Racial and cultural divisions are found in towns and cities across America. They rumble just below the surface like tectonic plates, threatening to erupt.
As we have seen in recent months, events or incidents can push long-simmering issues to the boiling point. In Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, the police-involved death of Michael Brown spurred civil unrest, months of protests and a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement. Eight months later, the death of Freddie Gray also instigated massive social upheaval in Baltimore, followed by harsh media attention and ongoing political turmoil. Six officers will stand trial for their part in Gray’s death. In September, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake announced she will not seek a second term – a decision some say will further handicap the battered city.
These events – and others like them around the country – are tragic, but oftentimes the people who live there are not surprised at what transpired. In August 2014, shortly after the death of Michael Brown, the Washington Post ran a story describing the “Delmar Divide” in St. Louis. The article detailed what is common in many cities, but particularly prevalent in St. Louis – a sharp contrast in socioeconomic status and race depending on the part of town one calls home. In the case of St. Louis, a single street – Delmar Boulevard – separates wealth from poverty, black from white, educated from uneducated.
"To get a sense of the fracture that cuts this city in two, drive along Delmar Boulevard, a major four-lane road that runs east to west,” states the article. “Hit your brakes and put your finger on the blinker. Decide which world to enter.” Michael Brown’s neighborhood, while not in St. Louis City, was in a suburb north of Delmar. The median annual income is $27,000 and 95 percent of residents are black. "You have a division between the haves and have-nots,” said Carol Camp Yeakley, founding director of the Center on Urban Research & Public Policy and Interdisciplinary Program on Urban Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “People on one side are prospering and people on the other side are not.”
Baltimore boasts a relatively affluent metropolitan area, a significant black middle class and higher wages than the national average. But it’s still plagued by high levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation. “Only six miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market, but there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy," Jonathan Bagger, a vice provost at Johns Hopkins University, said at a social policy conference in 2014, reported by Al Jazeera. In Freddie Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, the unemployment rate is 24 percent.
In Detroit, the notorious 8 Mile Road – made even more famous by rapper Eminem – has long been the demarcation line between the haves and the have-nots. Yet the division and divisiveness can be traced back many years to an actual six-foot tall, three-block long concrete wall. Some have referred to it as Detroit’s own version of the Berlin Wall. Notably, Detroit’s wall was originally envisioned as a creative solution to a federal limitation on financing new home construction in transitional neighborhoods. This was before redlining – the practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic makeups of those areas – was determined to be a seriously debilitating and destructive practice and prohibited.
Even my own city, Chattanooga, has similar problems. Like most cities, we have vigorously attacked these issues with whatever tools we had at the time, yet the divisions and the undesirable effects continue. Comparing my community with St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit, I can see troubling parallels. There is a "Delmar Divide" less than two miles from my home and there are "Fergusons" sprinkled throughout our metro area. We don't have a concrete wall, but I know of neighborhoods suffering the same fate as a result of redlining – some of it federally mandated – that occurred just a few decades ago.
We know the problems, so what are the answers?
I recently found myself sitting at a table in Washington, D.C., with Dick Fleming, former CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and a 20-year resident of the city. He adds a positive postscript to St. Louis’ story. “Before Ferguson, world-class developers with hundreds of millions of dollars to invest began to make plans for a 1,500-acre 'NorthSide Regeneration Development' – a mixed-use and mixed-income project designed specifically to inject new elements of prosperity into the heart of North St. Louis," said Fleming. He went on to detail a much more hopeful future for the north side of Delmar and ultimately for the entire city. Detroit also seems to be on the mend today and might serve in the future as an example of how a city overcomes almost total economic devastation. That story is still being written.
Baltimore is also working to improve the lives of its low-income citizens, partly with help from the City Accelerator. As I have mentioned in previous columns, Baltimore is a unique city, both prominent in our nation’s early history and famous in city planning and development circles as one of our country’s most creative communities. As a former mayor and city planner, I have shamelessly stolen many of Baltimore’s great ideas for Chattanooga’s benefit. Baltimore’s participation in the City Accelerator and its goal of reducing crime and recidivism continues to be a timely topic. The particular challenges presented by prisoners released from incarceration is a common problem that affects all urban areas, and Baltimore's willingness to tackle this difficult issue is something to be admired and applauded. The changing face of Baltimore's leadership is working hard to overcome the recent disruption and remains focused on solutions.
As I prepare to conclude my seventh decade on Earth and half a century in Chattanooga, these issues are not unfamiliar. I have vivid memories of the age of segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, Model Cities and all of those less-than-successful efforts and well-meaning dead end streets we as a nation have traveled. Even in Chattanooga – a place I proudly proclaim to be “the most transformed city in America” – division and disparity stubbornly persist. Throughout America, it's a problem as old as time: dealing with the things that divide us. Perhaps it's one of those problems we will never really solve because there is no simple and readily definable solution. But one thing is certain – those tectonic plates of modern civil society continue to shift and we can never stop trying.