"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 14, 2014

Do You Believe The Big Lie? (Sixth in a Series)

     Our urban areas declined in value relative to their peripheries after the 1950s; that is beyond dispute.  This process of disinvestment lasted for decades.   The reasons for the collective debacle are many, and—most important of all—they interacted.  We must never forget that, even as we try to isolate one of those many reasons by discussing the transfer of the resident urban population to the suburbs during this period, and who replaced them.  Still, we are early enough in the process that such a focus is reasonably accurate.  Things will get more complicated later.

     Last time, I offered some solid evidence that the first people to leave our towns and cities after the Second World War were the richest, those who, regardless of motive, could afford to.  They had also started to leave long before the Federal Government intervened in the post-war era.  These people were followed by the less well off, who could afford to leave once they had Federal mortgage financing and a Federally-subsidized college degree.

     I suggested (okay, that’s putting it politely) that we measure the movement out of our urban areas using a contributions/needs scale to compare the people who left to those who replaced them.  But I only spoke of those who left; what about those who replaced them, the other half of the equation?  Beginning with this question, I will try to tackle one of the most pervasive myths of our time; one that is widely held, but totally wrong.  That’s why I term it The Big Lie.  As long as it continues to be believed, little real progress in obtaining for our towns the goal of community can be achieved.

     I have spoken with a substantial number of people in the course of my research about the decline of our smaller urban areas in the Schuylkill Valley, amassing opinions from recorded interviews to brief conversations to offhand comments.  I actually had one individual deliver to me, word for word, the classic expression of the pernicious myth that I dare to tackle:

             "Things were okay around here until the colored started moving in."

     More recently, I received a comment on a post-World War II urban history post, the last portion of which I reproduce below, complete with original grammar and punctuation:

i think it is amazing you don't acknowledge that poor quality immigrants ,low quality natives filled these small towns with substandard people who caused and poor living quality,causing the good people to flee

     Ignore—for now—the obvious racism in the first and the implied racism and nativism in the second.  Let’s focus instead on the point they both have in common, the myth I am talking about.  Both believe that it was the arrival of poor (or just low quality; they tend to be the same in the eyes of many) people in a town that caused the rich people to leave.  This is a lie, and it offers history exactly backwards: the departure of the rich allowed the poor to move in afterward.  Poor people simply do not move into rich neighborhoods; they can’t afford to.  Once a neighborhood has already begun to decline, poorer people can move in, and as the decline continues, so can the still poorer.

     Once we accept that people left our urban areas as they could afford to, let’s try to accept that people arrived for the same reason, and in the same progression.  They couldn’t even start to move in until they could afford to, and they certainly couldn’t afford to while the upper class people were still there.  We really must bury the old lie that the rich, “valued” (white?) people left a community because the poorer minorities were moving in; the poorer minorities were able to move in only because the rich had already left.  To accept the hoary myth of the poor driving out the rich is to reverse cause and effect.  This myth has achieved both a spread and a tenacity that is quite remarkable, given that it is obvious nonsense, as anyone with experience living in the real world could readily attest.

     The net exchange that began in the negative before the Second World War with the loss of the local “resident upper class” worsened as the steadily less well off could afford to leave (due to Federal Government incentives), and proceeded to do so in large numbers.  The result was an urban community’s progressive decline along the contributions/needs scale.  The exodus of the young and recently educated robbed a community of its actual (and potential) middle class, widened the decline of property values and greatly accelerated the downward spiral of our urban communities.

     Let’s be careful here, and not jump to conclusions about the complex point I am trying to make.  I am chronologically still in the early phase of “suburbanization.”  The net value loss to our urban areas that was well under way by the end of the Second World War would continue long enough for the motives of many of those who left to undergo a significant change.  This change would in turn contribute to further urban decline along the contributions/needs scale; not initially, but all too quickly afterward.  People began to leave not just because they could afford to (they could have done so earlier), but because they did not like the people who were moving in, even though these people could also afford to buy the home next door.  Yes, we are talking about minorities here, primarily African Americans. Many people seem to have fixated on this, concluding erroneously that what was actually the middle phase of a decades-long process was its beginning.  It wasn’t.

     The truly interesting—and easily the least understood—aspect about the initiation of this second phase of urban flight was that it did not necessarily signify any shift down the contributions/needs scale; those who moved in first were just as far up the scale as those they replaced.  The new arrivals could afford to buy good houses in good neighborhoods just like white people, with no more government assistance than was available to white people, and probably less.  But they weren’t white; that was the only significant difference.  But it was enough.

     This is where we begin to identify something in the American character prompting a great migration that is rather different from rewarding veterans and restlessly seeking new vistas, as we have discussed so far.  I can go so far as to use the words “the American character” due to the widespread nature of what happened, something close to an exchange of population within our urban areas, from great cities to small towns, most prominently in the industrial north and northeast, but by no means confined to those regions.

     We will pick up this subject shortly.  Until then, let me sum up the fundamental lesson here, applicable to all that follows: 

     Understanding why something happened requires comprehending what is cause and what is effect.  That is tricky enough, as they are closely interrelated.  But when you simply reverse the two, as in the belief that we are discussing, you perpetrate a myth, at the very least (it depends on your motives).  But the very least is harmful enough, for lasting progress toward tomorrow cannot be built on a foundation of myths about yesterday.  So, if you truly want to know what happened to our cities and towns, begin by rejecting The Big Lie.

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