The great Walmart debate

Let’s start with a confession. I am not unequivocally anti-Walmart.

I expect this comes as a surprise to some of my friends. My politics are pretty left-leaning. I garden and compost. I’m the sort of person who entertains myself making jam, pickles, and chicken broth from scratch. I drive a Civic Hybrid. Indeed, were it not for the fact that I’m allergic to patchouli, I might be in danger of being mistaken for a dirty hippie. Add to that the fact that I grew up in rural Wisconsin, where the nearest town got its Walmart in the late 80s.

It was recently announced that Walmart is intending to open one of their neighborhood markets (a smaller scale store selling only groceries) within walking distance of my house. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the comments on altadenablog (for example here and here). It seems to be basically a done deal, but some members of the community are mobilizing against Walmart anyway.

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of things another grocery two blocks from the existing Super King is probably not exactly what the neighborhood needs. On the other hand, the site is a building that’s been abandoned the entire seven years I’ve been visiting/living in the neighborhood. At a certain point I think you can make an argument that anything in the space is more productive than nothing.

Of course the Walmart opponents don’t agree. At the same time, though, the opponents don’t seem to recognize the difficulties involved with economic development on the west side of Altadena. One of the organizers is quoted as saying “I don’t think that no one else wants [the building] — if you look at yourself as the ghetto, that’s what you’ll be.” Let’s ignore for a moment the invocation of the G-word, which strikes me as incredibly problematic (but also par for the course when discussing this side of town). I have to wonder where all the someone elses that might want that building, that corner, have been for the past three quarters of a decade.

I’m relatively new to the neighborhood. I’ve only lived here for five years. In that time, though, I’ve watched unfolding drama surrounding the Lincoln Crossing development, just South of the proposed Walmart site. Phase one of the project was to house a 24 Hour Fitness, a Bank of America Branch, a grocery, and an assortment of local businesses. The local businesses have had a hard time of it. The first grocery store closed and was replaced with the Super King, which has been quite successful (but is not an Altadena-based business) Phase two of the project was supposed to be built across the street, but seems like it will never materialize. That history makes it pretty clear that filling in the vacancies along Lincoln with local businesses is a bit easier said than done.
Continue reading “The great Walmart debate”

The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM

I would like to preface this post by noting that some of the people who know me in person might suspect that this was inspired by a recent very emotional conversation that followed a similar thread (well, to the extent that it followed any threads at all given my state at the time). In fact I began writing this post weeks ago, though the recent conversation did inspire me to try to actually finish pulling my thoughts together. This is, however, still a very general set of ideas I’m trying to flesh out, not a response to any one particular conversation, comment, or experience.

Ah, it’s time for another presidential election, and with it come my least favorite parts of politics: the name calling, the self-satisfied claims of superiority, the rancor. No, I’m not talking about the political ads, though there’s enough of all of the above coming from the various campaigns to fuel its own rant. I’m talking about the mudslinging done by ordinary citizens toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. It’s no secret that I’m extremely liberal so you might assume that I’m specifically talking about the trash-talking done by conservatives. But I’m not. I’m talking about the hate that spews from liberals and conservatives alike. I am simply sick to death of hearing how one side is so much better than the other. How anyone who votes for the other candidate is either stupid or just plain evil. I’m going to talk here specifically about the things I hear from fellow liberals. This is not because I necessarily believe that liberals are worse about their mudslinging but because as a liberal who travels in pretty liberal social circles (both in the flesh and online) I hear a lot of things that make me sad, angry, and a little sick.

I will be the first to agree that a lot of political decisions are made with too little information, or information that is just plain wrong. But let’s be clear that just because one is ill-informed or poorly educated does not make one stupid. Many liberals are quick to paint broad swathes of the country with the stupid brush. I’ll admit that when you watch the various cherry-picked videos of idiocy on youtube it’s very easy to think that perhaps stupidity is the explanation for all the nation’s woes. Of course since the formulation is generally put forth in the form that some THEM out THERE is STUPID, it does leave one wondering a bit about how stupidity became so geographically concentrated. Perhaps the non-fluoridated rural water is to blame?

Formulating the problem as ignorance manages to side-step the question of how some sort of inherent stupidity might have such a dramatic geographic component (without even having to throw in words like “in-bred,” which yes, I have heard at least once this fall). Pointing to THEM and saying THEY are IGNORANT allows the blame to be spread to culture, to education, to the environment that surrounds THEM. To a certain extent I am willing to accept an argument about the perils of an ignorant population. What I’m not willing to accept is the formulation that suggests that WE are knowledgeable while THEY are ignorant. The skills involved in weighing evidence and using it to come to logical conclusions are not easily learned, nor are they the focus in much of the education system. If you want to argue that politics are negatively influenced by the state of our education system I’ll gladly agree with you, as long as you recognize that the problem doesn’t just affect the people who vote differently from you.

There are those, though, who do not think that ignorance and inability to reason is an affliction that crosses demographic or political lines. And it is with them that I take issue. Continue reading “The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM”

Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)

Today’s LA Times has an article about a brewing backlash against the homeless in downtown Madison, WI. Years ago I wrote my senior thesis about the young people (my primary focus, anyway) that spent time in a small park just off State Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the University of Wisconsin campus to the capital. Shortly after finishing my thesis I interned at the YWCA’s family homeless shelter. Having had those experiences, I take somewhat more interest in news about homelessness in Madison than I do that in LA. I also feel that I’m qualified to say at least a little about what the issue looked like there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The article starts with a nice idyllic view of Madison, where residents knew panhandlers by name and interacted with them amicably. It contrasts that picture with a current fear of the homeless resulting from two unsolved murders in the downtown area. In both cases the victims were killed in their homes, in the middle of the day, presumably by strangers. The police have focused some of their investigation on homeless in the area. This has, apparently, included taking DNA samples. This resulted in some arrests on other charges, but no break in the murder cases. The LA Times article suggests that some of the services Madison does provide for the homeless (including some shelters downtown as well as meals) are coming under popular attack. Continue reading “Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)”

The United States government's valuation of higher education

I was just reading something about the state of the union address last night that quoted the line:

“We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

This inspired in me a brief moment of hope that perhaps in the years that I haven’t been paying attention to the state of need-based aid for college undergrads we’d made some progress in funding higher education for poor students. Of course that moment of hope melted away when I looked at the current numbers. As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin I was a work-study student worker in the financial office for two years. During that period I came to understand that, though my background disadvantaged me in certain ways, I was very lucky that my parent’s economic situation wasn’t ever so slightly better. Lots of students coming from families with incomes in the $40,000 and above range were eligible for very little federal or state need-based aid. Combine that fact with the fact that the limits on stafford loans were lower than tuition at UW and the school had almost no aid available above what was available from the government, and there were a lot of people for whom the question of how to pay for their education wasn’t an easy one.

Continue reading “The United States government's valuation of higher education”

Musical Gentrification or Cleaning up the City One Neighborhood at a Time

Yesterday’s LA Times has an article about the effects of police efforts to curb crime in the part of downtown known as skid row. The claim is that since last fall when LAPD increased the number of officers in the area and put an effort into reducing crime downtown the homeless in skid row have migrated to other areas of the city, particularly those accessible by bus. This apparently is putting a large strain on the service providers to the west and south of downtown. Arguably, “cleaning up” downtown is a positive thing. A close friend used to live in the loft building on the corner of 4th and Main, which borders on skid row. It was a scary neighborhood. And I say that as someone with a pretty high neighborhood tolerance. Nonetheless, despite thinking that downtown could benefit a lot by a reduction in crime, I’m not at all heartened by the LAPD strategy. Nor do I find the dispersing effect it seems to have surprising.

I do find this story amusing in a sort of tragically ironic sort of way. I haven’t been in LA long enough to make claims with any certainty about the reasons for the existence of skid row. However, from what I have seen, it seems that part of the process has involved “cleaning up” other areas of the city and pushing the most vulnerable towards downtown. It appears to me that many homeless have migrated downtown as they have been pushed out of places like the part of Hollywood near the Hollywood & Highland complex (home to the kodak theatre). Hand in hand with the cleaning up of other neighborhoods comes the dumping, done by hospitals, service organizations, and LAPD itself, of homeless individuals into skid row. The friend who used to live in the area was pretty convinced that the city was happy to just shove all the problems into skid row and forget about them.


Needless to say, this is not an effective way to address the problem of homelessness. One service provider characterizes the strategy as “the leaf-blower mentality” asserting that increasing police activity without increasing housing and other services is just going to move the population around without changing anything. Enforcing laws against sleeping on the street in an area that is essentially a city of tents and cardboard boxes at night is a laughably simplistic way of dealing with the problem. The same can be said for increasing the number of drug-related arrests. Both possibilities are simply bandaids over gaping wounds.

That said I do feel a bit of sympathy for those in the police force having to make decisions about how to deal with skid row. No matter what LAPD chooses to do, they aren’t actually going to have much effect on the very serious problem of homelessness in this city. There is nothing, really, that LAPD can do aside from trying to deal with the crime in the area. Though I will note that the logic of this quote threw me: “Officials said they expected the police presence would lead to more arrests but not reduce the overall homeless population, which they said is benefiting from safer streets.”

In the end this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away until we a) have sufficient affordable housing and b) deal with the systematic factors that are associated with the particular challenges (such as substance abuse) that homeless individuals are so likely to be dealing with. We do an extremely lousy job in this country of dealing with mental health issues (not to mention a lousy job of dealing with physical health issues for the poor). And we do a lousy job of providing services for veterans. And honestly, though I don’t have citations on hand to back me up, I think these two factors are a huge part of the trends in homelessness. In the meantime I don’t much like the idea of a homeless ghetto (which is really what skid row is/was) but I don’t think that dispersing people away from the biggest concentration of homeless services in the city is a dramatically better idea.

The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.

Are you keeping up with the Jones' debt load?

Last week I logged onto the website of my local credit union to check and see if my rent check had cleared yet. Upon arriving at their website I was greeted by a picture of a large TV with a football player jumping out of it to catch a football and text proclaiming “Buying a HDTV? Finance it with a low-rate [Credit Union] loan.” Now of course as a graduate student I’m probably not in the best position to be criticizing other people’s financial decisions. I’ve taken out student loans that paid for all sorts of stupid things (though mostly those things were food, rent, and car insurance). And I regularly end up carrying credit card debt for moderate periods of time (i.e. less than a year but more than a month). Again this is mostly for semi-necessary bills (arguably my cell phone isn’t necessary nor is a large chunk of my food expenditure) but there are certainly splurges that appear there. Nonetheless, despite not exactly being little Ms. Frugal myself, I am utterly and completely horrified by the mere idea of taking out a loan to buy a TV.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I find this particularly horrific precisely because I don’t watch TV, and thus don’t understand the concept of high definition TV. But really, even if I loved TV, I think I’d be hard pressed to understand the concept of taking out a loan to buy one. Granted, loans in general are not my default mindset. I grew up in an essentially debt-free home. My parents rent and as far as I know they always paid for cars outright. My mother is a big believer in paying off credit cards every month. Given that, the fact that I have any debt at all is stressful for me (even though my student loan debt is minimal compared to how long I’ve been in school). But I understand the concept of debt. Mortgages seem an inevitable part of middle-class life. And I can see myself someday giving in to the idea of a car payment (if I’m really lucky my current car–which was bought new as a gift from a relative when I started graduate school–will last me long enough that I don’t have to contemplate the idea of student loan debt and car payments at the same time). But what mindset ends you up taking out a loan for a TV?

I’ve seen lots of figures (which I am currently too lazy to dig up) about Americans and their debt load. I think I’ve always sort of naively assumed that this was primarily credit card debt that built up over time and series of small purchases. Of course that sort of debt isn’t better in any sense and is almost certainly worse in the sense that it probably entails much higher interest rates. But, to me at least, it’s more understandable than debt incurred in one fell swoop for purely luxury items. I can understand how small purchases that “I’ll pay off next month, really” could aggregate and spiral into massive credit card debt. I can understand how living on credit cards for a couple of months while unemployed could have the same effect. The thought process that leads to “I need an HDTV and I think I’ll take out a line of credit from the credit union for it” is a bit beyond me. Presumably it’s somehow SuperBowl related. But that makes it even further beyond me (during my first year of college I fell in with a group of sports-lovers; they forbade me from joining them to watch the SuperBowl since I made it clear that really I only wanted to come watch the commercials).

I suppose what really perplexed me was the fact that this was on my credit union’s website. I tend to think of credit unions as more focused on their customer base and less on profit than a bank. Probably because I grew up in a small town with a very friendly, very grass roots feeling credit union where the tellers would actually recognize my mother and I when we would come in. So the thought of a credit union advertising loans for TVs just feels disappointing to me. It feels very much like “haha we’re going to make a profit off your idiocy” rather than “we are looking out for you and your money.” One could argue of course that this is looking out for people’s money if you assume that they’re going to buy the HDTV no matter what and their choice set is a) buy on store credit b) buy on credit card c) steal money to buy it or d) buy with credit union loan. Clearly if that is the situation, then the credit union is doing people a service by leading them to choice d. However, if the choice process is a) don’t by an expensive TV because I can’t afford it or b) go into debt for a TV then I think the credit union is doing their members a disservice in leading them toward b.

Meanwhile I wish I owned a home so that I could cash in the equity to pay for an extravagant vacation or a boat or something. At this point the Jones are going to get to their bankruptcy hearing way before I do.

No Clemency

I wish I had something insightful to say about Schwarzenegger’s decision to deny clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams. For me it comes down fundamentally to the fact that I am firmly against the death penalty. Given that, I need not delve any deeper into the questions of guilt vs. innocence or whether Williams has legitimately changed. But this case makes me sad at a deep level because it is not just a question of the morality of state sanctioned killing. For me there is something much deeper to this than just the case of a man convicted of murder who will be put to death by a criminal system structured around revenge rather than reformation.

Surrounding all of this are the realities of race and class hierarchies in this country. Williams is a founder of the Crips. Given that fact, it is perhaps easy to understand the bloodlust that this case seems to inspire for some. But it ignores the question of how gangs form and survive in the first place. It’s not my area of expertise so I can’t lay out all the forces involved. But I will suggest that perhaps when society denies you access to resources and infastructure it is logical to form social structures that give you access to other resources. Too often it seems to me that the way violence and crime gets talked falls back to the assumption of actual equality, both under law and in a the reality of day-to-day living. It always surprises me when people assume that all that is necessary to get out of poverty is the desire to get out of poverty. As if somehow wanting an education will change the quality of the school system you are in (on this one I can assure you from my own experience that it does not). As if somehow wanting a job will change the labor market you are in. It’s a pervasive myth. And a dangerous one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that we should shrug our shoulders at the activities of gangs. But I think discussions of these things need to face the realities of what the choices for young men of color in poor urban areas are. These boys are not making the choice between gang life and a job on wall street. But who am I kidding? It is precisely the ability to stick your head in the sand that race and class privilege buys.

Tonight I am sad, and angry. I am also mildly concerned that other people’s sadness and anger may be expressed as violence (lots of my friends seem a bit concerned about violence in my neighborhood and surrounding areas but my fear is more generic than personal; perhaps this is naive) . I’m not normally the type to pray in recognizable ways. But tonight I will light a candle and hope.

Historical subdivision?

I live near downtown L.A. in a beautiful reasonably well-maintained Victorian house (see photo). It really is lovely, and it makes me very happy to live here. Our lovely, well-maintained house, however, is flanked by two horrendously dilapidated houses. Since I don’t actually own property, the state of the neighboring houses is only a concern in the sense that for my own comfort I’d rather they not become home to squatters, etc. Actually one of the properties came preloaded with a squatter, a tenant who stuck around after the former owner was indicted for being a slum lord. He lives in an RV in the abandoned lot that adjoins the property and is a bit eccentric, but seemingly harmless.

Until recently the condition of the neighboring properties was not much of a concern. In the past few weeks, however, the new owner of the next door has started remodeling, or should we say gutting, the house. This is annoying due to the noise, but overall an acceptable thing to do with a dilapidated house that one owns. Except two weeks ago he began redoing the roof, at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. I wasn’t actually present for this event but apparently it was loud. Also, apparently illegal. I guess doing this sort of work on a Sunday is illegal (but yet Christians claim their beliefs are persecuted, no comment). The neighbor across the street called the police. Turns out the reroofing of the house hasn’t been approved. At this point the neighbor who called the police tells my roommates that we should show up at the planning meeting where the roof will be discussed.

And thus I found myself Tuesday night in the office space of one of the neighborhood realtors sitting on an uncomfortable bench with one of my roommates. Our house is in a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone, which I would have thought a priori would be something I would approve of. But I left the meeting rather troubled. Being in an HPOZ means that anything that’s done to the outside of one of these old houses has to be approved by the board (I don’t know what the date cut off is, but their authority extends at least to building built into the 1920s or 30s). It’s not like the system elsewhere where you only have to worry if your property is on the historic registry (which generally means its in reasonably good condition anyway, and someone in its ownership trajectory had a personal commitment to its historical value). No, the zones were established by the city. As near as I can tell there’s no way to opt out (short of selling off your property and leaving the zone). And while existing non-historically accurate features are grandfathered in, once you start doing any work on the exterior you’re stuck doing it in a historically accurate way.

The board is made up of architects and planning folks. Some of whom live in the neighborhood. The chair person described the whole process of board selection, but I don’t remember the details. Suffice to say, people with an interest in preservation, at least some of whom also have personal interest in the neighborhood itself. As she was pointing out the residency requirement she noted “so it has a very community feel.” Funny. The people sitting around that table didn’t look anything at all like how I think of this community. First, this community is not a majority white community. And it isn’t composed solely of monolingual English speakers (ok, to be fair some of the board might speak a second language, but I’m willing to bet that English is a first and dominate language for all except possibly the one of them with the Spanish-origin surname). Second, this community is not predominately middle-class, though the proximity to a University means there are incursions. So yeah, forgive me if I felt the only contribution of a “community feel” came from the non-board community members present.

First up on the agenda was the owner of the house next door. My first thought when he started talking was to wonder if translation is available for those homeowners in the area who are not capable of communicating with the board in English. Of course, economic realities being what they are, most of the actual property owners probably are at least fluent enough in English to get by. But one does wonder about provisions for those who are not (and while we’re talking about access, let’s note that the meeting was held in a second floor room accessible only by a set of stairs with an extremely flimsy handrailing that could not actually be used by anyone needing something they could put weight on). Now I’m not going to throw too much support in the direction of this man since it does strike me that he pulled down the roof without permit in a blatant move to guarantee that the board would let him reroof. And there’s something about the man that suggests to me that he might not be a significantly better landlord than the notorious slumlord before him. Still, I have to wonder about a process wherein you need to get permission for your choice of color and material for shingles.

I’m torn. I love these old buildings. I love our porch (which would have been replaced with something much less historically appropriate were it not for the intervention of the HPOZ board) but I have a bit of a problem with the level of control over private property. Usually I’m not of a rabidly individualistic bent. I have libertarian sympathies sometimes, but fundamentally I think for society to function as society there needs to be some attention paid to the good of the collective. But the problem here is that good that is in question is property values. And as much as I’m in favor of thinking about the well-being of the collective, and even the economic well-being of the collective, I have deep problems with the notion that I am obligated to follow certain aesthetic patterns on my property in order to increase the value of yours. I understand that this is, in part, about historical preservation, a love for the past. But the “quality” of a block was invoked at one point during the meeting. And it sent my hackles up.

The couple after our deroofing neighbor claims to have been unaware of the rules of the HPOZ. So they tore down their old porch and started building a new one, without a permit. Granted, had they pulled a permit the way they were supposed to they would have discovered the need to approach the board before doing anything. But right now they’re in the position of having to tear down the new porch they started and start over, in a more historically accurate (and much more expensive) way. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting their budget doesn’t have much room to allow that.

Throughout the whole thing I was a bit uncomfortable but it wasn’t until the third person on the agenda that I realized what it felt like. They were telling him that he had to get paint colors approved, was required to use three colors, etc. And suddenly I felt like I was in the sprawling subdivisions of suburbia, where the board determines that your ranch house (one of four possible designs) must be painted in one of the six community approved colors. And again, I have to admit that a priori I would think that I would be in favor of historical preservation. But there is something about a table of middle-class white people telling a room half full of non-middle class, non-white people what to do with their property that just doesn’t sit well. I can forgive the draconian subdivisions. At least there the boards choosing the range of allowable colors really are representative of the community as a whole. At least there you choose to buy that property with the knowledge of the rules. But here the board is not really OF the communi
ty even if some of them live IN the community. What’s more, at least some of these property owners didn’t opt in. And that strikes me as problematic.

I also wonder if the end goal is well-served by this strategy. It strikes me that the incentives get a little weird in this situation. If you don’t do anything to your property you’re not subject to the jurisdiction of the HPOZ board. But as soon as you start doing any changes, you have to face the board (which means all projects become dramatically more expensive). So basically what we have is an incentive to let your old Victorian house descend into disrepair. Now granted, it’s not that simple since there’s a built in incentive (in the form of your own property value) to make improvements in the ways that the board leads you. But ultimately there’s a payoff question, and particularly for the absentee landlord types (the vast majority of these houses are subdivided) the incentive not to improve is likely higher than the incentive to improve. And hence, the neighborhood retains its gritty slum character despite the gentrifying force of the HPOZ.

I know a middle-class white academic who owns property in the neighborhood. One thing she noted in a discussion about this is that her neighbors who are not middle-class whites don’t seem to have the same aesthetic appreciation for the old houses. And I think it’s worth pointing out that these are Victorian houses, hence by default this is a white upper class aesthetic we are attempting to protect. I’m just saying….

It’s not that I’m against preservation of history (though I’m not sure I believe there’s any inherent need to do so on a grand scale for reasons other than aesthetic ones). I just am suspicious of placing the cost for that preservation on individuals who don’t necessarily benefit from it. If we agree that this is a public good, the cost should be distributed. If we don’t agree that preservation is a public good, then it shouldn’t be legally required. Mostly, my issue is that this seems to be something imposed upon the neighborhood from the outside and the people enforcing the rules are not the ones subject to the cost. And I can’t shake the feeling that this whole thing was probably put together by politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead here.