In wave of new cities, promise and pitfalls for black middle class

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Mayor Jason Lary is viewed as the architect of the one-year-old city of Stonecrest, Ga. A 95 percent African-American city so new that it still registers as a neighboring town on Google Maps, it has a population of 53,000. Stonecrest and the neighboring city of South Fulton last year became the first black cities of their size to incorporate since Reconstruction.
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Although they represent a modest fraction of the nation’s newest cities, a significant number of fledgling urban areas are now majority minority in their population. And near Atlanta, one-year-old Stonecrest is one of the only majority-black cities to incorporate with as many as 50,000 people since the era of Reconstruction. But the wave of suburbs-turned-cities is bringing its share of racial tensions. Even amid the rise of a black middle class, Stonecrest is far from affluent. Its budget is one-tenth that of a nearby new city that’s majority white. Political scientist Paul Lewis says that conflict over the evolving urban map is rooted in an “instinct to fortress” against encroaching regional problems. Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary, for his part, hopes to revitalize his community by using self-rule to attract jobs. A slew of weekend festivals and the opening of a start-up incubator attest the promise to residents, 60 percent of whom voted to create the city. One year in, Mr. Lary says, “we’re squeaking by ... but we are finally squeaking by on our own terms.”

Why We Wrote This

Often newly formed cities are largely white and more affluent than the surrounding county. Stonecrest, near Atlanta, is part of a countertrend, as communities of color aspire to shape their own destiny.

Five years ago, Jason Lary attended a workshop on how to build your own city.

He had witnessed the sprawling metro Atlanta region (pop. 5.5 million) carve 10 medium-sized cities out of unincorporated county parcels like his own in south Dekalb County in just over a decade. The recasting of some of the most sprawling suburbs in the United States with new boundaries created a giddy Sim City-like atmosphere.

The bulk of new cities ended up whiter and wealthier than the largely minority areas they left in the dust. At the workshop, Mr. Lary, an insurance executive and part-time concert promoter, was the only black person in the room.

Why We Wrote This

Often newly formed cities are largely white and more affluent than the surrounding county. Stonecrest, near Atlanta, is part of a countertrend, as communities of color aspire to shape their own destiny.

Saying he didn’t have time to fret about it, he set aside his misgivings and took notes. And now, as of May, Lary has completed his first year as mayor of Stonecrest, a 95 percent African-American city so new that it still registers as neighboring Lithonia on GoogleMaps. Its namesake is a mall.

With its population of 53,000, it and neighboring city of South Fulton last year became the first black-majority cities of that large a size to incorporate since Reconstruction. They also are part of a countertrend: The majority of America’s new cities have tended to have white majorities. Now, amid rising property values in a gentrifying city, Atlanta is experiencing “black flight.” The region’s increasingly prosperous black middle class is making the same trek white Americans made in the 1960s and 1970s, decamping for the suburbs. Such shifts of wealth have created new flashpoints over race, class, and property values.

“The front of this conflict is now out in the suburbs,” says Paul Lewis, a political scientist who studies suburban growth at Arizona State University, in Phoenix, reflecting in part an understandable “instinct to fortress” against encroaching regional problems. “If you are allowing places of certain racial characteristics to secede or form their own area of self-rule, that might work out well for African-American rule ... or it may deprive African-American communities of real resources.”

Critics say Georgia’s free-for-all city building experiment has unleashed a torrent of race and class resentment threatening to devolve into a form of “municipal warfare” for taxable spoils.

These critics see Mayor Lary as joining a segregation movement. For his part, he sees Stonecrest as the harbinger of “a new Harlem Renaissance” that creates a partnership between the city’s predominantly black working class, a racially diverse business community, and the “100 percent white” industrialists who dominate the region’s economic development scene.

One year in, he says, “we’re squeaking by ... but we are finally squeaking by on our own terms. The most difficult thing has been getting people to see the vision.”

Between 1990 and 2010, 44 majority-minority cities sprang into existence across the US, including the transformation of colonias in Texas, the creation of Asian-majority cities in California, and a new Native American city in Oklahoma that incorporated largely to focus more resources on a rampant drug problem.

Emerging evidence shows that majority-minority cities such as Stonecrest “can control their own destiny,” says Leora Waldner, public administration professor at Troy University in Alpharetta, Ga., who tracked these new cities and found them nearly universally successful. “They have a seat at the bargaining table for regional issues, they protect themselves from undesirable land uses, and they can and do take on environmental [and social] justice initiatives.” 

She adds: “Black or brown communities creating their own cities from unincorporated areas – that can be a potent civil rights tool.”

Georgia as a testing ground

About 10 new towns and cities a year are created in the US, the Census has estimated.

Georgia has become a pioneer of city-building, birthing insta-cities averaging around 50,000 people – the population of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. The ostensible motivations are better services, protective zoning, and separation from corruption-prone county government.

As the most valuable pieces of land have been scooped up, the areas left behind have struggled to maintain services amid growing pressure to raise taxes, says Professor Lewis. At the same time, property values have for the most part risen in majority-minority cities.

The median household income is $71,743 in majority-white Brookhaven, compared with $50,856 in majority-black Dekalb County, from which it sprouted. Such snapshots underscore how city building by African-Americans may fail to break a deeper pattern of injustice, one political scientist says.

“The majority of these cities have been majority white cities advocated for by whites ­­responding to their racial anxiety and grievance on a variety of things, inclusive of black control of the county,” says Emory University political scientist Michael Leo Owens, author of “God and Government in the Ghetto.” “It’ll be interesting to in fact see how long Stonecrest sticks around. ... The problem of course is that the places where [African-Americans] want to create new cities are not necessarily the most commercially vibrant and thriving places – a result of prior choices that were made.”

The pressure – and the potential

Stonecrest is feeling the pressure. Its budget is about a 10th of the majority-white new city of Brookhaven, which has 10,000 fewer residents. Instead of big ribbon cuttings, the city has seen Walmart, Sam’s, Publix, and Kroger all make plans to depart, potentially creating a food desert.

But the potential for homegrown economic development – apparent in a slew of new weekend festivals and the opening of a start-up incubator – is also becoming apparent to at least some residents, 60 percent of whom voted to create the new city.

“What we are finding is that people are impatient, and I keep telling them, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ ” says retired transportation worker George Turner, who sits on the city’s inaugural city council. “They remind me that this isn’t Rome; this is Stonecrest.”

He sees the key to success in shifting from a “sleepy little town [to a] progressive community that can bring in high paying jobs,” says Mr. Turner. “Jobs and opportunities have been shifting to the northern part of the county, and now we have our own city and we’re not shifting anything anywhere. It will be right here with us.”

That dynamic is a matter of a personal pride for many African-Americans, including Matt Hampton, who runs the start-up incubator in Stonecrest.

“I think in a lot of black communities around the country, you have economic fundamentals but you don’t have a way to leverage them for people,” says Mr. Hampton. “And in Stonecrest, everybody is kind of looking, how do I capitalize on this city now? How do I make it better?”

In some ways, what is playing out in the Atlanta suburbs reflects what happened before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, when the evolution of suburbs and towns often carried a political fingerprint, interlaced with race and class.

‘I believe we created a monster’

“The question is: Is this just the 21st century cold, bureaucratic way of doing what the South did by other means 50 or 100 years ago in terms of having racially exclusive zones?” says Mr. Lewis, author of “Shaping Suburbia.” “People could say, ‘Well, it’s a strictly neutral question about tax rates and local control and quality of public services.’ But looked at from 10,000 feet, racial and class issues” are evident.

Those questions are building to a crescendo in a place called Eagles Landing.

In what Professor Owens describes as a “raw, naked power play” signed into law by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, residents in Henry County will vote in November not only to incorporate part of a county, but to, in effect, de-annex – secede, really – from the majority-black city of Stockbridge, taking nearly half the city’s tax base with it. Those left paying higher interest rates on $16 million of municipal debt because of a downgraded bond rating will have no say in the matter.

Eagles Landing (the name of a golf course) would remain plurality black, but would be far whiter and wealthier than Stockbridge.

The devolution of the Eagles Landing proposal into resentment and recrimination has shocked some advocates of city-building. “It is setting a very bad precedent when you can cannibalize one city to create another,” says Turner, the Stonecrest city councilor. “If you start that, there may be no end to it.”

The stakes are high enough that Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman changed her mind on the cityhood movement. “I believe we created a monster,” she warned a Senate committee earlier this year.

Intersection with voting rights

Voting rights in the South lie at the heart of the deeper legal questions the state now faces. Before a US Supreme Court ruling undercut parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, the Department of Justice had to pre-clear most annexations and de-annexations, including many in Georgia.

“The VRA protects electoral opportunity, and doesn’t actually protect against every deprivation of real political power,” says Justin Levitt, a former deputy US assistant attorney general for civil rights enforcement, now at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, in an email. So, “if [de-annexation] siphons away the tax base, it’s not clear whether that’s something the VRA is well-built to protect. On the other hand, if there’s proof that the incorporation/de-annexation is based on race, the Constitution may offer protections of its own, directly.”

For instance, in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, a landmark 1960 Supreme Court case, the justices found that Alabama violated the rights of black voters by redrawing the city limits of the historically black college town of Tuskegee, Ala., to exclude nearly all its black neighborhoods in order to ensure white supremacy on the city council.

In the meantime, Lary says he is working not just overtime, but double-time.

One of his first acts as mayor was to propose carving out 350 acres to create the city of Amazon – a pitch he made directly to Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos on a cable news program, amid a national search for its HQ2. A multimillion dollar regional sportsplex is in the works, but behind schedule.

Among Stonecrest’s first-year accomplishments on a shoestring $2.5 million budget: Closing an illegal nightclub, demolishing an abandoned hotel, and expediting building and business licenses. This year, with new tax revenues from a penny transportation tax, will likely see the creation of a police force and the sculpting of city parks.

“It is about seizing our destiny,” says the mayor. “Now I just need to not screw it up.”

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