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    Geography of Nowhere: Outlawing Poverty

    December 18, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    When we were first married, we found a cozy {and cheap!} apartment in Uptown Whittier, a historic town that is technically part of the greater city of Whittier in L.A. County. Whittier {especially uptown} had retained a lot of its original design as a Quaker settlement named after the great Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. We enjoyed our location, which was within walking distance of all the cute shops and, more importantly, Starbucks.

    Incidently, the summer after our oldest was born was exceedingly hot, and we didn’t have air conditioning. Right before the hottest part of the day, I would grab my stroller and walk the shaded streets to Starbucks. If it wasn’t crowded, I always felt obligated to buy a drink, which I did, the cheapest on the menu, which probably means it was some sort of iced tea. Anyhow, I drank my drink while taking full advantage of the “free” air conditioning. This is only important because my constant companion during these days was an aging homeless man who looked uncannily like Santa Clause.

    ‘Tis the season, you know.


    Throughout most of the year, a nearby street was closed to traffic on Wednesday nights, and a farmer’s market was set up. Even when we didn’t buy anything, we enjoyed strolling the streets and listening to the live music.

    We hated the idea of raising children in Whittier. There were the typical L.A. issues there, like gangs, violence {we had two murders uncomfortably close to our home while we were there}, and traffic caused by TMC {too many cars}. But it was charming, and we could admire it not just for what it was, but what it had been, and what it should have been.

    While living in Whittier, we were, technically speaking, poor. I suppose I felt poor, in the woe-is-me-because-I-can’t-afford-to-eat-out-and-buy-a-margarita-anymore sort of way. I’m not sure that I felt poor in the I-require-food-stamps sort of way, though we easily would have qualified. Our apartment was an over-the-garage, back-alley dwelling originally constructed in 1915. The doors were short, the windows opened like doors, and the one bedroom was so small that we swapped it out and put our bed in what was supposed to be the living room. The bathroom had been remodeled, and it was huge, which was convenient since it meant a baby swing could fit in it while I got myself cleaned up in the mornings. It was all of 595 square feet, though it had a 200 square foot deck which doubled as our dining room.

    The living room {which was supposed to be the bedroom} had been painted green, and so I loved it.

    There was no dishwasher, little counter space, and we had to climb stairs all the time, which was painful after my C-section.

    But it was just lovely and I will always have fond memories of the place.

    Our landlords lived in the front house on the property. The apartment had been constructed first as a place for the owners to live while constructing the larger house. I didn’t often venture past the living room and kitchen of that larger house, but it, too, was delightful. Our landlords were wonderful Christian folks who had adopted six children. They had homeschooled, private schooled, and also public schooled. We learned much from them during our early months of marriage, and I learned even more when the wife invited me to a small Bible study she hosted in her home.

    So why am I telling you all of this? Allow a quote from Kunstler to explain:

    The existence of back-alley dwelling allowed poor people to live throughout the city–not just in ghettos reserved exclusively for them–cheek-by-jowl with those who were better off, who were often their employers and landlords. They were part of the neighborhood and accepted as a presence there. The children of the poor saw how sober and responsible citizens lived. They saw something tangible to aspire to in adult life. And mixed into a neighborhood of law-abiding property owners, who knew them, the poor did not indulge in the kind of tribal violence that plages them today.

    There was a woman at our church in Whittier {a real, old-fashioned downtown church} who brought a whole gaggle of welfare babies to church with her. Because of the makeup of the neighborhood, the type of mixed housing available, this respectable woman lived right next door or across the street {can’t remember now} from a woman who had literal welfare babies. What I mean is, she had as many children as possible, on purpose {though unmarried}, so as to collect greater compensation from the state. I even remember one of the little girls telling me that her mother kicked her older sister out when she turned 18 because she could no longer collect money on her.

    Now as horrible as all of this was, the makeup of the neighborhood offered a bit of redemption in this situation, for the faithful lady from church stopped by their house every Sunday and offered to walk with them to church. Sometimes they filled a whole row. Sometimes just a couple little boys came, wiggling in their pews. I can’t help but think that there was so much hope in the situation because of the church’s involvement.

    For people who haven’t experienced older neighborhoods like this, it might seem that all city planning has always followed the postwar layout of income segregation. But in fact what I described in Whitter {which might have changed by now…while we were there many estate homes had already been purchased by developers and then divided into a messy series of rentable rooms} was once the way cities were built. It wasn’t common to purposely and intentionally relegate the poor to certain areas.

    Kunstler writes:

    The ultimate way to protect property values…is to zone wealthier neighborhoods against the incursion of those with less money who are apt to build less grand houses. So today it is common for zoning codes to dictate that houses in a given neighborhood must be single-family dwellings and no smaller than, say, 3000 square feet. Since such a house cannot be built for less than half a million dollars, the neighborhood will be restricted to only those persons in a high income bracket. Garage apartments, or any similar auxiliary use that would attract other kinds of people, are strictly forbidden…This segregation by income group extends downward, with each group successively outlawing those in the groups below them, until we arrive at the level of public housing, which no suburban towns want to have within their limits, and which are therefore relegated to the decrepitating inner cities, where property values can’t get any lower.

    My dryer is breaking. Si suggested stringing me a clothes line out back until we find a used one with the right price on it. I told him I wouldn’t object to it, but I think that technically it is against our zoning restrictions. Line-drying clothes is a sign of poverty, you know, or at least being lower-middle-income class, so it is automatically ruled out here. In fancier neighborhoods, there are rules against washing your car in your own driveway and so on. All of these rules are really a way of maintaining the income level of the neighborhood.

    In light of the current economic crisis, I am guessing that some of this will need to be rethought. However, I don’t want to miss the larger question here, which is whether or not it is really better to have the poor localized the way they are. However tacky Kunstler might sound when he writes of “tribal violence,” I’m not sure we can deny the truth there. Perhaps the earlier model of rich living near poor, and the elevation of manners that happened within that model, was superior to what we are doing today.

    When I was great with child and just returned home from a long day at work, I remember that I collapsed on my couch near tears. I was so tired. I felt almost panicked about dinner, wanting to have it ready for Si when he returned, but feeling like my last ounce of strength would be used up by the mere effort of standing back up. It was then that I heard a tap at the door. It was my landlord, with a silly grin on his face, holding two plates of food. I was just grilling here in the yard and thought maybe you’d like some, too, he said. It was all I could do not to burst into tears. I said thank you a thousand times as he made his way down our stairs and back to his own home, just footsteps from ours.

    That night, I needed to receive. I had not. I had not the energy for the task. Possibly, I also didn’t have the food, but I don’t remember. There is also a chance that that night, there was a family who needed to give. When you live in mixed company like this, a service opportunity is just a backyard away.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Jeana December 19, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I love this post Brandy. So much to think about.

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