Despite suburbanization in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the reverse migration to southern states, and recent gentrification, Black life in America is still pretty much nested in urban communities. These include central cities and old suburban communities ringing them. Though cities have lost population over the last two decades, particularly in the old industrial northeast, Blacks continue to be concentrated in sections of New York, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and many of America’s large metropolises. The same can be said for southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Richmond. It is one of the reasons why the current recession’s impact on urban communities weighs heavily upon Blacks in those places.
Already we are beginning to see the effects of the downturn. In Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has announced he will eliminate 800 city government jobs, close 11 libraries and 68 public pools, and reduce other municipal services. The city of Chicago has leased its parking meter enforcement to a private firm for $1.1 billion over a 75 year lease to generate revenue. In Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon is confronting a spike in violent crime as well as the loss of jobs in the Chesapeake city. It is a scenario that is playing out in cities big and small across the country.
The Black community in many of these cities were struggling before the economy went south in December 2007, the month that has been declared the beginning of the current recession. Even in cities such as Baltimore and New York that were said to experiencing a turnaround in the early part of the decade, albeit a fairly narrow rebirth, Blacks unemployment and joblessness still outpaced whites, Black homeownership lagged, and poverty was still a chronic condition. Additionally, violent crime was becoming commonplace and spawned the descriptive “black-on-black crime” as the definitive picture of urban life.
Now, as many of these cities are drowning in red ink and slashing workers and services to make ends meet, Blacks will begin to disproportionately bear the burden of the current downturn. Though it can be reasonably said that all residents in our nation’s cities will feel the effect of the recession, since Blacks start out with a deficit in terms of social standing, political power and economic security; as the economy falters the Black community will undoubtedly fall harder and faster. With little in the way of a safety net, not just in the context of government services but also in terms of personal savings or access to resources through a social network, many Blacks will have to fend for themselves during this downturn.
The immediate impacts are fairly evident. Many Black families will begin to experience hunger as rising expenses in the form of rents, transportation and utility costs will force many people to forego eating. It is a harsh reality when the choice is between a meal and keeping the lights on or being evicted. The latter will also become more prominent as the loss of employment leads to mortgage defaults, and evictions lead to homelessness. Not all but many of these victims of this recession will be Black.
There are also other ways in which cutbacks will fall hard upon the Black community. As cities are forced to cut library hours or close branches outright and youth facilities such as pools are shut down as a cost saving maneuver, the social costs will be heavy. Rarely is the cost of a recession on youth taken into consideration or the long-term impact when needed services are denied. For cities in which Black student academic performance is lagging, the closing of neighborhood library branches will only further contribute to exacerbating the achievement gap. Much the same can be said for the loss of cultural and athletic programs that contribute to a young person’s development. These programs tend to be underrated in terms of how they transition young people into adulthood.
The result of cities in distress is that it leads to the rapid deterioration of already vulnerable neighborhoods, taking aim at areas where Blacks and poor residents often live. As services are cutback, conditions in neighborhoods deteriorate as police and fire departments retrench, sanitation services face cuts and recreational facilities are forced to reduce their hours. In many poor, urban neighborhoods, the mortgage foreclosure crisis combined with cutbacks in municipal services will create a sense of abandonment in many Black neighborhoods in cities across the country.
As cities begin to implement fiscal austerity plans, Black leadership may have to take an aggressive stance to ensure that programs that serve the community well are, at a minimum, preserved. It will be a delicate dance for Black elected officials as the scope of the recession requires that everyone feel some pain. Mayors, particularly Black mayors, will be hard pressed to protect certain constituents for fear of being charged with playing favorites but the hard truth is that some form of triage will be necessary for the Black community in many of these cities not to be completely overwhelmed.