4 Reasons to Retire the Phrase “Inner City”

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 23, 2017

On a recent trip to Seattle, I picked up a copy of the weekly paper The Stranger. As I was browsing the news briefs, one sentence in an item on drinking water violations jumped out at me: "When you think of problems with safe drinking water, you might think of an inner-city environment like Flint, Michigan, before identifying Seattle, King County, or Washington State's many rural communities."

I was, at that moment, like most of The Stranger's regular readers: sitting smack in the middle of an unquestionably urban Seattle, surrounded by high-rises, rapid transit, and the third-worst homeless problem in the country. It’s clearly the core part of its larger region. And so I found it striking that the writer (and editors) considered “inner city” an appropriate adjective with which to describe Flint, but one that they figured everyone would agree did not apply to their own city.

What actually sets Flint apart from Seattle? Well, I think we can all answer that question: its economy is weaker, and it has a lot more Black people.

I've long been uncomfortable with the term “inner city,” though when I took a look, I saw that it has still come up in Shelterforce more often than I would have expected. Many people in the field have stopped using it—choosing “center city” or “core neighborhoods” when they are actually talking about proximity to a major downtown, or a certain threshold of urban density and connectivity. But it still floats around, and not only as an intentionally racist dog whistle. I’m thinking it might be time to more officially swear it off.

To start with, what it says and what it’s taken to mean don’t align. If you take "inner" to mean "closer to the downtown," many (though not all) of those neighborhoods are becoming increasingly wealthy in many (though not all) of our cities, causing displacement of longtime residents to more far flung locales (or the streets). While poverty is still distressingly concentrated (as is, we should always mention in the same breath, affluence), the places where poverty is concentrated are spreading out, as people with means head back into the downtowns.

So what does it mean? "Inner city" has always been a racially loaded term. When the current president used the "inner cities" repeatedly in debates (and really, isn't that enough of a reason to retire the phrase?) he linked it explicitly to African Americans (and lies about poverty and crime rates), even though African Americans no longer primarily live in cities, and their populations are going down in many parts.

"Inner city" is a euphemism that lets us ignore history by making the results of long-term racist policies sound like an accident of geography (“you know those Americans just like their suburbs”) at best, and by blaming the victim at worst (“the people left behind must have been the ones causing the problems that made everyone else leave”).

"Inner city", in effect, has meant the areas to which Black Americans were—and in many ways still are—long confined by redlining and other forms of legal and illegal housing discrimination, and then subjected to substandard services, isolationist planning moves, and aggressive containment policing. So in New York City, the Bronx was the quintessential "inner-city neighborhood," despite it being, literally, in an "outer" borough, with much wealthier neighborhoods between it and the center of the city. (There’s a reason we don’t hear about “inner-city Portland” very much, and it’s not their urban growth boundary.)

"Inner city" means, I’d argue, places where Black people have been kept "in."

The very fact that the term has become less common as white people with means “rediscover” core urban neighborhoods speaks volumes about what it actually meant to begin with.

It's true that at least a few community development organizations have reclaimed the term with pride, even putting it in their names, as a way to signal that the places that once got that label can actually be thriving, healthy neighborhoods, worth of respect and investment. I respect that sort of reclaiming. 

But I do think that outside of that context, the euphemistic nature of "inner city" could be specifically dangerous to the community development field—its imprecision could both let us overlook how much our work is needed in areas that have not traditionally gotten that label, and sidestep the root causes of the distress the field tries to alleviate. In other words, if we imagine we're working on merely fixing an accident of geography and migration patterns, we could find ourselves picking tactics and strategies that don't sufficiently challenge the long-term structural causes of spatial inequality.

And in any case, the association with a racist dog whistle is getting too strong.

What are other racially loaded terms that you wish we'd stop using? "Minority"? "Transient"?

(Image: By Support PDX, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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Herb Fisher
31 May 17, 11:04 am

Ms. Axel-Lute’s article is most strikingly important and I thank her for being the one to recognize the phenomenon that is now some 25 or so years old. In high school we studied that cities were uniform in having a downtown, surrounded by light industry and warehouses mixed with housing for those who worked there, a ring of that housing around a commercial area, and then rings of progressively wealthier people—although some of the wealthiest claimed a part of that inner circle depending on the natural amenities available, like the Gold Coast in Chicago.

The inner city workers, increasingly Black, began to spread out, block by block, into the neighboring not-too-much-wealthier areas, whether they be folks of the Jewish faith or other immigrant and former immigrant populations. The break of this process came with Federal Urban Renewal programs and the birth of HUD. Neighborhoods with or near areas of natural amenities were gentrified for white occupation. The ultimate coup came with the destruction of neglected stocks of public housing and the reclamation of the inner city for what we now need to call the non-Black-Hispanic people.

We have all known this but it has never been widely verbalized before. We have been working to get back to that sensible urban development when workers in the stockyards, in the garment industry, and the retail trades could walk to work or catch an electric street car, as factories and stores did not need parking spaces. 

Aldra Allison
31 May 17, 6:18 pm

Here’s one:
Please stop using “up and coming neighborhoods” to describe areas that are being gentrified. Some diverse areas were already home to middle- and upper-class People of Color. For example, Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights in the Los Angeles area, or Shaw or Bloomingdale in Washington DC., and even Rosedale in Detroit.

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