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State Fair Has Responsibilities, but Ending Urban Poverty Is a Bit Much

My wife and I were devastated — just devastated! — by the poverty and abandonment we found on a recent visit to Detroit. Oh, wait, sorry, wrong picture. This is Fleetwood Street, two miles southeast of my home in Dallas, right behind the State Fair of Texas.EXPAND
My wife and I were devastated — just devastated! — by the poverty and abandonment we found on a recent visit to Detroit. Oh, wait, sorry, wrong picture. This is Fleetwood Street, two miles southeast of my home in Dallas, right behind the State Fair of Texas.
Jim Schutze
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It’s not that the State Fair of Texas has no responsibility to the bitterly poor, racially segregated neighborhoods surrounding the fairgrounds. Of course it does. We all do. I do. You do.

The danger for us all, however, is that we satisfy ourselves with pinning the blame for urban poverty on causes and agencies that ultimately will look trivial if we ever size them up realistically against the true dimensions of the problem. This is not just us. This is not only a local Dallas issue.

We’re talking about a growing national catastrophe, a metastasizing poverty that is far more than poor, that is drug-addicted, functionally illiterate, both beset by crime and committing crime, without any experience or even basic understanding of employment.

One of the most difficult aspects to grasp is that this national urban catastrophe is not all about black people doing worse. It’s a lot about black people doing better. In some ways the catastrophe is at least abetted, if not actually caused, by success, not failure.

In his new book by Island Press, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, Alan Mallach describes a kind of pernicious and unintended social process of distillation going on in American cities. Upwardly mobile black families have been flowing out of the old urban ghettos of America into the assimilated suburbs for decades, leaving behind those who could not or did not get out.

“In 2005, Detroit had more than 68,000 middle-class black households, families making $50,000 or more,” Mallach writes. “By 2015, the number (with the floor adjusted to $60,680 to account for inflation) had dropped to 35,500 — barely half as many.”

Mallach says Detroit is an extreme case, “but the same pattern can be found in city after city; as The Economist put it in 2011, ‘from Oakland to Chicago to Washington, D.C., blacks are surging from the central cities to the suburbs.’”

Guess why? Black families leave the inner city for all the same reasons upwardly mobile white immigrants were still flowing out of old inner city Detroit in the 1970s when I lived there. Yes, many of those reasons are negative, crime always first on the list. But people also leave just because they can, because Americans who are sane and productive and have their heads screwed on right always seek better lives for themselves and for their families.

It would be hideously wrong — a very unamusing joke — to blame the poverty and social dysfunction left behind in poor black urban America on the black people who have managed to get up and get out. Everybody got up and got out. I was especially struck by the full dimension of urban abandonment recently when I visited Detroit for more or less the first time in 40 years.

In his book, Mallach did the Detroit line that everybody does these days — how Detroit is coming back, fighting its way up out of the grave of history: “Detroit, the largest American city ever to declare bankruptcy, is exuding new life,” he writes. “When I visited Detroit in 2003, and again in 2008, the city’s downtown was all but deserted, as if people had turned the lights off and just walked away … No longer.”

Maybe Mallach shamed me for staying away so long. I guess I was afraid to go back. I have always loved Detroit and Michigan. I lived in outlying small cities and suburbs of Detroit when I was young. Detroit was my bright-lights-big-city. I worked on the automobile assembly lines for five years as a young man. I was a reporter in Detroit during the 1970s. I am old.

Even though we were going back to my old stomping grounds and a place my wife had never glimpsed before, she was, as always, our tour guide on our recent trip to Detroit (she does the research). She found a wonderful renovated five-story brick building for us to stay in — condos in the building itself and penthouse cabins on the roof for tourists. She led me to a community garden and an art festival that I would never have found on my own.

I tried to keep it to myself, because the whole mission was about uplift and rebirth, but I was not uplifted. Every time we turned another once familiar corner, I sucked in my breath and mentally gasped.

When I was a young man, when America was riding the post-World War II economic boom, no person in this nation would have believed that a great, muscular, proudly productive American city like Detroit could plunge to the depths of abandonment and destitution that I saw everywhere on our quick visit. The art festival felt pathetic, the wreckage apocalyptic.

But predictably, after my wife, the retired newspaper reporter, had made sure we touched all the important socioeconomic points of interest, we were off to Oakland County, where my parents once lived. We were visiting some exotic avant-garde garden store she knew about where they sell outdoor tables made out of welded scrap iron for $6,000. Or, as I might call it, my own hell.

Amazing. Halfway out there, I felt like I was in Frisco or Southlake or any of the other affluent suburbs north and south of Dallas. At one point we were stuck in a traffic jam of gleaming new SUVs and BMWs on a two-lane country road I remembered well, only now the country road is bordered on both sides by endless subdivisions chock-a-block with enormous brick castles.

In other words, we were where the money went. We were where all the money has gone in most American cities. Out.

Was it race? Yes, of course. And no, not only. Before the people fled Detroit proper, the auto industry was already slip-sliding away. Having badly misplayed its hand with Japanese competition, the industry had to strip down, toughen up, get going and get out in order to get back in the game.

Lots of things happened. Things are still happening. Mallach talks a lot about the gentrification going on now in many cities as younger people move back in. He doesn’t sugar-coat it. Yes, it displaces people.

But Mallach presents hard numbers to show that the effect of gentrification is truly trivial when pitted against the sheer size and velocity of worsening urban poverty. Gentrification is a hitchhiker. Poverty is a runaway freight train.

On the plane home from Michigan, I was struck by a caveat. Yes, Detroit has vast areas of bleak abandonment, a poverty somehow uglier than Third World poverty because this poverty dwells on the ruins of prosperity. It stares out glassy-eyed and hungry from collapsing wrecks of houses like one big hideously ironic middle finger to liberal democracy and Western industrial capitalism.

You have to give Detroit this much: They can laugh at their challenges.EXPAND
You have to give Detroit this much: They can laugh at their challenges.
Jim Schutze

But, wait. Isn’t there an area like that right close to where I live in Dallas? In fact, are there not several areas like that in the city?

Yes. And one of them, the one closest to me, is the area around Fair Park where the State Fair of Texas will open its gates again this Friday. Fair Park, the fair itself, the city itself, all are drenched in a racist history that has everything to do with the brutal contrast between the fair and its surroundings.

I’m not saying so what. I’m not dismissing any of the history or the social responsibility. I’m just saying, if we think it’s the fair’s job to turn it all around, if we’re counting on the State Fair of Texas to reverse this disastrous national trend, then we are smoking some kind of very bad stuff.

You know who’s actually talking about things that could do some good here, things anywhere near the appropriate depth and breadth? I saw that our former school board trustee, Mike Morath, now the state commissioner of education, was in town recently talking about teacher pay, teacher quality, preschool and the other salient points of school reform.

And even as I mention that term, school reform, I can hear the basement grinding wheels being pedaled up to a hot whir out there, the clickety-clack of knives sharpening. Please, please, speaking as a former factory worker myself, all I ask is that you be sure to wear suitable eye protection.

Just for one moment, however, let’s not debate the ins and outs of school reform and just say we did. That’s really not my point exactly. You can have your version of school reform. Morath can have his.

What I am saying is that Morath is operating in the field and in the dimension of things to have some real shot at affecting the real problem, which is utter social and moral collapse. I know we’re not supposed to say that, because … because racism, because victim-blaming, because Trump? I even blame flooding on Trump, so, sure, let’s toss him in there.

But, c’mon. People living in collapsing shacks surrounded by abandoned lots prowled by feral dogs, where the only industries are narcotics, prostitution and armed robbery? You want the State Fair to handle that? Big Tex needs a big AR-15.

This is an extremely libertarian society where the society as a whole, acting through its arms of government, has very limited rights and ability to intrude into people’s personal lives short of arresting them, and then it’s too late. The one window we do have and for that reason the most important window for meaningful change is the school house.

And, yes, all you one-eyed knife-sharpeners out there, I agree with you for once: We can’t teach children government values. The kids will just give us the finger.

What we can teach them is to read. We can teach them to do numbers. By reading and doing numbers, they can teach themselves how the world works.

The state fair can’t lift anybody else out of poverty or out of hell. All any of us can do is help open the door. It’s in the nature of things that people have to lift themselves. Success is not the money. It’s the lifting. And then will come new problems. I was sure wishing somebody could lift me out of that damn garden store before it was too late.

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