Roadside Chat with Matthew Howard on Race and Mobility | Part 3 of 3

Picture of Matthew Howard.

Matthew Howard is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington (UW) Seattle.

Among other topics, he studies how historical events shape the African American identity and experiences, in both literature and life. He started at SDOT on April 1, 2020 and is working with the Street Use Communications team.

We sat down with Matthew, who shared with us how he hopes his work on transportation and more broadly, on issues of mobility, will empower Black people and provide deeper insight for how race and mobility affect social change.  

This is the final installment of our three-part Roadside Chat with Matthew, condensed for clarity and readability. Please read the first and second blogs, too! 

We ended last week’s Q&A discussing how, throughout history, many Black people have not been able to be truly mobile or to change how they’re legible because of historical and cultural misconceptions of stereotyped identities.  


How have these historical realities affected communities with respect to a more traditional understanding of mobility? I’m thinking of mobility as things like transportation infrastructure, and the delivery of other civic amenities and services. 


First, we have to understand that Black people’s mobility has historically been influenced by people who saw Black legibility as inferior and acted intentionally against Black interests. For example, African Americans have been forced into housing and spaces that were either deemed less-than-desirable, or that became less-than-desirable because African Americans were there. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration ushered in practices that led to redlining – the process of drawing lines on a map around neighborhoods and city spaces that intentionally segregate people of color – through government-backed loans that heavily favored white veterans and citizens. Suburban homes became more affordable and clauses were put into those house deeds and titles to ensure only white people could live there.  

The Seattle Municipal Archives provides a detailed overview of redlining in Seattle

Maps like this one of Seattle were gerrymandered to show areas that were deemed “Hazardous” or “Definitely Declining” based on the presence of Black and Brown communities living there. Fewer and fewer white people would move there as a result. Interestingly enough, spaces like the Central District were labelled “hazardous” due to deterioration of not only housing but of streets, lack of adequate lighting at night, and many other factors that would be considered SDOT and the City’s responsibility to improve. Many of these areas have historically received – and continue to receive – less attention and fewer resources for infrastructure from city government. Infrastructure and the availability of transportation resources are bound up with the history of other forms of racist discrimination in our region and our country.  

Black communities have historically been given a smaller platform to express their opposition to development successfully, when they are priced-out of their neighborhood due to an increased interest in the space. This leads to gentrification.  


Can you share a little more about what you mean by “gentrification,” and how this plays out in Seattle? What can city government do to be more aware of the implications of development on predominantly Black communities? 


Let’s sit for a moment with the term gentrification. It often conjures up images of “unattractive” neighborhoods being made “cool” or “modern.” It is a mistake to reduce gentrification to such a generic and flat definition. Broadly speaking, gentrification is a process that alters urban spaces to suit the sensibilities of the middle class. That often looks like the renovation of neighborhoods; where crumbling infrastructure and broken home windows once existed, increased city public space projects, private development of luxurious (that is, more expensive) residences, and mainstream commercial businesses become the norm. But before gentrification, these areas were often occupied by people of lower socioeconomic status – which has become code for most Black and Brown communities in this country’s cities. Renovation increases attention from people in and outside the city. This new population’s desire to live in a nice part of town – that offers all the comforts that their middle class sensibilities have come to normalize – drives prices upward. This increase in living costs (like rent, food, property taxes, and more) forces people of color and people of lower socioeconomic status out of that neighborhood. While the process of gentrification looks like much-needed attention and progress devoted to a space, the real cost is the displacement of people who originally cultivated the space to suit their community’s needs over years and even generations. 

In short, gentrification often prevents Black people’s mobility. Instead, it favors a space’s potential to generate profit over Black people’s personal capacities to change their own socioeconomic status.  

To drive this point home, I’ll bring in a pertinent topic: Seattle’s Central District and Rainier Valley. It’s often easier to both live in and locate large capital projects in places where property values are low. Places like the Central District and Rainier Valley became the locus for new companies and residents to settle, given how much cheaper it is to live and develop in these spaces. This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to move to a more affordable place.

Rather, like I was saying before, the process of taking into account Black mobility involves constant conversations with oneself and decision-makers about the implications of that on the Black community: whether you are a transplant from another state or a City worker. 

Examining past years can reveal a pervasive problem where city workers might not take into account the complex positionalities of all the people they serve. I argue that when city workers try to change the layout of that space, they imply that they know what’s best for those communities. This attitude (whether intentional or not) has the potential to open up a similar problem that led to redlining in the first place. Shouldn’t the people who live there have a say in their own homes? Without feedback and dialogue between the community and the organization, it becomes easier to forget the positionalities of constituents and make decisions based on what makes sense to the decision-makers.  

Case in point, SDOT’s Stay Healthy Streets (SHS) is a program that turns neighborhood streets into community-based avenues for safe socially-distanced activities like walking, jogging, biking, and playing. Under this system the streets can be used for more than just cars and encourages people to get out and have fun. The SHS might seem a good idea for some people but not for others – namely because different communities have different needs for their spaces. Since the implementation of SHS, SDOT has held surveys that take into account the needs of people for where and how these streets are implemented. Just this type of feedback can begin to resolve (it is by no means the full resolution) the issues of the past and move us beyond ways of doing business that disenfranchise and silence BIPOC communities.  


So how does all of this impact your understanding of what it means to do meaningful, transformative work in transportation? By this, I mean work that can intervene in the history of discrimination and actually change outcomes for Black people.   


As I explained earlier, the positionality of all our residents first needs to be considered when we make decisions that impact communities – especially communities we are not a part of. Additionally, how communities are made legible to us often involves many biases that are incumbent on us to understand, challenge, and overcome.  

One way that we can begin to undo these practices is by investing time and effort in collaborating with communities in Seattle’s Central District (CD), Chinatown International District (CID), and Rainier Valley – to incorporate their voices in an effective manner so that we not only know their needs and desires, but continue to build connections based on equitable representation and accountability to communities. We see some of this work already being done with Racial Equity Toolkits (RETs) that City workers use to determine what projects make sense and will have a positive impact on marginalized communities. 

Very recently, a shift has occurred that encourages transportation and permitting entities to better serve the needs of underrepresented populations in cities. The Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) has brought new understanding to SDOT and beyond to ensure that people who are in charge of how the cityscape looks and operates pay particular attention to how development in lower income areas impacts residents.  SDOT has done quite a bit to mitigate the history of excluding BIPOC voices by engaging in conversation with communities. From surveys, to Town Hall meetings, to online forums and blogs, the hard work of starting community-led projects is going strong here – and yet there is still more work to do. My conceptualization of mobility is that it requires ongoing discourse between people and institutions of power to ensure that the interests of the people being served are always foregrounded.  


Let’s circle back to your concept of mobility. How can knowing this history, and being aware of positionality and legibility, influence our work to enable greater mobility (broadly construed) for Black communities and promote transportation equity?  


REFRESHER:

Matthew provided his concept of mobility in the last blog: “the ability to self-determine is to move through space freely as well as do things that will impact one’s positionality in spite of their legibility within society.”

Transportation authorities have often worked in tandem with cities and private developers to build freeways and other thoroughfares through low-income communities. But, they’ve also worked intimately with Black communities to ensure they get the most of their living spaces. This proves that the potential exists to do this good work or do harm to Black mobility. With more thoughtful engagement with Black people’s positionalities from people who are not themselves Black, we could see a positive shift in thinking about how to maximize Black mobility.   

It’s not just about helping get Black communities to move through our city, nor is it about their ability to be better off financially. It’s about working alongside Black people to ensure that they can make changes in conjunction with the people who run their cities and with their neighbors. 

Maybe, instead of allowing a developer to build in a space in a way that ostracizes the Black community, we actively seek out applicants who will enrich the community as it is, meet the needs of the people already there, and continue to build upon the legacy of strength and resilience without changing the landscape for those who lived there before and want to remain in their homes. This way, gentrification can be mitigated as much as possible and we can see these communities thrive instead of displacing them. 

It took centuries to create the current situation that Black people find themselves in. Events that have negatively affected Black people and communities have occurred without giving Black people the right – the potential, even – to succeed by their own means. 

This means we must actively engage with, and aid in the repair of, Black relations with city government and other civic leaders. If we begin to change our philosophy about what our impact and intentions are for including Black people in our decision making, policy creation, and more, we have a chance to help Black people be genuinely mobile in the broadest sense of the term.