There is one way the story of America’s cities is told, most notably by economist and social scientist Richard Florida, that attributes the resurgence of the city to the so-called “creative class.” According to this narrative, young people seek out cities that already possess three key ingredients to contemporary urban success: talent, technology, and tolerance. These upwardly mobile young professionals help revitalize urban neighborhoods and drive a demand for more walkable, multi-functional neighborhoods.
At its best, this vision of the urban renaissance has led to the reclaiming of once derelict neighborhoods and a resurgence of urban life that has helped the city reassert its status as the premiere economic, social, cultural, and political drivers of modern life. At its worst, this process has revved up economic forces that have led to displacement, housing shortages, widening income inequality by neighborhood and region, and other social-economic ailments that are often looped-in under the term “gentrification.” Florida himself backed off his bullish championing of the impact of the “creative class” in his recent book The New Urban Crisis, a sort of apology for his earlier work.
But what if there is another story to be told about the revival of American cities that has nothing to do with young, tech-oriented, upwardly mobile (and predominantly white) Americans? What if successful urban neighborhoods have nothing to do with the so-called “creative class” and are instead built on the backs of a more enterprising, community-rooted group of Americans?
As anyone who has lived in Dallas for any length of time knows, this city’s urban revival has only been partially driven by the creative classes who have flocked to places like Uptown, Deep Ellum, the Cedars, and downtown in recent years. The revival of Dallas’ neighborhoods started much earlier than this recent “New Urban” trend, when immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Central America began moving into early-20th century enclaves like Oak Cliff and East Dallas and began to reshape them in the image of the cohesive, vibrant neighborhoods they left behind in their home countries.
A new book by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz called Barrio America examines this history and attempts to uproot some assumptions around New Urbanism to look at who really laid the groundwork for the urban revival. According to an article about the book in the Texas Observer, Oak Cliff’s history takes center stage in this new report:
The book also focuses on Dallas’ Oak Cliff, once a prosperous white suburb that benefited from the major industries that emerged during World War II; one major employer was the Naval Weapons Institute Reserve Plant. Memorialized by journalist Grover Lewis as “Cracker Eden,” or a “paradise of the deepest redneck dye,” the neighborhood was a place forbidden to African Americans. As in Chicago, the white power brokers did their best to uphold an image of the Big D as racially tolerant and forward-looking, while the increased crime and social breakdown brought on by depopulation spoke otherwise.
Into this breach stepped Mexican migrants to provide a needed boost to Dallas’ fortunes. Tereso Ortiz, who came from a village in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and quickly found well-paid supervisory employment, represents a typical story. Like him, other migrants took advantage of the opportunity to rehabilitate rundown housing. They brought over cultural traditions such as walking whenever possible and helping out members of their community; they stayed out of crime and violence. Jefferson Boulevard was revamped by entrepreneurs like Salvadoran Gloria Rubio, whose Gloria’s Latin Cuisine today employs hundreds of people in 20 locations around Texas.
Latin American immigrants didn’t just fill up abandoned storefronts with new stores to serve their swelling communities, they adapted the existing space—most of it streetcar-suburban in form—and transformed it into the kind of urban patchwork they were more familiar with. You can see this in Oak Cliff, particularly along streets like Seventh, where small, early-20th century bungalows have had their front yards fenced in and sometimes paved, transforming the traditional American lawn into something that more resembles a courtyard or semi-public plaza. These adaptions have fundamentally changed how the streets of Oak Cliff work as social spaces.
“Though official segregationist policies remained in place in many cities, the immigrants helped bring about a physical transformation, aided by such cultural imports as converting front porches into semi-public spaces of watchfulness and community (“la yarda”),” the Observer reports. “The new spatial reality eventually acquired political meaning.”
Some of these spaces have became “officialized” or formally adapted into the identity of the neighborhood. You see this around Oak Cliff, and Sandoval-Strausz points out an older example in the neighborhood that was once Little Mexico. “By the 1970s Dallas’ Pike Park was formalized as a public plaza incorporating a quintessential Mexican architectural style including an open pavilion,” the Observer writes. “Such transfiguration of public space is visible in Denver, New York City, and certainly in South-Central Los Angeles, long celebrated for Latinx urbanism.”
It wasn’t just the physical environment that was adapted into a new social organization, Sandoval-Strausz points out. Social organizations helped strengthen community and neighborhood bonds, forging a new sense of identity. “While white-led movements like New Urbanism were speculating on how American cities might become human-scaled and walkable, the actual work of revitalization was often being accomplished by new migrants without much fanfare,” the Observer article says. “The rejuvenation operates across the border, too, as with the Oak Cliff-based Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of North Texas, one of many “hometown associations” remitting funds to improve infrastructure in Mexico.
This is an important distinction that is often lost in the analysis of the “New Urban” environments that are becoming increasingly popular with residents and developers alike. As I write in a column that will appear in the December issue of D Magazine, the problem with the revitalization of neighborhoods like Deep Ellum is that the forces driving the renaissance are economic and aesthetic, and rather than serving to deepen existing community bonds or build upon the identity and character of existing neighborhoods, they disrupt the existing economic and social foundations that allowed for the emergence of the neighborhood’s identity in the first place. In this sense, we might say that neighborhood activity is not the same thing as neighborhood vibrancy because vibrancy is a function of more than commerce—it is rooted in the way neighborhoods share in a common sense of place and a shared social memory.
As Barrio America points out, Latin American neighborhoods helped establish these common bonds of identity and memory, but in the era of New Urbanism and the creative class, the appeal of these kinds of communities usher in economic forces that can disrupt or destroy that very community building. This has been a source of tension as Bishop Arts continues to clone, driving up property values and forcing many original residents out. This new book reminds us that those economic forces do more than displace; they disrupt the fundamental social fabric of the neighborhood and destroys the very thing that made it a neighborhood in the first place. Existing urban communities are replaced with a kind of neo-urban community whose character is rooted not in a sense of shared place, memory, or identity, but in a new kind of commercial urban aesthetic.
“Latinx urbanism may well end up being a victim of its own success, especially as net migration from Mexico turns negative,” the Observer writes. “Yet the narrative of what took place to enliven American cities, as racial and political injustices were dismantled by enterprising migrants, deserves our deepest attention at this fraught moment of xenophobic hysteria.”