The Battle for the American City
Yale University Press
The decline of America’s industrial cities has been well charted. Less well understood is what is happening as some of those cities are coming back. The effects of that resurgence are complicated, as Joseph Margulies illustrates convincingly in Changing Places: The Battle for the American City. In it, he introduces us to Olneyville, a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, whose story captures the tensions at work in cities across the country.
Olneyville has struggled with job loss and disinvestment, crime and over-policing, environmental degradation and crumbling infrastructure, and all of the ways in which social capital has been eroded as a result. But over the past few decades, efforts to reverse that decline have drawn together residents, non-profits, the public sector, donors, and corporations to engage in community building. In many ways, these “congenial partnerships” have made a difference and have brought much-needed resources to Olneyville. The community is healthier and safer, and residents can point to improvements in the schools, streets, parks, and housing which, if they can be sustained, would point to an urban success story.
Yet these congenial partnerships are fragile. Resources can be redeployed if priorities change and the outsiders that control them are not necessarily responsive to a community’s needs. And the viability and sustainability of these efforts is threatened by their success. The changes that make an urban neighborhood a better place to live for its mainly poor and low-income residents, make it a magnet for investors and for wealthier individuals looking to return to the city center.
Hence the question that Joe Margulies asks, and begins to answer, in Changing Places is: Can a distressed neighborhood change itself without setting the seeds for its own destruction? The answers will shape our cities – and society – for generations.