Genuine urban renewal, at last

In this golden economy, even bastions of blight start to sparkle

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.

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.

San Francisco has seen a similar phenomenon. An economic boom and housing shortage in Silicon Valley has drawn well-paid professionals to San Francisco - spawning "reverse commutes" from the city to the Valley. In the "new" Mission district, where valet parking meets skid row, homeless people brush up against well-heeled professionals who are transforming the district culturally and economically.

Thanks to Silicon Valley settlers, Mission home sales are "sizzling," says Randall Kostick, sales manager with Zephyr Real Estate. A typical single-family unit in the Mission now fetches nearly $400,000 - about $150,000 more than five years ago.

Pangs of displacement

But there's a deep concern - one shared by neighborhoods across the US - that the new monied crowd is edging out working-class minority residents. Cities are searching for ways to protect longtime residents from being displaced by the soaring rents and taxes that accompany many neighborhoods' newfound popularity.

In the Mission district - gentrification's epicenter - low-income families are struggling to afford rentals averaging $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom unit. "We have clients living four people to a room, and people living in garages," says Matt Brown of the St. Peters Housing Committee, a tenant advocacy group.

The lucrative rental market has also spawned San Francisco's highest eviction rate - the brunt of which is being borne by the area's Latinos, says Mr. Brown.

"We need to find some way or other to keep the bar [level] so people who have been there through the bad times ... will not suffer through the rebirth of the communities," says Atlanta's Dorsey. Affordable housing is a key to keeping older, primarily minority residents from being forced out.

In addition, there's a concern that neighborhoods are losing their historic character. As San Francisco's Latino produce markets are replaced by antique shops and upscale restaurants, businesses are "diluting the ethnicity of the neighborhood," says Wayne Whelan, owner of Therapy, a retro boutique.

Similar complaints are heard in Atlanta. Unlike, say, Harlem in New York and the Roxbury area of Boston - where the affluent residents paying upward of $300,000 for a stately home on Fort Hill are largely black professionals - many of the new homeowners in East Atlanta are white. This has led local pundits to refer to a "reverse white flight" that some are afraid will change the racial and political makeup of the area.

"Atlanta is a fairly segregated city in terms of race and class. It remains to be seen how well we're going to integrate" in these revived areas, says Tom Weyandt of Research Atlanta at Georgia State University.

Some experts, however, say the growing ethnic and economic mix is a positive development. For long-term homeowners in East Atlanta, many of whom are black, spiraling housing prices are an investment windfall beyond anyone's expectation.

Plus, "it's adding a societal, class dimension to neighborhoods that have been stripped. That's healthy," says Jan Rosenberg, a professor at Long Island University in New York who has studied Brooklyn's urban revival. "The threat of ... reverse white flight is overstated." she says. But "it has its own reality because it makes people scared, resentful, and anxious."

That's been the case in Atlanta, where tensions have erupted at neighborhood planning meetings, with accusations of racism flying.

Beyond shopping

Other issues are key to neighborhood revitalization. Troubled Atlanta schools have driven out much of the middle class - not just whites, says Mr. Weyandt. "Long-term success must deal with nonhousing issues, particularly the school system."

In addition, joblessness and poverty are still worse in inner-city areas than in the rest of the US. Despite an influx of $550 million in capital investment, Harlem is grappling with 19 percent unemployment.

America's need for a bigger labor pool may begin to change that, Habiby says. "The only labor force growth is in minority households ... located in inner cities." Already, she says, companies are beginning to relocate from the suburbs to the inner cities.

But she adds, "The big question is: When an economic downturn comes, will this be the part of the economy that suffers first?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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