Between 1990 and 2010, roughly 10 percent of all newly formed cities in the country were what are called "Cities of Color"—cities with non-white majorities that often form in response to a lack of services or specific social justice concerns. These cities promise a new status quo but can face significant challenges. A new study in the Journal of Urban Affairs tracked the outcomes of four of the roughly 44 new Cities of Color formed over the two-decade span of time and found that incorporation could be a useful tool for communities looking to grow business, add parks and population but that, in the case of several case studies, often came with trade-offs.
The idea is not new, to be sure. Some of the earliest examples of the promise of incorporation and community-building come from Freedmen's towns. "By 1888, at least 200 black towns and communities had been established nationwide," according to the Washington Post. "These self-sufficient freedom colonies were established under the most difficult of circumstances by industrious, intelligent and organized people acting much like current-day city planners," Texas A&M University Assistant Professor Andrea Roberts said in a recent interview about her Texas Freedom Colonies Project documenting the many communities here in Texas, "— and some of their descendants are performing the work of preservationists today.”
But incorporation has also often served as a way for white communities to further separate the advantages of majority-white spaces. Still, it is still seen as a potential tool for non-white populations in reclaiming some control over service provision, economic development and other important city functions.
Of those more recently incorporated Cities of Color, the majority are located in just six states: Texas, Florida, Alaska, North Carolina, California, and Oklahoma, according to another recent study published in Urban Geography from Leora Waldner of Troy University and Russell M. Smith of Winston-Salem State University. Similar to majority-white cities, they tended to be concentrated in metropolitan areas but, unlike majority-white cities, they "had larger populations, larger household sizes and lower median family incomes."
Direct racism was just one of the reasons pushing these new cities to incorporate, according to Waldner and Smith. But indirect racism was present in other reasons offered. "When compared to all new cities," they note, "majority-minority cities are far more likely to form to combat environmental racism or other nuisances, such as an undesirable land use like a hog farm or hazardous waste plant. Majority-minority cities are also far more likely to form in reaction to lack of public services, often caused by decades of prior county government neglect."
How effective is incorporation in achieving some of these goals? Thinking is split on this, explained the researchers in the Journal of Urban Affairs; "Is municipal incorporation a spatial justice tool, one that allows communities of color to enhance services and local control? Or, by ossifying separate tax bases, does municipal incorporation simply perpetuate racial and fiscal ills?"
To answer that, Kristine Stilwell of the University of North Georgia, Waldner and Smith looked at four recently formed majority-black cities in the South: two in Florida, one in North Carolina and another in Lousiana. Drawing from fiscal data as well as years of news coverage, the researchers considered the challenges each city confronted after incorporation and how they fared decades later.
The challenges were often significant. Because many of the cities incorporated in direct response to a lack of investment, they often started with fewer resources. As one reporter put it at the time of incorporation for Green Level, North Carolina, according to the study, there were “no grocery stores, no stoplights and no fast food restaurants, unless you count the swift service at the Golden Slipper Café."
In another case study from St. Gabriel, Louisiana, residents in a high-poverty, majority-black area with 19 chemical plants incorporated in order to prevent the development of yet another proposed hazardous plant.
Incorporation was also sometimes the only option, as in the case of West Park, Florida. The surrounding county passed a law requiring communities to incorporate or be annexed, but, as one resident is noted as saying in the study, "Nobody wants to annex us and nobody can be forced to. … The only choice we really have is to become our own city."
For Green Level, once incorporated, the city then faced additional obstacles to what was, for many other cities, basic governance. Without a commercial tax base, the city sought to annex a four-square-mile, extra territorial jurisdiction (ETJ). According to the researchers, this should have been a routine move, one many other North Carolina municipalities had pursued without hearings or pushback.
"Yet for Green Level," the report notes, "the county decided to hold three public hearings on Green Level’s ETJ proposal." The divide reflected, according to one local news source, “pitting the white ‘farm people’ against a small town with an overwhelmingly black population." There were several lawsuits but the city was ultimately successful.
In Miami Gardens, Florida, city officials found similar recalcitrance from the surrounding county after incorporating. "The city manager characterized county personnel as unwilling to develop interlocal agreements concerning fees, taxes, and services," notes the study, and after incorporation, "the county charged the new city as much as $7.9 million for transition services."
Over time, Green Level added a sheriff substation, a park, businesses, including a Dollar General and managed to finance street improvements, a town hall renovation and new water storage tank, which the researchers cite as signs of Green Level's success.
Miami Gardens, after raising property taxes, found financial stability but, as the researchers explain, "[u]nderlying poverty tempers the city’s success and continues to shape its evolution." There, residents struggled to deal with the crime that was one of the driving forces behind incorporation. "As Miami Gardens' property tax revenues plummeted to the third-lowest in the county, residents blamed the [housing] projects filling the neighborhood — and directly surrounding the school — for importing a culture of drugs and crime," according to a 2009 piece in the Miami New Times. "The controversial stance was made official in 2007 when Mayor Shirley Gibson vowed her city would allow no more low-income housing developments."
Drawing on survey data from the other Cities of Color, the researchers conclude that "the majority of new Cities of Color survived and successfully provided services to their communities."
And in the case of the four example cities, despite initial challenges, there appeared to be signs of growth and success. "As entities, the new cities clearly succeeded. All four remained incorporated, provided services and achieved fiscal stability." But even as the cities added business and population, the researchers note, "that institutional success did not always translate into success for the individual residents within these communities."
Ultimately, because of the deep footprint of segregation, the researchers conclude, that the idea of public choice and voting with your feet for residents looking to improve their situations is not genuinely available to many Black-majority communities. "[M]unicipal incorporation," then, "can be viewed as one of the limited range of responses communities of color have to metropolitan fragmentation and spatial injustice."
For these communities, the researchers write, "New city formation does appear to hold promise as a social justice tool for communities of color," according to the researchers, "though a trade-off may exist in the form of property and other tax increases."
Is it worth it? "At this juncture, cityhood does appear to be a potent tool to enhance self-governance, services, and spatial justice, though at the price of higher taxes in the four cities studied."