential hole in the policing plan: The fact that broken suburbs – full of increasingly un- or underemployed young people – send a seemingly limitless supply of customers for Camden’s drug trade…. This city, incidentally, has a reputation for having the best dope on the East Coast, which partly explains the daily influx of white junkies (“Dope,” jokes Morton, “is a Caucasian drug”).

It’s also a provocative exploration of the consequences of state interference with local and municipal power, something that’s been on my mind lately.

Another Urban Secession Movement

This time in Baton Rouge, where the south side of town would like to become “Saint George.”

I’m sure that there will be a host of well-articulated arguments about how splitting the affluent and white side of town from the poorer and blacker side is Not About Race. I’m also sure that the fiscal devastation wreaked on Baton Rouge by secession would be merely an unfortunate side effect and not the whole point.

I can’t comment much on this movement at the present, but I notice three things that are pretty significant and resonate with what I’m studying in Atlanta and what I’ve written about in Los Angeles.

For one, the battle evidently began as an effort to create a new school district. The color-blind rhetoric from proponents of the new district holds that creating a smaller and more affluent district will keep wealthy people from leaving Baton Rouge Parish. The movement to create “Saint George” was a response to the state legislature’s refusal to establish, then to fund, the new district. I’m actually kind of surprised that the Louisiana state legislature wouldn’t support this wholeheartedly, but I suppose that’s another research question.

Second, this territorial battle is also closely linked to the effort to destabilize a wider scale of government (the consolidated city-parish government of Baton Rouge) by creating a competing municipality. Much like the 2000s effort to municipalize Fulton County by incorporating cities in affluent north Fulton, incorporating Saint George would fit a devolutionary strategy of disempowering the parish-scale government in order to create competitive (and possibly zero-sum) relations between the municipalities and reduce redistribution.

Lastly, incorporating Saint George is a decision with parish-wide (and metropolitan) implications that will likely be made with input only from the residents of Saint George, whose interests are opposed to the rest of the parish, a fact acknowledged by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in a study of the issue:

The study urges St. George supporters to listen to input from those outside the proposed city limits: “Perhaps the most important point to be made is that the institution of this proposal will not affect the residents of the proposed geography alone. This is a decision that will impact the entire parish.”

There may be few options for those outside the proposed city limits who want to prevent the St. George incorporation from moving forward.

If enough signatures are gathered, only those who live within the proposed boundaries will be able to vote in the special election on incorporation.

This is what George Lipsitz describes as the institutionalization of defensive localism: basic institutions of government are set up to allow the wealthy and privileged (who in Louisiana tend overwhelmingly to be white) to assert their will over the interests of the wider, interconnected metropolitan community, while justifying this defense of special interests in terms of the general interest of local community control.

This local news video is a pretty rich example of this discursive frame:

WBRZ Baton Rouge

What Cities Used to Look Like

Smithsonian has posted a series of interactive maps that allow users to examine the landscape of several American cities in the 19th Century.

The spyglass view shows an old plat map beneath the present-day satellite view. The maps by themselves don’t provide a high degree of visual information, but they do highlight features–streets, alleys, railroad lines, water, open space–that have been remade.

Sorry about the Goldman Sachs ads on the page. I guess the Smithsonian’s gotta get funded somehow.

Keep Safe in the Big City* (*Offer Not Valid for Some Groups)

This finding in National Geographic shouldn’t be news to anyone:

A study called “Safety in Numbers: Are Major Cities the Safest Places in the United States?” was published this week by the American College of Emergency Physicians. The researchers, led by Sage R. Myers of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that until their work, the overall injury risk in urban areas versus suburban and rural areas had not been fully described.

So Myers’s team attempted to classify deaths from injuries “across the rural-urban continuum.” They looked at data on 1,295,919 deaths from injuries in 3,141 U.S. counties from 1999 to 2006. These deaths were caused by car accidents, shootings, falls, drowning, suffocation, and more.

“Injury mortality increased with increasing rurality,” the scientists wrote. “Urban counties demonstrated the lowest death rates, significantly less than rural counties.”

The researchers found that the risk of death from injury was 1.22 times higher in the most rural counties, compared with the most urban ones.

However, if you asked a hundred Americans to tell you whether a rural town or a big city was safer, most would tell you the former. These kinds of perceptions aren’t just an interesting instance of misinformation or misperception, however; they shape public policy in real ways. Even though crime has been on the downswing for more than two decades in the United States (and for reasons that appear wholly independent of Rudy Giuliani!), urban regimes intent on redevelopment have been deeply invested (often in the literal sense of the word) in attracting affluent white residents to gentrify neighborhoods. It might be interesting to actually research this (gut speculation alert), but it seems to me that creating a perception of action against an inflated threat of crime might be a more effective PR strategy for a mayor than actually publicizing low crime. It ought to be needless to say (but I suppose given recent events that it isn’t), but the presence of black and brown youth in urban areas is a principal contributor to the feelings of unease that can lead white urbanites to an inflated assessment of criminal risk.

Hence Stop and Frisk and its attendant abuses in one of the safest big cities in the nation. Sadly, the exceptions to the rule that cities are safer are now coming at the hands of the nominal protectors of public safety. A more cynical person than I might suggest something else is really being protected.