Where did you work before coming to Virginia Tech?
I was employed by the federal government for four years prior to coming to Virginia Tech, working in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Policy Develop and Research (PD&R). At PD&R, I investigated the effectiveness of national community development initiatives, such as the Empowerment Zone, the HOPE VI (Housing for People Everywhere) and Community Development Block Grant programs, on cities. After spending two years at HUD, I transitioned to the US Department of the Treasury, within the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, which regulates the country’s large national banks. While at the Treasury, I focused my research on exploring the predictors and consequences of the subprime/foreclosure crisis within minority communities.
While most of my federal government research was quantitative in nature, I am primarily an ethnographer and I returned to academia in 2009 at Virginia Tech to begin an in-depth qualitative investigation of community revitalization in Washington, DC’s historic, African-American Shaw/U Street neighborhood. I also came back academia to teach and mentor students so that my research findings would be disseminated beyond policy circles.
What spawned your interest in urban phenomena, particularly inner city revitalization?
Even though I grew up in a small, segregated, suburban town outside of New York City (NYC), my inner city research focus developed while I was in high school. While in high school, I had lofty aspirations to play big time college basketball. My suburban coaches told me that I needed to play in NYC to fully develop my basketball skills. I joined an AAU team, the Riverside Hawks, based out of West Harlem, and played throughout for two years during the late 80s and early 90s. Harlem was experiencing the tail end of the crack epidemic and it was evident in and around the places I played. I took note of community’s distressed conditions, the vacant and abandoned buildings, the homeless, the drug addicted, and the drug dealers.
I witnessed, first hand, how this difficult environment was affecting my teammates and friends. Our coach paid for SAT tutoring and one day, he asked how many of us had scored over a 700 (back when it was out of 1600). At the time I was the only one who had exceeded that score on this important college entrance exam. After spending time with my teammates, I did not perceive a difference between my intellectual capabilities and theirs. I thought there had to be something about the distressed social environment that was preventing my friends, many whom lived in Harlem and the South Bronx, from reaching their academic potential. They attended the city’s poor schools, dealt with violence and drugs, while I just came to Harlem to play ball and then returned home to my more affluent, sheltered suburban environment. My early experience in Harlem fueled my passion to understand and address concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage.
What are your main research projects at the present time?
My research focuses on the redevelopment of inner city, minority areas, specifically I am interested in understanding how to facilitate equitable development that ultimately benefits long-term residents. Currently, I am finishing a manuscript about the revitalization of Washington, DC’s Shaw/U Street area that seeks to answer three key questions: what are the primary development dynamics related to the revival of this community; how are upper- and middle-income newcomers engaging politically with longstanding residents; and what are the mechanisms by which low-income people benefit when their neighborhood redevelops around them? The University of Chicago Press will publish this book next year.
I am still continuing the quantitative subprime/foreclosure research I began at the Department of the Treasury. I have a paper that demonstrates that metropolitan segregation is an important predictor of subprime lending. In another recent work, with David Kirk, we uncover that in Chicago foreclosure concentration does not predict neighborhood crime once factors such as prior concentrated disadvantage and segregation are taken into account. In a third project, sets out to isolate statistically the mechanisms that connect segregation to foreclosure concentration.
Another upcoming article, to be published in the Urban Affairs Review, compares the old urban renewal phase (from 1949 to 1974) with the new urban renewal period (from 1992 to 2007). The paper highlights the important differences between these seemingly similar critical urban development phases. In the old urban renewal race trumped class when it came to understanding urban develop policy impacts on minorities and in the more recent period policy outcomes on minorities are better understood through an intersection of race and class.
What’s unique about how you tackle your research?
Much of my research uses an ethnographic method to study neighborhood change in cities. I attempt to understand development dynamics and consequences through the perspectives of those who live in transforming communities. I hang out with people, talk with them and participate in neighborhood events. This type of participatory research elicits tacit, deep knowledge on community-level processes that are often difficult to decipher apart from their context. I learn from being socially embedded in the environments I am studying.
Basketball not only spawned my research interests but it has also helped me in my data collection process in unexpected ways. My 2008 book, The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville (University of Chicago Press) was aided by my participation with basketball. For example, I first met New York assemblyman, Keith Wright, at the Harlem YMCA, which led to an incredible opportunity to work in his 125th Street office. This experience helped me gain access to and learn about Harlem’s political infrastructure. Similarly, in Chicago, while conducting research on the changing conditions of Bronzeville, I was invited to play on a basketball team based out of Stateway Gardens, a public housing project on the city’s South Side. Participating in community life, sometime through basketball, has helped me form relationships and build a certain level of trust that added depth to my urban ethnographic research.
What is the impact of your research on cities and urban planning?
My research has had an impact on federal policy debates and local conditions. My research on subprime lending has been cited in several Congressional testimonies and this empirical research has influenced the country’s lending reform debates. In 2011, I was selected to serve on the US Small Business Administration’s Council on Underserved Communities. In this role I have made recommendations to reform policies to better facilitate sustainable lending to small businesses in disadvantaged communities. In 2012, I became Chair of the Alexandria (Virginia) Redevelopment and Housing Authority. In this capacity, I try, when possible, to use my empirical knowledge base to inform local policy decisions to improve the opportunity structure for low- and moderate-income people in the city of Alexandria. Towards this end the housing authority is working to create truly inclusive, mixed-income housing developments that provide a healthy physical and social environment for people to reach their personal goals and innate potential.
The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville. The University of Chicago Press, 2008.
The New Urban Renewal is a comparative ethnography tracing the redevelopment experiences of two historic black communities, Bronzeville in Chicago and Harlem in New York City. This book illuminates the complicated web of factors—local, national, and global—driving the remarkable revitalization of these iconic neighborhoods.