'Gentrification' Poses Dilemmas, Opportunities for Planners

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The so-called "gentrification'' movement to attract middle-class families back to the urban core of major cities poses both a dilemma and an opportunity for school officials in metropolitan districts, experts say.

The principal opportunity is to rebuild a depleted tax base and thus improve the quality of life for all in urban areas by attracting and keeping affluent, middle-class families. The main dilemma lies in how to provide the high-quality schools demanded by these savvy and influential new residents without diverting scarce resources from the disadvantaged and creating a new kind of segregation based on class.

Urban revitalization, the experts note, can help to halt the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs and, with careful planning and cooperation, could result in new neighborhoods and schools that provide truly equal opportunities to an integrated and diverse population.

But most urban districts have done little to coordinate school policies with redevelopment efforts, they conclude, because of educators' and civic leaders' wariness of invading each other's political "turf.''

"It's the rare school district that has a research department charged with knowing major trends in community and residential development,'' said William Taylor, executive director of the National Center for Policy Review and a lawyer who has worked on desegregation cases in many cities.

"There is a fairly clearcut need for coordinated planning,'' he said, "but it's hard to persuade people that it ought to be done.''

Cooperation Rare

But the proliferation of desegregation lawsuits and the political clout of the new middle-class "urban pioneers'' is producing, by force of necessity, better communication between education and housing planning agencies, urban-planning experts agree.

The bitter school conflict being played out in the south Loop area of Chicago is an extreme example, they say, but it illustrates some of the difficulties faced by officials trying to ease the inevitable frictions caused by the displacement of lower-income residents by inner-city renovation. (See accompanying story on page 1.)

Only in rare cases, those knowledgeable of the process note, have city, school, and community leaders systematically worked out a cooperative redevelopment plan that satisfies the major interests of the groups involved.

Among the city, school, and community leaders interviewed by Education Week in recent weeks, revitalized inner-city neighborhoods in Denver and Washington were the two most frequently cited examples of successful cooperative efforts.

Like many other large cities, Denver and Washington have experienced a relatively recent influx of middle-class families into downtown areas that are either newly created or renovated neighborhoods. In part, the trend has been deliberately fostered by city planners. But it is also fueled by changes in middle-class attitudes, experts say, such as a recognition of the disadvantages in suburban living, including the long and costly commutes to downtown jobs.

But the available evidence suggests that the gentrification trend is not yet strong enough to offset the continued exodus of the middle-class to the suburbs. Its significance lies, most experts say, in its potential to accelerate. And that, they say, makes today's experience an important model for future policymaking.

'Housing Driven' Desegregation

One important segment of that model may be what redesigned urban communities learn about building a desegregated school system, from the ground up.

Civil-rights activists have long recognized the difficulty of providing a racially balanced educational experience in schools located in racially homogenous neighborhoods. Lacking any leverage over housing policies, school officials have often been forced into controversial methods, such as mandatory busing, to fulfill their judicial mandates to provide equal educational opportunities.

But in Denver, school officials were approached by a housing developer willing to create an integrated neighborhood in return for a new school. And school-board members of all political persuasions were enticed by the plan.

After rapid negotiations between the developer, city planners, community groups, and all parties involved in the city's school-desegregation litigation, an agreement was reached that resulted in the "fast-track'' completion of the Green Valley Ranch elementary school. No residents had yet moved into the formerly vacant neighborhood.

"This may be the first example of a housing-driven school-desegregation plan in the country,'' said Marshall Kaplan, dean of the graduate school of public affairs at the University of Colorado in Denver.

Ensuring that the neighborhood would be racially integrated, he said, "zeros out the need for busing in the elementary and middle school.''

Now nearing completion, the Green Valley Ranch community is located in Denver's northeast sector and borders both the area of greatest minority concentration and virtually all-white suburban areas.

Denver's Experience

Lee Alpert, the developer who owned the 2,360 acres that now make up the Green Valley community, said he realized early on that a new development there would not be economically feasible if the type of buyer who would demand a quality public school system could not be attracted.

Under the provisions of the federal court order in Denver's desegregation case, Keyes v. Denver Board of Education, the school system was required to seek court approval for any new school construction.

In return for assurances that a new school would be built, Mr. Alpert offered to devise sales and marketing strategies aimed at attracting a 30 percent minority population to the 20,000 housing units he was planning.

To make the plan more acceptable to the court, he agreed with school officials to link the new development with an adjacent neighborhood to boost the middle- and high-school minority enrollments.

The neighborhood to be paired with the development, Montbello, was also a fairly large and recently developed residential community, but it had become predominantly minority because of poor planning and an overabundance of subsidized housing, Mr. Kaplan said.

Montbello "suffered unfairly from bad press,'' said Mr. Kaplan, who served as a facilitator in the negotiating process.

"School problems,'' he said, "while real, seemed magnified and fed or supported by brokers' willingness to use schools as a surrogate for race in directing households in the housing market.''

In mid-1983, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch approved the Denver district's plans to build an elementary school for Green Valley and a middle school that would serve both neighborhoods.

The time that had elapsed between the plan's suggestion and its court approval was about six months.

"There was not much opposition to the plan, it was well done from the very beginning,'' said James H. Daniels, assistant superintendent for planning, research, and development in the Denver schools.

More than 1,000 housing units have been sold in Green Valley since the development opened in the fall of 1983, and the racial composition of the new community has closely followed the 30 percent minority target in the plan.

As a result, the new elementary school has an enrollment this year that is 67.2 percent white, 19.8 percent black, 11.9 percent Hispanic, and 1.1 percent Asian.

The new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which draws from both Montbello and Green Valley, has an enrollment that is 56.5 percent black, 27.7 percent white, 12.1 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 0.6 percent native American.

"Nearly everyone involved agrees that this is a good thing for Denver,'' Mr. Daniels said. In fact, he said, school officials are working with the Denver Housing Authority to replicate the experiment in other areas of the city with high concentrations of different ethnic groups.

The partnership, he said, "has shown us that a lot can be accomplished if all involved parties have some understanding of each other's needs.''

The plan does seem to be meeting its goals, agreed Gordon Greiner, the lawyer for the black plaintiffs in the desegregation suit. He filed a brief supporting the plan when it was pending before the federal court.

Washington Activism

In Washington, the area around the U.S. Capitol has been slowly but steadily undergoing gentrification during the past two decades. And here, too, the process has provided a breakthrough in school integration.

Rather than enrolling their children in private or parochial schools, as most of their neighbors were doing, a group of newly-arrived white middle-class parents began in the early 1970's a drive to improve the neighborhood's public schools.

"We were lucky, we were working with a well-educated, sophisticated base of folks,'' said Bob Boyd, a current school board member who began his involvement with the city's schools as a Capitol Hill parent.

The parents first persuaded a successful, well-integrated day-care program to move to the Peabody School, a small, predominantly black elementary school that was experiencing declining enrollment because of gentrification.

Once white parents began visiting the day-care center, "they found out it was a pretty good school,'' said Gary Orfield, a nationally recognized desegregation expert who was then a Capitol Hill parent.

Acknowledging that the activist parents have frequently had difficulties with other parents and the school bureaucracy, he said that, nonetheless, "integrating the school proved to be easier to do than I first thought it would.''

The project has since been expanded to include another elementary school and a middle school, forming a cluster whose principal, Viola Jackson, has been widely praised for her ability to create high expectations among teachers, parents, and students.

"We have highly motivated students and parents,'' she said, "and we are constantly brainstorming for ideas to get those who aren't participating involved.'' The local P.T.A. raises money for textbooks and other enrichment programs, and, according to Ms. Jackson, the cluster-schools' budget for such items during the current year is $80,000.

Betty Ann Kane, a city council member, traces the beginnings of her political career to her involvement as one of the first white parents to send a child to the Peabody School. "The whole strength of this country is that kids come through school together in a public system,'' she said. "They learn that, despite their differences, they have to get along.''

"If you keep people segregated, they end up with a very warped view of the world and their own importance in it,'' Ms. Kane said.

Action in Other Cities

Other cities are also taking note of the opportunity provided by gentrification to foster both school and housing desegregation.

St. Louis, a city that has been caught up for years in a complicated desegregation suit, for example, is just emerging from "a generation in which the city hall and the board of education barely spoke to one another,'' according to Frank Hampshire, an aide to Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr.

"We think it is vital to the future interests of both that there be real collaboration in terms of where our energies are expended,'' he said.

The district's magnet-school review committee has received a proposal from a developer who wants a new magnet high school for the fine- and performing-arts located near a planned residential development.

The developer has indicated that, if the school is built, he will ensure that the housing units are sold to a racially integrated population.

"He went so far as to suggest ways to build the school without incurring a large capital outlay,'' said Glenn Campbell, executive director of the desegregation monitoring office.

"A lot of people here feel the concept has potential,'' he added.

But plans for all new magnet schools in the city were put on hold earlier this year when U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh rejected six of the district's proposals to establish new magnet schools, saying they had not been properly planned.

In his order, Judge Limbaugh referred to the issues raised by gentrification when he criticized school officials for giving preference in magnet-school admissions to whites from the suburbs.

"People will not move into the city and rebuild neighborhoods and businesses if their children are thwarted from attending a city school,'' he wrote.

Middle-Class 'Blackmail'

Opinion is divided, however, on whether school officials should make extraordinary efforts to attract the new middle-class "urban pioneers.''

"I take a pretty dim view of the notion that public-school systems should be devoting substantial resources to teaching kids who aren't there,'' said Thomas I. Atkins, a noted desegregation lawyer. "You can fix the schools up and maybe [the middle class] won't come back.''

"The reality is that the people who have left the city have done so for a number of reasons, not just because of poor schools'' he said.

"In most of the communities I have worked in,'' said Mr. Taylor, another desegregation lawyer, "gentrification is on such a small scale, it has not had a major impact.''

"That is not to say it ought to be ignored,'' he added. "It should be thought of as a potential opportunity to desegregate schools across both race and class lines.''

He quickly added that he is "not endorsing the kind of gentrification that doesn't take into account the interests of low-income people who already live there.''

Over the past several years, Mr. Taylor noted, some federal judges have included provisions in desegregation plans "that obligate the school district to inform itself of any development that may have an impact upon the desegregation plan.''

"It's not an either-or proposition,'' said Pat Brannin, a lawyer who has worked on several major desegregation cases.

"It seems to me that big-city school systems need to think of broadening their range of resources by encouraging the middle class'' to return to the central cities, she said. "But, obviously, one can see the countervailing argument, which is 'let's do the best job with what we have.'''

The University of Colorado's Mr. Kaplan argued that this issue should have been addressed 30 years ago.

"If we had had the foresight after Brown v. Board of Education to be leaders in the housing area, we could have relieved schools of a lot of the problems that have accompanied desegregation,'' he said.

Vol. 06, Issue 32

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