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20th Century Urban Disinvestment & the Modern City

White flight and the "urban renewal" programs of the late 20th century left American cities with problems that municipal leaders are still working to solve.

America’s cities--and particularly Black urban neighborhoods--have weathered decades of disinvestment and neglect. This phenomenon has its roots in a complex web of historical, economic, and political factors and has disproportionately harmed communities of color. The suburbanization and white flight of the 1950s and 1960s left America’s cities with shrinking populations, vanishing tax bases, and dwindling municipal budgets.

Disinvestment in America's urban centers can be traced back to the post-World War II era when many white families began moving out of cities and into the suburbs. This phenomenon, known as "white flight," was fueled by a combination of factors, including the availability of subsidized mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration, the rise of cars, the integration of public schools, and many white families’ perception that cities were becoming increasingly dangerous and undesirable places to live. This trepidation about urban life was an explicit reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, and white communities’ racist backlash against integration was a major driver of both white flight and urban disinvestment.

As white families moved out of cities, they took with them their tax dollars and economic power, leaving behind a largely Black population that was increasingly impoverished and marginalized. This smaller urban population was left with the costs of infrastructure designed to support cities’ prior growth trajectories - leaving those least able to afford it to pay an oversized share of taxes. With too little funding, systems were allowed to deteriorate. This trend was exacerbated by a series of federal policies, including redlining, which denied government-backed mortgages and other financial services to residents of Black neighborhoods.

Many American cities responded to the twin crises of falling urban populations and shrinking tax bases with programs of “urban renewal,” which further damaged these communities. Urban renewal programs often led to the demolition of existing housing stock and the displacement of legacy residents. Historic, human-scale neighborhoods were replaced by highways and parking garages. The interstate highway system and the rise of suburban car commuting turned many American downtowns into a patchwork of highways and surface parking lots designed with office workers, not local residents, in mind.

In the decades that followed, disinvestment continued to take its toll on America's urban centers. Many businesses and industries moved out of cities, taking jobs and economic opportunities with them. As tax-bases decreased, the infrastructure in many urban areas began to deteriorate, with aging buildings, roads, and other critical systems in need of repair and replacement. In an era of declining economic activity, municipal governments did not have the funds they needed to make basic repairs to vital infrastructure.

Today, some urban communities are experiencing the fall out of this white flight and disinvestment, while others will doubtlessly experience it in the near future. In Jackson, Mississippi, a lack of investment in the city's municipal water infrastructure led to a public health crisis that left Jackson residents without clean water for weeks. Similarly, in New York City, the subway system has been plagued by delays and breakdowns due to aging infrastructure and a lack of investment.

Disinvestment in America's urban centers has had a disproportionate impact on Black communities and communities of color. Lack of investment and poor access to economic opportunities and high-quality public goods has led to a range of negative outcomes for communities of color, including higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime. It has also contributed to a widening wealth gap between white Americans and people of color, with Black and Latino families having significantly less wealth than their white counterparts.

Over the next several weeks, we will continue to examine how the policies of urban disinvestment harm American cities today. These decades-old policies have had lasting impacts on our communities, but leaders and organizers across the nation are working hard to repair this damage and reinvest in American cities. The series will examine the historical roots and impact of urban disinvestment as well as new municipal and federal programs that are working to rebuild strong urban communities today.


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