Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute; Senior Fellow (emeritus) at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business
This conversation took place on February 8, 2021
Brian Lowery: Commissioner Silver, who do you think gets to create the vision for public spaces and how they are used?
Mitchell Silver: It’s typically a collective vision. When cities were first being organized and developed, we had to make sure we had roads, sidewalks, housing, etc. But as those things became dense, people began looking for open spaces where they could go to escape and relax. Initially, people started going to cemeteries to try to find that space. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there began a whole movement around city planning, specifically creating the parks and public spaces we’re familiar with today. This planning primarily came from the government; it was top-down. But today, it’s more of a conversation. Here in our New York City parks, for example, we engage the public any time we begin a public project. We want to hear from the residents. If it’s a regional park, we want to hear from a wider audience. We need to make sure all voices are heard. And that means that we don’t just plan for those who show up at the meetings — we go the extra mile, and we go seek out those residents. Typically, those public spaces are where people connect with others; it’s our outdoor living room. For me, it’s vital that as we do place making, we also do place keeping and don’t remove elements that are near and dear to people’s hearts, in which people cherish special memories. Suppose there’s a movement toward more resiliency or sustainability in the parks. In that case, we make sure that the public understands that the things we’re adding to the public space will make it a better environment. And those parts will create more than just a green space; they could help clean water, clean air, and reduce the heat in cities.
Brian Lowery: How did modern public spaces come to be?
Richard Rothstein: New York is unusual because people of different races and ethnic backgrounds live closer to each other than they do in almost anyplace else in the country — it’s a very concentrated community. In most cities of this country, African Americans and other minorities often have less adequate parks, less adequate utilities, and less adequate access to transportation. The interaction of private space and public space is largely determined by racial history. But, although I’m not an expert in New York, I think that it’s unique because everyone lives so close to each other that if they don’t show up at a community meeting, you can go out and get them individually. In most cities in this country, African Americans and whites live so far apart that that wouldn’t be possible. For the past 10 years, I’ve been writing about how they have come to be so far apart. And in this country, we tend to tell ourselves this myth that this is due to “de facto segregation”; people just prefer living with others of the same race, or it’s just due to income differences. In reality, segregation in every metropolitan area in this country is because of a very explicit racial policy implemented through the mid-20th century by federal, state, and local governments. It was designed to ensure that African Americans and whites could not possibly live near one another. That is an unconstitutional system that violated the Fifth and 14th Amendments and needs to be redressed. We fog ourselves with this myth that whatever happened could have only happened naturally or by accident. Unless we understand the unconstitutional nature of how families are distributed throughout this country by race, we can’t overcome the inertia that allows us to keep things the way they are. Without a new civil rights movement, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to do much about it. There’s no political support for these policies. The myth of “de facto segregation” is very comfortable and excuses us from doing anything about it.
Brian Lowery: How does segregation show today in New York?
Mitchell Silver: Richard is right; racism is baked into the American system, and you can see it in almost every neighborhood and even here in New York City. We see it in our park system through Robert Moses, who originally laid out New York City’s parks. Some communities have access to vast, beautiful parks. But when we look at parts of Brooklyn and other parts of New York City, we can see that their parks are tiny and are in much worse condition. They have high fences, people are caged in, and our municipal pools were disgraceful. We also had many rules which I find quite offensive — we had rules about what you can wear (no hoodies and hats), about loitering (which means that you can’t sit or stand idly by with no apparent purpose, and that’s what you do in a park), and many others. Those rules in parks can be weaponized; if people are uncomfortable with a particular individual, they can easily prevent them from enjoying themselves freely in a democratic public space such as a park. We see this inequity in our park system. When I came on board, we launched an initiative called the Community Parks Initiative, which investigated how many of our 2,000 parks had seen little to no investment over the past 20 years. We found out there were over 200. While communities saw other parks being renovated, these parks were frozen in time. We felt that this wasn’t equitable and that we had to do something about it. We’ve focused primarily on those spaces for the past seven years, and, no surprise here, those parks were mainly in Black and brown communities. Because of the density of New York, those parks are your front yard, your backyard, and aren’t just for physical health but for mental health. That was really unpacked during COVID. From my perspective, we did see an inequitable park system, and we saw those barriers and prison-like parks with high, Bear Claw fences telling people that they were trying to protect those green spaces from them. We’ve been trying to address it, and we’ve removed both of those two rules in our parks. You can now loiter in our parks, and we have removed some of those fences, making them more accessible, comfortable, and safe to the public. Every New Yorker deserves a quality public space, and now we’re finally helping deliver that promise.
Brian Lowery: I’ve spent a lot of time in urban areas, and two particular things strike me. First, as you’ve discussed, the parks you see in Black and brown neighborhoods are generally not as nice as the parks you see in predominantly white neighborhoods. And second, sometimes big, shared spaces such as Central Park and Golden Gate Park don’t really feel like they’re for everyone. Can you help me understand why there is that feeling?
Mitchell Silver: Parks are supposed to be welcoming to all, but you could design a park that feels exclusive and makes certain people feel like they don’t belong. For example, Black Americans love to have places to picnic. And many places don’t want to have that disturbance in their park because it has a certain aura or landscape. What are some other things Black Americans like to do in parks — basketball, soccer, barbecue? Some people just don’t want those things going on in the parks because it’s not the kind of feeling they want to offer. They’re designed to be exclusive. Whenever we consider whether we want to add a particular activity to a park — such as a bocce ball court, for example — we ask ourselves whether it will make people feel welcome or like they don’t belong. I’m a runner, but I feel very uncomfortable running on a trail and prefer running in more expansive, open spaces. I also have a specific taste palette. When you offer food, do you offer different choices that include something I would enjoy? If you’re offering people a park — is it diverse; can you see people of all colors? If you can’t, you have to dig deeper to find out why. Why don’t a particular group of people go to this park; what makes them feel uncomfortable? The High Line in New York is often criticized because it’s a linear park and doesn’t have some amenities that allow people to sit down and eat and have a barbecue. But The High Line has been trying hard to get more people of color to come out and enjoy it through programming. It takes effort to be welcoming for all. Brian, if I want to invite you to come to my house, I want to find out what you enjoy eating and what you don’t. The same is true for public spaces — if we’re going to design them, we have to make sure anyone could enjoy them. If some people couldn’t, we have to work on them to fix that. Some people will say, “You’re not putting a basketball court in this park,” which is a code word for “We don’t want Black youth in this park.” I remember one case in Prospect Park where a gentleman called me because Mexican Americans were barbecuing in a part of the park where a barbecue wasn’t permitted, and he asked me to put a stop to it. They were having a great time. So I decided to simply change the rule from “You couldn’t barbecue” to “You could barbecue.” Why force these families to walk another half a mile across the park to do something they could easily do there? I wanted to be more inclusive rather than exclusive so that they could spend time with their family and enjoy the green spaces — something everyone should do.
Richard Rothstein: Why is it that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to want to barbecue in a park than whites? It’s not that it’s some kind of cultural trait inherited from Africa or Mexico or something. It’s because African Americans live in more overcrowded neighborhoods where their social life must take place outside their homes. They have multiple people sleeping in single bedrooms and overflowing into living rooms. They subdivide their homes to be able to make payments on them. And this is how that happened. That’s why social life in those communities is more likely to occur on the streets and in parks than for white communities. The federal government refused to insure mortgages for African Americans in Black neighborhoods to move into suburban areas. There is an explicit design to concentrate African Americans into single urban neighborhoods. When the FHA and VA didn’t insure mortgages, speculators came in and sold homes on contract. It was really a form of rent, but people believed they were buying houses and obtained no equity. If they missed a single payment, they could be evicted. So to make sure they never missed a payment, they subdivided their homes, and the neighborhoods became overcrowded. Although barbecuing in parks is a great tradition, it has historical origins in public policy that was explicitly designed based on race.
Mitchell Silver: I was just reading The Color of Law, and Richard wrote about the Emancipation Park in Austin that was taken away. What is the experience of removing that social, public space? That space was where barbecues would occur, where people would meet on Sundays wearing their Sunday best. That park is so much more than a park for a community — it’s the basis of their culture. Another Emancipation Park in Greenville, North Carolina, was also taken away. Those spaces are hard to get back, and to remove such integral parts of a community’s culture away from them is devastating.
Brian Lowery: Growing up in Chicago, I remember streets rooted in particular ways and barriers that were put up that felt, to me, like they were designed to limit the mobility of people in those neighborhoods. How is public space being used to separate us?
Richard Rothstein: One of the most notorious examples of using highways to create segregation was the routing of the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago, specifically to prevent African Americans from having access to predominantly white neighborhoods. This was something that was done all over the country. Mayors were given the authority to route the spurs from the interstate highway system into their cities and into African American neighborhoods to destroy them. The federal government had a manual that recommended using highways as a barrier to separate Black and white neighborhoods. This is no accident. And to add on what Mitchell said about Emancipation Park — it was taken over to build the first public housing program. Austin was the first place because Lyndon Johnson, the sponsor of the public housing program, was a congressman from Austin. He decided to build three projects in Austin: one for African Americans, one for whites, and one for Hispanics. The African American project was put into Emancipation Park — an exclusively segregated public housing project. But then, the city of Austin decided to concentrate the entire Black population into that one neighborhood. They began to close schools for African Americans anywhere but the neighborhood around Emancipation Park, which meant families had to move to that neighborhood if they wanted their children to be educated. Although they didn’t explicitly create segregation, they simply built schools for African Americans in the Emancipation Park neighborhood and closed them in white neighborhoods, which resulted in geographical separation by race.
Brian Lowery: With all public goods that make living in cities enjoyable, there come costs, such as noise and waste. How do those get allocated across public spaces?
Mitchell Silver: At the EPA under Nixon, we realized that the way we were planning our cities was killing people and wasn’t healthy. In the past, many Black neighborhoods were put close to industrial areas because whites did not want to live there. As city planning became more sophisticated and some environmental rules increased, we started setting aside industrial land. California has a noise ordinance and general codes, but we began to separate some land uses to ensure that industry was far away from people in other places. We became very conscious not to put the undesirable land uses — be it a prison, sewage treatment plant, bus depot, etc. — next to communities of color. It still exists across the country, but now, it’s more known and disclosed due to environmental impact studies. However, our history is littered with Black people living next to some of the worst environmental hazards you could imagine in any city. Today, we make sure we have a waste treatment facility and that those things are now placed far away from residences.
Brian Lowery: If you wanted people to understand the importance of the public space, what would you say to them?
Mitchell Silver: I’ll start with New York City because we’re the densest city in the country, with 27,000 people per square mile. And I define public space as more than just the parks — the plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc. The biggest thing going forward is to reclaim public space for people, and not for cars parked on the street. I have called the parks here during COVID as the “sanctuaries of sanity.” When people were locked at home and couldn’t go out, the parks were the only public gathering place that remained open, which meant that people were going there for their physical and mental health. They became the stage, the office. The other important aspect of parks is that they’re our first line of defense against climate change. Right now, the parks are doing stormwater retention, absorbing carbon dioxide via the greenery, and reducing the heat in our cities. New York City has 155 miles of parks on the coast, and we’re rebuilding these parks to help protect people from the rise in sea level and storm surges. Our parks are essentially saving our lives — both through assisting to prevent climate change and by benefitting our mental health. Lastly, they’re also our social gathering spaces, places where people of all races and colors can come together for festivals and events.
Brian Lowery: Where would you start if you were to try to produce a more equitable city? What features of the city would you focus on first, given the historical precedents in how we’ve created the way we live now?
Richard Rothstein: The policies to create a more equitable city are well known. What’s missing is the political support for them. And that’s not a question of Democrat vs. Republican — the base of the Democratic Party doesn’t support the policies that are necessary to create the kind of equitable future we’re envisioning. If I had to start somewhere, I would first abolish single-family zoning laws that prohibit African Americans and Hispanics from accessing high-opportunity communities. The only things that are allowed to be built in those are single-family homes on large lot sizes, and I think that such rules are unconstitutional because they perpetuate segregation. The federal government prohibited African Americans from moving to those communities when they were affordable. When they became unaffordable, the communities adopted zoning ordinances that ensured African Americans could not move into them. However, there’s no support for this. The Democratic Party, for instance, is a coalition of both low-income minority voters and suburban “not in my backyard” whites. The challenge is to develop a political coalition that supports the redress of segregation without dividing the Democratic Party over it. I’m currently working with a group of civil rights and fair housing leaders to create what we call a “new movement” to redress racial segregation. Instead of focusing on policy advocacy, we’re going to focus on creating new civil rights groups that will make it uncomfortable for people to maintain the segregation we’ve created. For example, there’s a town called Levittown just outside of New York City, which has 17,000 homes financed by the FHAA. When Levitt received the loan to build that development, he had to commit to never sell or rent a home to an African American. Those homes have since escalated in value — from $100,000 to up to $400,000. African Americans don’t have the down payments to access that community in the way most middle-class families do today: the appreciation of their home values. African Americans were prohibited from purchasing homes that would appreciate. To solve this, we should have an affirmative action program in housing (although I know that that is not politically realistic). The federal government should be buying up homes in Levittown for $400,000 and reselling them at deeply discounted rates, and providing down-payment assistance for African Americans to allow them to move into that community. As a result of the Fair Housing Act, Levittown is currently 1-2% African American, but it’s in a neighborhood that’s 15% African American. That difference in percentages is something that an affirmative action program in housing would address. But there’s no political support for such a program, and until we create that political support, this problem will remain.
Brian Lowery: How do you think we could deal with entrenched interests and the likely backlash that an affirmative action housing program would receive?
Richard Rothstein: I don’t have practical solutions in the current political environment for you. As I said, we need a new civil rights movement that will change the conversation in this country. It was just as impractical in 1960 to desegregate lunch counters, buses, or any other segregated institutions in the South that the civil rights movement eventually succeeded in desegregating. I’m not in favor of busing — people should be able to go to their neighborhood schools, but the neighborhood itself should be integrated. I used to be an education columnist and writer, and I came to this topic very late. And the reason I came to this topic was because of just this. The reason that schools are segregated is that the neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. I began to conclude that neighborhood segregation was an educational policy problem. When you concentrate children with serious economic disadvantages into schools where those disadvantages overwhelm the ability of the schools to educate them, you’re not going to close what educators call the achievement gap.
Mitchell Silver: I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, which had a unique system. They essentially had magnet schools that would attract some white suburban students, which freed up seats in some white suburban schools. What I found very interesting was that if you moved into a neighborhood, you had no idea what school you were going to. This frustrated the parents because, typically, they would buy into a neighborhood because they wanted to buy into that neighborhood school. However, that was taken off the table. But this was controversial because, whether Black, white, or Hispanic, people had to travel a distance to be bused into a school. That was their way of equalizing and reducing the achievement gap.
Brian Lowery: Because of COVID, many people have been moving out of the cities into more affordable places. What do you imagine that will do to the city?
Mitchell Silver: I try to distinguish between what is a trend and what is trendy, and to me, it hasn’t been long enough to find out whether the people who left will return. Although now they can technically work anywhere they want, I think they will miss the city’s energy when it returns. But what I do know is that we are going to have to reinvent the public space. We’ve seen play streets, we’ve seen shared streets, and we’ve seen restaurants now occupying parking spots. I believe that’s all going to stay with us, and we’re going to see fewer cars dominating our public realm.
Brian Lowery: If you were to predict the consequences of COVID in terms of equity in urban areas, what would you say?
Richard Rothstein: COVID has created a housing emergency, which means that the policies I talked about before — even if we had the political support for them — can’t be our priority right now. First, we have to address the evictions, the rent, and the foreclosures. However, once that’s done, I think we need to think more broadly about redressing segregation, specifically in four main areas: 1) giving better housing to those suffering in low-income, segregated neighborhoods; 2) preventing massive displacement from gentrification through rigorous rent control; 3) a program that provides families with access to higher-opportunity communities; and 4) stabilizing the desegregation of neighborhoods that are in the process of transitioning from white to African American, mainly communities in inner suburbs. However, I don’t think we can address all of these without a civil rights movement that will change the political climate.