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The twin plights of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic, and the racial-injustice crisis – have burst in vulnerable residential neighbourhoods where opportunity and optimism is in short supply. That’s no coincidence

Sunlight falls on Ebbett's Field, a rent-regulated housing complex in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighbourhood. In New York, COVID-19 has hit hardest in outer boroughs whose populations are more diverse and lower-income, a pattern that has repeated at cities around the world.Scott Heins/Getty Images/Getty Images

Shortly before the pandemic exploded into our consciousness in February, I spent a few days walking the winding pathways of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Gothenburg, in western Sweden, engaging with its residents.

I had come to Bergsjon because many observers, including some of its 16,000 residents, felt the apartment housing units and townhouses of the suburb, sprawled across a rocky valley – a long tram ride from the city centre – had become a kind of trap.

Long serving as a stepping stone for newcomers, changes in housing and job markets, compounded by a severe lack of opportunities in the neighbourhood, have made it hard for many people to escape – economically or physically. Residents told me the place felt cut off and neglected, stigmatized and vulnerable.

Within weeks, two global crises would make it shockingly apparent just how vulnerable places such as Bergsjon really are.

Around the world, the two headline crises of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass awareness of racial injustice and segregation – have exploded not across entire countries or cities but, most often, in specific neighbourhoods. In North America and Europe, they’re places a lot like Bergsjon: apartment districts on the inner-suburban edge where, in the 21st century, most immigrants and other low-income groups have struggled to climb the economic ladder. In many cities, the disease is now found almost exclusively in these districts.

The high-rise towers and townhouses of Bergsjon were built in the 1960s and 70s for workers at the city’s Volvo factories. It was assumed they would all drive to work and to go shopping, so the great distance from the city, the scant public-transit connections and the lack of amenities were seen as assets.

Starting in the 1990s, Bergsjon became a landing pad for refugees and immigrants, who were drawn to its low rents and people from similar backgrounds. Some families stay here just long enough to save enough money for a home in a more affluent neighbourhood or to buy a car so they can drive their kids to a more reputable school. But a lot of people – both less fortunate immigrants and less well-equipped ethnic Swedes – end up stuck here. What’s left is a neighbourhood with an unemployment rate of 26 per cent and an average income of just $21,000, where almost half of all kids don’t finish school.

These circumstances helped make it more vulnerable to the pandemic than any other place in Sweden. Bergsjon and the surrounding area have been by far the hardest-hit district in metropolitan Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, which itself has Sweden’s highest COVID-19 rates.

At the same time, Bergsjon is by some measures Sweden’s most racially segregated place: Between 70 per cent and 95 per cent of its residents are immigrants or their children – the largest group of them brown- or black-skinned – and, according to surveys by political scientist Peter Esaiasson, they feel increasingly abandoned by their ethnic-Swede neighbours and Swedish institutions.

What the twin crises of 2020 have painfully taught us is that the huge social, economic and health problems we tend to think of as global or national concerns are really playing out hyper-locally, in specific neighbourhoods. And it may well be that the most effective solutions can be found only at the neighbourhood level, too.



Police are seen in Bergsjon in 2020, left, and Toronto's Jamestown neighbourhood in 2017. Like Bergsjon, the inner-suburban neighbourhoods of Toronto's north – home to a large share of the city's Black population – have higher rates of COVID-19 than many of the whiter and more affluent areas.Doug Saunders and Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail


TORONTO

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000

500

1,000

1,500

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

40

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80%

INCOME

Median household income (2016)

50

75

100

$125K

TORONTO

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Cumulative case rate per 100,000

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1,500

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

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60

80%

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Median household income (2016)

50

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$125K

TORONTO

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000

500

1,000

1,500

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

40

60

80%

INCOME

Median household income (2016)

50

75

100

$125K

When you look at the hardest-hit neighbourhoods in various cities, you notice a set of patterns. Parts of Bergsjon, for instance, bear a strong resemblance to an area on the edge of another city: the north Etobicoke and North York neighbourhoods of Toronto, including Rexdale, parts of Weston and Jane and Finch.

During the late spring, when COVID-19 was rife in Toronto, those neighbourhoods experienced infection rates 11 to 15 times higher than those of downtown areas, which saw hardly any infections.

Those inner-suburban areas also have by far the largest Black populations in the city, more than three times the city average; they are some of the city’s major immigration landing pads and are among the few places that have been accessible to many Caribbean and African immigrants in recent decades.

They are neighbourhoods containing large numbers of workers deemed “essential” or otherwise unable to work from home under pandemic restrictions, in sectors such as health care, transportation and manufacturing. And they are sprawling places far from subway lines, with most residents dependent on crowded public buses.

These patterns are also starkly visible in Montreal, where the disease was most heavily concentrated in places such as Montreal-Nord – northern-edge neighbourhoods that are home to the city’s largest Black populations and are plagued with persistent problems of economic inequality.

MONTREAL

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Aug. 26)

500

1,000

1,500

2,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

30

40

50%

INCOME

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60

80

$100K

MONTREAL

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Aug. 26)

500

1,000

1,500

2,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

30

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50%

INCOME

Median household income (2016)

60

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$100K

MONTREAL

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1,500

2,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2016)

20

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50%

INCOME

Median household income (2016)

60

80

$100K

In Houston, meanwhile, the highest infection rates have been seen in the neighbourhood of Gulfton, an inner suburb of low-rise apartment buildings where the 45,000 residents are overwhelmingly immigrants and refugees, most of them racialized. The disease has all but spared adjoining neighbourhoods with largely white populations in single-family homes.

In New York, which was devastated by COVID-19 in the spring, most of Manhattan largely avoided any serious outbreaks, while the disease ran rampant in the immigrant-filled, non-white public housing of low-income areas of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. While wealthier outer suburbs were also hit hard, in good part because of the concentration of long-term care facilities there, New York’s COVID-19 struggles might be more accurately diagnosed as a disease of its immigrant inner suburbs.

NEW YORK

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Aug. 25)

1,000

2,000

3,000

4,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2012-2016)

20

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60

80%

INCOME

Median household income ($US, 2012-2016)

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100

$125K

NEW YORK

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Aug. 25)

1,000

2,000

3,000

4,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2012-2016)

20

40

60

80%

INCOME

Median household income ($US, 2012-2016)

50

75

100

$125K

NEW YORK

COVID-19

Cumulative case rate per 100,000 (as of Aug. 25)

1,000

2,000

3,000

4,000

RACE

Visible minority as percentage of population (2012-2016)

20

40

60

80%

INCOME

Median household income ($US, 2012-2016)

50

75

100

$125K

In Barcelona, the central city has been almost free of significant COVID-19 outbreaks, but there were overwhelming concentrations in far northern apartment districts such as Nou Barris, which contain large populations of immigrant-origin families and which have also struggled economically since the Spanish housing crash of 2008. In Paris, the disease focused on the city’s mainly non-white outer departments, such as Seine-Saint-Denis, already infamous for the lack of economic opportunities for their low-income residents.

What has made these sorts of neighbourhoods so vulnerable to the pandemic – and to the crisis of racial segregation and intolerance that accompanied it?

Thirty years ago, it’s unlikely these kinds of places would have been in the headlines. The “ethnic neighbourhood” – low-income, immigrant-settlement districts and Black neighbourhoods in North American and European cities, where people did “essential-service” jobs and relied on crowded public transport – was generally located in much denser areas in or near the urban core. But the 21st century has seen a major shift – one with big repercussions: Immigration, along with many forms of poverty and racial concentration, has shifted to the suburbs, as downtowns have become popular among wealthier and more established families – often, in large part, owing to the success of previous generations of newcomers.

“These former typical immigrant neighbourhoods where a lot of prior immigrants moved to are not available any more,” said Nihad El-Kayed, an urban scholar at the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research at Humboldt University. “Nowadays people are more likely not to move to these highly functionally diverse inner-city neighbourhoods but to the fringes of the city. And these new immigrant destinations are often purely residential areas – often high-rise areas that are neither dense nor functionally diverse.”

Large lawns separate apartment towers at Kipling Avenue in Rexdale.Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Low-income suburbs often look leafier and more spread out than the older downtown areas, but that separation and isolation makes them vulnerable. Scott Allard, a political scientist at the University of Washington and the author of Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty, found that public spending on “human services” – including resources to deal with disease, unemployment, poverty, addiction and integration – is almost seven times higher per person in downtown districts than what folks are getting in the suburbs.

That discrepancy is probably less stark in countries such as Canada – where social services tend to be provided or covered by provincial governments, rather than municipal ones – but it’s still highly visible in places such as Rexdale. If you need help getting your family out of trouble or finding a foothold on the next step up the income ladder, you’re much more likely to find it in a government office downtown than in an apartment block on the edge of town. Given that these inner-suburban neighbourhoods are now the predominant places where racialized people, religious minorities and new immigrants are likely to live, the result is a grossly unequal distribution of the safety net.

“Access and provision of these types of services are weaker in places with higher rates of poverty. And they’re weaker in places where a large percentage of the population is Black and brown in the U.S.,” Dr. Allard said. “And so it’s hard for us to talk about social mobility and inequality without talking about racial and class segregation.”

The relative lack of services in these mostly residential neighbourhoods on the edge of cities, and the lower levels of government investment and presence there, appears to have an effect on social mobility – that is, on the chances that children from these neighbourhoods will do better than their parents in terms of education, employment and income.



Children play at dusk in a strip mall parking lot – there is little green space nearby – in Montreal-Nord this past June. The neighbourhood, with a highly concentrated Black population and deep-rooted problems of inequality, also has COVID-19 rates much higher than the Canadian average.Nasuna Stuart-Ulin/The New York Times/The New York Times News Service

When children don’t do better than their parents – whether they’re the children of immigrants, people facing racial or religious discrimination or postindustrial working-class families – they tend to feel stuck, both economically and within the confines of the neighbourhood.

“In neighbourhoods, what started out as a springboard can become a trap after a certain number of years,” said George Galster, a professor of urban studies at Wayne State University. Dr. Galster, who has published several detailed studies of the economic and social effects of neighbourhoods over the past 50 years, has found that “the challenges faced by immigrant groups, refugee groups or, in North America, non-white or Indigenous groups, tend to be concentrated in the same physical spaces – because indeed, we share the situation that those groups are the most spatially segregated, they are most heavily concentrated in the lowest income tiers and they have the lowest intergenerational socio-economic mobility.” This is all a consequence of the ways neighbourhoods are treated and the functions they perform.

Traditionally, there are two ways to escape a “trap” neighbourhood. You can find a better life within the neighbourhood, by moving from rental housing to a home you own or starting a small business there. Or you can move out to a better neighbourhood – or, at a minimum, send your kids to a school in a more middle-class neighbourhood.

That was easier to do in the old inner-city neighbourhoods. They may have been grubbier, more densely populated and sometimes more dangerous, but the flip side was that they had houses that a successful immigrant or worker could buy, middle-class customers who would pop by your shop or restaurant, as well as adjoining neighbourhoods with more middle-class houses and schools.

The new inner-suburban neighbourhoods, with some exceptions, tend to be mostly apartment housing – either private-market rental or public housing or some mix, but rarely with better homes or flats available to encourage upward mobility. And the housing-supply crisis of the past decade, which has driven home prices up dramatically in most major cities around the world, has meant the old strategy of renting in lower-income neighbourhoods for a few years and then moving out and up is no longer so easy; those few years can now stretch into a decade or two.

The isolation of many of these inner-suburban neighbourhoods also means newcomers have less contact with people who can help them out, lend them money, give them a job or teach them the language. “I think the major difference today is that it is much harder for newer immigrants to find access to typical ethnic neighbourhoods with an ethnic economy and ethnic networks, where, at least at the beginning, they might find really crucial infrastructure that might help them to organize themselves and help with bureaucracy and everything,” said Christine Barwick, a sociologist at Berlin’s Marc Bloch Centre whose books examine the moving and staying strategies used by immigrants living in cities in Europe to improve their lot. “The access to ethnic neighbourhoods is much more restricted now.”

But it’s not just a matter of being stuck in an alienating neighbourhood with few opportunities but many crowded apartment buildings. There is a tendency – at least when there isn’t a big-government effort to change their fate – for these neighbourhoods and their schools to get continually worse.

That’s because some residents do manage to move out or pull their kids out of the schools – and they tend to be the more ambitious, influential immigrant families and the more tolerant, similarly upwardly mobile “white” families. Left behind are the families with the fewest resources and the lowest capacity. Schools follow a similar pattern, with the better teachers managing to get transferred out, leaving uninspiring classrooms that further deter families from staying – and encourage kids to drop out.



Isolated, immobile neighbourhoods like Bergsjön can be susceptible to COVID-19 because residents get clustered inside spaced-out apartment buildings or in the nearby convenience stores and supermarkets where they get their food.Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

“When I think about the people who were in high school with me,” said Tobias Kristiansson, a real estate official who was born and grew up in an apartment district similar to Bergsjon, “the ones from the most established and successful families all moved away. And then with new immigration you have these people moving in who maybe don’t have the knowledge or the social capital to really function well at first, and the people who might help them are gone. And the Swedes who stayed behind are actually the most racist people – the ones who collect welfare and hate the multiculture around them and blame society, when it’s obvious they didn’t have what it takes to move away.”

Bergsjon is, in fact, a place that has improved. It has an ambitious high-school principal, Monzer El-Sabini, who used hands-on methods to get kids back in school, raising the graduation rate to 23 per cent from 18 per cent – still very far below Scandinavian rates, but better. During the worst months of the pandemic, Bergsjon never shut its schools down (except for students 16 and older), so children had the safer daytime option of a classroom rather than a crowded apartment building with shared ventilation and three or four kids to a bedroom.

It still wasn’t enough to make Bergsjon into a safe place in a pandemic – or an equal place. And while soaring house prices may be forcing some more ambitious families to stay in the neighbourhood longer, they’re still finding ways to get their kids out of the local schools – even if it involves more long trips on crowded public transit.

You can immediately see how the COVID-19 crisis played out so dangerously in these neighbourhoods. The apartment buildings tend to be far apart, separated by big grassy spaces, but people end up clustered in stingy building elevators and lobbies, in the handful of convenience stores and small supermarkets, in religious services that offer one of the few forms of community bonding, and on buses and streetcars that aren’t up to capacity.

It’s not that the pandemic targeted these inner-suburban neighbourhoods because their residents are prone to taking risks. The virus took advantage of vulnerabilities that the residents of these neighbourhoods are well aware of: the isolation, immobility, crowding – and grinding necessity of working a physical, low-wage job a long transit trip away. Before, those barriers to social mobility were frustrating obstacles to improving one’s station in life or giving one’s kids a better start. Now, they’re a danger to livelihoods and life itself.

If there is a silver lining to the twin crises of COVID-19 and the anti-racism protests, it’s that these previously underappreciated neighbourhoods on the edge are drawing global attention – that their residents are no longer bearing these hardships alone.



Men load boxes belonging to a couple moving out of their 14th-floor apartment in New York's Bronx borough on July 21. The couple are moving to a town an hour's drive north during the COVID-19 pandemic.Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

So what now? There has been a lengthy policy debate about how to “fix” the social-mobility problem in such neighbourhoods. It’s been especially acute in recent years in the United States, where historical legacies of racial segregation created an awareness of neighbourhood-level problems earlier than in most places.

That debate tends to revolve around the merits of “place-based solutions” – in which you spend money trying to fix the neighbourhood by building institutions and transportation infrastructure, creating services and adding better housing through urban-renewal schemes – and “population-based solutions,” in which you make it easier for families to move out. U.S. governments have often gone for the latter approach, providing vouchers and grants and relocation services to tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities in what have become known as “Moving to Opportunity” programs.

Such programs have their place. There definitely are real benefits in moving out – some neighbourhoods are so deprived and isolated that there may be little value in trying to stay. But that still leaves the neighbourhood – unless you demolish it altogether – and the problem of its near-inevitable downward spiral, made worse by encouraging people to move out. By creating a less tight-knit, less trusting community, it also makes the neighbourhood more vulnerable to threats such as pandemics.

So we need to fix the neighbourhoods themselves. Many of these places are already seeing a hodgepodge of federal and provincial or state efforts to do so – programs to add middle-class housing (usually in small amounts), to encourage the influx of businesses and other job creators, sometimes to improve public transit. But they’re rarely done at a scale that makes a real difference.

Almost every one of the experts I’ve spoken to told me that the addition of a substantial early-childhood education and child-care program, which gives parents the freedom to pursue better jobs and gives children the social capital they need to complete school, is the policy prescription that works best. Or an investment to turn the immigrant-district school into a magnet school for the whole city. Or a subway stop and the higher density of housing it makes possible. A one-time investment in removing a barrier to social mobility can turn a downward-spiralling neighbourhood into a place that becomes more popular, prosperous and safe.

“What I see makes a difference for economic security and quality of life,” said Marc Parres, a Barcelona urban geographer who now serves as a member of Parliament in the Catalonia legislature, “is the degree of public investment we can find in these neighbourhoods … those places where governments have invested in things like early-childhood education and schools over the last few decades are also the ones where people have become more self-organized to respond to an adverse situation.”

We now have our adverse situation. We’ve watched it ravage these districts on the edge of town. And now that we realize our biggest problems are neighbourhood problems, we have every reason to start doing something about it.


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