Looking Up: “Inner City”

Looking Up: “Inner City”

On a recent trip to Seattle, I picked up a copy of the weekly paper The Stranger. As I was browsing the news briefs, one sentence in an item on drinking water violations jumped out at me: “When you think of problems with safe drinking water, you might think of an inner-city environment like Flint, Michigan, before identifying Seattle, King County, or Washington State’s many rural communities.”

I was, at that moment, like most of The Stranger‘s regular readers, sitting smack in the middle of an unquestionably urban Seattle, surrounded by high-rises, bus rapid transit, and the third-worst homeless problem in the country. It’s clearly the core part of its larger region. And so, I found it striking that the writer (and their editors) considered “inner city” an appropriate adjective with which to describe Flint, but one that they figured everyone would agree did not apply to their own city.

What actually sets Flint apart from Seattle? Well, I think we can all answer that question: its economy is weaker, and it has a lot more black people.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the term “inner city.” Many people in my professional world have stopped using it—going to “center city” or “core neighborhoods” when they are actually talking about proximity to a major downtown, or a certain threshold of urban density and connectivity. But it still floats around, and not only as an intentionally racist dog whistle. I’m thinking it might be time to more officially swear it off.

To start with, what it says and what it’s taken to mean don’t align. If you take “inner” to mean “closer to the downtown,” many (though not all) of those neighborhoods are becoming increasingly wealthy in many (though not all) of our cities, causing displacement of long-time residents to more far flung locales (or the streets). While poverty is still distressingly concentrated (as is, we should always mention in the same breath, affluence), the places where poverty is concentrated are spreading out, as people with means head back into the downtowns.

This hasn’t led to widespread displacement in the Capital Region to the extent it is happening in a place like Seattle, but nonetheless, if you mapped the areas that match the general public’s definition of “inner city” in each of our cities, you can’t really argue that they the “innermost” neighborhoods.

So what does it mean? Inner city has always been a racially loaded term. When the current president used the “inner cities” repeatedly in the debates (and really, isn’t that enough of a reason to retire the phrase?) he linked it explicitly to African Americans (and lies about their poverty rate and crime rates), even though African Americans no longer primarily live in cities, and their numbers are going down in from many parts of the most popular of them.

Inner city is a euphemism that lets us ignore history by making the results of long-term racist policies sound like an accident of geography (“you know those Americans just like their suburbs”) at best and by blaming the victim at worst (“the people left behind must have been the ones causing the problems that made everyone else leave”).

Inner city in effect has meant the areas to which black Americans were (and in many ways still are) long confined by redlining and other forms of legal and illegal housing discrimination, and then subject to substandard services, isolationist planning moves, and aggressive containment policing. So in New York City, the Bronx was the quintessential “inner city neighborhood,” despite it being, literally, in an “outer” borough, with much wealthier neighborhoods between it and the center of the city. (There’s a reason we don’t hear about “inner city Portland” very much, and it’s not their urban growth boundary.)

Inner city means, I’d argue, places where black people have been kept “in.”

The very fact that the term has become less common as white people with means “rediscover” core urban neighborhoods speaks volumes about what it actually meant to begin with.

One of my early first columns for Metroland, 13 years ago, was a plea to stop using the phrase “bad neighborhood,” and instead challenge ourselves, or the people who say that to us, to be more precise about what we mean when the urge to use that phrase comes up. I think doing the same thing with “inner city” would similarly force us to be more honest about our underlying assumptions about urbanness, poverty, and race.

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