Middle neighborhoods have traditionally been the heart of American cities.
They are the neighborhoods where working- and middle-class citizens live,
raise families, pay taxes, send their children to school, go to church, synagogue,
or mosque, and shop at the local grocer. They are home to the police
officers, fire fighters, school teachers, and office workers who make up the civil service of
American cities, as well as much of the private workforce. Middle neighborhoods rarely
appear on lists of “must see” places in city guidebooks, and they are not the subjects of
newspaper articles on urban decay, but they make up much of the residential housing stock
and population of American cities and towns. Every American city, regardless of size, has
numerous middle neighborhoods. Despite their ubiquity, the number of middle neighborhoods
in urban America is declining. This trend poses a serious threat to American cities and
should be an area of focus for local governments.
Three Types of Middle Neighborhoods
Middle neighborhoods can be categorized as stable, descending, or ascending. Stable
middle neighborhoods have modest or moderate housing that was built for working- to
middle-income residents. In most cities, the housing stock is primarily single- or two-family
homes, although in very large cities such as New York and Chicago, apartments are common.
Often the housing stock is quite repetitive. In Chicago, for example, many middle neighborhoods
contain block after block of bungalows, one-and-a-half story brick homes on small lots.
Built in the early part of the twentieth century, they represent approximately one-third of the
city’s single-family housing stock1
. Middle neighborhoods rarely have homes of great size
or historic value. They are generally family neighborhoods where children attend public or
parochial school. Few residents are wealthy enough to send their children to private schools.
Retail and other amenities usually serve local residents, not the broader region. These are the
neighborhoods of diners and ethnic restaurants, not culinary palaces. Populations are often
but not always relatively homogenous. Although many middle neighborhoods are primarily
white, that is not always the case. Chatham, on Chicago’ s south side, for example, is a
long-time black middle neighborhood. Hispanics now dominate the once Eastern European
middle neighborhoods at the west edge of the city adjacent to Midway Airport and in the
The second type of middle neighborhood is the descending middle neighborhood;
formerly upper-class neighborhoods that, owing to declines in demand for residential housing, have become middle class despite excellent housing stock. Such neighborhoods are
much more common in weak housing markets. Detroit is a good example of a city with a
number of middle neighborhoods that once were the homes of executives and professionals.
When whites and then upper middle-class blacks left the city and the negative cycle of disinvestment
from public services began, these neighborhoods became home to a less wealthy
The third and final model is the ascending middle neighborhood. Ascending middle
neighborhoods are neighborhoods that were traditionally poor but because of rapid increases
in demand for urban living have become popular with new residents, usually young adults.
Such neighborhoods are disproportionately found in strong housing market cities and are
often the sites of significant new housing designed to meet new demand. The South Loop
in Chicago is a good example of such a neighborhood. Once the home of skid row and very
low quality housing, the South Loop has been transformed by the development of new
housing. Such a transformation is only possible with strong market conditions and a very
good location. For the South Loop, the proximity to downtown Chicago’s massive employment
center, high housing prices in many surrounding neighborhoods, and proximity to
Lake Michigan combined to fuel redevelopment.
For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been conducting an in-depth analysis
of neighborhood change from 1970 to the present in the urban core of the St. Louis region.
For that study, we have defined the urban core as the region that was settled before 1950,
which roughly equates to the current City of St. Louis and all inner-ring suburbs. Within this
area we identified nine unusually stable census tracks in middle neighborhoods. All of these
census tracks had a population of between 90 percent and 110 percent of area median per
capita income in 1970, 1990, and 2010. Of these neighborhoods, five are in the city proper,
three are in the suburbs, and one is a smaller city located at the eastern edge of the St. Louis
metropolitan area. All of these census tracks were almost all white in 1970. By 2010, between
52 percent and 93 percent of the population was white. Only one of these census tracks or its
surrounding neighborhood has elegant housing stock. Almost all of the housing is primarily
single-family homes. Only one of these census tracks is a “destination,” frequently visited
by nonlocal residents. These stable neighborhoods all have a sizable population of children.
In 2010, the percentage of children under age 18 in these neighborhoods ranged from 15.4
percent to 26.7 percent. In the city’s 2010 high-income tracts (defined as having per capita
income greater than 125 percent of the study area median), the percentage of children under
18 is only 13.6 percent of the population.
Our analysis explored the change in the number of middle-income neighborhoods
during the past 40 years. The results show a clear decline in the number and percentage of
such neighborhoods. In 1970, 59 percent of the census tracks in the urban core had a median
per capita income between 75% and 125% of the area median per capita income. By 2010, only 34 percent did (Table 1). During the same period, the number of poor and wealthy
neighborhoods both increased. Overall, the urban core of St. Louis has shifted from a region
characterized by middle neighborhoods to a region with an even split between poor, middle
income, and wealthy neighborhoods. Stanford sociologists Sean F. Reardon and Cornell’s
Kendra Bischoff recently found that this change has occurred in urban centers across the
. According to their research, from 1970 to 2007, the share of metropolitan-area residents
living in neighborhoods with median income of 80–120 percent of the metro median
decreased from 65 percent to 44 percent.
The decline in the number of middle-income neighborhoods is particularly pronounced
in central cities. In the City of St. Louis proper, for example, the number of middle-income
census tracts declined steeply from 1970 to 2010, from 52 percent in 1970 to 28 percent. The
city, even more than the region, has experienced a widening chasm between neighborhood
types, with an increase in upper- and lower-income neighborhoods, and a large decrease in
middle-class neighborhoods. In a recent study of Chicago, journalist Whet Moser found
similar results. In 1970, much of the city was lower middle class; many of these neighborhoods
have since been replaced with rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Anecdotal
evidence suggests the same phenomenon is occurring in most American cities.
Reasons for the Decline in Middle Neighborhoods
The decreasing number of middle-income neighborhoods in America has many causes.
First is the change in the distribution of American income3
. As a nation, more of us are rich
and more of us are poor, with fewer families in the middle. Changing employment patterns,
particularly the loss of nearby manufacturing employment have reduced the demand for
housing in many urban core neighborhoods, leading to urban decline. Some suburban
middle neighborhoods composed of small, ranch style houses built after World War II have
suffered from changes in consumer tastes. Many middle-income families, the backbone of
most urban working-class neighborhoods, have reacted to the weakness of urban public
school systems and the loss of parochial school choices by moving to the suburbs. Perhaps
the least recognized cause of the decline in middle-income neighborhoods is the change in
average household composition, from larger families to smaller households, many without
children. This change has created a mismatch between the supply of housing in many older
cities and the demand for housing designed for smaller families. Although these trends have
led many middle neighborhoods to decline into poor neighborhoods, there is a contrary
trend as well. Some middle neighborhoods, particularly those located near large and growing
employers such as universities or medical centers or with a particularly attractive historic
housing stock have become very attractive to professionals, leading to gentrification. The
South End of Boston and Lincoln Park in Chicago are notable examples.
Cause for Concern
The shrinking number of middle neighborhoods in America is challenging for cities and
a cause for deep concern. Part of the reason is financial. As neighborhoods become poorer,
city revenue, which in America depends primarily on property taxes, has declined. As city
revenue declines, the ability for cities to offer quality services also decreases. Unchecked,
these trends lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of decline—decreased services leading to further
loss of population leading to lower property values. Distressed areas of cities that depend
heavily on public services are particularly affected by this cycle of decline. If a city cannot
attract and hold middle-class residents, it will not have the resources to help the poor. The
rise in wealthy city neighborhoods from gentrification has no such negative financial effects
on cities. Increasing property values improve the financial capacity of cities. However,
except in a very few cities, gentrification is not widespread enough to counter the forces of
decline. As John Landis has reported, the analysis of the 70 largest U.S. metro areas reveals
that decline not upgrading was the dominant form of neighborhood socio-economic change
between 1990 and 2010. As of 1990, roughly 20% of the residents of these large metro areas
lived in census tracts that would subsequently decline. By contrast, only 6% lived in tracts
that subsequently upgraded, and only 3% lived in pre-gentrifying neighborhoods.4
The concerns about the decline of middle neighborhoods are more than financial. One
of the key values of cities is that they are centers of opportunity, where new industries grow,
new ways of life develop, and individuals can pursue their dreams of economic improvement.
As Edward Glaeser argues so persuasively in Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest
Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, the mixing of people
from different places and social classes makes cities the great forces for economic growth.
The ballet of the street that Jane Jacobs describes in The Death and Life of Great American
Cities is not just an attractive way to live; it contributes to upward mobility and economic
growth. Numerous studies of the past few decades document the negative effects on the
poor of social isolation5
. We need cities that bring together all of us. No mayor wants
his or her city to become home to only the poor or only the rich. All want to see cities
become productive homes to a diverse population, including a large number of middle-class
residents and immigrants. The declining number of middle neighborhoods threatens the
viability of this goal.
The Public Policy Challenge
The public policy challenge for most cities in the United States is to preserve and grow the
number of middle neighborhoods. The focus of this article is on the role of local government in meeting this challenge. By focusing on local government I do not wish to ignore the
importance of state and federal governments. The latter are important sources of revenue
for cities and can be important assets. But the public services that most affect neighborhood
improvement, services such as police, public schools, and parks, are managed and to a great
extent funded locally. Local government selects the leadership of police forces and public
school systems, invests in parks and afterschool programs, decides how to allocate resources
to neighborhoods, and makes key policy decisions. State and the federal government can
help and provide financial assistance, but they are rarely the key decision-makers.
My fundamental argument is that it is appropriate and important for local governments
to invest in middle neighborhoods, particularly stable and declining middle neighborhoods.
Without this assistance, many middle neighborhoods will decline and cities will be increasingly
challenged. As the data above illustrate, middle neighborhoods are far less stable than
they may appear. Across the country they are declining, and the threat of much greater
decline is real. The likely largest cause of decline in middle neighborhoods, the hollowing
out of the middle of the American income distribution, is unlikely to change in the shortterm.
The decentralization of jobs within metropolitan areas has reduced the number of
workers who can significantly reduce commuting time by living in urban middle neighborhoods.
The public believes, with some justification, that suburban communities are safer and
suburban public schools are better. To preserve middle neighborhoods will require that cities
and regions craft strategies of neighborhood preservation and improve services.
Arguing for a focus on middle neighborhoods does not require the neglect of poor
neighborhoods. Cities must direct federal and local resources toward neighborhoods with
high poverty rates, weak schools and high crime. Justice and human needs require such
What is often surprising, however, is how much cities invest in high-income neighborhoods
and in downtowns. There are reasons for this; these neighborhoods are often centers
for jobs, recreation, tourism, and culture that benefit the entire city or region. A weak Central
Park in the 1970s was very bad for New York City and the region. Government support
for Central Park, while disproportionately benefiting high-income surrounding neighborhoods,
attracted residents and tourists back to the region for the long-term benefit of all
New Yorkers. The dynamics of real estate development also favor high-income neighborhoods.
High-income or rapidly ascending neighborhoods are the focus of most market-based
real estate development in American cities, but securing these developments often requires
public subsidies. It is not surprising that a city would grant $5 million in subsidies to obtain
$40 million in development. But what is often lost is that the $5 million in subsidies exceeds
what is provided to any middle neighborhood. Finally, high-income neighborhoods are a
focus because the wealthy make political contributions, serve on city boards and committees,
are politically active, and vote. Nonetheless, redirecting some of these funds is a likely pool
of resources for middle neighborhoods.
The right approach is a balanced investment in low, middle, and high-income neighborhoods.
Cities must focus on their jewels, on Central Park and Golden Gate Park, and on the
play lots that are the only safe places for kids to play in very disadvantaged neighborhoods.
But they also need to focus on the soccer fields and baseball diamonds of middle neighborhoods.
Spending only at top and bottom is the wrong strategy over the long run.
Building a Middle Neighborhoods Strategy
Before getting into specifics of a smart strategy, it is critical to understand the dynamics
of housing markets. All but the very poorest neighborhoods are made up of consumers who
make choices about where they and their families want to live. These choices are shaped
by family income—few of us can live in the most expensive neighborhoods— but most of
us have many other choices. As other authors in this volume have described in considerable
detail, most residents of any given middle neighborhood could choose to live in other
neighborhoods, either in central cities or in surrounding suburbs. For a middle neighborhood
to prosper, it must induce new residents to move to a particular neighborhood. These
newcomers replace those who will inevitably leave owing to job relocations, aging, or other
reasons. The challenge for neighborhoods is to compete for new families so that property
values are maintained or improved.
Consumer choice in neighborhoods, as in any product, is about tangible and intangible
factors. Better schools, safe streets, and good retail will all make a neighborhood more
attractive, as will new housing that meets the needs of modern families. But intangible
factors matter also. Buyers must first know of neighborhoods to choose it. Neighborhoods
can generate a buzz or identity that draws certain segments of the population. The job of
shaping consumer choice can be led by a community development corporation, neighborhood
improvement organization, or a local government. Regardless the organizer, however,
local government must be a full partner. Only local government can improve schools, reduce
crime, or invest in parks. All stable and descending middle neighborhoods depend on government
to improve services. In some ascending middle neighborhoods, a key local government
task is to preserve housing affordability to ensure that the benefits of new development and
new residents benefit long-time residents so they can remain in the neighborhood. This may
require ceilings on property tax increases, assistance in home renovation, and affordable
housing development and rehab if the neighborhood market is turning hot.
There is no silver bullet; all neighborhood strategies must consider neighborhood conditions,
the regional housing market, and neighborhood strengths and weaknesses. The key
is to develop a strategy that is right for a particular neighborhood at a particular time.
Although strategies vary, the process of developing and implementing a middle-neighborhoods
strategy has four distinct steps: (1) strengthening and empowering local organizations;
(2) using data to drive programs; (3) focusing on drivers of consumer choice; and (4)
marketing to key audiences.
Strengthening and Empowering Local Organizations
The rise of the asset-based community development movement has focused the community
development field on the realization that all neighborhoods, even the poorest, have
assets to build on.6
Even the most devastated neighborhoods have strong leaders, organizations,
people and groups dedicated to neighborhood improvement. But if very poor neighborhoods
have assets, middle neighborhoods have far more. Common assets include anchor
institutions such as local banks, churches, businesses, and local organizations such as block
clubs, citizen groups, and business organizations.
Local organizations are critical to neighborhoods. They provide essential local input
into decisions that affect neighborhood life, advocate for neighborhoods with government
agencies to ensure the flow of essential resources, and provide a vehicle for citizens to
engage in their community and form bonds with other citizens. Neighborhood involvement
strengthens neighborhood cohesion, as do local activities such as festivals, local youth organizations,
and neighborhood beautification. The presence of an active citizens’ group should
be a goal for all of our neighborhoods, and enlightened city officials should see strong neighborhood
groups as their strongest allies in improving neighborhoods.
The challenge is for neighborhood actors to work together to improve and promote their
neighborhood. The most common technique for neighborhood organization is forming a
private nonprofit Community Development Corporation (CDC) that unites many groups
and interests for a common purpose. Throughout the country, CDCs have proved effective
in organizing internal neighborhood groups and external parties interested in neighborhood
improvement to achieve lasting success. Local organizations such as CDCs are positioned
to actively involve citizens in the future of their neighborhood, strengthen neighborhood
cohesion, make relocation less likely, and make neighborhoods more attractive to residents
and potential residents.
Local organizations require partners to implement neighborhood change. In almost
all cases, the most important outside partner is local government. Part of the reason is
financial; the internal resources of neighborhoods are usually insufficient to fund even
local community-building activities. The number of neighborhood festivals in Chicago, for
example, changed dramatically when the City began funding such efforts. Most important,
however, is the control that government has over the key aspects of community life. Local
CDCs can design housing redevelopment or public safety improvement programs, but
implementing these programs through land use controls or local police is a local government
responsibility. True progress requires partnership between local citizens, local organizations
Using Data to Drive Programs and Strategy
Developing effective strategies for improving middle neighborhoods requires up-to-date
and accurate data. Those seeking to influence resident choice of middle-income neighborhoods
must understand trends in the neighborhood and in competitor neighborhoods and,
when necessary, take corrective action. A crime wave, a rise in housing abandonment, a
growing number of residents who do not shovel the snow in the winter or maintain their
yards in the summer, may cause potential new residents to look elsewhere or long-term residents
who might be experiencing a change in family circumstance to move away. On the
other hand, a good new charter school, a reinvigorated public school, or a new high-quality
day care center can make a neighborhood far more attractive to potential residents. Some
important changes are apparent even to casual observers. Retail trends, for example, are often
obvious. But other trends are more difficult to characterize. Is the rise in neighborhood
crime, for example, the same or different from regional trends? Is the increase concentrated
on a few blocks or widespread? Does it appear that the same perpetrators are responsible for
all of the crimes? Without the answers to these questions—answers that require data—appropriate
action is impossible.
Getting the right data to develop neighborhood strategies is not simple. Easily available
national data are usually too rough grained and outdated to be helpful. Ten-year census data,
while very detailed, are likely to be out of date. Fortunately, great progress has been made.
A leader in this effort is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (www.neighborhoodindicators.org),
a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners. Another is
The Reinvestment Fund’s Market Value Analysis, described in the third essay of this volume.
Common practice is for local groups to track public school, property, crime, social service,
housing and health statistics on an annual basis. Housing data, including asking and sales
prices, days on the market, and rental and retail vacancy rates; and crime patterns are often
updated weekly. Some groups combine quantitative data with local resident surveys of
attitudes and concerns. The best data systems combine hard data with interpretation by
skilled local observers. A rise in vacancy rates for rental housing, for example, may indicate a
problem of slack demand or result from the emptying out of buildings for major rehabilitation
or a condominium conversion.
The most sophisticated data systems provide not only neighborhood data but also
detailed data on surrounding neighborhoods and citywide or regional trends7
. It is far easier
for a target neighborhood to improve if nearby neighborhoods are improving; maintaining
neighborhood strength in the midst of deterioration is an uphill climb. Citywide or regional
trends allow for comparative analysis, helping to determine when problems can be attacked
by the neighborhood and when regional solutions are necessary. Cleveland and Minneapolis
are examples of cities that have developed particularly strong systems of neighborhood data.
Focusing on Drivers of Consumer Choice
Strengthening local organizations, increasing neighborhood cohesion, and using data
are all steps in developing a neighborhood strategy that will attract and retain residents.
But effective neighborhood strategies, like strategies for other products, must be targeted.
The quality of public schools, for example, is very important to families with school-aged
children, but much less important to those without children. Those without children, on
the other hand, are more likely to want local restaurants and nightlife. All neighborhoods
are packages of attributes, of housing stock, retail offerings, parks and recreation options,
crime rates, and the like. Neighborhood strategies must examine a neighborhood’s strengths,
compare it with other neighborhoods’ strengths, analyze where improvement is possible, and
then decide which groups of potential residents should be targeted.
Some issues must be addressed regardless of a neighborhood’s particular strategy,
however. Evidence suggests that even a very small number of abandoned properties have
a major effect on the attractiveness and desirability of entire blocks. Neighborhoods with
abandoned buildings have crime rates that are twice as high as those in neighborhoods with
no abandoned buildings. Crime is a universal issue. Although parents with children and
single females may be particularly concerned with crime, a basic level of security is important
for any successful neighborhood. Getting to know your neighbors, participating in civic
life, and using local retail and recreation are all influenced by the perception and reality of
crime. Beyond these essentials, however, neighborhoods can offer many different packages
Those implementing neighborhood strategies should remember several key lessons. First
is the importance of focusing on what can be changed by local or municipal action in a
reasonable period of time. Regional economic performance, the quality of housing stock in
fully built out neighborhoods, and, in most cases, local employment are not amenable to
change by community actors and hence should usually not be the focus of neighborhood
strategies. The quality of local parks and schools, the fate of abandoned and derelict property
and crime trends are far more appropriate issues for local action. All of these can be changed
with local government action.
A second lesson is that competition between neighborhoods precludes certain strategies.
For much of the first decade of the 2000s, I was deeply involved in developing neighborhood
strategies for communities on the mid-south side of Chicago that were hoping
to move from poor to middle neighborhoods. After decades of disinvestment, the South
Side was improving and had the potential to improve more, fueled by the growth of the
Chicago central business district (popularly known as the Loop) and the increase in the
number of middle-class African Americans wanting to return to the city. One key question
was which potential residents could these neighborhoods successfully attract? I, and many of
my colleagues, concluded that although neighborhoods on the South Side could successfully
attract families if public schools were improved, these neighborhoods could not draw large numbers of young professionals. The clubs, restaurants, and culture of the North Side were
too attractive to young professionals.
Third is to pay attention to what might appear to be modest programs. Traditional analyses
of the quality of neighborhoods as places for children, for example, focus on the quality
of public schools. There is no doubt quality public schools are a key factor, but they are not
the only factor. A set of strong summer programs, afterschool activities, and weekend activities
can balance weak school choices. A great ballet program, or great Little League and soccer
leagues can anchor families to a neighborhood. Few cities have recognized that importance
of these activities, particularly in an era when both parents are often working full-time.
Finally is the importance of balancing attention between sharpening neighborhood
strengths and alleviating neighborhood problems. The strengths of neighborhoods entice
citizens to rent an apartment or buy a house. Neighborhood weaknesses can cause them
to leave. The recent college graduate who buys a fixer-upper in a middle neighborhood is
seeking value appreciation and excitement and may not be greatly concerned about crime.
The same person may leave the neighborhood if the house is broken into several times.
Marketing to Key Audiences
Middle neighborhoods are often unknown to many potential residents. Lacking tourist
attractions and regional amenities, middle neighborhoods must take affirmative steps to
make themselves known. There is no magic to the process of making a neighborhood visible.
Offering tours of neighborhoods to real estate agents and potential new residents are staples.
But creativity can lead to better results. In St. Louis, a south city neighborhood is home to
a major festival each year. The festival is on one of the great streets of the city and located
in a wealthy neighborhood. But the middle neighborhood immediately to the north buys a
booth at the festival, advertises the assets of the middle neighborhood, organizes tours and
shows very attractive pictures of homes for sale or rent.
Most successful neighborhood marketing campaigns depend on a mix of three kinds
of strategies. First is establishing a sense of neighborhood identity that is perceptible to
current and prospective residents. Sometimes this sense is already present. At other times it
is helped by visual cues such as street banners or special lighting or painting. Coordinated
strategies of plantings or house painting are also common. Second is publicity. Events that
bring potential residents to the neighborhood, such as home or garden tours, are options, as
are neighborhood festivals. Some neighborhoods create special promotions where all retail
establishments in a neighborhood offer special discounts. Third is the use of incentives.
Large employers have used Employer Housing Assistance Programs to encourage employees
to live in selected neighborhoods. Although these incentives are usually relatively modest,
they can be effective in encouraging first-time homebuyers and others with limited equity.
Middle neighborhoods are the lynchpin of the success of most American cities. They are
also relatively ignored by academics and policymakers, who have focused on the problems
of concentrated poverty, gentrification, and need for downtown revitalization. Although
understandable, such oversight is not in the long-term interests of cities or their citizens.
Middle neighborhoods are the core of most American cities and are increasingly threatened.
Local governments must be prepared to invest in middle neighborhoods and join with local
citizens to develop and implement neighborhood strategies that strengthen and empower
local organizations, use data to drive programs and strategy, focus on drivers of consumer
choice, and market to key audiences. Strategic investments in middle neighborhoods will do
much to improve urban America and city residents.
2. S. Reardon and K. Bischoff, “Income Inequality and Income Segregation,” American Journal of Sociology,
3. See, for example, S. Reardon and K. Bischoff, “No Neighborhood is an Island. The Dream Revisited Series”
(New York: Furman Center, New York University, November 2014).
5. See, for example, P. Dreier, J. Mollenkopf, and T. Swanstrom, Place Matters: Metropolitics for the TwentyFirst
Century, 3rd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014).
6. J. Kretzmann and J. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and
Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (Evanston, IL: Institute for Policy Research, 1993).
7. For example R. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, University
of Chicago Press, 2012.
Henry S. Webber is the Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Professor of Practice at the
Brown School of Social Work and Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University
in St. Louis. He has been a leader in equitable regional development and neighborhood improvement
efforts in Chicago and St. Louis. He writes widely on issue of neighborhood change, the role of
anchor institutions in community development and segregation.