‘In spite of its reputation as a progressive liberal bastion, New York City has failed to adopt a comprehensive and deliberate approach to end its own segregation.’
New York City needs to do some soul-searching when it comes to racial segregation. Despite being considered America’s melting pot, after more than 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, our city’s residential neighborhoods are still suffering from a legacy of discrimination and segregation.
The Fair Housing Act was supposed to be a nod to the late Dr. King’s belief in housing justice’s power to also change disparities in education, healthcare, policing and wealth for America’s marginalized. In spite of its reputation as a progressive liberal bastion, New York City has failed to adopt a comprehensive and deliberate approach to end its own segregation. The result is a city where the 10-mile distance between the Upper East Side and Brownsville translates to a gap of $100,000 in median income and 12 years in life expectancy. Racial segregation is a root cause of these disparities. Solving this issue will impact all aspects of daily life and outcomes for people in poorer neighborhoods, increasing opportunities for economic mobility among the city’s poorest and fostering a more equitable New York.
According to racial and ethnic composition by Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (NTA), both white and Black New Yorkers have continued to concentrate themselves in specific areas of the city. Between 1990 and 2012-2016, white New Yorkers overwhelmingly fled to lower and midtown Manhattan, southern Brooklyn and Staten Island, becoming the predominant group (75 percent or more) in 16 NTAs.
Black New Yorkers, by contrast, have remained largely absent from much of Manhattan, Brooklyn neighborhoods west and south of Prospect Park, and large parts of Queens and Staten Island since 1990, decreasing their population share in these areas by upwards of 48 percent in favor of neighborhoods such as East New York (Brooklyn), Harlem and Rosedale.
New York’s racial history is multifaceted, combining the influence of segregated housing developments, redlining and rampant discrimination in employment and education to relegate low-income people of color to small geographic areas of urban poverty. The devaluation and stigmatization of these neighborhoods has directly produced a legacy of disproportionate advantages and disadvantages in the most fundamental aspects of life, including wealth accumulation, crime, high school graduation, access to healthcare and life expectancy.
Decades of racist policy and sentiments have created the system we see today, solidifying racially segregated neighborhoods and unequal access to opportunity into the fabric of New York City.
In my time leading Riseboro Community Partnership, I have witnessed first-hand the effects of supply-side diagnoses that the de Blasio administration, among others, have implemented as part of the Where We Live NYC Plan. When we allow unrestricted development without regard for neighborhood context or affordability, we end up preserving segregation in low-income communities of color like Bushwick and Inwood. And while Mayor Bill de Blasio’s additions of SoHo and Gowanus to his rezoning plans are a step toward housing desegregation, New York needs to think about it on a larger scale. The benefits of this desegregation go far beyond benefiting marginalized communities, but rather extend to the entirety of our city. According to a recent EPJ Data Science study, researchers concluded that diversity of people flowing into a neighborhood may be the largest single factor driving human mobility, productivity, and economic growth. If New York continues on its path towards urban integration, widespread economic prosperity is inevitable.
At present, urban planning is conducted on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, compelling city officials to solely address community desires. This current system has allowed for affordable housing to be welcomed into poorer Black and brown communities, inadvertently concentrating poverty, while whiter, more affluent areas preserve zoning regulations that perpetuate modern segregation. Real citywide planning, instead, can make a significant dent in segregation, disarming neighborhoods typically shielded from new rezoning initiatives, residents and public projects.
New York City has the potential to fully realize its capacity for change, but only if its urban planning widens its lens to address the city’s overall needs. The de Blasio administration has taken the important step of recognizing the legacy of housing segregation and its contribution to disparities across basic components of life. In the preamble to our mayoral election this fall, it will be incumbent on candidates to reassess our approach to overall equity within New York. Not addressing this component of life that touches every single resident would be a disservice.
No matter what, this city needs to reckon with its continuing history of systemic racism. Taking a city-wide approach to urban planning would be a step in the right direction.
Scott Short is the CEO of RiseBoro Community Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to holistic community revitalization in New York City.