Lavea Brachman is a nationally recognized urban policy expert who has led the effort to revitalize older, industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeastern parts of the United States. Since 2006, she has served as executive director and co-founder of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a nonpartisan urban revitalization think tank and policy advocacy organization located in Columbus, Ohio. As a Spring Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Brachman sat down with the Gate’s Amy Qin to discuss her observations on a changing urban landscape and her insights into the state of Chicago and Hyde Park.
The Gate: Your career has taken you from practicing law in Washington, DC to working in the private sector in Boston. What brought you back to Ohio to start the Greater Ohio Policy Center?
Lavea Brachman: I’m from Ohio originally, and a couple of personal reasons brought me back. But I also saw an opportunity to bring some of the lessons I have learned and the work I had done on the East Coast back to the Midwest. I felt that there was a big gap between the two regions in terms of working on progressive, urban issues and creating sustainable growth, rather than sprawl. Some of the older cities in Ohio have just been emptying their populations—some people have actually left the state of Ohio, but many of them have just moved outside the city so we are experiencing a lot of sprawl. People are building on green space when we have all this property and land that is already developed with all this infrastructure in our cities. The kind of thinking that says we need to be much more environmentally conscious and also conscious of how we want to grow economically was not as prevalent.
Gate: You talk a lot about sustainable growth, but a lot of legacy cities are characterized as both “dying and thriving” —meaning that even in the midst of high growth, there are also signs of deterioration at the same time. For instance, Detroit in the 1960s was booming in terms of manufacturing but did not have a diversified economy or sustainable middle class. What do you think are these signs of deterioration?
Brachman: There are many signs! Well, first of all, I think these cities were on the decline for a long time and no one really knew it, or if they did, they didn’t want to admit it. For instance, Youngstown in 2008 admitted that they had shrunk, and having leadership admit that really opened the ability to think differently about the city. That’s really critical because there are so many of these cities that did not want to admit they were on a serious downward spiral. And many of the signs of deterioration were already evident: vacant and abandoned properties, abandoned business sites that were starting to crumble, and behind-the-scenes that we’re now seeing evidence of in Flint like water and sewer infrastructure that needs attention. Flint is an extreme case, but from a legal perspective, there’s a lot of knowledge on the part of regulators that these infrastructures are decaying, but there’s not enough money to deal with it. There used to be a lot of money from the federal government, but that’s not happening anymore. So the real question is “Where’s the money going to come from to fix these places?” There’s a lot of philanthropy involved, but they don’t set their priorities as a city government would.
Gate: In your research you mention the importance of so-called “eds and meds”, educational and medical institutions, in neighborhood revitalization efforts. Hyde Park seems to be a great case study of a neighborhood that possesses both of these institutions. Given that, what is your assessment of the state of Hyde Park in relation to the surrounding neighborhood?
Brachman: I haven’t done a specific study of Hyde Park, but it’s always been special. It has always been this enclave of stability because a lot of professors and professionals live here. So there’s always been a stability about Hyde Park itself, and in the last decade, it has definitely stabilized even further. There has been a lot of new construction of restaurants and shops, and that’s a good thing. I think that has distinguished it from the neighborhoods around Hyde Park which have always been a lot more challenged, and the university has always been aware of its responsibility and capacity to help those neighborhoods. But the issue always is, how do you engage much more challenged neighborhoods with the university? One answer is to find jobs, but to find jobs you often have to invest in workforce training. The second issue is, of course, the housing market. A lot of “eds and meds” try to bolster the housing market by providing incentives for people that work in the university to live nearby, and the University of Chicago is doing that. Also, some of the work that Theaster Gates is doing is unbelievable. The next challenge will be to connect what he’s done with Hyde Park: he’s done brilliant work outside of Hyde Park — he has set up an arts center in an old crumbling bank, a housing and arts complex, and a community center. All of his projects really focus on the community but are a little isolated, so the question is: How do you connect these projects because they’re down on 70th street with the university, or do you even need to? They are sort of independent in that, although Gates works with the university, his projects are not quite integrated. And that process takes a very long time, but part of it is extending the influence of the university beyond the boundaries of campus. There’s some construction of buildings south of the Midway, and some of the buildings are being upgraded, which is all a good first step. But, the university has to do this kind of work in conjunction with the community, which I think it’s starting to do.
Gate: To follow up on that, do you think Hyde Park is a peculiar case, given its history?
Brachman: I wouldn’t say it’s peculiar but definitely unusual. If you compare the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia or Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the neighborhoods there are not quite as self-contained. Hyde Park is this very self-contained, ten-by-ten area that has always had a pretty strong middle class, which is unusual. Other “eds and meds” in other parts of the country have even more challenges because they’re completely surrounded by challenged areas. UPenn really pioneered some new approaches after a very tragic event ten years ago when there was a murder in the neighborhood, and they took more measures to fix up the neighborhood. So UChicago starts with more advantages in one way, but it is also disadvantaged because it is so isolated.
Gate: Chicago can also be considered to have some of the same characteristics that many legacy cities have: a hollowed out city center, a former industrial complex, and white-flight to the suburbs. So what is different about Chicago, or is it even all that different?
Brachman: That’s a great question. Chicago did experience a similar decline because it was a typical midwestern city that was very reliant on industry. But Chicago has a more diverse economy to begin with compared to all these other midwestern cities that have suffered decline. It has a very robust and wealthy downtown like the Loop and the neighborhoods around it. And there is a really big divide between the downtown areas and the southern and western parts of the city. Another term for those declining midwestern cities are what we call “weak market cities,” and I would not call Chicago a weak market city, although it does have some similar characteristics like white flight, or more recently, the black middle class leaving the city, and older industry. But it has some high tech and the ability to attract 21st century business and build an economy that is really thriving, so that makes it pretty different.
Gate: Do you think it was the result of planned policy decisions?
Brachman: I would say only in part. Chicago acts as the capital of the Midwest, so it has that advantage of attracting people from other parts of the Midwest. I think that, while there was all this industry south of the city and into the larger Chicago metro including northwest Indiana, I think it was never the only source of business development. I don’t know if I would say it was intentional, but it certainly is now. There is a lot of planning going on with World Business Chicago. There’s actually a new strategic plan about how to attract businesses and do business growth in the Chicago region, so while it may not have been as intentional in the eighties or nineties, there definitely is a push now. But there’s concern because Chicago barely grew in population, if you define growth as population growth.
Gate: When people think of revitalization, they often think about tapping into the millennial generation to encourage growth. To what extent do you think urban renewal rests on attracting young professionals, or is it possible to leverage the existing human capital of lower and middle income residents?
Brachman: It has to be both. There certainly is a documented demand for dense, urban, walkable spaces and we shouldn’t waste that. The private sector developers are certainly cognizant of that market demand and are building for it. My concern is that that demand is not being leveraged in our older industrial cities because they don’t seem attractive to millennials even though they could be. They weren’t ready to go online with the kind of housing stock that millennials want, and they’re not totally benefiting from that demand anyway. But it has to be done hand-in-hand with deploying the energy and skills of the local population, no question about that. We have looked at some places that are starting to realize that. For example, Syracuse is a very challenged city, but they have some enlightened leadership that are creating some hospitals there, so they are trying to create a pipeline of people coming to work at the hospital. But it’s very hard to do because the retraining takes a while and some people don’t have some of those basic skills or educational levels. One idea that has been really in vogue now are these areas called “innovation districts”that the Brookings Institution has been talking about. It’s about combining high tech knowledge with the understanding that you want to train local peoples to work in those businesses. They have incubators and actual businesses co-located in the same space and that helps generate more businesses and jobs at all levels.
Gate: Are there any worries about gentrification or rising housing prices?
Brachman: Gentrification can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. And the second housing prices go up people cry, “Gentrification!” But you absolutely cannot bring neighborhoods back without some increase in property value or some improvement in a neighborhood. In most of the cities that I’m familiar with, like the ones in Ohio, I would not worry about gentrification yet, or at all. There are probably people who are being priced out of their neighborhoods or are starting to be, but what we need to focus on is rebuilding these neighborhoods for all income levels, and we’re not very good at that in this country. We have mixed income housing and neighborhoods, but that’s really something we need to incentivize more, and that’s something that better policy can encourage.
Gate: What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about the work you’re doing?
Brachman: Well I would say it depends who you’re talking to! But I think there are a couple of different things. One: people who don’t recognize the value of legacy cities are generally free market ideologues and economists who believe that government intervention is not appropriate for places that are already economically failing. But that's very shortsighted because we have already made investments in those places and to not upgrade those investments is a losing value proposition for the future. So it depends on the politics and what you believe the role of government is. That’s one misconception. Another is the notion that you could bring in all these super educated people, possibly associated with the “eds and meds,” and somehow, “a rising tide will lift all boats.” If you improve the economy, then naturally those at the lower end will start to be able to participate. And from all the work that we have done, we know it has to be more intentional than that, and we have to address those equity issues of people who are not participating in economic growth. It’s not just going to happen naturally.
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