Redesigning the Urban Landscape

With the first anniversary of the riots in Ferguson turning to violence and a state of emergency, the social issues continue to revolve primarily around questions of police reform. But this ignores the fact that racial segregation is concretely engrained in the way American cities are developed.

A ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court last June reminded state and municipal governments that the law of 1968 regarding access to housing (Fair Housing Act) prohibited them from using federal funds in ways that may perpetuate racial segregation. The reminder was necessary due to violations by a large number of governments over several decades. “Instead of building subsidized housing in racially integrated areas that offer minority citizens access to jobs and good schools,” The New York Times simplified, “local governments have often deepened racial isolation by placing such housing in existing ghettos.”

This can be taken in all sorts of ways. The case heard by the Supreme Court concerned the use of a federal tax credit by Texas, a state otherwise known for its efforts to limit the voting rights of black constituents. There is evidence that the state perpetuated segregation by granting a disproportionate portion of tax allowances to property development projects in poor neighborhoods that are primarily black. The same thing is happening in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota: Developers have concentrated the construction of social housing in poor neighborhoods in the name of “economic development,” which in reality has only exacerbated the concentration of poverty as well as intensified the phenomenon of segregation against which the federal law is meant to fight.

The riots in Ferguson in the suburbs of St. Louis and the series of police brutality cases that occurred over the past year have identified a serious and institutionalized problem that has always been swept under the rug: the discriminatory practices implemented by the courts and police forces regarding African-Americans. The events in Ferguson over the past days show that the challenge remains massive, despite a certain rise in collective conscience.

However, it’s often forgotten that discrimination is engrained in the history of the development of American cities and that the fight against racism must involve more equitable sharing and access to the urban landscape and its resources. It’s a chore – in this context, re-sewing the social fabric of entire cities – which, evidently, the United States is not alone in facing.

Another meaningful case is that of Tompkinsville, on Staten Island, New York. It was on a sidewalk in Tompkinsville where Eric Garner, a 44-year-old black man, died at the hands of a police officer in July 2014.

During the 1960s, a highway was built on the island as part of a major “urban revival” project. This highway, separating Staten Island into north and south, would not simply be a physical barrier, but for a long time it would also exacerbate the racial differences and economic inequalities between the poor north, inhabited by blacks, and the more well-off, white south.

The anger of the black community is now exploding in riots and in violent acts that the media and authorities love to reduce, furthermore, to being confrontations between thugs and police officers. There are, however, continuing similarities with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This anger has the same roots, fundamentally caused by the need for the black minority to have free access to public space – the freedom to vote, to obtain a quality education, to drive around in a car without risking being intercepted at any moment by a patrol car for nothing at all…

It so happens that American society has, in its entirety, entered a process of demographic metamorphosis. The mindset of Americans is in the process of changing for the better, and the black community has yet to finish rallying.

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