Black Neighborhoods Matter

 Black Neighborhoods Matter
Connecting Community Health, Vacant Land, and Racial Justice 

We are experiencing a watershed moment in our country’s history. In the wake of a global pandemic, expanding financial insecurities, and continued police brutality and homicides, Black, Brown, and allied communities are rallying to demand constructive change within government and our institutions. Across the country, communities are crying #DefundPolice — a critique of the abnormal sums of money cities and states invest in policing and surveillance, while other systems, like basic maintenance of greenspace, are ignored or stripped of their already minimal funding.

A vacant lot in Hazelwood restored for gathering and reflection.

What is Grounded’s place in this movement? As an organization using vacant land as a medium to improve community health, it is important for us to identify the anti-Black practices which define our past and shape the trajectory of our present. Without this perspective, we cannot authentically serve the communities most affected by the negative effects of hyper-vacancy.

Deep-rooted racial inequities can be traced to how municipal funds are allocated, especially when it comes to publicly-controlled land. We see that publicly-owned vacant properties are concentrated in communities of color and not cared for. We see that major public contracts are renewed without due consideration for qualified, local, minority-owned businesses. We see that new developments are being constructed while existing homes, community centers, and green spaces are left to fend for themselves. Continuing to place a low-priority on investing in neighborhood conditions creates tangible disparities, perpetuates environmental racism, and increases the risk of police violence.

How is this disinvestment in Black neighborhoods demonstrated? As one example, in 2019, VisitPITTSBURGH, Allegheny Country’s official tourism agency, published a map within its visitors’ guide that excluded prominent Black neighborhoods. When asked why this was done, VisitPITTSBURGH’S VP Director of Marketing and Communications relayed that the map was intended to create value for businesses that had purchased ad space, by driving new business their way. As another example, in February 2020, Carnegie Mellon University created a similar map for first-year students which effectively erased Black neighborhoods from the picture. Also in 2020, The Urbanist (Pittsburgh) published a map of 152 points of interest that were primarily concentrated in white neighborhoods. All of these maps communicate — whether intentionally or unintentionally — that Black neighborhoods do not matter.

 

Two examples of problematic maps of Pittsburgh
The challenges of neglected vacant lots extend beyond tall grass. The lot on the left has an abandoned vehicle and overgrowth that has made the sidewalk inaccessible.

This message is echoed in an attitude of neglect that is pervasive in local, state, and national policies and funding priorities. Over time, the devaluing of Black neighborhoods causes neighborhood assets to deteriorate, further exacerbating wealth inequities, and creating disparities in living conditions. Neighborhoods with vacant properties may also experience other issues arising from neglected or deferred infrastructure maintenance, including crumbling sidewalks, accumulated litter, uncontrolled stormwater runoff, and inaccessibility.

Neighbors are doing the work to pick up the slack. The majority of Grounded CommunityCare Stewards are elder Black women, filling in the gaps of unmet land and community maintenance needs. Grounded relies upon grants to do what we can to compensate these wonderful neighborhood champions, but the issue remains that these residents contribute taxes to a city that does not invest those funds equitably into their neighborhoods.

CommunityCare Stewards take care of neighborhood greenspace and vacant lots.

What Grounded wants is simple. We want to see land cared for because it is the foundation of a strong community. Greening vacant land has the power to transform the infrastructure of a neighborhood. Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, explains that greening vacant land can increase property values, improve health, and reduce crime. Further, it is a proactive strategy that promotes stable communities. In Philadelphia, a study on the impact of greening vacant land in “resource-limited urban settings” over 18 months reported a 41.5% decrease in feelings of depression, a 50.9% decrease in feelings of worthlessness, and a 62.8% decrease in overall self-reported poor mental health. Investing in the infrastructure of a neighborhood creates a new form of public safety that derives from a healthy neighborhood built on trust and care. 

When we don’t take care of vacant land and abandoned properties in Black communities, we reflect a city that does not value, celebrate, or protect our Black neighbors. Grounded believes that Black Lives Matter and that Black Neighborhoods Matter. Racial equity requires taking care of our neighbors, from the ground up.

 


 

Ariam Ford-Graver is the Executive Director of Grounded Strategies. Ariam has a Master’s in City Planning and believes that you cannot achieve racial equity without addressing spatial inequity.

 

 

Jahqwahn Watson

 

Jahqwahn Watson is a PULSE Fellow at Grounded Strategies. Through their role, Jahqwahn is working to increase community agency to develop land in their neighborhoods.

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