Communities of Color Must Turn The Tide Against Urban Planning's 'Creative' Destruction

Let’s face it. America’s cities are riddled with a history of racist urban policies that are responsible for the likes of residential segregation, deteriorating conditions in communities that are predominantly of color, immigrant neighborhoods without access to healthy foods or reliable public transportation, and a wealth gap that continues to see women of color working more for less. These are but a few products of policies since this country’s inception that highlight how inequity and privilege are tied into critical institutions, such as justice and law, housing, finance, education, workforce development—this list, unfortunately, goes on. Urban planning [1], a field once responsible for many of these evils, has an ability to face these ills with a critical lens that is cognizant of the past and to employ radical approaches to urban processes that lift the voices of historically underserved communities. But is it enough?

Because so much of urban planning, policy, and development had revolved around the perspectives of white men [2], communities of color continue to bear the brunt of decades’ worth of inequitable practices. Policies like the Federal Highway Act (1956) have annihilated strong community networks, while also contributing to issues such as the concentration of poverty. These programs and policies, argued as a means to better connect and economically advance our cities, have had lasting effects on Black and Brown communities, likely to be placed nearby undesirable highways, or to have a noxious copper plating facility as a next door neighbor. This type of spatial relationship not only isolates these neighborhoods, but also exacerbates poor health conditions due to environmental determinants that have a large impact on health outcomes. Planning practices shifted in the 60s, marked by Paul Davidoff’s [3] work that provided urban planning theorists and professionals a new framework for recognizing the ways marginalized communities were impacted by the string of policies that had dictated urban life for the majority of the 20th century.

This history is perhaps best described in the progression of urban development in New York City. Much of the city’s landscape in the 20th century was shaped by Robert Moses, often referred to as the city’s “master builder.” He favored massive highway projects as the primary means of transportation, and in doing so, obliterated the neighborhoods of low-income communities of color to build highways. This led to mass displacement and a concentration of poverty in public housing projects, as well as poor health outcomes for communities forced to live in close proximity to industry and highways. These effects are still present today.

Since these policies and development programs have focused on building wealth and advancing white communities, whether by explicit intent or through its outcome, communities of color have dealt with catastrophic effects like having a life expectancy that is almost ten years lower than their white neighbors [4]. Fortunately, the Civil Rights Era had brought changes to these practices and planners caught on and started work to undo some of the ills of the midcentury. The rise of advocating for communities with a bottom up approach and the specific focus on disadvantaged communities have since become the focus of many planners.

The shift towards advocacy planning that came in the 1960s would support the activism of San Francisco's Filipino immigrant community in the story of the International Hotel is a landmark event in the history of Filipino immigrant activism and reflects the battle between top-down planning policies and the genesis of bottom-up and community-led practices that was happening across the nation at the time.


The International Hotel, San Francisco

In the in the mid-1900s, International Hotel (I-Hotel) was a low-income, single room occupancy (SRO) building situated in San Francisco’s historic Manilatown, home to elderly low-income Filipino and Chinese immigrants. It had a culturally flourishing community, similar to many immigrant communities that rely heavily on their social structure, but was beginning to face the pressures of neighborhood change and development from the rapidly growing Financial District and urban renewal initiatives of the time. Late in 1968, I-Hotel’s property owner issued an eviction notice ordering all tenants be out by January of the following year.

The fight to save I-Hotel in the decade that followed proved to be tumultuous, but highlights a massive organizing effort that turned out thousands of community members across the Bay Area as incredible for its time—something it needed to be to battle insidious forces of institutional inequities deeply embedded in urban policies. After years of highly contested public hearings, court cases, general public votes, and other political actions, the City of San Francisco eventually decided to use eminent domain [5] to buy I-Hotel in order to sell the land back to the tenants’ associations. The courts, however, ruled it illegal for the City to use eminent domain to take property from one private owner, to sell to another private entity.

Official orders to forcibly evict remaining I-Hotel tenants from their homes were carried through, and in the very early morning of August 4th, 1977 some 2,000 protestors were greeted by a heavily armed group of four hundred policemen. The police force violently charged forward, ramming through the protesters, and using strategic aerial ladders, reached the doors and windows of I-Hotel and removed all residents and protesters that were on the premises. I-Hotel was eventually demolished in the Fall of 1979.

The fall of I-Hotel highlighted some of the ways in which cities and local organizations began to work together. An International Hotel Citizens Advisory Committee formed immediately after the fall of I-Hotel, and along with the City, navigated the long process of ensuring that an equitable project come from this experience. While failed efforts to build out a project that would be of service left the former site vacant for more than 25 years, coordination between various government agencies at all levels, and local community groups finally developed two new facilities in 2005: International Hotel and International Hotel Manila Center, which would contained affordable housing for seniors.

I-Hotel was not unique in that it was one of the many hundreds of urban renewal [6] efforts that took place in 993 cities throughout America from 1949-1973. As in the case with I-Hotel, urban renewal, now rapid gentrification and displacement, causes marginalized communities to routinely suffer the symbolic and physical losses [7] of valuable social networks and localized systems of support that are attached to the physicality of one’s home. Dr. Mindy Fullilove theorized this affective state and its effects as “root shock,” which underscores what it means to experience “the destruction of part or all of one’s emotional ecosystem” in the context of urban renewal projects that annihilate community support systems within minority neighborhoods.

I-Hotel was such a case, in that the loss of this building meant the symbolic and physical loss of a community and the valuable social networks that helped support daily life for the elderly Filipino American immigrants who had been displaced. The development pressures that encroached on this area prolonged any reestablishment of the social services or affordable housing and meant that the needs of the displaced immigrants would not come for more than two decades [8]. Filipino immigrants in San Francisco were pushed out of the city and into neighboring jurisdictions as a result of the decline of spaces like I-Hotel.


What can we learn from this?

The question remains: are contemporary methods of urban planning enough to begin to remedy the longstanding damages spawned from a string of harmful urban policies? As a budding planner, I can only draw from the experiences of my mentors and from the growing body of work of radical planners that have taken on urban planning as a platform to challenge the status quo. The question, for me and fortunately for a considerable amount of planning practitioners, is how to meaningfully embed equity at the forefront of planning processes. More and more, cities have started to identify the longstanding history of inequitable policies [9] and have implemented practices and policies to address said inequities.

There are many groups working to take on the fight for underserved communities in the context of rapidly changing urban landscapes. Housing rights’ groups, economic justice groups, and environmental justice organizations have started coalitions that address the role of rapid development of their neighborhood. Relatively recently, the role of culture and arts are topics that have been looked into as far as how they can be used as advocacy tools for their communities. Advocacy organizations [10], such as Urban Habitat and Center for Policy Initiatives, have also started a push for community members to build the knowledge to effectively sit on local boards and commissions and better inform the decision processes in their neighborhood. The fight to take back our city and to ensure equity is not something that we can can afford to sit watch play out. To create the spaces that underserved communities deserve and have the right to, it requires involvement in these organizations as well as in the formal development processes that happen within the city. Only by facing the problematic history of urban policies and its effects on marginalized communities can we then take on the work of environmental justice.


Follow Francis on Twitter @_ianfrancis and Instagram @ianfrancis


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[1] “Urban planning” and “city planning” are used interchangeably in this article.

[2] This article introduces the role of women in the history of urban planning and the prioritization of male planners in the field.

[3] Influenced largely by the work of the Civil Rights Movement, Paul Davidoff’s “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning” marks a revolutionary shift in the field of urban planning: the approach of prioritizing and developing urban processes from the perspective and voice of historically marginalized communities. Davidoff highlights the importance of a plurality of voices that needed at the decision making process and the role of planners as advocates to the multiplicity of community concerns.

[4] East Harlem residents have a life expectancy of 76, while their affluent neighbors in the Upper East Side, literally one street over, have a life expectancy of 85.

[5] Eminent domain is the tool and practice that cities use to legally take one’s property, providing just compensation, for the purpose of public good.

[6] This article details the experience of a resident living in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood at the time when his neighborhood was deemed a site for an urban renewal project. It illustrates the struggles that low-income communities of color faced with urban renewal projects.

[7] Root Shock is an incredible read that ties in Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s expertise in psychiatry with the concrete physical interventions (disruptions) as caused by urban renewal programs and its effects on communities of color.

[8] This book, authored by Estella Habal, has provided much of the rich source material for this article. It is a deep dive into intricacies of the International Hotel story and is highly recommended for further reading.

[9] Office of Neighborhood Safety is one such agency in the City of Richmond that employs radical approaches to addressing crime with the critical understanding of race as it applies policing and the justice system.

[10] Urban Habitat and Center for Policy Initiatives run trainings that help arm communities of color with the knowledge and capacity to sit on boards and commissions trainings.