You know what's different about Tucson from Brooklyn? Just about everything. And yet, one thing remains irrefutably universal - everybody loves the Trader Joe's here too. Can't get enough of it, or stop talking about it. Same as Brooklyn. As in "have you tried the Trader Joe's olive paste? It's incredible, and so reasonable." But the differences are truly striking, and not just that there ain't no shade anywhere, being as trees don't grow here, just cacti.
This Tucson is a truly southwestern town. It's 180 degrees but just 100 miles from Phoenix, which I have nothing but meh to say for. Tucson is cool. And it's pretty much a half-Mexican town. Well, originally ALL Mexican if you want to take the long view. Mexicans give Tucson its character, its food, its life. Cuz there are a heck of a lot of retirees here from, you know, the Midwest and Canada and the like. Folks end up here, don't really move away. Funeral homes do a good business. Thrift stores too, if you get my drift. Drifters too. It's a college town as well, big State school, but that doesn't define it. Did I mention the food is insane? Not everything's a chain (yet) and the people are genuinely in love with their hometown and its spicy flavors. I'm glad my folks ended up here, because Iowa was brutally cold and brutally hot/humid in equal measures. And who needs trees when you got millions of Saguaro cacti and a bevy of air conditioning? And a hat? Nice move ma and pa. Not a bad place to visit either.
Tucson is dealing with slower motion change than Brooklyn, a reasonable speed that gives people and planners time to make conscious decisions about growth. Displacement happens, though there's a great deal of space for people to spread out to, and everyone needs a car, so it's not so crucial to be right next to the train, say. And the spread between haves and have-nots isn't so steep. On the affordability index, a median house costs roughly 2 1/2 times median income. Actually, this is true across most of the country, outside of the more compact and most desirable spots for high-earners. New York City. San Francisco. Silicon Valley. Huge swaths of California actually. Seattle. Boston. The historical multiplier, I have read, is 2.6. (In "Renaissance" Brooklyn, of course, that's a laugh and a half. We've now become, were we our own City, the least affordable town in America.) For the aforementioned highly desirable places, "high-earner" isn't the real measure of who's buying these ungodly expensive homes. It's net worth, parental aid, AND earnings. Talking to folks about the difference has become a bad habit of mine, because few people want to note how they managed the down-payment. Often it's from selling a previous property, but that's doesn't tell the story of how they got THAT property in the first place.
So why do I call this a "race" to the bottom? You guessed it. I want to write about race again. Race and housing, and who can afford to live here and who can't, and why that's so upsetting to so many people who've experienced the differences first hand. I keep trying to spin the tired gentrification yarn into a new sweater, because I really think there's something here that most folks don't seem to get, and I'm only starting to get. You know, the root problem, not just the surface stuff about lattes and rents.
(Out here in Tucson, black folks make up just under 5% of the population. Language, assimilation, and even the racial disparity familiar to Mexicans are trickier for this gringo to penetrate, though I'm always looking for the angles. In its way, the 500 year old dominance of the Spanish over the Aztecs plays out something like the white/black dynamic in the U.S. We instinctively recognize this and translate it fairly well. The dark-skinned native looking Mexicans, less-likely to be well-educated or come from a comfortable background, are seen as ONE kind of Mexican, as reinforced by Mexico's own racial baggage. The lighter skinned zeitgeisty Spanglish seem, bluntly, more American. In Tucson, the best jobs seem to go the more European looking Mexicans, and even Mexican-owned businesses have a familiar top-down look - lighter skinned owners and customer service people - darker hued folks doing the heavy lifting and cleaning. In fact, the story of racism south of the border is pretty well covered elsewhere so I'll leave it in the hmmm category for now. Enough Tucson. Oh, except there's apparently a great book about how Mexican food took over America. And not just the Bell of Taco. Real Mexican food, and it's everywhere. C'mon, admit it, you LOVE good Mexican food. Can you say that about Canadian cuisine? British? German even? Buffalo Bill apparently introduced southwestern Mexican dishes to NYC, creating something of a pop-up restaurant as part of his Wild West show when it camped out at the original Madison Square Garden for a spell. Winter of 1886-7 to be exact. How time flies when you're eating enchiladas.)
A couple things have been gnawing at me for, like, years, ever since I became truly race conscious, which was probably sometime in college, because everything I'd learned about race until then was summed by the Malcolm X poster my parents kept in the basement because it made gramma uncomfortable. You know the one, with his finger pointing and the letter "f" seeming to come from his lips, as if to say "fuck you whitey." He was probably actually saying "friends" or "finally I got a cab," but no matter, I guess gramma didn't approve of the cussiness of his expression, and besides, she was from rural Illinois where they didn't have any black folk, and so they let the Irish fill the bill. Catholics in general I'd say, those dirty thieving types who played cards, drank and lived down by the Mississippi river. Not civilized like the Germanic Lutherans of the farm country, who ate "supper" at 5 and woke at 5 to, I don't know, get down to jarring for the winter. Brother Malcolm was just plain foreign to gramma, and yeah, a little scary. So that was where it started, and my fascination with the two Civils - War and Rights. That and the fact that one of just two African-American guys in my high school graduating class was elected Homecoming King. Isn't that nice? We don't see color here in Ames, IA, folks! We elected a negro Homecoming King! Post-racial even in 1984!! The year of "Purple Rain" baby! (Dang that movie is the worst best movie of all time, am I right or am I right? And I still don't know what the hell he means by "purple rain," but it's damn near spiritual just the same. Purple Rain, Purple Rain! Yessssssss I Soooooo agree. Purple. The rain is PURPLE!!!)
So, like I was saying, this was the year of a conceptual breakthrough for me.
We all know that blacks make less than whites. About 3/5 as much (remember how much of a man a slave was "worth" in the original language of our Constitution? Mere coincidence I'm sure, no?) But the chart that blew my wheels off was this one, showing the relative household wealth:
Why the enormous difference? Easy. Since this is median household wealth, and less than 50% of Black and Hispanic households own their own home, the majority of those households don't have the single piece of the American Dream that has real power to set a family up for life - "real property." And without real property ownership, most Americans wouldn't have as much to leave to their progeny. And such inheritance, as anyone with eyes and ears and love for gossip can tell you, is a MAJOR factor in determining your ability to own a home TODAY. How many downpayments on first houses are purely from hard-earned savings? Those young coop and condo buyers in NYC got out of college debt-free and with more than $100,000 from, uh, their work-study jobs? I don't want to poke fun, because frankly it's as American as Apple Stock to have your folks lend a hand for school and first cars and houses. Granted plenty of folks DON'T get that leg up, but enough do to make a huge dent in real estate prices. Add to that the fact that the greatest transfer of wealth from one generation to the next is taking place as I write this (the Boom-Boom-Boomers who made a killing in the market and on houses) and you can probably see where my logic's leading. To the same chart as above, over and over and over again. Only the white bar is likely to keep increasing at a faster rate.
That's the big story, in my view, in all this hemming and hawing about gentrification. Not, as I've reiterated time and again, the honest transfer of deed from one owner to the next. But rather the ugly underbelly - racial wealth. Oh, and commercial desirability, from hair to real estate, remains the domain of the dominant culture. Caucasian culture. Put those together and segregation has all the gravy it needs for a festive feast. Today. It's not history til it's over. Folks, I know it don't bear too much repeating, but we never ended segregation in this country. We just switched it to the realm of real estate. De facto, rather than de jure.
Or put more clearly - racism begets racism, just as privilege begets privilege. That's what's wrong with gentrification, and there's nothing built into our capitalist system to counterbalance - a few government programs of course. You're no more to blame than me or anyone who helps perpetuate a system designed to benefit whites over blacks. We participate, partake, drink from the well. Blame assumes knowledge. Guilt assumes understanding. To extend the metaphor, there are two wells. And like in the segregation of yore, one is for whites and one is for blacks. We've made almost no progress, by nearly every measure. Seen how many black kids get into Stuyvesant High School? I rest my case.
Where's the outrage? Certainly not coming from the "liberal" Democrats we send into office. Or from us. It IS making its way into the consciousness of the current Civil Rights struggle. And make no mistake, that's what we're seeing. Forget the specifics of the case in Ferguson or Staten Island, or what happened in Florida, or Kimani Gray last year. (Guess what? It looks like they DID plant the gun. If your white you probably assume the cops told the truth. If you're black, you instinctively knew it was suicide to point a gun at a cop, and that the kid wasn't suicidal. It was just as obvious as the nose on one's face. How can we whites be so stupid?) This is big stuff, in the Q's view. And how we respond as the dominant culture will be treated harshly or generously by history. The choice is ours.
150 years after emancipation, and 60 years after the dawn of a great Civil Rights movement, 45 years after MLK's death, 22 years after the post-Rodney King-Verdict civil unrest in L.A., and six years after the election of the first president born to a father of undeniable African heritage, we are living in a nation that has managed to move the ball from the 20 to the 29. Punt or go for it? The way that we segregate ourselves is such a key component of the ongoing cycle that leads one generation of African-Americans to the next to progress so slowly. The below incriminating chart shows how little progress we've made towards economic integration. Bars one and three shows your likelihood to live in a poorer neighborhood in one generation, then bars two and four for the next generation. And poor, remember, is REALLY poor. The poverty line ain't no joke.
Bye Bye Black Brooklyn" near the beginning of 2014 I meant to say this is not your usual neighborhood gone upscale story. Brooklyn, for so long, WAS black in the public imagination and via stories, music, art, film. It stood for black (sorry Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Windsor Terrace etc - you weren't what the world thought of when one referenced Brooklyn). Along with Harlem and Oakland and the southside of Chicago, Brooklyn, in a sense, helped define black. And there are still hundreds of thousands of black folks living here, watching their story take an earthshaking detour before their eyes.
This isn't a sounding of alarm. I don't mean to say invest in tear gas companies. I don't mean reconsider your move. I don't mean anything other than to meekly counterweight the emphasis out there on reporting on Brooklyn's "renaissance" as if it were bloodsport and conquest. This is a very human story, and I'd argue that the losers greatly outnumber the winners. Their stories are only beginning to be heard. And yes, black lives matter. Even if they're not shot down in cold blood in the streets.
I read recently that "Occupy Wall Street" was a failure because blah blah blah...the writer launched into a litany of what was wrong with the movement's strategy. Strategy? Why the emphasis on strategy, and not on the movement's causes? It's not every day that your fellow Americans decide to camp out right in the center of world finance for a few months. It was the beginning, not the end. Awareness on campuses hasn't been this high since the anti-apartheid movement. There is a deep sense out there that fairness and decency have lost out to greed and an erosion of the American promise of equality of opportunity and equality of justice. We may well read in our histories that OWS was just the beginning of a renewed civil rights struggle.
And as groups like the Crown Heights Tenants Union show us, the coalition doesn't have to be segregated. We can make a choice, to stand up for fairness and decency. This year the rent laws are up for renewal. We can tip the balance. We can save our City, one of the greatest human experiments of all time. The promise of NYC. The French even saw it. The French! It's all right there, at the base of our most famous island statue, a gift from the Frogs. They didn't put it in Tucson, or Topeka. They gave it to us. Our city. Our moment.