Monday, February 18, 2008

Panhandlers and the first impression

Full confession: I live in yuppified Brooklyn. The only “urban fringe” in my neighborhood is the sales rack at Brooklyn Industries. This fact gives me considerable consternation. The upside, at least for someone like me, is that money attracts poverty. It’s not too much money—mostly good young liberals only slightly fattened with their early career riches—so the neighborhood doesn’t rub out the dirt too aggressively. An old white guy sells used books everyday, 7-3, in front of the bagel shop. Another old guy sits on a folding chair in front of the bank and plays an accordion for quarters. The streets in front of a nearby church are cleaned by Doe Fund workers. And there are beggars everywhere.

I’ve gotten to know one of the panhandlers, Jake, reasonably well. He’s tall and thin, African American, probably in his late 50s. He’s almost always smiling, though missing a fair amount of teeth. I’ve found Jake to be lucid and sharp, with a good memory and sense of humor. He runs a focused, purposeful conversation, a skill that always impresses me: first some small talk—weather mostly—then the ask which often builds on the smalltalk: “Cold night tonight. Can you spare some change? Just enough so I can get warm inside.” He stays at an SRO in Crown Heights. It’s not much, he says, but it’s safe and clean enough and “sure beats the shelter.” He’s usually at the same corner from about 5 – 10 pm—enough to work up the $20 nightly cost for the room.

There’s another guy on a nearby corner, though I’ve never really spoken to him. He mutters to himself. He rocks in place. He doesn’t really smile. Sometimes he’ll make comments that can be construed as aggressive (complimenting women’s hair styles and clothing, for example). He’s slightly overweight and balding and wears ill-fitting clothes. He carries two large shopping bags everywhere, filled with hundreds of smaller bags. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by guessing he has a mental illness.

Jake is good at what he does. He’s always talking to folks like me and he seems to be on the streets less than the other guy. He has good resources—a clear mind, his smile, good chit-chat—that he uses well. The other guy isn’t as good. He has a bad vibe, and it hurts him.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Though I know the other guy probably has a greater need, I more frequently give money to Jake. I don't think my preference for Jake derives from a negative judgment of his counterpart, nor even necessarily from a greater sense of comfort with Jake. These are probably factors at some level, but not primary. Rather, I feel like I "invest" in Jake in a way I can't with the other guy: the money goes somewhere, not just to his nightly room but also to a short and sweet conversation that makes me feel good about myself (a selfish and smug, if well-intended, sensation).

The kicker, of course, is that I've never really given the other guy a chance. Based on what I've seen I've decided to keep my distance. It's unfair, to be sure, but I don't think I'm the only one doing it. Who knew you had to dress to impress when begging for quarters in Park Slope?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Village Voice article

I have a piece in this week's Village Voice on the NYPD's struggles to retain young officers, viewed through the lens of two cops in a small outer borough precinct. Read away!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on the decentralization of public housing

As part of their Slate dialogue (previously posted on), journalist Alex Kotlowitz and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, both of whom have spent decades doing research in Chicago projects, consider the broad implications of public housing demolition across the country. (Think of the scene early in the third season of The Wire, when Bodie and Poot watch as the politicos set dynamite to their geographic hub.)

First some background, from Venkatesh:
It is interesting to note how this movement to demolish distressed public housing began. The objective was to replace concentrated, highly segregated inner-city poverty with "mixed-income" housing in which the black poor would live with the nonblack middle class. Sounds noble enough. The problem was that there was no social science evidence that this kind of mixing was possible or even preferable. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given by HUD to mayors, with minimal oversight. All this rested on the hope that the poor would either live in newly designed mixed-income neighborhoods—or use vouchers to live among the middle class...

This massive federal initiative to alleviate poverty was done with the best of intentions: namely, to create vibrant, economically diverse neighborhoods. And nearly every tenant I ever met agreed that the conditions of the projects needed to be changed. But, in the end, the pace of demolition and relocation was too quick, there were few watchdogs looking to see that government monies were spent effectively, and the stories were never sexy enough to sustain the attention of academics and journalists. So, not surprisingly, we now hear calls of "land grabs" on the part of developers and of mayors wanting to get rid of the poor.

Now that the urban poor are out of sight, Kotlowitz wonders if they're out of mind.
The demolition of public housing will change the landscape of our cities and the lives of the poor for decades to come. I fear that Chicago and other cities will come to resemble the cities of Western Europe, where the poor—in Europe's case, mostly new immigrants—ring the city like a wreath. Truly out of sight, out of mind. What are the implications for cities? For addressing poverty? For American politics? What has happened to J.T., Ms. Bailey, and the others in your book now that their community has been leveled? I drive by that 2-mile stretch of what used to be the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, and it takes my breath away. It's all urban prairie, a stretch of vacant land awaiting the new homes to be built. Some 50 years ago, as the city's public-housing high-rises were being constructed, a local journalist suggested, in a moment of naive hope, that squalor is going out of fashion. I fear that people drive by that 2-mile stretch of now-empty land and think the same thing.

Decentralizing poverty, Venkatesh argues, dissipates anti-poverty work:
It's hard to imagine that a family could be worse off than in the projects! But, in fact, as the poor migrate outward, they find communities that simply don't have the services to cope with the influx of needy households: There are not enough settlement houses and faith-based organizations providing food and clothing; there is minimal affordable housing; landlords tend not to have much experience with the travails of poor people; and schools can't provide remedial education or day care. Public housing was more than simply shelter for most families. It was a place in which a number of supportive services for the poor congealed. Policymakers have simply hoped that the private market would provide a similar safety net and, to date, it hasn't occurred. Look around Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami and you see a real mess.

This is the urban fringe, and as Venkatesh notes, it produces some remarkable stories: "Some of it is truly inspiring: Dorothy Battie helps a network of a dozen families stay together by reinforcing the kind of sharing they used to experience in the projects: They trade day care for free food, one family cooks while the other does the laundry… and these families may be traveling several miles to do this, where once they lived on separate floors. Even the squatters have come together by staying in touch with one another and helping one another deal with homelessness."

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on what they owe their subjects

A great dialogue on Slate on the relationship between outside observers (Kotlowitz is a journalist, Venkatesh a sociologist) and their inner-city subjects. They consider their own experiences balancing opposing ethical concerns--objectivity and independence on the one hand; and giving something back to their often poor subjects on the other. And in this research, how does the reporter observe events without shaping them?

These are hard, important questions that all journalists writing on marginal communities wrestle with. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent a decade with a couple women in the South Bronx, seeing them make bad decisions (with bad options) time and again, but still keeps herself out of both the narrative (and, presumably, the events). David Simon is completely absent in the events depicted in The Corner, though in a useful postscript notes that he paid for some things, within ethical bounds (such as cab rides to jobs). In contrast, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ted Conover (with whom I'm studying) place themselves himself in their narratives, rejecting the idea that a highly educated woman and a white guy can exist in blue collar and non-white worlds without having some impact on events. Rob Boynton (another teacher of mine) has compiled a series of interviews with "new new journalists" (immersive, participatory journalists) on their methods of negotiating this terrain.

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz seem to agree: there's no right answer, and the complexity of the question requires more dialog. Sounds like they're doing a pitch for j-school!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Evangelicals and the domestic poor

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting piece on the impact of evangelicals in fighting global poverty, climate change, and in Darfur. (He's careful to distinguish between this new type of evangelical and the gay-baiting, anti-abortion Pat Robertson type.)

He talks with Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" and the head of a California megachurch:
“I realized they [a 25 person church in Africa] were doing more for the poor than my entire megachurch,” Mr. Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. “It was like a knife in the heart.” So Mr. Warren mobilized his vast Saddleback Church to fight AIDS, malaria and poverty in 68 countries. Since then, more than 7,500 members of his church have paid their own way to volunteer in poor countries — and once they see the poverty, they immediately want to do more.
Rev. Warren's remarks highlight a distinct feature of evangelical anti-poverty work: its focus is primarily, if not exclusively, international. America's poor in struggling cities and Appalachian backwaters aren't his focus. (Granted, there's poor and there's really poor, but we do have problems here.)
“Almost all of my work is in the third world,” Mr. Warren said. “I couldn’t care less about politics, the culture wars. My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas.”
Interesting quote. The politics of welfare--enormously contentious and divisive partisan issues over the last 30 years--have turned the social work-minded Christian right away from addressing American poverty. Is he chanelling the conservative anti-welfare platform, e.g., poor people in this country (disproportionately drug addicted anti-social types, or so the thinking goes) deserve what they get? Or is he saying that this kind of work wouldn't be possible in this country because of opposition from the right?

Wire analysis, closer to the action

Sudhir Venkatesh has been leading a conversation among gang members in NYC after each Wire episode this season. Venkatesh, you may recall, was profiled in Freakonomics for his ethnographic research on the economics of low-level drug dealers in Chicago (asking the question why so many drug dealers live with their moms). He's a sociologist by training, who writes on underground and illicit urban economics. And he's fearless.

Some highlights from his conversation with gang members:
  • Ambivalent sympathies for Prop Joe. Some disdain his foolish attempts to socialize the drug trade, ignoring the fundamental tenet of dog-eat-dog (embodied by Marlo).
  • Much love for Budgie (Omar's patron). All the gang leaders say they had a Budgie in their lives. Amazingly, his murder seems to hit these guys in a soft spot.
  • They ask Venkatesh who his readers are. Um, me. I wonder what they think of that.
  • They love Omar, while seeming uncomfortable with, even disgusted by his homosexuality. They describe him as the hero of the streets, who will avenge Budgie's murder. But they praise him with guarded slurs. They're torn. Great writing, David Simon and Co.!
Also, some interesting analysis from DeAngelo Starnes, a columnist for EbonyJet and former resident of D.C., "pre-gentrification" (his words).

Two good non-Super Bowl Super Bowl articles

Here are a couple non-sports stories that ran in the NYT this week in lead up to the Super Bowl. Good example of a paper using a news peg to tell undertold stories. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing--shouldn't we be reading stuff like this even if the NYG aren't in the Super Bowl?

For Just a Few Dollars, a Big TV and Years of Debt: Rent-a-Centers using the event of the SB to sell TVs at usurious interest rates to low income Giants fans. My dad tells a story about how he bought our first modern big television after the Giants beat the 49ers en route to SB XXI -- if we were poor, he probably would have been tempted by this...
If this were set up as a loan, the interest rate would be 71 percent and illegal under the usury laws. But this deal is called “rent to own.” In all other particulars, it is much like a subprime mortgage for pull-out sofas and television sets.
In the Town Where the Giants Play, a Sense of Being Overlooked Short article on East Rutherford, a struggling post-industrial town where the Giants (and Jets) play. More of a culture piece (and goes into some silliness on NYC-East Rutherford divide), but has some good stuff on the importance of the stadium as tax revenue for the town.