Inner City Essay

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Social problems related to industrialization, immigration, criminality, and poverty were initially perceived as problems of the city in its entirety and were later associated more with the inner city. With the rapid post-World War II expansion of a distinctive suburban realm, the concept of “inner city” achieved wide currency. The identification of the inner city with social problems is a primarily North American phenomenon, even if exported to other settings such as Great Britain. The inner city was perceived as the converse of the suburbs. Thus suburbs were clean, safe, modern, and mainstream middle class, but the inner city supposedly was dirty, dangerous, outdated, poor, and inhabited by minorities. Indeed, the inner city most often served as a backdrop for film noir.

Clearly, depicting the inner city as a homogeneous entity overtaken by social problems was a gross oversimplification. In most metropolitan regions, the inner city was a complex entity, containing both poor areas and elite enclaves. Still, on the whole, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were not kind to the inner city. As suburban growth proceeded apace, many inner-city districts lost their middle-class populations and thus underwent a steep filtering-down process. Accelerating socioeconomic decline was a reduction in employment as manufacturing relocated to the suburbs, thus severing the symbiotic relationship previously existing between working-class neighborhoods and close-by sources of employment.

As the condition of their housing deteriorated and perception increased about their poor adaptability to a modern, car-oriented lifestyle, many inner-city neighborhoods became a refuge for residents denied access to other parts of the metropolitan region because of low income and racial segregation. This is when the inner city became synonymous in the media and popular imagination with social pathology. Not without justification, the inner city was portrayed as overridden with poverty, crime, addiction, school abandonment, and teenage pregnancies. As social status declined, so did the housing stock, sometimes to the ultimate abandonment stage. In some cases, as in Detroit and Newark, the inner city still bears the scars of the 1960s riots. Analysts associate inner-city living conditions with the transgenerational reproduction of an “underclass.”

Inner-city problems became a target for public policy, such as the urban renewal program, first launched by the 1949 Housing Act, whose purpose was to replace “slums” with public housing and commercial development. But relocation problems and difficult living conditions in public housing projects prompted a revision of policies. The Model Cities program of the 1960s attempted to correct some of the problems of urban renewal by making more room for public participation. Also victimizing the inner city was its location between downtown and the suburbs, which caused it to be sliced by expressways. Whereas land uses in the suburbs adapted to the presence of expressways, in the inner city these highways generally involved a destruction of the built environment and attendant displacement of residents.

Two books contributed to reversed thinking about the inner city. The Herbert Gans 1962 study of Boston’s West End revealed the existence of rich social networks in a neighborhood awaiting renewal. Most influential perhaps was Jane Jacobs, who in 1961 wrote a strong defense of the traditional inner city against the then rising popularity of urban renewal. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she celebrated the role that the original inner-city landscape, particularly the commercial street, played in fostering intense social interaction. She contrasted the high level of activity she observed along her Greenwich Village street with the desolation and high criminality experienced in areas changed by urban renewal. The message of these two works was clear: The social environment of traditional inner-city neighborhoods was generally superior to that provided by urban renewal projects.

In subsequent decades, favorable views on the inner city spread to well-educated young professionals preferring a central area to suburban living. Fueling the resulting gentrification phenomenon was the appeal of historical architecture, the diversity and street life of core area neighborhoods, and proximity to work for dual-income families. Successions of ever richer and risk-aversive households drove gentrification: first bohemians and struggling artists, then young, upwardly mobile professionals (“yuppies”), and, last, wealthy lawyers, doctors, and executives.

Although a clear cause of homelessness (e.g., the conversion of a rooming house containing 20 low-income tenants into an impeccably restored home for a single wealthy couple), the view that gentrification itself is responsible for the replacement of the working class by richer professionals is an oversimplification. First, such a transition stems in part from the shrinkage of the traditional middle class accompanied by the rise of professional and managerial categories. Second, many well-educated newcomers to core area neighborhoods were in fact marginal gentrifiers, sharing the values, tastes, education, and some professional attributes of mainstream gentrifiers, but without a stable financial and professional situation.

Gentrification typically affected former working-class neighborhoods with the most distinctive architecture and best accessibility to amenities and employment, bypassing the ones severely deteriorated and crime-ridden. In large prosperous metropolitan regions, however, the entire inner city is now subject to gentrification or condominium redevelopment, another source of social change.

The inner city evolved into a place of extremes, a mirror of the economic polarization of recent decades. It is not unusual to find expensive condos juxtaposed with parks harboring large homeless populations. Conflicts flare easily in such environments, for example, when marginal residents are displaced to prevent their interference with economic development strategies targeted at the middle class and tourists.

From an urban planning perspective, interest in the inner city has recently been stimulated by the smart growth movement, which relies in part on core area revitalization and intensification to counter sprawl and growing automobile dependence.


  1. Anderson, Martin. 1964. The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1962. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Gans, Herbert. 1962. The Urban Villagers. New York: Free Press.
  3. Husock, Howard. 2003. America’s Trillion-Dollar Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
  4. Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.
  5. Ley, David. 1996. The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  6. Rose, Damans. 1984. “Rethinking Gentrification: Beyond the Uneven Development of Marxist Urban Theory.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2(1):47-74.
  7. Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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