(This is the piece I wrote for Strongtowns about concentrated poverty for their “housing week”)
Springfield, Massachusetts is a poor city and the neighborhood where I currently live is poorer still. My wife and I earn a solidly middle class income. I’d lived in a different part of the neighborhood for most of the last 20 years. When I moved into the townhouse at 80 Maple Street the first two people I met were Sederick and May.
Sederick wanted to know if I was the new owner of the place. I didn’t know who this unfamiliar black man was, asking me about a closing that had taken place not four hours earlier; so I lied and said that I wasn’t. A few days later he didn’t ask me, he told me that he knew I was the new owner. I couldn’t imagine how he knew or why he would care, but it seemed ominous. It turned out he lived in the basement of the townhouse two doors down and had an agreement with the lawyers whose offices had been at 80 Maple Street to clear the snow from their steps and from the 30 feet of sidewalk that was the responsibility of “Coolidge and Lauro”: $200 a season and free the following year if we didn’t get 5 shovel-able snowfalls! It was a good deal.
May saw my youngest daughter walk down the hill from Commerce High School on the Tuesday that this became our home. May was the spirited crossing guard at the corner of Maple and Union Streets. Any driver not showing due deference to her or the children got an earful of high-pitched black southern colloquialisms from the full 5 feet and 100 lbs. of her frame. I watched her watch my daughter, Mckenzie, cross the street, walk up the steps to the door, unlock the front door, and enter into her new home. May sought me out to tell me that Mckenzie would be safe under her watchful eye and that, if any creeps tried to follow her home, May would give ’em what for.
Both Sederick and May were dead within three years. Neither was yet 60 years of age. Both looked over 70 to me. Both died of cancers which were too far along for any hope of treatment by the time they were discovered. May’s second job was on the night cleaning crew at a local hospital. I never asked which one. I wondered if she died in a room she had often cleaned but never accessed as a patient until it was too late.
It’s a hard thing for me. My presence in the neighborhood is something of a curiosity to the neighbors, but their presence is what makes my ridiculous lifestyle possible. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go off on a Marxist rant; it’s just that as a practical matter the $14,000 a year median household income of my neighbors, among other things, keeps my expenses low.
I remember when I was negotiating to buy the house one of the owners mistook me for a contractor and told me that “the guy who’s looking to buy this place has two daughters. He’s a lunatic, this place is the Wild, Wild West after dark.” When we sat down at the conference table to discuss terms it was, perhaps “priceless” is the wrong word, to see the look on his face when he recognized me; there goes another $10,000 off the asking price! I’m sure the numerous shopping carts and the tinkle of their returnable bottles and cans is part of what keeps housing demand from the middle class, and therefore my home value and property taxes, extremely low.
At school my daughters in prior decades were, and now my step-daughter is, offered free breakfast and lunch despite not qualifying for “free or reduced price lunch”; so few students aren’t eligible that it’s not worthwhile to maintain a system of collection. The millions of dollars the Commonwealth of Massachusetts throws at the school due to the underperformance of the impoverished school population puts my stepdaughter in a classroom with 15 other students and with a full time paraprofessional. Funds for a music program gave her a chance to perform in an important role in a school produced play, the only second grader to do so. My oldest earned a scholarship from Smith College as part of a Smith/Springfield partnership; I have a feeling she does NOT represent the intended demographic target of the school’s largesse, but she was the most qualified candidate.
Being poor is hard. Whether the poor living here think so or not, in many ways this is a great neighborhood in which to be poor. Whatever the general state of public transit, living where I do gives people a tremendous mobility that no other location in the region does. Just about every governmental body and institution has a branch or outlet here. Living in an urban center gives the poor access to many of the services which cater to their needs. Residing near the region’s hospitality industry (7 hotels now, 11 by 2018 with thousands of guest rooms), universities, and medical centers makes access to thousands of entry level jobs possible.
But these are mostly not actually benefits of the concentration of poverty, they are the benefits of living in a city center. One problem of the concentration of poverty is how it normalizes dysfunction. I see the dysfunction every day. Some gentrification is what the neighborhood needs. Concerns that it could go so far as to displace tremendous numbers of people here are misguided in my view. That is not to say that it wouldn’t create new challenges for the people living here–far from it, of course it would. But in many cases what these people need is a buffer of “function” between themselves and their neighbor’s dysfunction. Someone needs to call the police. Someone needs to care enough to pick up the nips bottles, the used condoms, and the dog poop. Someone needs to be at the city council meeting, and the PTO meeting.
Looking back to my childhood, I can see that poverty was concentrated in a few neighborhoods in the city, but the city also contained large pockets of great wealth. With school desegregation, white flight created a vacuum which has (in a paradoxical turn of phrase) given concentrated poverty a chance to expand. With the middle class and the wealthy having fled to the suburbs and the exurbs, one result is that many of the rich not only do not ever see poverty, they also have a very warped sense of their own disproportionate wealth. That is to say: I know families with incomes a quarter of a million dollars a year that think that they are middle class.
The concentration of poverty does not just isolate the poor in their behaviors, attitudes, and dysfunctions, it does the same to the middle and upper classes. The recent epidemic of opioid overdose deaths in more suburban and rural parts of the country has led to a spate of articles acknowledging that “we can’t just incarcerate our way out of this problem.” Funny how that same realization never occurred to people when most of those being locked up over drug problems were from “that place, that class, and that race.” When “that place” is your place, and people of that class and that race are your neighbors, that realization might well come sooner.
A fact became clear to me a short time back, it is now almost something of a mantra: Were I to find a billion dollars, my dream would be to stay here. Were most of my neighbors to find a thousand, their dream would be to get out. It isn’t the place so much as it is the people around them. When you have resources you can be in this world, but not of it, so to speak. The poor do not have that luxury; the poor are always with them.