Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new mapping project shows how segregation is a matter of whether you have close access to a grocery store, hospital, bank, or park—amenities that influence your quality of life.
CityLab’s series on metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement follows how new cities have been forming across that region, mostly from unincorporated areas—land that falls under county governance, but doesn’t belong to any particular city. In most other regions of the U.S., unincorporated domains are usually found in rural or exurban areas. But in metro Atlanta, these unincorporated parts are often heavily urbanized communities that barely differ from the cities they neighbor. One of the newest and most controversial cityhood cases involves a city south of Atlanta in Henry County—Stockbridge. Some of its wealthy communities are looking to break off to form a new city called Eagle’s Landing.
The boundaries around these new cities are often drawn along race and class lines, usually encompassing neighborhoods of majority-white populations that also represent the wealthier portions of a county. This describes DeKalb County, the focus of most of CityLab’s cityhood series, where since 2008, communities of wealthier and whiter gentries have incorporated into cities, allowing them to shelter some of their tax revenue for their own use.
The segregation that, in many ways, defines metro Atlanta’s topography makes it easy for communities to indulge in this kind of municipal sorting. Most of DeKalb County’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods are in its northern stretches, and that’s where most of the new cities have been formed. The majority-black city of Stonecrest, which formed last year, is in what’s considered “South DeKalb,” which is where most of the county’s black families reside.
But the segregation is not just exclusive to the county’s residential patterns. When it comes to commercial properties—restaurants, hotels, retail, and other businesses—those also are segregated, the bulk concentrated, once again, in the north. South DeKalb, meanwhile, has far less commercial real estate, meaning far fewer opportunities for its residents to eat, shop, and entertain themselves at venues close to their homes. This is why a contingent of South DeKalb residents has been lobbying the state for the right to form their own city called Greenhaven, so they can appeal on their own behalf for better economic prospects on their horizon.
It’s not just DeKalb County on that apartheid diet, though. The bifurcation between race, income, and real estate can be spotted across the entire metro Atlanta, including the city proper. The farther north you go in this region, the more businesses and the fewer people of color and lower incomes you’ll find; the farther south you go, the more you’ll find the opposite.
A new project from real estate company Trulia and the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) uses Yelp and Census data to map this segregation, beyond just the surface economic and racial divides. This project takes a more granular step to show what that segregation means for people’s access to what the study calls “amenities.” Looking at the maps, you can see how access to banks, medical centers, grocery stores, and parks are clustered across the upper half of metro Atlanta, and found more sparsely and scattershot across its lower half. The disparity is even more emphatic in Atlanta’s suburban counties.
The maps are divided by census tracts, each of which represents white populations in shades of green—the darker the tract, the fewer white people that live there. The first map, below, shows the distribution of “traditional financial institutions”—banks, credit unions, and mortgage lenders—represented by yellow dots. Many of the dot clusters are found in center-city Atlanta, as expected, given it is the capital of Georgia, but the other clusters are far more often located in the lighter green tracts across the north. The large dark section circled in pink shows south DeKalb County, which has only a sprinkle of dots.
Traditional financial institutions, metro Atlanta
While reporting from south DeKalb County earlier this year, one of the areas visited was the Sugar Creek Golf Course Park, which includes tennis courts and a recreation center. Much of it has been neglected by the county and state and is in heavy disrepair. However, according to the map below, there are few other places one can go in south DeKalb for fitness and outdoor activities, defined by Trulia/NFHA as parks, playgrounds, senior centers, day camps, and fields and courts for sports (represented by green dots on the map).
Fitness and outdoor activities, metro Atlanta
In terms of places to eat, residents of south DeKalb County complained that there are few dine-in restaurants in their neighborhoods. Kathryn Rice, one of the primary advocates for incorporating south DeKalb into a city called Greenhaven, took CityLab on a tour of the area’s massive landscape, showing how along one stretch, one could drive almost 15 miles before finding a grocery store. Meanwhile, fast-food stops and take-out wing spots were abundant. Not that there’s anything wrong with wing spots, but there were few other alternatives along the way, and even fewer grocery options for those wanting to cook meals at their homes. The blue dots in the map below shows the distribution of healthy options.
Healthy food options, metro Atlanta
“In Atlanta, majority-white tracts have 25.3 health care providers [per 10,000 people], compared to 9.8 [per 10,000 people] in majority-black tracts,” reads the Trulia/NFHA report accompanying the maps. South DeKalb suffers from some of the highest rates of premature deaths, diabetes, and low birthweight births in the region according to this report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of the region, it also suffers from having fewer healthcare facilities, as represented by the purple dots in the map below.
Healthcare services, metro Atlanta
Zooming in on Stockbridge, where some residents want to break away to form Eagle’s Landing, you can also spot similar instances of segregation of amenities. The area circled in the map below is the part of Stockbridge that would become Eagle’s Landing if the attempt isn’t blocked in court. The purple dots show how health care services are mostly clustered in the proposed Eagle’s Landing footprint.
City of Stockbridge healthcare facilities
The same holds true for banks, credit unions, and other traditional financial institutions, represented by the yellow dots below.
City of Stockbridge traditional financial institutions
The Trulia/NFHA project also looks at three other metros—Detroit, Oakland, and Houston—where they find similar spreads of segregation. Across all four metros they found that census tracts where people of color are the majority have 35.1 percent fewer traditional banking institutions, twice as many alternative banking establishments (check-cashing and pay-day loan centers), 38.4 percent fewer healthcare facilities, and 33.9 percent fewer fitness and outdoor amenities, when compared to majority-white tracts.
There are some nuances between the metros, the report found. For example, in Oakland, census tracts that have majority-Asian populations actually had more healthy food options than all other races, including areas where white people are the majority. In Detroit, there is no significant statistical difference between any of the races when it comes to outdoors and fitness amenities. But among the four metros, the report found no tract where African Americans are the majority, that enjoys more of these services than other races. The issue of segregation is not just about people of various races living apart from each other, it’s also about access to goods and services essential for quality living.
“If you live in a community of color, your chances of having a grocery store, bank, park, doctor’s office, hospital or recreational facility in your neighborhood are slim,” said Lisa Rice, president of the NFHA. “The drastic disparities represented in this research are possible because of persistent segregation which was caused by government and private market policies and practices.”