Educational research and the metropolitan mindset: re-framing the urban-suburban dichotomy.

Author:Reich, Gabriel A.

Tripping Over the Lines We Draw

Our choicest plans are fallen through, our airiest castles tumbled over, because of lines we neatly drew, and later neatly stumbled over

--Piet Hein (1966).

American metropolises are largely understood through a lens that divides them into an urban/suburban dichotomy. We employ the term dichotomy to describe a cultural tool (Wertsch, 1998) that categorizes complex wholes into two opposite parts. Dichotomies are useful for making sense of reality, but they can also hamper our best efforts to inform our professional, social, and educational praxis (Berlin, 1990). In a dichotomy, each entity is defined both positively--by what it is, and negatively--by what it is not. In the case of the urban/suburban dichotomy, urban is primarily defined as a space of social decay and pathology. Suburban is defined as a space of normalcy, where middle-class nuclear families live well-ordered lives. We argue that the accuracy of this social geography is no longer meaningful and that its maintenance in educational research and policy is counterproductive to both the practical and the moral ends of our work (Buendia, 2011; Freemen, 2010). (1) We argue instead that educational projects will be more robust when policy-makers and researchers reframe these geographic spaces as metropolitan, and thoughtfully nest their work with schools within that context.

To support our argument, we draw on aggregate demographic data on the United States' 100 largest metropolitan areas, as well as on demographic and anecdotal information about Richmond, Virginia. The demographic data come largely from the evaluation of U.S. census data by demographers at the Brookings Institution. The anecdotal information comes from the authors who live in Richmond, and is used to breathe life into the more general demographic data. We acknowledge that this dichotomy, although largely outmoded, does have some basis in historical phenomena. We present examples of educational policy and research that illuminate the limits of the dichotomous approach and that suggest the possibilities offered when the metropolitan approach is taken.

Urban and Suburban Frames

Since the middle of the 20th century, the urban/suburban dichotomy has been a cultural tool for making sense of metropolitan spaces. As such, the dichotomy represents "converging lines of academic and popular conversations and texts that have come to shape our theoretical and empirical work of urban space and the urban subject" (Buendia, 2011, p. 17). We argue further that the dichotomous framework has also shaped, and distorted, the theoretical and empirical work of suburban space, and the suburban subject. The mid-20th century definitions of urban and suburban are summed up well in a classic work called Slums and Suburbs, by former Harvard University President and influential educationist James Conant (1961). Regarding urban areas, Conant described them as "city slums" with "neighborhoods composed of various minority groups" (p. 15) and explained that many of the children living there "come from physically and culturally impoverished homes" (p. 15). Of the suburbs, Conant said "the vast majority of the inhabitants belong to the managerial or professional class; the average level of income is high, the real estate values are correspondingly elevated" (p. 72). Over time, the prototypical images that Conant (1961) conveyed have become reified cultural stereotypes of metropolitan spaces. Suburban areas have been depicted as normative, where middle-class nuclear families live in detached homes. Urban areas have been depicted as marginal, housing those that lie outside the norm, e.g., those that are Black, Latino, and poor (see Noguera, 2003). (2) This system of categorization fails to describe contemporary metropolitan spaces accurately, but it did not emerge out of thin air either. Before we identify and debunk some common myths associated with the dichotomous framework, we explore the emergence of separate urban and suburban spaces.

The urban/suburban dichotomy emerged to explain what was, by the mid 20th century, an historical phenomenon (Rury & Saatcioglu, 2011). The practice of manipulating political geography--e.g., municipal boundaries, zoning ordinances, and school districts--to maintain inequality and segregation has a history that dates back to the early 20th century and persists today (Baxandall & Ewen, 2000; Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Pratt, 1992). Suburbs did not become normative residential spaces until policy changes enacted after World War II allowed many ethnic and working-class whites, groups formally excluded from suburban communities, to leave central cities and take up residence in suburban ones (Baxandall & Ewen, 2000). This movement was facilitated by a massive public/private infrastructure investment, designed to respond to the housing needs of many American families (Baxandall & Ewen, 2000; Caro, 1984/1974; Dreier et al., 2004). That investment did not address the housing needs of racial minorities, however, whose residence patterns were proscribed through a process called redlining. This formerly official public policy maintained strict residential segregation through cooperation between developers, banks, and government agencies (Dreier et al., 2004). Thus, even though the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision crossed a legal Rubicon in 1954, segregated housing patterns continued, and the municipal and school district boundaries between cities and their suburbs helped to facilitate the maintenance of that segregation (Ryan, 2010).

As a legal entity, the district lines that helped create urban/suburban segregation were challenged by the NAACP, which brought suit in 1970 to challenge de facto school segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area. A Sixth Circuit Court judge ruled that a desegregation bussing plan would have to be created for the entire metropolitan area. The ruling was appealed and in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. The Court, dramatically altered by four Nixon appointees in just a few short years, handed down a 5-4 decision limiting school desegregation to Detroit's central city only (Milliken, 1974). In doing so, it absolved most American suburbs from bearing responsibility for segregated metropolitan housing patterns. The Milliken v. Bradley decision also meant that the suburbs offered a clear, easily accessible alternative for white and middle class families seeking to avoid the desegregation taking place in urban school systems.

The urban/suburban dichotomy also reflected the perceived decline of cities and growing attractiveness of newly developed suburbs. This perception helped to exacerbate the economic, social, and infrastructure stresses that were emerging within cities during the latter half of the 20th century (Baxandall & Ewen, 2000; Caro, 1984/1974; Dreier et al., 2004; Gonzalez, 2004; Jacobs, 1961; Podair, 2002; Sugrue, 2005). The flight of the White middle class--and later the Black middle class--to suburbs left central cities disproportionately poorer and of color both in the North and South (Jargowsky, 1997). Many Americans associate these urban areas with an underclass, especially those neighborhoods that have high concentrations of people of color. Called ghettos, barrios, and hoods, the perception of these areas is of homogeneous poverty, drug use, single-parent homes, and crime (see Jargowsky & Park, 2009). (3)

The urban/suburban dichotomy has always been a creature of perception, containing elements of myth and reality (Buendia, 2011; Leonardo & Hunter, 2007). We have presented one dimension of this perception, and we acknowledge that there are others. Cities also exist in the popular imagination as cosmopolitan centers where the arts flourish, as well as the sites of authentic cultural expression (Leonardo & Hunter, 2007). Nevertheless, the urban/suburban dichotomy articulated by Conant (1961) is a cultural tool that continues to organize perceptions. The accuracy and utility of this framework is fading into myth, however, as the demographic realities of metropolises change. Although racial/ethnic segregation persists (Orfield & Lee, 2005), there is now substantial socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in cities and suburbs. The most salient of these myths are: (1) poor people live in urban ghettos that are homogeneously poor; (2) suburban neighborhoods are homogeneously White and middle class; and (3) immigrants settle in dense ethnically-homogeneous urban neighborhoods. We will test these myths against demographic research of aggregate national data that has been analyzed by demographers at the Brookings Institution.

Blurring the Distinction: Mythbusting with Demographic Data

Myth 1:

Poor People Live in Homogeneously Poor Urban Ghettos

Demographic trends over the past 40 years indicate that the percentage of poor people who live in high-poverty neighborhoods has waxed and waned over time, but at no time did the majority of the poor live in areas that were considered...

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