Our “Neighborhoods”: Pushing the Boundaries

By Jack Bradigan Spula

Rochester keeps on garnering high ratings. In 2007, one unscientific survey determined we were the nation’s “most livable city; another put us at the top for “overall quality of life.” Business and lifestyle mags love our region’s low home prices, cultural attractions, recreational opportunities and more. But as the MJ newsletter points out, the “Other Rochester” is hidden in plain sight. And this “other side of the tracks,” with national-class poverty indicators, has also been an award winner.

The think-tank and foundation reports on poverty in Rochester perform a valuable service. But they also can lead us to nothing more than hand-wringing. All too often they push us up against an ideological wall emblazoned with the mottoes, “Talk is cheap” and “You’re on your own, sucker.”

This syndrome can produce a kind of tunnel vision that squeezes budgets and narrows our mindsets. As the microcosm is illuminated, the macro is obscured. Think about it: when was the last time you heard about a truly regional – I’m talking “Great Lakes/Rust Belt” – urban initiative to eradicate poverty, fund our schools adequately, directly create jobs à la New Deal, clean up and repurpose our brownfields, etc.? When, for that matter, was the first time you heard about something like that?

I’m going to share a little of my own unscientific surveys in this regard. Over the last 20 years, I’ve taken a fair number of trips by bicycle through most of the Great Lakes shoreline cities (Milwaukee, Waukegan, Chicago, Gary, Toledo, Detroit, Muskegon, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo), and I can faithfully report that they’re all in the same boat. The arbitrariness of municipal boundaries generally disguises the reality. Take Chicago, where a New Gilded Age in some neighborhoods ratchets the averages and medians upward (particularly in regard to housing values) and statistically hides the economic and physical devastation of much of the remainder of the city.

Near Chicago lie many contiguous cities and towns that once were industrial powerhouses but now are more like museums of abandonment and depopulation. This huge urbanized area on the Illinois-Indiana state line includes oddly iconic places like Gary, the city that US Steel built (literally) and US urban policy brought low. On one bike ride through Gary about 15 years ago, I figured the city must be the “greenest” in the country. That was because of the lush verdure that enshrouded the vacant homes and turned former lawns into mini-forests.

Once upon a time, the people of this vast region came together to fight a menace that crossed state and municipal borders: acid rain. (Okay, there were plenty of interstate legal dust-ups and name-calling, too.) They had huge successes, and we’ve all benefited. But why aren’t we -- and I mean the grassroots in concert with political leadership -- organizing in a united front to restore the entire Great Lakes Region to full economic health?

Maybe “restore” isn’t the right word: the 1950s-1970s were prosperous only by comparison to our permanently recessionary times. Those were the days of the old Jim Crow, too, visibly but maybe not inherently worse than our “New Jim Crow.” And the social safety net had even bigger holes than it does today.

But historical contradictions don’t invalidate a simple truth. There’s no way that Rochester, or even the Genesee-Finger Lakes area, can seriously address its problems in isolation. The people who are selling various “reform” strategies for the city, the city schools; those who are pushing boot-straps “entrepreneurship”; and those who are lobbying for casinos and other opiates of the mass-marketer mentality, all may sound nice, but they’re peddling patent nostrums that would turn H.H. Warner green with envy.

“All politics is local” is a classic half-truth. Nothing big happens without a mass movement, and mass movements don’t happen in one city. It’s essential to coalition on a large geographic scale – and to avoid becoming mere researchers and reporters. We’re on the right track with the “Fight for 15,” Health Care for All, etc. But every effort to save a neighborhood school or family home or an individual victim of injustice calls for thinking far beyond the boundaries.

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