Urban Geography: Understanding Black Cities and the Black Experience in Cities

As geographers who think through the “aftermath” of slavery in the Americas, our research engages the social and spatial relations that carry on in its wake. It is from this standpoint that we applied for the Urban Geography Journal Workshop/Seminar Award for the proposed workshop, “(anti)Blackness in the American Metropole.” This seminar will bring together scholars and community organizers to explore the present-day impacts of uneven development in Black communities and cities throughout the United States nation state (i.e. Metropole). We selected Baltimore, Maryland as the host site for this convention because it is an intellectually and politically rich city with a strong history of grassroots political organizing. By privileging the study of Black urban geographies (post-Baltimore and post-Ferguson), we hope to build on a wellspring of political organizing and a resurgence of academic interests in Black cities/the Black experience in cities.

Urban areas, globally, are undergoing spatial and demographic shifts via municipal changes oft-identified as ‘gentrification’ and ‘urban renewal’. The former refers to an influx of new, often middle class white, residents into once low-income, people of color communities. The latter references the infrastructural upgrades (e.g. parks, schools, and coffee shops) that occupy these inmigrations. The development schemes that undergird these terms have become a near ubiquitous spatial strategy of economic growth. Tallahassee is not immune to this contested mode of economic production. The Gaines Street corridor, itself a site of gentrification and urban renewal, has become a key area of residential and commercial development and, presumably, an economic driver for the city. As such it is a local illustration of a global phenomenon of demographic displacement and infrastructral redevelopment. As demonstrated by other social scientists, the cyclical motion of gentrification is not a natural process. Instead, it is a historical and racialized practice (instigated by developers, universities, and municipal leaders) that relies on the deterioration of physical structures and the devaluation of land.

During our graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we witnessed several examples of how this now dominant form of urbanization actively marginalizes and excludes Black communities. Over the past five years, the city of Durham — a predominately Black city — has undergone a vengeful process of gentrification, resulting in a decline in affordable housing and a spike in evictions. Witnessing firsthand the displacements and policing that accompanied this repurposing of urban space and how such practices were justified on the basis of economic ‘progress,’ left a strong impression. Similar experiences were present in our research on the Black Diaspora. By ‘Diaspora’ we mean the transnational communities of African descendants created (and haunted) by the trans-Atlantic slave and enslavement in the Americas.

Salvador is the third largest city in Brazil and has an overwhelmingly Afro-descendant population. Dr. Bledsoe’s research took him outside the city’s core and into its historic area. Called the Pelourinho (Portuguese for “whipping post”), this area has direct ties to slavery. After emancipation, it became a site of low-income housing. Urban renewal gutted much of the housing in the mid-20th century and the Pelourinho has since become a tourist destination that, ironically, is cast as a site for the celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture. That a site could exist simultaneously as a space of extreme anti-Black violence while masquerading as a space venerating Black people and culture has influenced us to look beyond the facade of “development” and to interrogate the relations that give rise to such contradictory places.

During fieldwork in Detroit, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, Dr. Wright examined the excessive forms of austerity and environmental degradation affecting these and other majority Black cities. The poisoning of residents of Flint, Michigan by state officials and repeated attempts by the Mississippi State Legislature to strip Jackson, Mississippi of its main economic engines (e.g. airport transit, water treatment, and public education) represent concrete forms of urban economic austerity rooted in anti-Blackness. What might such extreme forms of austerity in Black municipalities, globally, teach scholars and communities about our conjecture in political governance and economic development? There are lessons to be learned, not only from investigating disastrous events in Black metropoles, but from the struggles of autonomous communities in Brazil and the recent election of Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi. Given proper attention and study, these communities may serve as models to help conditions in other urban communities.

We are grateful to the Urban Geography Journal, the Center for Geographies of Justice at Goucher College and the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County for their support.


Adam-BledsoeAdam Bledsoe is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography.

 

 

s200_willie_jamaal.wrightWillie J. Wright is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography.

 

 


Learn more about this area of research:

Derickson, K. (2017). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human Geography. 41(2), 230-244.

Hunter, M., & Robinson, Z., & (2017). Chocolate cities: The Black map of American life. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. New York, NY: Routledge.

Smith, N. (2002). New globalism, new urbanism: gentrification as global urban strategy. Antipode. 34(3), 427-450.

Sorg, L. (2012). Durham’s affordable housing crisis. Indy Week. Retrieved from https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/durhams-affordable-housing-crisis/Content?oid=3176667

Spence, L. (2015). Knocking the Hustle: Against the neoliberal turn in Black politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Press.

The featured image of Chicago is from Wikipedia.

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