As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Income inequality, affordable housing, climate change, sustainable development, public health, participatory government—cities are tackling them all, bringing new urgency to some of the most vital questions of the day. Welcome to the age of big city progressivism! Cities Rising is The Nation’s contribution to the conversation.
Lillie Estes has lived all thirty-five years of her adult life in Richmond, Virginia. She has spent the last twelve of them in one of the vast, and geographically isolated, public housing tracts that are home to tens of thousands of the city’s poorest residents. These are bleak neighborhoods, carved out of the Deep Southern bedrock of slavery, segregation and an unforgiving class system overlaid by racism. Joblessness, crime and incarceration are high; education and opportunity are low. In these neighborhoods, the average income, mostly from public assistance, is $7,782, a fraction of the already-low citywide figures.
Estes, 55, has spent much of her life organizing against these injustices, pounding the pavement despite few signs that anyone inside the towering glass-and-metal box of Richmond’s City Hall was listening. For decades, Richmond’s political leaders have ignored and all too often encouraged the city’s entrenched inequality. It was these leaders who fought long and hard in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education to keep schools segregated, and it was their planners who deliberately bulldozed successful mixed-income black neighborhoods to make way for freeways that sped white, and, later, middle-class black, residents to the suburbs. With their help, much of the city’s remaining African-American population wound up ghettoized in the sprawling public housing tracts that replaced old once-vibrant neighborhoods.
But in recent years, something unusual has happened. Richmond’s leaders have begun reaching out to the poor and working-class denizens they have so long ignored, engaging locals like Estes in an ongoing conversation about how to tackle poverty in the onetime capitol of the confederacy. The formal vehicle for these conversations is the Citizens Advisory Board, a participatory innovation intended to bring people from the poorest communities in town to the policy-making table. But the goal is something more ambitious: to make fighting poverty a cornerstone of city policy through an experiment called the Maggie L. Walker Initiative.
“I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think this opportunity could reach down to the least of us,” said Estes, who is an active member of the Citizens Advisory Board, as she sat on a sofa in her book-and-pamphlet filled apartment on a cloyingly hot day last September. “It’s an opportunity to correct policy that was done discriminatorily [both] economically and politically over decades.”