Posted on February 21, 2023

White People Have Flocked Back to City Centers — And Transformed Them

Tara Bahrampour et al., Washington Post, February 6, 2023

In the 20th century, “White flight” transformed many American cities as White people moved in droves from urban centers to the suburbs.

In the last decade, that exodus kicked into reverse.

The White population increased between 2010 and 2020 in hundreds of neighborhoods at the center of many large cities, even as it declined almost everywhere else in the country. This influx, which in some cases began before 2010 but has accelerated and expanded, has brought about new upheavals, making some of the country’s biggest urban cores feel increasingly unrecognizable to longtime Black, Hispanic and Asian residents.

Some remember when they or their families were forced to live in certain inner-city neighborhoods, restricted by economics or racial covenants from moving to the leafy suburbs. Now many wonder how much integration is really happening between old and new neighbors — and whether there is still room for them in the neighborhoods they call home.

Using census data from 2010 and 2020 on population totals by race and ethnicity, The Washington Post identified nearly 800 neighborhood-size tracts across the nation with the highest White population gains. In these neighborhoods, located mostly at the center of major urban areas, the total number of White residents increased by over half a million, while the number of Black residents declined by 196,000 and the number of Hispanic residents fell by 45,000. The Asian population declined in traditional Chinatown neighborhoods close to downtown in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.

Some families of color have left of their own accord, opting for larger houses and more open space as suburban America has become more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds. Others have been squeezed out by skyrocketing rents or homeowner fees.

“You have minorities who are looking for more affordable housing, so they’re moving out to the suburbs,” said Derek Hyra, a professor of urban policy at American University.

Experts offered various explanations for the return of White residents to urban cores.

“Some of this is probably disillusionment with the suburban dream, a generation that grew up in the suburbs … wanting to get away, a revalorization of city life,” said Philip Kasinitz, a professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center. A decline in crime starting in the early 1990s also probably played a part, he said.

In some cases, cities made investments with the goal of attracting newcomers. They added bike lanes, tram lines, and pedestrian and commercial zones. Developers built upscale residential buildings with studios and one-bedroom apartments designed for childless professionals and empty nesters, with luxury perks such as lounges, pools and on-site dog parks.

Longtime neighborhood residents laud some of the changes that come with gentrification, such as renovated parks and schools. But they worry about the impact that rising property taxes and rents will have on their families’ futures.

Often, old-timers cannot afford or are not interested in the new amenities, which “cater to the tastes and preferences of the gentrifiers,” Hyra said. “They may be able to stay in place, but they feel out of place. … ‘This community isn’t for me anymore. Even if I have my housing subsidized, maybe we want to move closer to where the small mom-and-pop shop went, where the barbershop went, where the cleaners went.’”

In four cities where historically Black, Asian or Hispanic neighborhoods saw the White population increase by 9 percentage points or more in a decade, locals detailed changes this shift has wrought.

Southwest Waterfront, D.C.


Amid all the development in the nation’s capital, the Southwest Waterfront and the neighborhoods around it embody some of the most extreme contrasts. The area has views of the U.S. Capitol dome and the Washington Monument, and quick access to downtown by Metro, bike or car. But, sitting in a picnic chair on her front patio, longtime resident Linda Brown, 63, can also tell you the downsides.

Directly facing her home, in single-family low-rise public housing, barbecues and children’s bikes spill into unfenced backyards where laundry hangs. Across the street, a new residential development advertises a pet spa and a rooftop pool. In the surrounding blocks, other new buildings tout an in-house Tesla for residents’ use, a car elevator and apartments for sale for up to $12 million. According to the real estate data and analytics firm CoStar Group, Southwest and nearby Navy Yard are the most expensive neighborhoods for rentals in the Washington region, with average monthly rent of $3,000.

When Brown moved here in 2005 with her daughter Chaya, there wasn’t much glitz. But there was something else. “People looked out for one another,” she said. “We had that neighbor feel, like we do.”

Now, “it’s like you’re there, but it’s like you’re not there. People will walk up and down the street, and not speak and not make eye contact.”

The landscape of Southwest was radically transformed once before, in the 1950s, when a thriving neighborhood of rowhouses was leveled in an example of urban renewal now widely seen as disastrous. Twenty-three thousand people — many of them African American — and 1,500 businesses were displaced. Old streets were obliterated, overlaid by hulking apartment buildings, parking lots and public housing projects such as Brown’s. In the ensuing years, a low-key local culture evolved, with restaurants that catered to middle-income families and free parking at the Fish Market, where customers strolled between barges, warming their hands around disposable cups of clam chowder.

As the city’s fortunes began to rise, the waterfront location made the area a prime target for developers. In 2002, D.C. leaders began planning a massive project that became the Wharf, a $3.6 billion, mile-long complex of hotels, residences, offices, shops, parks and piers. Between 2010 and 2020, as much of the neighborhood morphed into a shiny hub of condos, restaurants and entertainment venues, the population in Brown’s census tract and two adjacent ones went from 66 to 41 percent Black and from 22 to 40 percent White. Unlike in many of the nation’s other gentrifying neighborhoods, most of the demographic shift in Southwest is not due to displacement, but instead to the filling-in of vacant lots and increased density.

The city says the Wharf is on track to generate nearly 6,000 permanent jobs and $94 million in direct annual tax revenue. But housing advocates say D.C. officials squandered an opportunity to use city-owned land to require more affordable housing. The development has received $200 million in municipal subsidies, according to the mayor’s office.

The new housing also favors single adults and couples. Resident Coy McKinney, 37, is a schoolteacher and a member of Southwest DC Action, a group that advocates for equitable development. He keeps a spreadsheet of units that have come on the market in recent years, with the number of bedrooms and prices listed on their websites. They are largely studios and one- and two-bedroom residences; new developments don’t offer much more.

“Just saying ‘build more’ does not actually achieve racial equity. We’ve got to build affordable. Even the affordable units are not possible for Black families,” McKinney said. “A lot of people have left. It feels like the old Southwest is fading.”


Tremé, New Orleans


The celebrations here used to happen organically: the trombone player trotting out of his house to join a second-line brass; the masking Mardi Gras Indians readying their feathers in back rooms and backyards; the ladies pulling out their parasols to join in the processions.

As a kid, Amy Stelly would watch revelers zigzag from one Black-owned bar to the next, up and down the streets of Tremé. It was the unofficial, year-round parade route. A community’s well-worn path for celebrating all types of joys and losses.

“Now there aren’t enough left to do that,” Stelly, 65, said as she surveyed the remains of a once-bustling commercial corridor.

The bars have nearly all vanished. Families who for generations could trace their lineage to the same streets have sold their homes. Others were evicted.

“Once upon a time, that was Tremé Market,” Stelly said, pointing. She turned, squinted, then pointed up again. “That used to be a lounge. Black-owned, of course. Now ….” She paused, her voice trailing off.

Today when a second line gathers to mourn the loss of a community member, it takes effort and planning for the musicians and artists, families and friends to make their way back to the old neighborhood. Parked cars crowd under the interstate overpass as people pour out of their vehicles instead of their homes. Many of the families Stelly used to know, she said, have left New Orleans for the suburbs, exurbs or another state altogether.

Spurred on by climate catastrophes, new development and a booming short-term rental industry, gentrification has remade the Big Easy and displaced thousands of Black families, a population that has been shrinking for more than 20 years.

In a city where the very culture is bound to African American tradition, the threat of erasure extends beyond the physical.

“Cultural annihilation is very real here,” said Cheryl Robichaux Austin, 68, executive director of the Greater Tremé Consortium, a neighborhood-based advocacy and community equity nonprofit. “It’s slowly decaying, and we see it … every day in the neighborhood. We see it when the city has special events and we don’t see Black bands, how there are all these White folks playing in the second line now. Things you never used to see before.”

Tremé is the oldest Black neighborhood in New Orleans — and, by some accounts, the nation. Situated next to the French Quarter, the neighborhood is filled with 1800s Creole cottages and shotgun houses adorned with brightly painted storm shutters.


Katrina changed who lived in the city — and affected who could afford to come back.

In 2000, Tremé was 93 percent Black in a city where two-thirds of the population was, too. Today, the city’s Black population has dipped to about 54 percent, according to the 2020 Census. In Tremé, a neighborhood built on higher ground than many others, Black residents now make up around 58 percent of inhabitants.

“You can directly trace the flip from majority-Black to majority-White to the lack of flooding that a community experienced after Hurricane Katrina,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “White community members with resources began to recognize that having a home on slightly higher ground might lead to better outcomes after a storm, and that led to a boon in White residents.”

The uptick in the White population has been especially sharp in the neighborhoods that surround Tremé such as the Bywater, St. Claude and St. Roch, supercharged by federal aid dollars and citywide recovery efforts, Hill said. This new landscape has complicated efforts to create more affordable housing for New Orleans’s poorest families, the majority of whom are Black.

“We need to be clear that many of the policy decisions that have been made do not honor the actual people who have created and sustained and maintained the culture that the city of New Orleans, the culture that our elected officials sell to the world,” Hill said.


Northside, Denver


Sometimes, inside the panadería, it can feel to Melissa Mejía as if nothing has changed.

The sweet breads will emerge from the kitchen in the evening as they always have. The rich smell of freshly baked bolillos hangs in the air. Colorful, sugary conchas line the shelves in neat rows.

Here, Mejía said, the feelings of home — the Denver of her youth and the Mexican state of Puebla, where her family is from — have been preserved in the smells and tastes and fading blue facade of Panadería Rosales. The family-run bakery, which has served Denver’s Latino community since 1976, is one of the last Mexican-American-owned businesses on this stretch of West 32nd Avenue.

Down the street, what Mejía, 37, remembers as a quinceañera dress shop with shimmering window displays is now a pizzeria. The lilting Spanish of Mexican American families has faded as English echoes down the sidewalks. Even the name of the neighborhood has become something unrecognizable: the Highlands.


In 2000, Denver’s Hispanic population was booming. At the turn of the century, according to the 2000 Census, the city’s Hispanic population had jumped 64 percent while its White population had nearly flatlined. Over the next decade, the rate of growth among White residents picked up, nearly keeping pace with that of Hispanics.

By 2020, according to a Post analysis, the explosion of White residents in the Mile High City had outpaced the rate of Hispanic growth sixfold.

According to a 2019 study published by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Denver has seen more displacement of its Hispanic residents, on average, than any other major U.S. city.

As Denver it has grown more populous and affluent over the past 20 years, the city has invested in neighborhoods and long-overdue infrastructure. Some areas, such as those in the northernmost parts of the city, lacked basic features including paved sidewalks. The improvements have helped make the areas more welcoming and navigable — while driving up property taxes and attracting unsolicited offers from largely White newcomers to buy up land.


Chinatown, Los Angeles


Jackie Tu recalls when customers streamed each day into the Dynasty Center shopping plaza. Ducking in off the bustling commercial strip of Chinatown, they would enter the building’s windowless interior occupied by a warren of stalls stocked with low-cost clothing and household goods. Under dim fluorescent lighting, vendors chatted in Cantonese, Vietnamese and Khmer, and customers from across the Los Angeles metro area spoke languages that spanned the globe.


But by 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, it wasn’t looking good. Since opening at 9, the couple had made only $30 in sales. Around them, other merchants sat idle. Some stalls stood empty.


The fortunes of Dynasty and its surrounding neighborhood had begun to change before gas prices went up, and before the pandemic dampened commerce. A metro stop opened in 2003 a block from Dynasty, and the area is a 10-minute bike ride from the skyscrapers of downtown. In four nearby census tracts, Asian residents outnumbered White residents by 4 to 1 in 2000. In 2010, Asian people outnumbered White people 2 to 1. By 2020, there were more White residents than Asian ones.

And as more White people moved in, stark contrasts emerged.

Two blocks from the metro, the Llewellyn apartments offers two-bedroom units for $3,400 to $5,200 a month, with sweeping views, a dog spa and an acoustically isolated “jam” room. At the Jia Apartments, which abut Chinatown’s bright gold dragon gate, two-bedroom units rent for around $3,500 a month. More market-rate units are in the pipeline.

On the same block as Jia, seniors pay $250 to $500 a month for single-resident units with shared kitchens and no air conditioning. A block away, residents of a low-income apartment complex have fought to keep their rent from tripling after the expiration of a 30-year-old covenant.

As the surrounding residences have gentrified, shopping complexes that once catered to Asian immigrants have also transformed. At Mandarin Plaza, a leather goods store sells $600 handbags and requires customers to be buzzed in. At the Far East Plaza, a fashionable young crowd lines up at Howlin’ Ray’s Nashville Hot Chicken, a hip destination since it was featured on the Food Network. The Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA), a local advocacy group, said it had to leave its second-floor space in Mandarin Plaza when the owner did not renew its lease and rented instead to an architecture firm.

Many of the properties are owned by Asian people who bought them in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, 40 or 50 years later, many owners live in the suburbs or even as far away as Hong Kong. Those who remain are often those least able to fight for their right to stay.