Last time on Grapple, you heard about Chester: a city near Philadelphia that’s struggling with high crime, failing schools and a poor economy. In this episode, you’ll hear from Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson about the impact of deindustrialization and racism on cities like Chester. You’ll also hear from Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution about what Chester and other similar cities can do to boost their economic health and move forward.
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Elijah Anderson is an ethnographer and professor of sociology at Yale University. He’s written numerous books, including: Code of the Street and The Cosmopolitan Canopy. When Anderson taught at Swarthmore College in the 1970s, he spent time in nearby Chester.
Reflections on Chester in the 1970s:
“It was a black community that was near Swarthmore and it was a place where I could get my hair cut. So, I was looking for a new project after my dissertation, “A Place on the Corner.” I would go walking around looking at things. As an ethnographer this is what we do. We observe. We pay attention to people. We take a lot of notes and we observe. So this was really a kind of reconnaissance.”
“There was a black core and a suburban white ring around the city. The black people tended to live in the city and the white people lived outside the city. It was classic in that respect and it was beginning to undergo deindustrialization. The jobs were beginning to leave … at the same time you could see poverty. You could see people who were making it, but then you could see poverty coming in — a kind of structural poverty as it were — where the jobs are leaving and through no fault of their own, people are without opportunity.”
On how places like Chester reinforce what Anderson calls the “Iconic Ghetto”:
“The icon is really something that’s always been with the ghetto, so to speak. Icon, meaning the image, the stereotype even that the larger society might have about the ghetto. You have a lot of people in our society today, including black people, who assume that the ghetto is where the black people live. That’s a powerful thing that’s been established through history. Not only established, but institutionalized. And the roots of it go back to slavery. Slavery as an institution established the black body at the bottom of the social order. And the icon, itself, reinforces what slavery established.”
On how Anderson’s work contributes to potential solutions:
“The thing that I’m most concerned with as a scholar is trying to illuminate these conditions that people live in. To basically contribute to this conversation and to widen the conversation and to shape the conversation … to make it more intelligent and that’s the best I can do. I can’t tell people what to do about the problems.
I know that what we need are big solutions and certainly the issue of structural poverty needs to be addressed. Not just for black people, but for all kinds of people. If we don’t address these issues, simplistic solutions become very attractive to the voting population and then that maybe keeps us from really dealing with the issues we need to be dealing with.”
Improving Chester’s Economy
Amy Liu is vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. She travels to cities — big and small — around the country trying to help ensure their future economic health. Liu is an expert on cities, economic development, state, regional, and local policies. In a recent report, she asks if we are creating an economy that works for people and calls for new practices around remaking economic development.
On what Liu would recommend for the leaders of Chester:
“Chester is a small community in part of a larger regional economy. And it cannot turn around its economy by itself. It cannot create every single economic activity or economic opportunity within its borders. It has to act regionally. It has to partner with folks in the larger Philadelphia metropolitan area. And how does Chester plug into those strategies? And how do we make sure that those regional strategies are aware of the assets or opportunities within Chester? One of them being great location, great infrastructure, access to cities like Philadelphia and Wilmington, or the whole eastern Amtrak corridor and land available for all kinds of economic activity.”
On how cities have been doing since the recession:
“The big picture is that our cities, very much like the nation, are part of lackluster growth right now. And the way for us to really move forward is to be much more intentional about quality growth, more productive growth, and more deliberate about inclusion and its benefits for people — particularly workers and families of color.
When we think about the future prospects of communities like Chester, the reality is that as we are pursuing all of these strategies, the economy and the global economy is rapidly changing. And so we have to constantly adapt our strategies to reflect that reality. And if we don’t, places like Chester will fall increasingly behind.”
Listen to the previous episode: Chester, A City Working on a New Narrative
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin