The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics

The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics

by Alex Schafran

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How could Northern California, the wealthiest and most politically progressive region in the United States, become one of the earliest epicenters of the foreclosure crisis? How could this region continuously reproduce racial poverty and reinvent segregation in old farm towns one hundred miles from the urban core?
This is the story of the suburbanization of poverty, the failures of regional planning, urban sprawl, NIMBYism, and political fragmentation between middle class white environmentalists and communities of color. As Alex Schafran shows, the responsibility for this newly segregated geography lies in institutions from across the region, state, and political spectrum, even as the Bay Area has never managed to build common purpose around the making and remaking of its communities, cities, and towns. Schafran closes the book by presenting paths toward a new politics of planning and development that weave scattered fragments into a more equitable and functional whole.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520961678
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/09/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 425,778
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Alex Schafran writes about urban and regional change. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he is currently Lecturer in Urban Geography at the University of Leeds.

Visit for tour dates and speaking engagements. 

Read an Excerpt


The Suburbanization of Segregation

RATHER THAN WRITE NORTH OR SOUTH OR EAST OR WEST, it has long been a California tradition to indicate directions when getting onto a freeway by giving a major destination farther down the line. On Highway 4 and Interstate 580, the two main east–west roads that connect the Central Valley and the core of the Bay Area, one often sees signs like the one shown in Figure 1 — this way to Oakland, that way to Stockton.

These signs unwittingly symbolize the choices given the majority of communities of color over the past 40 years in the Bay Area. Stay in cities like Oakland or Richmond, move to places like Stockton or Antioch. Staying generally meant dealing with issues of poor schools, high crime rates, extreme levels of violence, and deep environmental inequity. It meant staying in communities marked by the type of ghettoized segregation that has made inner-city America an international symbol. The major difference in the Bay Area version compared to some of the truly abandoned places in the country is that these core areas were also gentrifying rapidly.

Leaving often meant grappling with new homes far away from churches, family, and community. It meant congested traffic, very little public transportation access, and cities that grew rapidly and under weaker fiscal conditions than older suburbs. It meant moving to communities challenged by increasing poverty rates and greater numbers of lower-income people, amidst a political culture and social services network less prepared for the challenge than their inner-core colleagues. It meant living in places on the front lines of integration and diversification, massive melting pots with all of the beautiful and difficult aspects of living with difference.

This chapter is not about how and why people made these choices. Nor is it about how it has worked out for individual families. Nor does it seek in any way to portray the people involved, nor the communities to which they moved or from which they came, as somehow damaged or pathological. Both Oakland and Stockton are and can be wonderful places. Both decisions to stay and decisions to go can and have been good decisions.

What this chapter focuses on are two interrelated facts. First, this choice — Oakland or Stockton, or the various places in similar situations in both core and periphery — does not represent the full range of choices in the Bay Area at all. There are many other places that are neither Oakland nor Stockton, but such places — fiscally sound communities with good schools and often plentiful jobs and a robust tax base — have remained largely white and largely wealthy throughout a time of major demographic change. Second, all of the cities that became major destinations for communities of color experienced dramatically higher foreclosure rates and major losses of value relative to the region as a whole, even as they continued to represent the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of diverse migrants (Schafran and Wegmann 2012). This finding is consistent with growing evidence from across the nation that communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the foreclosure crisis (Rugh and Massey 2010; Rugh 2014).

Coming to terms with this persistent racialization of regional geographies and its connection to foreclosure means pushing past much of the myopic debate in the United States about whether the country is still segregated, and focusing instead on how segregation has changed, both in form and geography. Simply because race and racism is not what it was doesn't mean that either have left the American metropolis, nor are they confined to Ferguson, Missouri, or post-Katrina New Orleans or any other symbolic place.

This chapter, which also serves as an introduction to both the historical and contemporary human geography of the changing Bay Area, argues that the shifts in racial geography in the Bay Area over the past generation, while helping undo old forms of segregation, have helped produce a new geography that one must also call segregation. This is the shift from the ghettoized segregation of an earlier era to the mobile segregation of today, a process that can be viewed as the suburbanization of segregation. And just to be clear — the development of this newer form of segregation, this resegregation if you will, does not imply that the older form of segregation no longer exists. The challenge is to understand them dialectically, as two forms of spatial separation and distinction that operate together.

In what follows, I provide a brief introduction to the history of diversity in the Bay Area, arguably one of the first regions to be born as multiracial, in what was at that time a very two-tone America. I then take a deep dive into the question of segregation, starting with how what became known as the "suburban wall" helped form our ideas of segregation. By examining how this geography has changed, we can begin to see how segregation has changed, moving beyond debates about whether American is still segregated, and instead focusing on what segregation means in the twenty-first century.

As I discuss in the introduction to this book as well as in this chapter, the partial erosion of the "suburban wall" does not mean segregation is dead, but simply that it has changed form and geography. The remainder of the chapter seeks to show and explain this argument, using three different studies, two quantitative and one qualitative, each of which shows in Northern California similar new pattern of more mobile, regional- and megaregional-scale racialized inequality. Taken together, they point to an altered segregation, a set of lines more subtle than postwar segregation but nevertheless real, a twenty-first-century mobile segregation for a massive, wealthy, and globalized regional metropolis.


From its earliest days, what would become the San Francisco Bay Area had multiracial roots. A mix of Native American tribes, Mexican outposts, and Californio settlers was turned upside down by an international flood of migrants during the Gold Rush of 1849. Small cities and an interconnected region were born seemingly overnight, in a California where, as the great Carey McWilliams ([1949] 1999: 25) put it, "the lights went on all at once, in a blaze."

It was one of the most diverse migrations in history, and quickly sprouted one of the most eclectic regions in the world. Miners and prospectors came from the Sandwich Islands and Mexico, Peru and Chile, Ireland and Wales. There were Basques, French, Germans, and Britons — refugees from a Europe in upheaval. There were early Oregonians and old-time East Coasters, Australians and New Zealanders, Filipinos and African Americans. By one estimate, half of the 90,000 arrivals who would make San Francisco an instant metropolis were foreign-born (Starr and Orsi 2000).

The Bay Area thus became one of the world's first truly multiracial regions, in a nation constituted largely along black and white lines or Native American and white lines. Chinese immigrants were part of the initial rush, and thousands more would arrive for the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Japanese migrants came in earnest toward the end of the nineteenth century. The porous border with Mexico and the fact that California was Mexico meant Chicano farmers and families were part of the California landscape early on.

From the outset, this diversity was regional. Even if San Francisco and Oakland were principal gateways as they became big cities, many of the region's small cities have boasted immigrant communities from their earliest days. This tradition would continue with the next major immigration event after the Gold Rush: World War II. The war and its massive federal investment in shipbuilding and war-related industrialization brought an influx of African American workers to the region, mostly from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Filipinos also came in numbers during the war, helping to cement what had long been a relatively small but important multiracial minority, alongside significant Chinese, Mexican, and Native American populations. They too settled in the cities of the region, not simply in one center or another — Pittsburg, Vallejo, and Richmond all had war work and hence black and Filipino communities; Latinx communities began growing in historic centers like East San Jose, while Chinese Oakland grew in the shadow of Chinese San Francisco.

The "other" economic miracle undergirding the region's economy, agriculture, also benefitted from immigration and cultural diversity. Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, Swiss-French, and Punjabi farmers were at the heart of an agricultural economy stretching from the vineyards and egg farms of Napa and Sonoma down through Silicon Valley's orchards and into the industrialized food factory that was California's Central Valley (McWilliams [1949] 1999). Even if San Francisco dominated in terms of the larger population of immigrants and nonwhites, the regionalization of diversity kept pace to a certain degree with the regionalization of the metropolis. Immigrants and nonwhites could be found all along the urbanrural transect.

This regional diversity, which a new generation of revisionist historiography has shown is not entirely unique to the Bay Area (Wiese 2005; Kruse and Sugrue 2006), was by no means inclusionary. The Bay Area was at the forefront of the development of exclusionary practices, many of which underpin American urbanism. In an environment founded upon a "virtual reign of terror" (Castillo n.d.: n.p.) foisted upon Native Americans during the Gold Rush, Northern California aimed its wrath in a more organized fashion at the Chinese. The Chinese became the target of landmark exclusionary laws at the state and federal levels, culminating in the anti-Chinese acts of the 1880s (Walker 2008; Craddock 2000). Even more influential would be the zoning acts enacted in Modesto and San Francisco during this same period that would effectively invent zoning in the United States. The nominal purpose was to prevent laundries from opening in certain neighborhoods, laundries being by that time a primarily Chinese business (Warner 1972; Bernstein 1999).

This attack on the Chinese began a historical wave of reactionary replacement — one group brought in for economic purposes by power and capital, only to then be attacked and replaced by another. The Japanese were explicitly brought in to replace excluded Chinese workers, only to become targets of "yellow peril" race-baiting and warmongering during the first two decades of the twentieth century. This anti-Japanese sentiment reached full tilt when the Japanese neighborhood in the Fillmore district of San Francisco was largely confiscated during World War II. Their homes were often taken over by African Americans brought in for the war effort, a community that was then pushed out in large numbers by postwar urban renewal programs.

The regionalization of diversity does not mean that the Bay Area was not segregated. By the 1970s, the majority of African Americans were confined to a handful of communities — Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto, Pittsburg, Vallejo, and parts of San Francisco. Latinx and Asian geography was not quite as confined, but neither was there true integration. As the small railroad towns throughout the Bay Area grew into incorporated industrial cities and suburban commuter towns, racial covenants, FHA loan provisions, steering by real estate agencies, and harassment by law enforcement and hostile neighbors were all brought to bear on nonwhite Bay Area residents, particularly African Americans (Self 2003; Rhomberg 2004). The entire apparatus that sustained pre- and postwar housing discrimination against nonwhites in postwar America (Jackson 1985) was in full force throughout the region. No matter that the twentieth-century Bay Area was at the forefront of many progressive political movements — the full weight of "the great crime of history that brought the ghettoes to be" (Coates 2015: 106) was brought to bear on the shores of the San Francisco Bay.

What is critical to understand is that even in the postwar era, the roots of the region's differentiated segregation are evident. West Oakland, East Oakland, San Francisco's Bayview–Hunters Point, and Richmond's Iron Triangle are classic examples of American racialized ghettoization — inner-city neighborhoods where African Americans were allowed to settle following migration, only to see these communities cut-off, starved of resources, ripped apart by urban renewal, hemmed in by racist housing policies, and often abandoned by the state (Wacquant 1997). But East Palo Alto was different — an unincorporated area on the periphery where suburban factory workers of color were allowed to settle on poor quality land on the edge of the bay. Pittsburg and Vallejo were distant industrial towns. Even by 1970 the writing was on the wall that the segregation of the Bay Area would be both the same as our traditional imagination of ghettoized segregation and something qualitatively different. Even as the Bay Area became home to some of the most famous archetypes of ghettoized segregation, it also was laying the foundation for another form of segregation that was to come.


In 1971, the City of Los Angeles published a study in which it recreated a more regional version of Kevin Lynch's famed "mental maps." They asked residents of Boyle Heights, a poor, heavily Latinx, East Los Angeles neighborhood with low levels of car ownership, and residents of Northridge, a commuter-heavy middle-class suburb in the San Fernando Valley (north of Central Los Angeles), to draw their version of the metropolis. The composite maps (see Figure 2) have become famous, a perfect crystallization of an older form of segregation, a segregation where one was literally trapped in a very confined neighborhood. Not coincidentally, Boyle Heights is hard up against the factory belt extending east from downtown (but certainly not west), a receiving point for immigrants stretching back to the beginnings of the century.

In the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, as in the Bay Area of the same time period, being a person of color generally meant being trapped in a very limited space — a geography defined in many ways by overt discrimination, a postwar racial map that was born in the violence and genocide of the nineteenth century, hardened through legal and quasi-legal doctrine and enforced through "gentler" forms of steering, "custom," and thinly veiled hostility.

Map 3 shows the above-mentioned regional segregation pattern for the 1970s Bay Area, which was particularly intense for African Americans. One can clearly see the pocket of East Palo Alto, one of the few places a black family could live (and certainly buy) south of the Hayward/San Mateo Bridge. The biggest bright spot on the map is the Oakland-Berkeley-Richmond corridor, historically the center of black life in the Bay Area.

Map 4 shows a close-up of one edge of this area, the Oakland–San Leandro border, which would become a national symbol of city/suburban segregation. As Brian Copeland recounts in his memoir, black residents of East Oakland called the line between the two cities the "invisible wall" (Copeland 2006: 12). If you were black it was difficult enough to circulate, what with a police car stationed under the archway of the border on East 14th Street and designated to follow any black motorist who dared enter, let alone buy a home with a real estate industry organized not to sell you one. Newsweek featured San Leandro in a 1969 article on Nixon's "forgotten white majority," and by 1971 CBS was back to make a documentary about discrimination and what it called the "Suburban Wall" (Copeland 2006; CBS Films 1971).

Together with other working-class white cities like Alameda, Hayward, and the wealthier Contra Costa County suburbs over the hills to the east, Oakland and Richmond would be surrounded by what historian Robert Self (2003) calls the "white noose" — a classically American form of city/suburb segregation. With the coming of crack cocaine in the 1980s, Reagan-era policies that continued disinvestment, and the beginnings of African American middle-class flight from the neighborhood, East Oakland became even more ghettoized. Immigration from Latin America and Southeast Asia made the neighborhood more ethnically diverse, but violence and the murder rate remained high, schools struggled, and the area ranked as one of the Bay Area's iconic examples of inner-city, ghettoized poverty.

But the San Leandro–Oakland line was not the only suburban wall in the area. When we look at a less well-known wall, and compare it to the current version of San Leandro, we can see one way in which segregation has changed.

Some Walls Stay, Some Remain the Same

Piedmont is an incorporated city entirely surrounded by the city of Oakland. Home to much of Oakland and the East Bay's historic ruling class, it has long been an island of wealth in an otherwise more middle- and workingclass area. While San Leandro, a truly blue-collar suburb at the time, was held up to a national TV audience as an example of the cruelty of the white working masses, Piedmont was even whiter, had half the poverty, and a 60 percent higher median income.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: The Personal and the Political

Introduction: Ghosts in the Machine
1 • The Suburbanization of Segregation
2 • The Postindustrial Garden
3 • The Dougherty Valley Dilemma
4 • The Reproduction of Babylon and the Gentrification Dilemma
5 • Silicon San Francisco and the West Bay Wall
6 • The Altamont Line and the Planning Dilemma
7 • The Regionalist Dream
8 • The Unrealized Coalition
Conclusion: Resegregation and the Pursuit of Common Purpose


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