Thursday, July 12, 2007

Segregation by Economics

I've been walking around my neighborhood almost every evening for five years... logging, in fact, over 2500 miles in that time. My walks are often after dusk -- it's too hot in the summer to walk before, and dusk in the winter falls during working hours -- but I've never worried about being safe in this clean, manicured, well-lighted neighborhood.

This is a bedroom community near a large city in Northern California, which has the same unholy mix of problems nearly every other community in America has: poverty, homelessness, racial tensions, gangs, unemployment, mediocre government, rampant and uncontrolled growth, marginal public education, etc. In terms of crime statistics and nightly news reports, the "worst" area is less than ten miles north of me, sandwiched between this town and the city.

My town, which was incorporated only in 2000, the year I moved here, grew 12 percent between July 2004 and 2005, making it the fastest-growing city in the nation among cities with a population over 100,000 for that year. Beginning with an initial award-winning development,which has served as the model for all future developments, the result is a very livable community of mostly young, middle-income families. It isn't the most fashionable address to have in a tri-county area of three million people and five-million-dollar homes, but housing costs are reasonable enough here that many of those families are able to live well on a single income while Mom or Dad stays at home with their 2.3 children.

It's also a very racially diverse community, although I can't demonstrate that with accuracy; because of its rapid growth the statistics from the 2000 Census demographics are grossly out of date. In a quote from a 2004 (very inflammatory) blog, I did find this information regarding the school district:

This growth brings rapid demographic changes. More than 80 languages are spoken..., and last year more than 21 percent of students spoke limited English, compared with under 7 percent 15 years ago.

According to district figures, whites were 34 percent of the district’s students during the past school year. Asians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos were 26 percent, Latinos were 20 percent and African Americans were 19 percent. Twenty years ago, whites were 70 percent of the population.

There have been several gang and racially-motivated violent incidents in the past few years, but overall, crime of all kinds is minimal and one feels safe here, generally insulated against the socioeconomic factors that seem to breed the worst violence and crime.

It is that insulation that struck me during a walk last week, when, after dark, the temperature had finally cooled from 108 degrees to about 95. In waving and saying hi to neighbors, I counted eleven obvious ethnicities -- five on my own block -- all peacefully coexisting. Indeed, I see evidence of definite friendships during the year with summer block parties, themed Christmas decorations, shared fireworks on the Fourth of July, open houses on Halloween -- a slice of our own little Norman Rockwell Americana.

Amid all the varying races and cultures represented here, the one leveling factor is, of course, economics. These homes were built by various developers around the same time, so while housing size, styles and values do vary from street to street, those variances aren't great, and I'm sure our Form 1040 gross income amounts are in the same ballpark.

This isn't news, it isn't an innovative thought, it's not startling, but we are far from a classless society. We are segregated, at least in California, not by race or culture, but by economics. We buy or rent homes where we can afford them, with our income level and credit rating usually making the final determination, and so we end up with neighbors who have similar values, although often different racial and cultural backgrounds.

There are no cars parked on the lawns on my street, no chickens running around cackling, no moonshine stills (at least on front patios), and whatever drug deals may occur go down behind shiny oak shutters. The kids attending the nearby public grammar and high schools, and the Catholic school a mile away, are snapshots from many nations, but still cheerfully "nice" middle-class kids.

Generalities generally make me crazy, and I know there are exceptions to everything I've written -- but you get the picture, and I'm sure this picture isn't different than thousands of neighborhoods across the country. We're very successful at insulating ourselves through our level of income from what we perceive as a "lower class."

Would I have bought a larger home for the same money in the slummy area ten miles north of me, where gangs rule the night and TV news crews are familiar faces? No, of course not. Would I move elsewhere if that ten-mile buffer zone grows weak and there is leakage into "my" area? In a New York minute I would.

I'm equally certain there are politicians, attorneys and plastic surgeons floating in their upscale, gardenia-rimmed pools this minute who would never consider living at the bottom of the commute food chain here in our little tract. Their income insulates their country club lifestyle from us just as effectively as our 30-year mortgages do from the folks just up the road.

A couple of decades ago we heard a lot about "white flight" from metropolitan areas to suburbs in order to achieve separation from those "unlike" us. We've made racial segregation illegal and virtually invisible, and I don't personally see violations of those laws in the local news (although they may very well exist).

What I do see, and guiltlessly participate in, is economic segregation from elements that seem to guarantee chaos, crime and violence. I'm insulated from those problems here by a cozy economic Pink Panther R-value, although that very insulation makes me uncomfortable at times.

1 comment:

LobowolfXXX said...

Nice post, and I agree almost entirely. Here's the "almost":

"We buy or rent homes where we can afford them, with our income level and credit rating usually making the final determination, and so we end up with neighbors who have similar values,"

My guess would be that you meant that in a different way than I'm reading it. The economic stratification doesn't bring similarity of values; witness, for instance, the vast areas of disagreement between the conservative CEO's (though that too is an oversimplification) and the Hollywood liberals (as is that), each with 8-figure incomes, yet disagreeing on everything from abortion to Iraq to private ownership of handguns.

What it DOES bring is a roughly equal ability to avoid some of the detriments that go along with living where...well, where people WITHOUT that ability live, specifically crimes against persons & property. For those parents you mentioned, it brings a general improvement (as one might expect) in the quality of the public education.

All of which is why (as your overarching theme seems to be) the great equalizer/divider is America is not race, but class. Or, for those of you who must see things in terms of color, the relevant colors aren't black & white; they're greeen & non-green. Which is also why, if you must support affirmative action, basing it on wealth makes infinitely more sense than basing in on race.

Nice, solid, thought-provoking read.

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