Putting Middle Neighborhoods Back on the Map
Supporting the neighborhoods that are home to as many as 40 percent of residents of urban areas has become a movement.
Not sure what a middle neighborhood is exactly? You might be living in one.
The 2016 publication On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods defines middle neighborhoods as places that are “neither clearly healthy and thriving, nor overtly distressed; they are neither adequately serviced by the market and supportive public policies, nor are they beneficiaries of large-scale philanthropic support.”1
I was first introduced to the idea of middle neighborhoods last November when the Cleveland Fed hosted the Building Advocacy for Middle Neighborhoods convening, which was organized by the American Assembly with support from Jeff Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation. More than 130 stakeholders from 15 states attended, representing banking, community development, philanthropy, and local government. Topics covered included neighborhood revitalization, the use of data and public policy, racial equity, and inclusive growth.
Hearing the definition, I was instantly transported back to my childhood on the west side of Cleveland. Growing up, my neighborhood—West 130th and Bellaire to be specific—was comprised largely of middle-class, African American families, many of whom lived in the neighborhood for multiple generations; my own family’s history in the neighborhood spanned three generations. People knew their neighbors and their neighbors’ family members. Homeownership was common, and community pride was abundant. By all accounts, our neighborhood was a place people were happy to live and raise a family.
Driving through my childhood neighborhood today, I notice the signs of change. The neighborhood remains fairly stable, but it doesn’t have the same vibrant feel. The housing stock looks dated. Residents don’t appear to have the same connection to the community or one another. And when you look beneath the surface, you start to see even larger problems. Outside investments into the neighborhood are minimal and appear to lack strategic purpose. Additionally, homeowners are struggling with the reality that much of their homes’ hard-earned equity is lost and unlikely to ever be recaptured. The neighborhood’s reputation as a place people want to live feels like a distant memory, especially for those residents who desire, but are unable, to leave.
This scenario is hardly unique to my childhood neighborhood. Across the country, middle neighborhoods are experiencing similar changes. The American Assembly estimates that as many as 40 percent of residents of urban areas reside in middle neighborhoods; that figure alone demonstrates why we need to pay more attention to what is happening in middle neighborhoods.
So What Now?
The final breakout session at the convening focused on this question: What might a strategy to support Northeast Ohio middle neighborhoods look like? While the question was fairly straightforward, it produced a set of responses as diverse as the group of cities and suburbs represented in the room. A host of secondary questions quickly illuminated other issues to be addressed, such as locating potential funding sources and working with, not duplicating efforts of, existing coalitions working in the space.
Since November’s conversation, the middle neighborhoods movement has continued to gain momentum in Northeast Ohio. The City of Cleveland recently hired a middle neighborhoods project director, who will work with director of community development Tania Menesse to develop and implement a strategy to support and strengthen middle neighborhoods in Cleveland. Additionally, Verespej was recently named the cochair of the national Middle Neighborhoods’ Community of Practice, a group of practitioners from across the country committed to documenting and sharing strategic interventions that stabilize and strengthen middle neighborhoods in cities across the US.
The Cleveland Fed will continue to follow the discussion about middle neighborhoods, as it impacts a significant number of people throughout our District. One important caveat to note is that support for middle neighborhoods should not come at the expense of more distressed neighborhoods. But if we truly want to create cities where everyone can thrive, we must be more intentional in our efforts to support all neighborhoods—not just those in obvious distress.
The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.