Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Where Did They Go?

I just came back from a couple of weeks in NYC. I was living in an apartment in Brooklyn in an area that not so long ago was a high crime slum. But nowadays, the brownstone buildings on the block are selling for more than two million dollars and that just buys you the land and the bricks and mortar. About seventy percent of the brownstones on the block had been gutted and renovated to the hilt complete with Viking stoves, granite kitchen countertops, and exotically tiled baths.

Gentrification is happening all over New York City’s more centrally located areas. I hadn’t been to Manhattan in half a dozen years. The no man’s land west of Eighth Avenue has been transformed into buildings with 2500 dollar a month 900 square foot apartments. An entire block of strip joints near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance is now a place for experimental theater.

It isn’t just NYC. In my town, the South of Market area – a former home to crack addicts – is now full of trendy eateries and million dollar condos. In LA, Hollywood Boulevard – where you once could find used syringe needles in the cracks of the Walk of Fame sidewalks – is home to big name hotels, posh movie theaters and a billion dollar shopping mall.

Cities have become cool again. Oh sure, there are exceptions. New Orleans has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. Detroit has no jobs and as a result, no chance for urban renewal. But if a city has a decent economy, you can bet that its central areas are undergoing renewal.

It’s wonderful to see ordinary and rich people walking the streets in places where they haven’t stepped foot in decades. On the block where I was living in Brooklyn, a common sight was of young cell phone toting mothers in fashionable clothing pushing fancy strollers inhabited by dressed to the nines two year olds. A half a block away, the street was lined with high-end restaurants. Ten years ago, if you had said that young parents with high incomes would be plunking down large sums of cash to own a little piece of Brooklyn heaven, people would have called you crazy.

But one question kept bugging me. Where did the poor people who once lived here go? It’s not as if they left the planet. Urban renewal does not mean the end of poverty. There have been marked and welcome reductions in teenage pregnancies and crime across the country. But the number of poor continues to increase. Where have they gone?

My guess is that many have moved to the fringes of America’s cities. They’re less visible as a result. Poverty has not been an issue that the public has wanted to address in over forty years. Ever since the race riots of the 1960s the response of the public to the nation’s poor has been a mixture of contempt and neglect. Whether a less visible impoverished class translates into even more neglect is debatable.

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