"A riot is the language of the unheard": Baltimore and America's long legacy of hollowed-out cities

Police form a line to block North Avenue in Baltimore. Image: Getty.

Now that the dust has settled and the media have moved onto the next crisis, we can ponder what the Baltimore riots tell us about broader and deeper issues in the US.

Using a stress testing approach I developed for other major social events, I investigated the major social forces at play in Baltimore. Among them are decades of biased economic policies, class differences as well as racism, structural problems in metropolitan America, the consequences of aggressive policing and the geography of multiple deprivations.


Long time coming

The fundamental problems faced by Baltimore and other industrial cities are a result of decades of economic change stemming from policies that promoted deindustrialisation and job losses for the semi-skilled and unskilled.

In 1950, Baltimore had a population of 950,000 and, like many cities in the US, a vibrant manufacturing base providing jobs and economic security. The prospect of jobs attracted black migrants from the South; since the mid-1970s, though, there has been a steady loss of manufacturing jobs due to offshoring, relocation to suburbs in non-union areas of the US and increased productivity.

The Gates Rubber Co. manufacturing plant in Denver. Image: The Denver Post.

This is a trend across the US and across the world. But in Baltimore, as in so many industrial cities in the US, there were few employment alternatives or attempts at retraining. The result is pockets of poverty in neighborhoods across the country where there are concentrations of the unskilled people, and limited opportunities for retraining older workers or education for younger people.

It is ironic that at the same time that President Obama was sympathising with the plight of Baltimore, he was also promoting a free trade agenda. Even more ironic, he made the announcement at the headquarters of Nike, a company that last made a pair of shoes in the US in 1984 and makes all of its apparel in the cheap labor areas of East and Southeast Asia.

There are benefits to free trade. But we need a honest assessment of their redistributional consequences, and a much greater commitment to job training and help for those displaced when manufacturing jobs are lost.

And while the Baltimore riots focus attention on race, we also need to consider the issue of class. It is much easier to talk about race in the US than class – so the the debate is easily racialised, while the wider issue of restricted opportunities for the semi- and unskilled, black as well as white and brown, is ignored.

There is a squeeze on the semi- and unskilled, with the squeeze all that much tighter on the minority groups. The events in Baltimore, often seen through only the prism of race, are also freighted with concerns of class. The sociologist William Julius Wilson showed that the disappearance of work is the central cause of social disorganisation in the inner city.

Geo-economic disconnect

There is also the balkanisation of metropolitan America, through which declining central cities are cut off from the economic benefits of suburban growth.

Central Baltimore’s population declined from almost a million in 1950 to just over 622,000 in 2013. The wider Baltimore metropolitan area, which includes Baltimore and surrounding suburban counties, has grown from 1.1 to 2.7m in 2010, with the fourth largest median income in the US. I examined this hollowing out of central city cores in my book, Alabaster Cities, and a series of recent papers.

Graffiti in New Orleans. Image: Bart Everson via Flickr.

County governments, not the city, reap all the benefits of these increased property and income taxes. There is a fiscal disparity between the central city and its suburbs, with the city pressed hard to meet the mounting social needs of an increasingly impoverished population with a diminishing tax base.

This fiscal squeeze promotes, in Baltimore as in other similar cities, an emphasis on flagship downtown developments such as football stadia, ballparks, race car events and convention centers. These benefit downtown business interests, but fail to do much for the stubborn poverty in the inner city.

Cities concentrate on attracting middle- and upper-income groups because they provide revenue. And across urban America, we see pockets of gentrification and gleaming downtown towers beside these persistent pockets of poverty. Yet hamstrung by job loss, declining revenue and population loss, many cities across the US are still stuck with making up for decades of federal neglect and the lack of a coherent and well-funded urban policy program.

Policing in America

The policing of the cities in the US is dominated by what amounts to a war against low-income minority neighborhoods. In 1980, the US had a prison population of 500,000; but by 2013 this increased to 2.5m as more young men, especially young men of colour, were caught up in an expanding web of criminal incarceration as minor infractions became felonies. The narratives of "tough on crime", broken windows theory, war on drugs and militarisation have all escalated into an aggressive policing and a fracture of trust between residents and police.

Police sharpshooter at Ferguson protests. Image: Jamelle Bouie via Flickr.

To compound problems, these neighborhoods also suffer from multiple deprivations that include abandoned dwellings that are sites of fires, disease, criminal activity and unhealthy environments. Elevated lead levels in inner city Baltimore make it difficult for children to learn and concentrate. So it is not just limited employment and educational opportunities but also a complex web of multiple deprivation that effectively traps people.

There are many Baltimores. Within the city boundaries, there are old established elite areas such as Roland Park, and more recently gentrified areas such as Federal Hill. The Baltimore of the riots was only part of the city, a swath of inner city neighborhoods impacted by job loss, poor education and aggressive policing.

But there are other Baltimores outside of Maryland. They include Akron, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toledo. It is not just an inner city problem. Along with Bernadette Hanlon and Tom Vicino, I have documented the problems of inner ring of suburbs.

There are also the bleak areas in the cracks of the metropolis: the trailer parks and suburban rental units that house those pushed out of the city by gentrification and redevelopment. Baltimores of economic neglect, massive job loss, aggressive policing and multiple deprivations are found throughout metropolitan regions across the country. They are the places of despair that house the voiceless of the US political system, the marginalised of the US economy and those left behind in the commodification of US society.

The remarks of Martin Luther King Jr made in 1966 still have resonance: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

For complete coverage of the Baltimore riots, see here.

John Rennie Short is a professor at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.