Carol Coletta was, quite literally, one of the first urbanist voices I ever heard. I was an early adopter of the Internet, using it for research for a weekend radio program I hosted and produced; a friend hooked me up to do research using an old Mac and a modem (“Whatever that is”) and the next thing I knew I was using the University of Minnesota “Gopher” to find news stories I could use. They came mostly from the San José Mercury News. As access to live and archived radio programs became more common in the early 2000’s, Smart City Radio with Carol Coletta became the first I found with a focus on cities and urban issues.
The program was insightful, but the context, given that the show originated from Memphis, was so different in every way from my situation and lived experiences here in New England that it served more to whet my appetite city centered dialog than to satisfy it. That was one of the experiences which led to the creation of Rational Urbanism. Strong Towns recently reposted one of her essays entitled You Can’t See ’em, if You Can’t Feel ’em. It addressed how our car oriented living arrangement keeps the various economic and social classes from interacting and, therefore, knowing one another.
I wouldn’t argue against that idea, it seems well rooted in fact. I’ve written about how topography and demography combine to deceive, at least in this region; so much land is occupied by the well-to-do, and the poorest of the poor are concentrated in such small spaces that it gives a false impression of their relative numbers. This leads to many other misunderstandings. As a teacher I earn well over 1.5 times the median household income for the U.S., and yet many teachers I know honestly believe that they are underpaid. I remember a discussion with a colleague whose spouse was a lawyer in which I learned that their combined income of over a quarter of a million dollars a year did not make them rich because “they couldn’t buy everything they wanted”; with a few minutes of research I pointed out that, numerically speaking, if families earning that much above the median were in the middle of the distribution, then families earning less than $300 a month were also “middle class”.
Again, however, we hear this exhortation to mingle with the poor. I do, albeit usually on my own terms. As with the wealthy, they can be very nice, very engaging people. But they are living on the edge. Good manners, another colleague recently commented, are a privilege of the comfortable. It’s easier to defer and delay when you believe yourself to be absolutely certain of your next meal, and your place of rest. You can see that being in that mode can carry over to other, less fundamental, situations and circumstances. On the other hand there are those who clearly enjoy a sojourn amongst the middle class in order to forget how precarious their existence may be.
As I have earlier stated, I wouldn’t argue that a larger problem in this country isn’t that the we do not see how the other half lives, but I do not think increased interaction will lead only to net positives. When I think of issues of race as opposed to class for example, often the least racist people I meet have had either no interactions or constant somewhat thoroughgoing interactions with people of other races. The most fervent racists I know became such while inhabiting a space of some frequent contact but which did not go very deep and were not affirming. In much the same way the poor are often not picturesque, having some insight into their behaviors requires a better understanding of their circumstances. They often are not grateful to intermingle with those of us in the wealthier classes. They are not always kind, not polite, and not always deferential.
By all means let’s have a clearer picture of our reality, but let’s not be surprised by the fact that much of what we see may shock us, sadden us, and make us wish that we didn’t know how ugly living on the edge can be.