Divided Cities

Carl Nightingale has written a masterly, globe-spanning history of how segregation has split cities. It is a grand riposte to the shrinking topics of academia and a shiny model of border-crossing transnational thinking. Over nearly 500 years, from Asia to Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Nightingale argues that three ideas worked to consolidate separation as the key to urban formations: governmental directives, intellectual exchange of ideas in areas such as health and eugenics, and the rise of the capitalist real estate industry. He lights down to more specific detail in 1600s Madras, colonial era Calcutta, 19th century Algiers, and then settles into a longer discussion of Chicago and Johannesburg as exemplar 20th century cities riven by race branded in place.

The general argument that Nightingale narrates is not a surprise to students of cities, history, or racialization. But what is overwhelming is the sheer persistence of ideas and practices that directed urban formation – and that remain. Racial covenants, blockbusting, discriminatory mortgages: these are familiar, dispiriting landmarks in 20th century U.S. urban history. What struck me was the depth of change necessary to counter these policies. Nightingale introduced me to the segregation index devised in the 1960s to estimate how much change of residence was necessary to create a more fully integrated city. Certain big cities hovered around 80-90% — Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (p.354). That is: racial segregation so deeply divided these cities that ninety percent of people would need to move in order to achieve integration. Fifty years later, those numbers are remarkably stubborn if not quite so extreme.

After all this, Nightingale refuses to end on a dispiriting note. France offers a compelling case of government commitment to “social mixing,” regulating new zoning laws that mandate that all areas of the city have 20% affordable housing. The U.N.’s World Urban Forum has explicitly embraced the right to the city movement keyed to policies of inclusion and mobility in the most rapidly growing cities. And, in his own city of Buffalo, Nightingale is a part of a group of activists who are using government subsidies for environmental sustainability to transform vacant urban lots into small farms and retrofit deteriorating houses with the latest green technology that minimizes energy waste and reduces heating costs. He believes in action — I know firsthand just how active he is — and he gives us many compelling reasons why we need to join him.