Whaddya Mean “Urban?”
Let’s talk “urban entrepreneurs.” I chose the term because it’s a double entendre. There’s the obvious meaning: an entrepreneur who lives and/or works in an urban area. But I’m getting at something else here, too. I’m talking about the use of terms like “urban” or “inner-city” as code words for race. Specifically, as a reference to people of color (“POC”), particularly those who are poor.
This idea of urban as code word is closely associated with, for instance, the term concrete jungle, a “city center[…] teeming with black, brown, and, yellow bodies, which are poor and dirty, criminal and dangerous.” In this context an “urban entrepreneur” often conjures an image of a “hustler” (another term for another day): someone who makes money by selling illegal goods or selling legal goods illegally. In other words, urban entrepreneur is regularly used to refer to POC who make money by engaging in the informal economy in low-income, minority-majority neighborhoods.
How Did Urban Come to Mean Poor People of Color?
The origin of this usage is up for debate. There are some who use the term innocently enough to refer to big city dwellers, people who are sophisticated and with the times. But let’s be real here, how many people watch “Gossip Girl” and then refer to Blaire or Serena as “urban youth?” I believe the word you’re looking for is “cosmopolitan.”
The use of the term “urban” to mean poor or ghetto POC is real. The racist undertones are at the root of policies that keep funds for basic resources out of these communities. The modern day urban, or ghetto, community is one final act of colonialism at its finest, treating ghettos as “intimately linked to, but always dislocated from, the metropole and its (white) cosmopolitan citizen.”
Look I don’t deny the large presence of POC in urban settings. The Great Migration, for instance, resulted in a significant increase in the presence of black Americans in major cities, i.e., America’s urban centers. And in fact, it may have been The National Urban League a black civic organization founded to improve conditions for urban blacks in the northeast who connected the term terms. My concern, of course, is not simply with the connection of the terms POC and urban. Instead it is with the racist conflation, the pejorative meaning of “urban.”
The rise of urban renewal and slum clearance in the 50s has a lot to do with these undertones. In fact, James Baldwin referred to urban renewal as “negro removal.” During the heyday of urban renewal coming on the heals of early white flight, poor minorities were aggressively displaced or relocated into small geographic pockets (into places where they wouldn’t pollute the public’s view from the highway when possible). POC were viewed as a threat to sophistication and modernity, responsible for the demise of urban spaces — a pest to be curbed or exterminated.
As African-American culture has infiltrated so-called “mainstream” American culture (i.e., white culture) via its influence on popular music, dance, arts, clothing, food — you name it — somehow urban has come to be a euphemism that mixes pejorative with exoticism: a safe word for people to discuss things they love and loathe about minorities without having to sound as if they are lumping everyone into one big bad group, i.e., being racist. When I hear a marketing exec or some 20-something from the suburbs (see what I did there?) referring to something as “urban” I know they are talking about something influenced by, or designed for, POC, most likely poor, very likely black. This coded usage is probably more prominent in the “colorblind” north, but I cannot say with certainty.
Rethinking Urban: Demographic Shifts
These days the demographics of U.S. cities are shifting and economic development is taking hold in many cities. Millennials are all about city living, but it seems that only the upper- and middle-class millennials can afford the new center and come with four year college education and white collar jobs: aptly named since the majority of this new class is white. In fact, the term “millenial” is arguably just as racially coded as urban. If not racially coded, it is certainly socioeconomically coded. When we read about millennials this and Gen Y that is anyone talking about a 19-year-old low-income first generation Mexican American female living in East L.A. who hasn’t enrolled in college yet? Or a 25 year old black male who attends Hostos Community College and lives on 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx? Of course not! They’re not millennials; they’re urban. I guess if they get into Brown and move out of their neighborhoods when they graduate they can become millennials.
I have no problem with the term “urban” evolving with the demographics of city dwellers — especially if it means one less racist code word. But I choose to stake my claim in the term while it still holds this meaning in the popular conception. I want to draw attention to the plight of many poor POC who have moved into, or remain in, the new “inner-ring suburbs.” I also want to draw attention to the plight of America, which is losing thanks to the egregious waste caused by its refusal to see urban centers as having just as much potential for creative innovation as so-called wealth creators in big business or those CEOs we already discussed.
Segregated from nearby “core” neighborhoods with high concentrations of wealth, POC and immigrants in many cities across America remain highly segregated from the best that economic development has to offer. Meanwhile white collar millennials move into the city cores with their new power centers, economic improvements and opportunities all of which continue to pass the potential who entrepreneur by. Ironically, this appears to be exactly what happened with gentrification, which I was surprised to discover may actually be beneficial to “urban” communities — especially youth — assuming you don’t go Robert Moses on them and bulldoze their neighborhood (this part is true) to create the most congested most loathsome highway ever (this part is conjecture based on my own frustrated feelings about The Cross-Bronx Expressway, not backed by my research lol).
What I Mean on This Blog
When I use the term “urban entrepreneur” I mean someone who works in and for cities. But I also mean POC who build something new and creative for themselves and their communities. And as a black, immigrant woman who came of age in one of the most urban of America’s communities, the Boogie Down, I feel comfortable with the moniker.
I’m partial to a definition of Urban Entrepreneurship that I found on under30ceo.com:
An urban entrepreneur is “someone who starts with no resources and builds a company or brand into a success; and someone who uses the perfect blend of book and street smarts to run their business well.”