When “diverse” neighborhoods are more segregated than they appear

Ryan Holeywell
The Urban Edge
June 11, 2015


Back in 2010, news started circulating among the Seattle-area press that the 98118 zip code – which contains the Columbia City neighborhood – was named by Census as the most diverse zip code in America.

The news struck University of Washington researchers Ryan Gabriel and Tim Thomas as hard to believe. On paper, the area was definitely diverse – 59 different languages are reportedly spoken in Columbia City – but it just didn’t feel like it to the doctoral candidates.

“We’ve been through that area, and we had a sense of what it’s like,” Gabriel says. “When you go down there, it’s not necessarily diverse. People aren’t necessarily crossing racial boundaries. So we decided to investigate it in a scientific way.”

As it turns out, the diversity designation wasn’t exactly true (the misinformation percolated through the blogosphere, despite the fact that the Census doesn’t rank neighborhoods by diversity). But it spread nonetheless because it to some, it really did seem believable. Immigrants in Columbia City speak many languages, including Chinese, Somali Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Khmer, the Seattle Times wrote. At the same time, “close to a third of the population is African American, an influx that started in the 1950s, and another third white, including remnants of the Irish and Italian immigrants of the early 1900s,” the newspaper wrote.

The University of Washington researchers decided to give the area – and others within Seattle that are considered “diverse” – a closer look. Their analysis includes measurements of where people of different races live within the neighborhoods, as well as methodical, on-the-ground observations of the built environment.

What Gabriel and Thomas saw was a scenario vastly different from the slew of media reports that touted the diversity of Columbia City and Seattle by extension. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about Seattle,” Gabriel says. “It’s a highly-diverse city in some ways, but as you kind of walk the city, you experience a real sense of separation between racial groups and class levels as well.”

What they discovered was that segregation persists even within Census tracts that are racially diverse. Neighborhoods that had a mix of different races at the Census tract level – geographical areas that include about 4,000 residents – often had dramatic signs of segregation.

Communities that seemed to have a mix of residents on paper actually housed racial groups that remained tightly clustered.They called the phenomenon “micro-level segregation.”

In Columbia City, for example, the researchers found the west side of the tract had lots of immigrant markets and fast food restaurants. On the predominantly white side of the tract near the bay were five-star restaurants serving $60 entrees. “The separation of amenities is really stark,” Gabriel says. “We think these people live in separate social spheres, even though they’re in the same Census-defined area.”

The team looked at other seemingly diverse areas too. They found in many instances, topographical features separated communities by race, as did transportation features like major thoroughfares.

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