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Fortresses of Globalization and Wilmington, Delaware

Typically, we imagine globalization as a contiguous region, but it often only affects a very small part of a city, leaving everyone else behind.
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Downtown Wilmington, Delaware, and the Christina River. (PHOTO: TIM KISER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Downtown Wilmington, Delaware, and the Christina River. (PHOTO: TIM KISER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If you have taken a college-level course concerning globalization, then you likely encountered the term "Fortress Europe." The wealthy Union has walled itself off from its poor near-abroad. Hence, the tragic news of migrants drowning off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa. Within this fortress exist center cities of prosperity walled off from the impoverished suburbs, where many of the foreign born reside. Hence, Paris is dying:

In most countries, the word “suburb” evokes clipped hedges, wide driveways and tranquility. In France, by contrast, la banlieue suggests torched cars, rioting youths and high-rise housing projects. Originally a medieval word, meaning a place a league (lieue) away from a city, but subject to the authority (ban) of the city's feudal overlords, it has now become synonymous with a no-go zone. Eight months after the riots of last autumn, those who live and work in les banlieues are trying to rebrand them.

A similar pattern is reshaping American cities. The core thrives while the rest of the metro burns. A tale of two Chicagos:

The city's chief development and subsidy tool, the tax increment financing program, vacuums up $500 million a year in property tax funds, then pours most of them back into the Loop and surrounding areas that were already thriving or on the upswing. That's why critics, including certain Reader writers, have argued that the TIF program accelerates the growing gap between downtown and struggling outlying neighborhoods.

Various mayors, mayoral supporters, and aldermen with well-funded TIF districts have responded that even if that's true—since it is—the upside is that all Chicagoans benefit: people who work downtown live in communities across the city.

But it turns out that fewer and fewer of them live in the black neighborhoods most in need of a boost. Between 2002 and 2011—a period of major TIF expansion—the city added more than 52,000 jobs downtown, according to a report released this week by the nonprofit Grassroots Collaborative. But only a quarter of those positions went to workers who live in the city, and black areas actually lost downtown jobs—an average of more than 600 of them for each zip code area on the south and west sides. Latino areas also shed downtown jobs—381 of them per zip code.

The impacts of globalization bless (yes, bless) a small part of the city, like nodes in a global network. More typically, we imagine globalization as a contiguous region such as Fortress Europe or The Pentagon's New Map. Chicago's most distressed neighborhoods are the fortresses, walled off from globalization. As for the dots of the one percent, they link to other dots in New York, Tokyo, and Karachi. You either live in globalization or you don't. Most people around the world, including in the United States, do not.

OK, that's the fortresses of globalization part. What about Wilmington, Delaware? On my last day at the International Economic Development Council conference, I toured the revitalized parts of that city. Wilmington's progress is about halfway between struggling Atlantic City and ascendant Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The redevelopment efforts target two places: lower downtown along Market Street and the Riverfront brownfield.

Wilmington is isolated, swept up in the agglomeration of Philadelphia and New York City. The dot of globalization is the Amtrak train station, which is located in the Riverfront area. Commuters to the two global giants to the north live in the high-end housing built at Riverfront, which can serve just about any needs of its residents. No one has to cross Martin Luther King Boulevard and deal with downtown. I asked Michael Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development Corporation, about the disconnect between the two parts of reinvestment. He provided a frank answer, acknowledging the problem. At this point, no solution is on the drawing board.

Wilmington has three speeds. The Riverfront is globalizing. The downtown is a local comeback story, catering to wealthier native residents with ample disposable income. These folks will drop dollars at Riverfront, too. Then there are the fortress neighborhoods, primarily African-American, isolated from regional and global flows of capital. To hazard a guess, I think Riverfront will leave all of Wilmington behind. Via interstate or train, no one inbound has to see the rest of the city.