In the years since U.S. cities erupted in anger in the 1960s, many of the conditions that fueled that unrest — even with the ideas drafted to address them — have changed little. Most deeply poor urban neighborhoods have remained that way. Schools that for a time grew more integrated have resegregated. Aggressive policing has continued as a defining feature of urban life for young black men.
But the American city itself has changed. Or, at least, many of them have. Downtowns became a destination again for white diners and even residents. “Tech hubs” arrived. Stadiums and condos were built. Restaurants proliferated. Rents rose. Decent manufacturing and clerical jobs all but disappeared, replaced by a vast low-wage service sector. And the gaps between the most prosperous neighborhoods and those still trapped in poverty grew wider and more visible.
This expanding urban inequality is now implicated in new waves of unrest, another source of rage, inseparable from race, bound up with all the older ones. If protesters in the 1960s cried out from black neighborhoods that had seen severe disinvestment, now they are calling attention to cities that have experienced enormous investment — investment that excludes them.
In Chicago, protesters have converged on Michigan Avenue, the city’s famous strip of high-end retail. In Atlanta, it has been affluent Buckhead. In Philadelphia, Center City. In New York, SoHo. In Los Angeles, protest leaders have deliberately steered toward upscale neighborhoods, including downtown and Beverly Hills.
The late-night looting that has followed some of these demonstrations has left a similar string of upscale targets: a Nordstrom in Seattle, an Apple Store in Minneapolis, an REI in Santa Monica, California.
There is limited symbolism in a store hit by opportunistic looting. But historians have noted the shifting geography of protest. In 1964 in Philadelphia, black neighborhoods along Columbia Avenue and North Broad Street were damaged, Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University, pointed out. This time, high-end Chestnut and Walnut streets around Rittenhouse Square downtown were hit over the weekend, before unrest spread through much of the city. In Los Angeles, where Watts was a site of unrest in 1960s, now Rodeo Drive is one instead.
In Washington, where protest in the 1960s left decadeslong scars on commercial corridors in black neighborhoods, some people at protests near the White House this week also vandalized the surrounding blocks of high-end restaurants that host power lunches and offices where the well-off bank and work. Scrawled across several buildings, alongside “Black Lives Matter,” was another slogan: “Eat the Rich.”
“The anger being felt is not just the deep injustice of police brutality,” said Saru Jayaraman, who has for years organized for fair wages for tipped workers. Those workers, she said, are now being told that their wages aren’t high enough to qualify for state unemployment insurance — at a time when large corporations are getting millions in aid. Anger boiling over now, she said, is also about “the injustice of the corporate control of our democracy and the 1% really benefiting off the fruits of their labor.”
George Floyd, whose death at the hands of the Minneapolis police set off the protests, was a restaurant worker — a security guard at a Minneapolis restaurant and nightclub — and had lost his job in the pandemic, she added.
In the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, black workers before the pandemic staffed stores where they couldn’t afford to shop and served meals in restaurants where their wages wouldn’t cover dinner. Now protest is happening there, too.
“I’m not particularly surprised that protesters went straight to the Apple Store and Gucci and Prada and the Lenox Mall — that’s deliberate,” said George Chidi, a longtime writer in Atlanta who has also worked on homelessness there. “What it says is if you’re walking around tomorrow with a Fendi bag, who is to say if you bought it or stole it?”
It makes it hard to tell who is the diner and who is the server.
“People are trying very hard to avoid the word ‘serf,’ but that’s kind of where we are right now,” Chidi said of the modern urban economy. “Honestly, we’ve created a class to exploit.”
Booming Atlanta relies on hotel clerks, nannies, gardeners, house cleaners, car washers, Uber drivers, janitors who clean fancy gyms and couriers who deliver from trendy restaurants. Jobs like these are what tend to be available now to workers without a college degree who 50 years ago could have found middle-class work in factories and offices.
As that work has declined, economist David Autor says, the economic promise of cities for the poor has dwindled, too. He uses the term “wealth work” for a new subset of service jobs like the baristas who make $7 lattes or the trainers who work in gyms — meaning not that they offer the workers who do them wealth but that they exist because of the wealth of others.
“There’s a lot of people who are there to serve the comfort and convenience and care of affluent individuals,” Autor said.
Such low-wage jobs in cities are disproportionately held by minority workers. And these are the people hit hardest by job losses this spring, during a public health and economic crisis that has highlighted urban inequality. While the virus itself has preyed on poor African Americans who could not work from home, the public-health prescription for it — people must stay apart — has preyed on service-sector employment.
Over the long term, these economic changes in cities have been accompanied by shifts in policing, according to Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. As federal investments in cities have dwindled and many states have curbed the ability of cities to raise tax revenue, police have increasingly been used to generate revenue by fining citizens in smaller cities like Ferguson, Missouri. In larger cities like Baltimore, Detroit and New York, Spence has written, police have become a blunt instrument to control the poor “so they don’t threaten elite-driven economic development.”
Baltimore’s Port Covington redevelopment or The Wharf in Washington only work as city officials envisioned, by Spence’s argument, if the homeless are kept off the streets and young black men with little money to spend are kept away from the stores. In such places, the economic critique of Occupy Wall Street meets the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sugrue, the NYU historian, suggested some other possible reasons that the sites of protest seem different this time. The commercial streets in traditionally black neighborhoods have been hollowed out in many cities, lessening their significance. And even if school and residential segregation hasn’t broken down with time, cities have become more integrated in a commercial sense; Buckhead isn’t off-limits to African Americans in the same way anymore. And groups that appear in many cities to be more multiracial may include protesters more familiar with such neighborhoods.
Alison Isenberg, a historian at Princeton who is writing a book on uprisings in the 1960s, suggested one way things are not so different from that era. Cities then were undergoing a wave of transformation, too, with urban renewal projects tearing through poor neighborhoods.
“Urban renewal was understood at the time to be pushing out people with fewer means to make room in cities for business and people with bigger pocketbooks,” Isenberg said.
That exact diagnosis echoes in cities today.