Updated: May 20, 2020
Louisville Wins at the Expense of Vulnerable Black Communities: How Hiding Poverty and Displacement is a Violent Strategy to become a Competitive City.
According to the World Bank, economic competitiveness for an urban area means “a city’s ability to spawn, expand and attract businesses that create jobs for its residents, and to enlarge the overall economic pie.” In the years leading up to the 2002 Louisville & Jefferson County merger, the Brookings Institution noted that certain demographic metrics were barriers to Louisville’s economic growth. For example, a 2005 report from Brookings found that pre-merger Louisville ranked third in the nation for large cities with the highest levels of concentrated poverty. For concentrated poverty among African Americans, Louisville ranked second in the nation. Part of the motivation behind Louisville’s merger was to improve the optics around these demographics (see former Mayor Jerry Abramson’s comments). In other words, city leaders needed to hide Louisville’s poverty to make the city more appealing in attracting outside capital. But even after the merger, the new consolidated regional city still ranked “fifth in the degree to which its poor African Americans reside in the most distressed neighborhoods” and the “consolidated city now ranks 14th for large cities with the highest levels of concentrated poverty.”
The overall median household income for the Russell neighborhood is below $15,000/year, and the median income of one particular area within Russell, which sits just west of downtown, is below $10,000/year. As a result, Russell was viewed as a huge barrier to attracting business investment to the city. Brookings calls this a “hollowing out” of the urban core, using a language of erasure that equates Black and poor residents as illegitimate and a threat to economic growth. In 2005, Brookings suggested that “Louisville should pour on its efforts to attract downtown 5,000 new residents in 10 years, and to create more livable, alluring and pedestrian-friendly core neighborhoods, especially in the West End.” Rather than challenging the social and political forces that create poverty, placed-based initiatives and poverty-deconcentration programs such as HOPE VI and Choice Neighborhoods focus on dispersing poverty and removing Black people from the urban core. As a result of these programs, the Black population of Chicago and Detroit is decreasing for the first time.
In the wake of Merger, Brookings also suggested the creation of the Greater Louisville Project (GLP), to track, manage and use data to leverage Louisville’s ability to compete against its peer cities in attracting capital. A GLP report found that Louisville had two of the poorest neighborhoods out of 17 peer cities and that poverty was "having a measurable impact on the well-being of Louisville residents and the city’s ability to lure businesses and other amenities away from its competitors." “The competitiveness of a city,” according to the GLP, “means an intentional focus around lifting census tracts of poverty.” In this case, “lifting census tracts of poverty” can be interpreted as a euphemism for creating place-based initiatives that displace and remove poor people from an area to attract more affluent residents; therefore lifting census tracts--not people--out of poverty. Made up of a policy board of Louisville’s wealthiest families and businesses, the GLP provides socioeconomic data to Louisville government, media, and nonprofit organizations.
1. Cech & Kulennovic, Competitive Cities: Which Are They, and Why Should We Care? World Bank, March 2014
2. Brookings Institute, Alan Berube & Bruce Katz. (2005). Katrina's Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America. Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute.
3. Berube, Allan & Bruce Katz. (2005). Louisville & New Orleans: Housing, Cities, Regions & States. Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institute.
4. Bailey, Phillip, Jerry’s kids: Facts, Rumors, and Political Innuendo, LEO, July 15,2009.
5. Louisville Metro Housing Authority, Vision Russell Transformation Plan, January 2017.
6. Bruce Katz and Mark Muro, Distinctive, Equitable, Competitive (Louisville), 2005.
7. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang Downtown Chicago Grows While the South and West Sides Lose Population, WBEX Chicago, May 2019.
8. Bailey, Philip, Louisville neighborhoods among poorest in study, Courier Journal, 11/29/2016.
9. Greater Louisville Project, 15 Years Beyond Merger: 2018 Competitive City Report. Presentation, March 26, 2019.
This blog series was written with assistance and contributions from Root Cause Research Center Accountability Council Members: Mckenzie Eskridge