June 06, 2022

Urban Barricades and Reconnecting Segregated Communities

Colby King author photoBy Colby King

When I discuss segregation in my classes, a key element I work to cover with students is the idea that the segregation we see today is the result of policies, preferences, and more to the point, choices that people made. This is a consensus view among urban sociologists, and something my co-authors and I explain in the most recent edition of The New Urban Sociology. Segregation does not just happen, but instead is the result of the accumulation of choices, individual and institutional, that have built inequality into the places we live.

In June of 2020, sociologist Patrick Sharkey published this essay in The Atlantic titled “To Avoid Integration, Americans Built Barricades in Urban Space.” In the piece, Sharkey illuminates this critical idea in detail, explaining how racial segregation has been exacerbated by the construction of literal barricades in urban space. These barricades, as he explains, separate neighborhoods, communities, and social groups, and heighten inequality across cities.

Sharkey’s piece opens by highlighting the significance of the location in which George Floyd was killed. As he describes it, that location: “…lies in a part of the city wedged between two freeways and not far from an unofficial boundary separating neighborhoods with large populations of black and Latino residents from the mostly white neighborhoods to the south.” The patterns of segregation that we see across our cities highlight not only divisions between groups within the city, but also reveal how social inequalities are built into our neighborhoods and cities.

Sharkey explains how urban renewal processes in cities across the United States exacerbated inequality and segregation by building barriers into our communities and by separating neighbors from each other. As he writes:

What happened in Minneapolis also occurred nationwide under the aegis of urban renewal. When the black population swelled in cities north and south, those municipalities didn’t undertake a large-scale effort to make integration work, improve housing conditions, or protect the rights of black Americans. Instead, authorities razed entire neighborhoods and strategically placed highways, as well as public-housing projects and office buildings, in locations that would solidify the boundary between black and white neighborhoods. The interstates became one more type of barricade. When the federal government invested in highways rather than public-transit systems, it gave white Americans a way to flee central-city neighborhoods while continuing to reap the economic benefits of the city.

As I have written here before, Gottdiener’s social spatial approach to studying urban sociology illustrates how the built environment shapes social life while residents also socially construct meaning in their settlement spaces. Beyond separating neighbors from each other, the barricades that Sharkey writes about are often given powerful meanings in local culture, which then shape how residents of the area interact with the barricades and with each other. If you have heard the phrase “the wrong side of the tracks,” often used to refer to a relatively poor or lower status neighborhood in a city, you have seen how this process take shape.

Many of my students are well aware of patterns of segregation in their hometowns and in the region around our campus. When we have discussed this piece by Sharkey, most students are readily able to identify barricades built into the places where they are from. Some specify highways that separate predominantly white and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Others point to rivers, or specific buildings, that are known among residents of that area as landmarks indicating the separation of people who might otherwise be neighbors. One student, who grew up in affordable housing here in Spartanburg, discussed the broadly understood patterns of residential segregation across neighborhoods here, writing, “In my city I feel like we have many urban barricades... For an example Converse Heights and the Hillcrest/Glendale area is for the wealthy white people and Northside more low-income poverty area separated.”

Can you think of examples of these barricades where you live? One place I think of is not a place where I have lived, but a place I have visited and am familiar with from studying Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, I-579, otherwise known as the Crosstown Boulevard, has separated downtown from the Hill District neighborhood since the 1950s when the highway was built as part of a redevelopment process that also included the construction of the Civic Arena, and the displacement of thousands of predominantly black residents.

Just last year, a new park was opened. It covers part of the boulevard and creates public space reconnecting the lower Hill District neighborhood with downtown. The park is officially named Frankie Pace Park, is now open, and includes rain gardens, bike paths, and public art. Here is a video of the ribbon-cutting ceremony from the local news station, KDKA. You can see more pictures and diagrams of this Cap Project at the Pittsburgh Sports and Exhibition Authority website, here.

After discussing these barriers, one student wrote about how the physical barriers that segregate residents in cities reshape social interaction and can exacerbate tensions. He is a veteran who had served in Afghanistan, and he contrasted the examples he saw of communities and villages in Afghanistan coming together to support each other, with how these barriers in US cities stimy empathy and exacerbate social tensions among neighbors. Here is what he wrote:

The biggest part of this unit that stuck with me was urban barricades. Now when I am driving down the road, I can’t help but notice how segregated we still are as a community. All I can see are the huge walls built up around neighborhoods and the vegetation to keep the viewer from looking in. I see the poor living in houses that are falling apart and the rich living in huge mansions. Most of all I see where the white and black communities are separated from each other. When I was in Afghanistan, I experienced entire communities and villages coming together to provide and support one another. Here in, it feels like we are all sectioned off from each other and we are losing our social connections. By reducing the amount of social interaction, we are also losing our sense of empathy for each other. In return, this is causing tensions between race and prejudice to worsen.

This student’s concern about prejudice and tension resonates with Sharkey’s concern about how these physical barriers exacerbate social division. As Sharkey explained:

When governments build barricades in space, they shift the burden of social problems to the most disadvantaged communities. They pit communities against one another, amplify the divisions among them, and leave urgent challenges unaddressed.

It is reassuring, then, to see projects working to reconnect communities, like the Cap Park in Pittsburgh, or the Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, or the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.

Here in Spartanburg, I am excited to see how the expansion of “The Dan” trail system, which will be supported by a $23.8 million federal RAISE grant from the US Department of Transportation, will reconnect neighborhoods all across our city. This includes connections between the neighborhoods that student noted above, with the trail expansion expected to bolster trail use between Converse Heights and the Northside neighborhoods, among others. Segregation and the construction of barriers may be the result of policy choices, but that also means that we can also choose to remove those barriers, reconnect our neighborhoods, and reconstruct our communities and sense of community along the way.

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