The Fall of the Fearsome Ghetto

The ugly, flip side of the Glamourous City coin is, of course, the Fearsome Ghetto. A glamorous reputation almost guarantees that a city is home to neighborhoods that are as broken and ravaged as the attractive parts of town are...well...attractive. If not moreso. Glamourous Cities require these desolate places to serve as counterpoints; they offer contrast and add a note of danger to the mix. And, if nothing else is, a little bit of danger is very glamorous. As Tom Wolfe's brilliant Bonfire of the Vanities illustrated, the Upper East Side of Manhattan would not (could not) look so impossibly plush if not for the existence, a mere three miles away, of the ruined South Bronx. Literary allusions aside, Paris -- the ultimate Glamorous City -- saw its Fearsome Ghettos exposed to the world during the riots that plagued its impoverished suburbs in the fall of 2005.

My recent trip to Atlanta was due to a training/orientation program for the Americorps VISTA program. VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) is a branch of Americorps that deals exclusively with fighting poverty. Thus, one day of our training was devoted to discussing the causes of and our own personal perspectives on poverty in America. The following passage from Donna Beegle's book Poverty...Be the Difference! was used in our training materials, and was one of the more powerful things I read during my time there:

"The current fragmented reactionary approach to addressing the challenges of poverty [in America] does not work. It falls short of helping people move out of poverty and will keep our society from getting to the point of addressing and eradicating the causes of poverty.

A comprehensive approach is needed to truly move people forward. This comprehensive approach to addressing poverty can only be achieved through partnership [Americorps' emphasis] between organizations that currently serve and interact with people in poverty: educational, social service, judiciary, law enforcement, health care workers, etc."

I know that it's a bit odd to cite a criticism of American policy right after using a French city to illustrate the breakdown of the Glamorous City/Fearsome Ghetto social balance, but the point, here, is universal: economic and social integration are the result of strong community networks. These networks require a restructuring of the way that we think about cities; for people to put the effort (and strong social networks take a lot of hard work) into their communities that is necessary to create inclusive neighborhoods, they have to have roots there. The Glamorous City actively discourages roots and, by extention, strong communities. These specialized areas cater to niche crowds -- yuppies, hipsters, DINKs -- and float along the currents of fad, leaving neighborhoods vulnerable to deterioration once the consensus of these groups changes.

Cities are constantly changing, demographics shifting like the sands. While change itself is a constant, the course for this change can be set -- for better or for worse. Neighborhoods and cities change for the better when people form strong community networks. To eliminate the Fearsome Ghetto, we must first deconstruct our notions of the Glamorous City. The two cannot be separated; when one falls, so shall the other. But not until.

(Photo from Flickr user brian4116.)

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