Sunday, February 3, 2013

NIMBY vs Movin' On Up

My first thought upon hearing this passive-aggressive rant was, You, sir, are a goddamn idiot.
I've heard this opinion voiced a thousand times, and usually more explicitly than the anonymous Buffalo resident articulated. There's far more "damn niggers" in the complaints I hear, almost daily, from aging drunk white men in the southern suburbs of Syracuse, lamenting how their neighborhoods have been overrun and recounting their imagined halcyon days of quaint restaurants, honest dealings, and murder-free walks along Salt City streets.

But, to play Devil's Advocate, are they
right? The answer is, like many race-related issues... complicated.

Underlying the interviewee's smirking, "Minorities... African-Americans," clarification (in which one can clearly hear his brain-to-mouth filter overloading with epithets), is his assertion that black people ruin predominantly white neighborhoods. Drilling down even further, the primary problem is a perception that when black people start increasing in numbers within a previously white-dominated area, the crime rate increases, poverty levels go up, education diminishes, property values decline, and overall neighborhood aesthetics take a turn for the worse.

Is this really happening? Well, kindof. But not for the reasons he thinks they are. And not for the reasons those red-nosed, red-necked good ol' boys in the outlying farmlands think they are, either.

Let's step back in time a bit, to the 1930's. It's the dusty bottom of the Depression. Banks don't want to lend money, because nobody's making enough to pay it back. If you wanted to buy a home, you paid half down and the rest over the next five years or so. In steps President Franklin D. Roosevelt with his mighty New Deal, which spawns the Federal Housing Administration, forever altering the landscape of the American Dream. Homeownership now meant only 10% down, thirty years in which to pay it back, and a reasonable interest rate, all guaranteed by the FHA.

If you already lived in an area that could be guaranteed by the FHA, that is. See, the banks that handled these FHA loans wanted some promises of their own, namely, that they wouldn't have to loan large amounts of money on remarkable terms to folks that, in their judgment, would never be able to pay them back. Enter the Home Owner's Loan Corporation. In one year (1936) they managed to rate every neighborhood in the country on a scale of Green to Red; Green meant you were automatically guaranteed an FHA-backed mortgage, and in a process that came to be known as redlining, everything in Red was royally fucked.

How did the HOLC manage to rate every major metropolitan area in just one year? They had your average real-estate guy survey the neighborhoods and answer the following questions: 
  • Is the area new or recently-built?
  • Is there an infiltration of a lower-grade population? (including Negroes, Jews, and foreign-born whites?)
Here's the map that resulted:
If you live in Syracuse, like I do, this will seem like common knowledge. But keep in mind, these designations were made in 1937, halfway between the Civil War and now. Nedrow, the South Salina corridor, the quadrants created by the intersection of 81 and 690... these are the Red Zones. Anything along a railroad or bordering a factory is at risk. Downtown is No Man's Land.

Now take a look at a map of Syracuse's poverty levels based on 2010 Census data:
Look familiar? Red zones from the HOLC map correlate almost exactly with today's percentage of 'Cusians living below the poverty level. Green zones coincide in much the same way, concentrating wealth in areas deemed by the HOLC as white, homogenous, wealthy neighborhoods.

Unlike what the unnamed Buffalo contractor is telling us, or what the fairly well-off ruralburbian folks are bitching about, this isn't a story about inherent laziness or welfare addiction or black weakness.
This is a story about privilege.

It's a well-studied fact that lower household income correlates to a higher risk for drug use, unemployment, low education level, and crime. That fact is the same regardless of race. Poor white folks hit the rock just like poor black folk. The problem is, Roosevelt guaranteed there'd be more poor black folk than any other kind, when the FHA and HOLC made it damn near impossible for blacks to buy property in neighborhoods where they already resided. And to move on up required monumental gains in capital, which, given the leg-up whites in Syracuse had in the manufacturing sector (remember when that was a thing?) and overall percentage of income that went to simply providing basic needs, was also damn near impossible.

The folks living in neighborhoods deemed Green in 1937 were almost exclusively white. And they stayed white, because there was no reason to move unless more affluent blacks "infiltrated" the area. As whites have moved out of "yellow" areas, more blacks and Hispanics have moved in, until the overall integration of Syracuse has become even wider and weirder. White folks are moving out, because they're ignorant of their city's history, and they're scared and ignorant. People of color are more than glad to fill that vacancy because they can afford to, and, because they were given nothing in the New Deal and raked over the coals by sub-prime lending, have not much else to lose.

Black people don't ruin neighborhoods anymore than white people keep them nice. Neighborhoods are communities, and they are maintained by groups of people with common goals, and maybe a little spare cash to keep those goals afloat. Any neighborhood, regardless of racial mix, will be an eyesore if its residents are below the poverty line and can't get a foothold in the current system.

I guess what I mean to say is, we are all in this together. And that guy from Buffalo is still a goddamn idiot.

(Thanks to Kristen R. for the video submission.)

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