Dean Barber

Smoldering Ground

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on May 6, 2015 at 8:50 am

Last year when I was in New York, I spent a lot of time walking in neighborhoods that used to be pretty rough places back in the 1970s, places like Harlem and the Meatpacking District.

In a blog that I subsequently wrote, The Center of the World, I marveled how gentrification had transformed these once desperate and dangerous places into high-demand, high-rent places, where crime had pretty much evaporated.

What I wrote was accurate, but looking back, I think I had blinders on to some degree. I wasn’t really seeing the big picture, or at least the whole picture, even if I thought that I was. And that’s a problem for all of us.

In hindsight, I now believe I have a more accurate picture of big city America because of the events that transpired last week in Baltimore, where poverty, crime, and hopelessness, is juxtaposed against renovated waterfront homes, tree-lined streets,  sparkling waterfront views, trendy bars and restaurants.

A massive breakdown of civil order in our cities is a rare thing, but what is not rare is this tale of two cities, and I’m not just talking about Baltimore, although it is very extreme in Baltimore.

I submit there are there are two New Yorks, two Philadelphias, two Los Angeles, two Atlantas, two Chicagos and two Houstons. And the list goes on and on, our biggest and best cities, where disparity of wealth continues to grow. (There’s even two Planos where I live.)

Now even the most casual observer realizes and could rightfully point out that there have been rich and poor neighborhoods in cities big and small throughout this country and throughout our history. The haves and have nots have lived cheek by jowl for a long time.

But what may not be so evident, and that which concerns me in my role a consultant to businesses and economic development organizations alike, as a keen observer of places, is the tenacious grip that chronic poverty has on certain neighborhoods, particularly in our bigger cities.

In 1970, 38 census tracts in Baltimore had a poverty rate of about 30 percent; by 2010 it had risen to 55 census tracts. Indeed, according to a City Reports study in 2014 called “Lost in Place,” three-quarters of 1970 high-poverty urban neighborhoods in the U.S. are still poor today.

What’s more, three times as many urban neighborhoods have poverty rates exceeding 30 percent as was true in 1970 and the number of poor people living in these neighborhoods has doubled.

I just watched a snippet from a documentary film made in 1967 about Baltimore. The language is archaic by today’s standards, but the observations are just as true now as they were then.

NARRATOR: “Today, few whites enter the ghetto. Most of them are aware that the black ghetto is a place to be avoided, as a place where there is likely to be trouble. Negroes insist that there will be trouble in the ghetto so long as they have inadequate housing, poor schools, high unemployment and no money.”

The year after that documentary was aired, Baltimore exploded into a firestorm with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was 1968 and the Maryland National Guard was called in and a city-wide curfew imposed. Before the mob violence had run its course, six people had died and more than 1,000 businesses had been looted.

Nearly 50 years later, I am watching television news and hearing the older residents of Baltimore say how their neighborhoods had never fully recovered from the maelstrom of 1968. Fifty years later and the effects were still with us.

Last week’s wave of violence resulted in more than 200 businesses destroyed, most of them minority owned and most of them without insurance.

How many of these small businesses will rebuild is uncertain. The fact that some will not be able to is almost a certainty, just as it was nearly 50 years ago.

The sad fact is that the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population has doubled in the past four decades.

Most of the increase is due to “fallen stars”— neighborhoods that in 1970 had poverty rates below 15 percent, but which today have poverty rates in excess of 30 percent.

A new study finds that poor children who grow up in some cities and towns have sharply better odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere. Among the nation’s largest counties, the one where the children faced the worst odds of escaping poverty is in Baltimore, the study found.

The findings suggests that geography and neighborhoods matter in determining which poor children are able achieve what we like to think of as the American Dream, which is based largely on the concept of upward mobility.

But clearly, many people are frustrated and anxious about trying to get ahead or just being left behind. And just as clearly, the approaches we have used to eradicate pockets of poverty have failed miserably.

You don’t have to be a social scientist to recognize that. Just get in your car and take a look.

I cannot tell you the last time I heard an economic developer tell me that his or her community was taking measures to tackle the problem of poverty in some form or fashion. I certainly wasn’t thinking in those terms when I was an economic developer.

But I think that is going to have to change.

We’re going to have to come up with new ideas on how to address what has become a permanent underclass in this country.

Last week, I listened to Joe Scarborough, a former Florida congressman and now host of a morning talk show on MSNBC, go on a rant that I think was justified.

“Republicans think if we just give everyone tax breaks, everything will be great. Democrats think that if we just start a new federal program, everything will be great.

“Trickle down liberalism, where we count on the government to do everything, doesn’t work. Trickle down conservatism, where we just cut taxes for big businesses, doesn’t work. We need to look at this permanent underclass and come up with new ideas.”

Well, that is easier said than done, but Scarborough is right in that we need to rethink this thing anew. The old ways are broken.

I believe that until we give people the tools and the means by which to escape poverty, most (not all by any means) will lead lives of entrapment in broken neighborhoods. And the multi-generational poverty cycle that snares lives will not be broken, as it has not been broken in most American cities.

Now I’m not telling you this as a liberal or a conservative. I’m just making a cold-eyed assessment by looking at the facts on the ground in some neighborhoods in some cities, some of which we would think of as prosperous.

In too many places, where upward mobility has been thwarted, we see smoldering ground, either where a single incident can be a flashpoint or from ashes in the aftermath of a riot.

Nearly 50 years after Watts, Detroit, and Baltimore, America still faces the same reoccurring crisis of providing economic opportunity to those living in impoverished neighborhoods.

Upward mobility does not constitute welfare or handouts. But it does constitute opportunity and I think it has to start with better schools and a culture shift of having goals that go beyond being a player in the local drug trade.

If we as a country devise a better way to provide opportunities, a better chance for upward mobility and to escape poverty, then we will have extinguished the embers. There will be no more smoldering ground.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting.

  1. Dean,
    Well thought out and very provocative. To hear those comments from Joe Scarborough means the whole nation is looking at this subject. Hopefully I’ll meet you on one of those streets.

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