How to Stab a City in the Heart - Chase Away the Middle Class
In the late fall of 1992, after spending the previous 6 months trying to find appropriate employment after college graduation, and during a tough post-recession job market, I packed up my 1984 Chevy Cavalier with my personal belongings and left the city I had spent the first 23 years of my life in. Detroit and the first-ring suburbs were dying a slow death. At the time it seemed like a temporary decline, but almost 20 years later, the once great motor city is but a shell of its former self and the closest thing to a recovery has been nothing more than a tourniquet.
What worries me in 2011 is that North Adams, my new hometown of the past 8 years, the place I have chosen to raise my family, has a lot in common with the city of my birth, Detroit. Both are cities that had a strong and proud blue-collar tradition but are now defined by high poverty. Both were devastated by the effects of fleeing industry and globalization. Both municipalities lost their tax bases and became dependent on state and federal aide to pay for the most basic of services. And most critically, because of most of the above, both lost their ability to attract and maintain a middle class, without whom no city can thrive, grow and build.
The cities are not identical: Detroit is the poster child for horrendous public schools, a decimated city infrastructure, corrupt leadership with non-existent city services, and probably the worst racial tensions north of the Mason Dixon line.
North Adams, on the other hand, actually stopped the bleeding. We have an improving school district that is in the midst of a comeback with the new K-7 system, an old but still upgradable infrastructure (with little time before it collapses), and a local government that is lean and responsive. Oh, and some of the greatest inherent beauty and cultural attractions in New England. (Detroit is rather... well... flat.)
For the past decade, or so, North Adams has slowly made progress on the livability front. The arts community, telecommuting and proximity to a growing regional and state economy have all held great potential. Yet North Adams struggles to reap the benefits in a meaningful way.
Why is that?
It boils down to attracting and/or building the middle class and keeping them here.
When a young family comes to the area, for a job at MCLA, Mass MoCA, the hospital, Williams College or any number of the small businesses, what is the first thing they look at?
Schools. The North Adams public schools are improving, but they still struggle with the issues that a high percentage of children living below the poverty line bring to the classroom. The perverse irony is that, on average, poor kids cost almost twice as much to educate because of the extra resources “at risk” youth need to provide a semblance of the stability it takes to create an effective learning environment.
The second thing that this hypothetical young family looks for is community. Sometimes North Adams has this in spades with all the churches, social groups, museum activities, festivals, etc... But, again, it struggles with creating and keeping the vibrant commerce that a small city needs to thrive and attract its residents downtown and into it's scattered neighborhood shops.
Commerce is a cart and horse problem. If you build it, they will come, but if those with disposable income are not already here, the money to build businesses is hard to come by. It takes a game of Leapfrog - a little demand for commercial activity = a little supply; Then a few more customers and a little bit more supply; and so on. It takes years of constant business and demographic growth, but it tends to grow exponentially. Eventually you have a real business district.
Finally, once this family decides on the community, they might start looking for a house. But what if that beautiful old Victorian is connected to collapsing sewer line? What if water the tap water was under a boil order because the aqueduct at the reservoir had crumbled? What if the road in front of the house was full of pot holes, or had not been plowed after the last snowstorm? What if the house’s addition had been built by a sketchy contractor who did not have to worry about a building inspection?
Ultimately it boils down to - Does this family think it's really a better value to live here, than, say, one town over? It's true that you often get what you pay for.
So why am I worried about my chosen city of North Adams becoming Detroit? Because our fiscal situation is such that our community has a ballot box choice for us to keep turning the corner from our manufacturing past and into the vibrant 21st century education, arts and tourism mecca that we are so well poised to become. Or we can hunker down and whine about the huge cuts in state aide for impoverished towns that have subsidized our low taxes for a generation by laying off a chunk of the teachers, ending difference-making educational programs, cutting city services to ineffective levels and allowing our 100+ year old infrastructure to disintegrate - to, in effect become more like the city of Detroit and stumble past a rare opportunity once more. We can talk about a glorious past with sentimental sadness, or we can build on that past with ideas for tomorrow.
I believe that the next generation is just as important as the previous one. I will be voting Yes on the Proposition 2 ½ Override, June 21st.
It’s time for us to take care of our own.