Genuine urban renewal, at last
In this golden economy, even bastions of blight start to sparkle
ATLANTA AND SAN FRANCISCO
For many Americans, the words "inner city" evoke stark images of poverty, crime, and desperation. Since the 1960s, anyone who could afford to has fled, in an urban exodus that lasted almost three decades.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, neighborhoods long synonymous with urban ruin are stirring. From Atlanta to New York to San Francisco, signs of renewal are splashed like graffiti across communities that formerly inspired comparisons with the slums of Dickens.
The Bronx got its first bank in more than a decade this summer, and a $50 million shopping mall is going up in South Central Los Angeles. Harlem, famously, now boasts both a Pathmark and a Starbucks, and experts are talking openly about a second Renaissance.
The change, while gradual, comes after decades of social engineering and affordable-housing programs that did little to improve blighted areas. Market forces have proved to be a bigger catalyst - although troubled areas had to wait for the longest peace-time expansion in US history for the gains of capitalism to kick in, and even then, the benefits are uneven, often displacing the poor.
"Revitalization and economic improvement ... have to be built on market conditions," says Anne Habiby at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City in Boston. "We're at the crest of the wave," she says of the current signs of growth.
"Many [inner cities] will continue to improve. Some might even go so far as to prosper."
President Clinton's tour of down-at-the-heels communities earlier this summer dramatized the need to spread the economic good times. Some areas, particularly those in manufacturing cities of America's heartland, are not rebounding.
But for the many communities that are, the revivals are often driven by new retail activity in neighborhood shopping districts - which in turn acts as bait for the middle-class to move in.
"Retailers are really looking for places to grow. The urban market is one of the last places to tackle," says Chris Hammond, CEO of Capital Visions Inc., a partner in the coming Chesterfield Square mall in Los Angeles.
Of course, there are other factors besides retailers looking for a share of the estimated $85 billion tucked in inner-city wallets. Generational lows in crime, federal mandates that require banks to loan to businesses and homebuyers in low-income areas, and disenchantment with the suburban strip-mall existence are also causing a growing number of Americans to vote with their feet.
What's happening today, Dr. Habiby says, is that strides in low-income housing and the low crime rate have "created stable communities, such that [inner cities] are now able to participate in the strong economy."
View from Flat Shoals Avenue
In East Atlanta in the 1980s, for example, neighbors had to band together to buy the local hardware store, in an effort to keep the lone glimmer of commerce from winking out.
Today, instead of boarded-up store fronts, Flat Shoals Avenue boasts brightly colored, funky stores that lure suburbanites - first to shop, and then to stay.
"The formerly depressed neighborhoods of Atlanta are experiencing a level of revitalization that people would have never imagined possible," says Hattie Dorsey of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership. "As little as 10 years ago, people had thrown their hands up."
Urban planners are come to realize that community renewal has to include commercial activity, not just affordable housing. For a stable neighborhood, "residents must be able to walk to a grocery store, walk to get ice cream,..." says Ms. Dorsey.
In East Atlanta, the growth of a thriving retail center, which began five years ago when the Heaping Bowl and Brew proved a trendy eatery could thrive here, has helped make the area a more popular place to live.
When Henry Bryant moved to East Atlanta in 1980, houses along Metropolitan Avenue were selling for $20,000 to $30,000. Today, they're being snapped up for $200,000 or more.
When his family first moved, "you would almost apologize for living here," says Mr. Bryant, a long-time neighborhood activist. Now, he says, he hears about home sales and thinks, "What fool would pay that for that house?"
Also driving the trend is Atlanta's seemingly endless traffic jam. A caravan of tired commuters are rediscovering in-town neighborhoods.