What would you do if the new people down the block were dramatically different from you? What if you thought the local schools were going downhill? Would you pack up and leave the old neighborhood? Ray Suarez, of NPR's Talk of the Nation, says many people have done just that.
In his book, The Old Neighborhood, Suarez examines the social and economic factors that have turned our oldest and largest cities into urban orphans. He discusses how changes in race, religion, and economy have transformed our cities from clusters of close-knit communities to places where no one seems to want to live. The pedantic possibility of such a story is avoided through Suarez's artful use of personal experience and vignettes by current and former city residents.
Suarez selects the cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia for more in-depth analysis. The common thread tying together the plight of all of these cities is the phenomenon of great white flight and the willingness of realtors to profit from this fear and fact by block busting neighborhoods whenever a minority family moved in. Together with the decreased importance of the church as a cohesive mechanism and the loss of industry and the jobs it provides, we are not surprised to learn that most of these cities have lost half their population in the last 50 years.
It's not just the cities that have lost people, however. It is also people who have lost their cities and the feelings of identity and place they derived from them. The loss of closeness and coherence found in an urban environment has, according to Suarez, given way to a life which has . . . increasingly become a string of pearls, incidents and encounters staged in a wide range of almost random physical locations, strung together by the automobile. Fear not, however, because the book closes on an optimistic note by observing that the worst appears to be over for many a metropolis. Forward thinking mayors, the willingness to reinvent urban schools, and the pure stubbornness of many city residents who refuse to give up and walk away, cause Suarez to conclude that there is hope for the places that made America and Americans great.