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Energy Policy and Inner City Abandonment

Few people realize the price inner cities have paid for our national love affair with the automobile. But the evidence of devastation is not hard to find. White flight to the metropolitan fringe, driven in part by racism, is linked to destruction of human resources in the metropolitan core, to waste of petroleum energy, pollution of air and water, and degradation of urban biological resources. But older urban neighborhoods can help lead the way to more sustainable cities and suburbs.

I was recently invited by several foundations to participate in a seminar on energy and transportation. The meeting was held in an office building in downtown Philadelphia near City Hall. Since I had grown up in Philadelphia, after the meeting, I decided to visit the neighborhood where I had lived as a child. The neighborhood where I grew up during the Second World War had been typical of many working-class enclaves originally built in the late 19th century, before petroleum had become a cheap source of energy. Wood and coal were used for space heat, and trolley cars depended on coal-generated electricity for power.

I remembered our street as a tight little cluster of two-story brick townhouses with tiny backyards. Around the comer, two blocks away from our place, was the elevated train station, at the commercial center of the community. The intersection was filed with life. There was a newsstand on the comer, a shoe shine stand right next to it. Along Market Street was a poultry shop, a fish store, a bakery, a hardware store, a barbershop and a pharmacy, each with apartments located above. A block away, in the other direction from our house, was a tiny candy store. I had been allowed to go there by myself since I wouldn't have to cross any intersections. Less than a mile away was the University of Pennsylvania. My parents hoped my brother and I would go there when we grew up. They had chosen this neighborhood to raise our family, because it was conveniently located and the rent was cheap.

The neighborhood was not far from city center. A brisk twenty-five minute walk across the Schuykill River Bridge from the edge of downtown got me there. When I arrived at the familiar street, the house in which I had been born was gone. A dozen other houses nearby were empty, boarded up. Vacant lots—filled with sofas, old appliances, tires, and debris—were everywhere. The shops along Market Street were empty, except for a liquor store a few blocks up. The train station was still there, but the train ran underground now. The trolley tracks had been taken up, and a six-lane arterial, with halogen lamps every 500 feet, cut through what was left of the neighborhood. The big street trees were all gone, and there was no life, it seemed, except for the struggling ground cover along the asphalt road bed and three idle young men who gathered on the comer next to a lamp post.

The story of this community, its loss of economic functions and vitality, and the destruction of its housing stock, has been repeated in a hundred different neighborhoods in the older core districts of the nation's largest metropolitan regions. The story is a national disgrace. It is a story of investment decisions made without regard for community needs, a story of freeways wrecking businesses and undermining the social integrity of neighborhoods. Communities of color have borne a disproportionate share of toxics and health burdens based on these decisions—from lead in automobile emissions to contamination of soil and groundwater under abandoned gas stations to noise and accidents caused by industrial truck traffic too nearby.

As they search for incentives to reduce energy consumption, transportation and energy planners often overlook these issues, the needs of and the potential contribution that inner city communities might make to building new sustainable urban neighborhoods. At the seminar I attended, for example, most of the debate focused on the technical capacity of large corporations to manufacture more fuel efficient cars, the potential of legislation requiring large corporations to purchase these cars, the importance of developing alternative fuels, and strategies for extending new mass transit facilities to the growing suburbs. All of these topics are important. But a component is missing. How can we involve the inner cities—which have energy-efficient infrastructures already in place—as active participants in shaping and defining new policies? In reviewing the lessons of the past several decades, three important conclusions about connections between transportation, energy and urban social justice emerge.

  • The increasing concentration of poverty in the nation's largest metropolitan areas is linked to the practice of investment in suburban sprawl, and divestment from energy-efficient, inner city communities where people of color live.
  • Transportation and energy issues are of critical concern to low-income neighborhoods and practitioners of community-based economic development, but advocacy systems for energy and transportation issues are almost non-existent. These systems should be developed.
  • Community development corporations in low-income and minority communities are well-positioned to provide a new and potentially powerful national leadership in advocating energy and transportation efficient patterns for urban neighborhoods.

Download the PDF to read the rest of the article.


Energy       ?õ¬?       Vol. 2 No. 2      ?õ¬?       Summer 1991

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