Staff Picks

The Elsewheres (in the Heart) of America

Bryan Rogers

July 29, 2022


What happens when residents reclaim their rightful place in local government? What happens when towns devastated by citywide poverty transform themselves into models of restoration and resiliency?

FightSaveTown.jpgThe Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America by Michelle Wilde Anderson, Avid Reader Press  

Even before the Great Recession, in May of 2007, libraries in Josephine County, Oregon were shuttered due to a lack of government funding. It was a harbinger of things to come. In 2012, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Simon Hare, then a commissioner in Josephine County, lamented that his business school training hadn’t prepared him for the role because “they don’t teach you how to reduce, they just teach you how to grow.” And Oregon’s second poorest county, where one in five residents lives below the federal poverty line, hadn’t seen anything resembling growth in years. One reason is the curious fact that Josephine County—despite or perhaps because of the fact that the majority of the land within its boundaries is owned by the US government—had staged one of the most extreme anti-government experiments in modern US history.  

By 2012, Josephine County’s government was so broke and broken that the sheriff’s office limited its hours to 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday, and the sheriff himself “warned victims of domestic violence with restraining orders to ‘consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.’” A domestic violence victim calling 911 at 5 o’clock on a Saturday morning that August was transferred to a state police dispatcher who, because the closest state police officer was hours away, was only able to offer over-the-phone, unhelpful guidance as the caller’s ex-boyfriend broke in and assaulted her.  

The vacating of local government services—from the library and trash collections to emergency response and even murder investigations—was a result of increasingly shrinking revenues whose already depleted levels had proven impossible to maintain, much less expand, due in part to a state constitution that locked taxes in at an unsustainably low rate and required a voting majority approval to enact any increases. In Josephine, decades of intentionally underfunded state and local government agencies meant that the residents—who themselves proudly and repeatedly voted down scores of revenue-raising ballot initiatives—were left to face the financial collapse without the coordinating capacity of a fully funded and functioning government apparatus. The rising tide of foreclosures and unemployment, and the deadly winds of violence and drug overdoses had breached any operational levees over which county officials had any control.  

Josephine County, and three other places like it—“dying cities” Detroit, Michigan, Stockton, California and Lawrence, Massachusetts—are the subject of a new book by Michelle Wilde Anderson about the “problem of citywide poverty and broke governments.” She had intended to address questions like: 

Why, where, and how does poverty stack up within single jurisdictions? What happens when it does? What kinds of mistakes have local governments made trying to manage it?  

Yet, in her exhaustive research for a book admittedly centered on the problems and particularities of poverty, Anderson began to see another set of more prescient and potentiated questions emerging: What happens when residents reclaim their rightful place in local government? What happens when towns devastated by citywide poverty transform themselves into models of restoration and resiliency?  

Despite their many differences and histories—from “toiling labor colony of the First Gilded Age,” to “hometown of the mid-century middle class,” and the “crater of post industrialism”—each of the places Anderson visits has experienced similar socioeconomic arcs. Originally titled Living Places, Dying Governments, what began as a book attempting to answer the basic and important question of “where do governments go wrong?” turned into a written documentary of “what happens when people do right.” As such, the Stanford Law professor’s work contributes to the vital research and publications about local, grassroots movements to build intentional, prosperous, racially equitable, and ecologically sustainable communities. 

The Gilded Age term “gateway city” was used for early industrial hubs that provided new immigrants their first jobs and homes. Anderson documents the reimagining of these four so-called poverty traps into places of renewed possibility and economic stability, as twenty-first century “gateway cities” that uphold “the American commitment to social mobility and equal opportunity.” She explains how the efforts by residents of Stockton, Josephine, Lawrence, and Detroit have been transforming their communities by placing residents at the center of their own governments in order to address what the author cites as “the most fundamental ingredients of flourishing and opportunity: mental health, personal safety, access to living wage jobs, and secure housing.”   

Securing these needs will only increase amidst rising inequality, the intensifying climate crisis, and the co-option of our local politics by the national political system, all of which only deepen divisions. The extent to which our local government agencies can provide helpful and effective interventions for various communities in crisis will come to matter more intimately to our lives as we confront a potentially looming recession; global commodity prices blooming with inflation; and the hyperpolarization of politics and policymaking which will exacerbate existing inequalities both across state lines and within them.  

The explorations of these pathways into cities of the future that are safer, more equitable, and much more affordable for the people already living there stands at the heart of Anderson’s research to begin to reimagine the places we were told were dying—to, as the book’s subtitle endeavors, “reimagine discarded America.”  

Ms. Anderson combines the narrative precision of an accomplished journalist with the research skills and policy analysis of a legal expert. As an academic focused on property law, local government, and environmental justice, she makes a concerted effort not to express her findings in the conventional manner associated with high academia (a data, policy, or law book). Nor does the book fall prey to the dystopic and sensationalizing tones that characterize the typical coverage of cities in crisis. Instead, she opens with a deserved critique of the destructive nature of “hellhole, crook, and hero” narratives that dominate our mediasphere when talking about the places where our poverty has lived the loudest and longest. One obviously frightening and concrete consequence of that narrative is that, when we engage in policy negotiations or budget allocations, our suggestions are filtered through this empoisoned perceptual framework which signals our communities as devious, deficient, defective. You don’t need many more adjectives to reach conclusions of unfit, undeserving, irredeemable. And The Fight to Save the Town details the varied and unscrupulous ways that local governments have justified their actions based on those conclusions.   

Any constructive solution to citywide poverty and violence must first seek to address the roots of the tree whose unnourished, exposed leaves we are sometimes too eager to pick off and expel. This means also that residents organizing with (and within) communities and governments must speak from a sense of deep commitment to seeing their constituents through the hardships along the path towards solvency, or safety, and any true and lasting social healing.  

For those who find either pride or comprehension in global rankings, the United States’ ongoing performance challenges both. Across far too many categories which could collectively be termed those “critical for the health of any society,” the US is seated among some of the very “shithole countries” whose asylum-seeking populations were insultingly told they were unwelcome, and in some cases banned, from seeking refuge or opportunity on American shores.  

Anderson explains—then properly disdains—old, rote ideas which troubled governments resort to during periods of exceptional distress.  

Regional solutions, in which several adjacent jurisdictions act in concert, are rarely sought, as they almost invariably end in failure.  

Spreadsheet solutions offer the keys to the city to some outside financial administrative body. Typically mandated from above by federal or state ruling, the balancing of local budgets as a remedy for structural inequality (and its attendant problems), is as unsustainable as it is unhelpfully reductive.

Substitution solutions occur with the appearance and proliferation of nonprofits, churches, soup kitchens, and the like to assume the tasks of a beleaguered government to deliver the care, services, and support needed by its equally beleaguered constituents (without the intruding efficiency of the public sector, mind you).  

To treat the illnesses of class bias, disinvestment, and racial discrimination, suitcase solutions prescribe actual physical displacement, both the chosen and coerced kinds. The former is the oft-lamented “brain drain” whereby the dreams and determination of local youth are hemorrhaged out to places with more, if not better, opportunities. The latter often end up in those tent cities mushrooming off I-80 which house the “mobile” poor and their children, our internally displaced migrants willing to voluntarily endure what are effectively economic refugee camps created by capitalism’s unsparing ability to render full-time work that is somehow still inadequate to support the project of living. The suggestion to those with systematic and historically little means to “pack up and go”—in addition to being a rather irresponsible reaction to those suffering under your care—exposes the fog which surrounds our cultural narratives of race, class, opportunity, welfare, and warfare. Suitcase solutions fail not only for their outright heartlessness but by their penetrating senselessness.  

The most common “solution,” however, is to raise revenues bluntly through the enforcement and collection of civil code violations and fines on its own citizens. What look like—and are certainly broadcasted as—solutions to the violence and poverty arresting low-income towns and cities, in fact tend to frequently undermine such healing efforts, and in most cases exacerbate their preconditions as they perpetuate them. In a surprise to nobody in the room, these efforts are almost always for profit. After reading about and understanding them, these purported solutions glare red with disingenuity, but we must recognize that in an unfortunately great number of cases, it is precisely the antipathy, racism, indifference, and greed of the “establishment” that starve the pockets of its own residents as it wittingly lines its own. What are the debtor’s prisons of Ferguson, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin if not the intentional impoverishment of its most vulnerable citizens in order to raise the revenue they refuse to collect from their most wealthy and corporate residents? At which point the supremely relevant question emerges: who, after all, works for who? 

But, in the four locales profiled, infamous for their poverty and its consequences, the long-fought project of repositioning “we, the people” at the center of government, as the stewards of our own community’s priorities and projects, is finally bearing its promised fruit. It is a reminder that the point at which strangers begin talking is the point at which they begin to feel and act as neighbors. And enough neighbors in conversation with, and action about, their own dreams and desires will inevitably come to inquire about the nature of the obstacles in their communities, their conditions and causes. 

In 2017, after years of advocacy and organizing, and a decade of running the library as a nonprofit with volunteers and reduced services and hours, Josephine County finally voted—albeit by a very slim margin—for a new tax levy to restore the library to public management. They also approved a levy for the local jail, fire department, and animal control. As library volunteers gathered in celebration at a local pub, “Commissioner Morgan got a text from a laid-off 911 dispatcher saying, ‘Is it really true? Do I get to go home to my job?’” 

As Anderson writes:  

Josephine’s law enforcement levels are still among the lowest in the state, but government got another chance to prove itself. The lesson from the successful tax campaigns was that need is not enough. Urgency is not enough. You have to convince a critical mass of skeptical voters, one at a time, that government is competent, accountable, and necessary. 

From funding libraries to law enforcement, the issues at hand span the ideological spectrum, and the populations of the four locations are racially and politically diverse. 

Puncturing real and promising holes into the deficit narratives that typecast our impoverished communities, The Fight to Save the Town lays out compelling cases for the inclusive regeneration of resident-centered government. I hope and believe that the leaders and social activists in the book could come to serve as critical counsel for other places that have fallen into deep distress, and that Anderson’s work will provide a crucial resource for transformative community change as we walk further into an uncertain twenty-first century. It is truly staggering and inspiring the extent to which these organizers and parents, social workers and politicians are willing to stake their reputations, and their lives, on holding the principle of self-government accountable to those under its jurisdiction and for those within its boundaries. 

Such examination and diagnosing of reality compels those involved to not only challenge the status quo, but to work to fundamentally transform civil society’s relationship towards the status quo. To turn a brusque complaint about the street violence “over there” into an honest conversation about the economic resources, mental health services, and educational opportunities “right over here,” and then for us to be able to cross the synapses between those two thoughts. 

That bridge of critical empathy allows us to see that neither Detroit nor Stockton are asking for their bankrupt or violent circumstances. Or to corruptly believe that the parents of Lawrence or Josephine County relish their children’s unemployment or opioid addictions. Anderson’s humane and humanitarian rendering of our “dying cities” undergoing deep reconstructions following decades of decay demonstrates the essence of what Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said about love and misery: “They’re not opposites that cancel each other out; they’re both true at the same time.”  

Anderson’s writing expertly and poignantly embodies this appreciation. She discusses the ugliness of how we got here without sacrificing the beauty and strength that more than justifies our own saving of ourselves, and more. The subject of her probe is openly defined as “citywide poverty”—any jurisdiction in which at least twenty percent of its residents live below the poverty line. But the language used to document its origins and its eventual elimination is written explicitly to counter the “pernicious circular logic of the ghetto” reinforced, amplified, and codified not only by conservative talk radio, but liberal academic research and advocacy when it operates under what education scholar and practitioner Eve Tuck refers to as “damage-centered” research. It compromises our maximum rational, empathetic response capability to have been conditioned to view those experiencing suffering as somehow also craving it, as responsible for—and therefore deserving of—their suffering. 

And yet, whether it’s the proliferation of ruin porn out of 2014 Detroit or the twenty-four-hour news banners of blight, crime, and hardship, make no mistake: we are all conditioned by it. As Anderson writes, “disinvestment, isolation, and segregation bring about deterioration and crime, which in turn help rationalize further disinvestment and exclusion.” There is a casualness in the funereal coverage we receive of our own dying cities and towns that makes their demise seem inevitable and therefore unavoidable, almost natural.  

Offering a defiant and courageous middle finger to that severely unnuanced appreciation of either poverty or government are the community organizers, nonprofits, and government officials profiled in Anderson’s four case studies. She shows how there’s nothing demographically predictable about any given place experiencing border-to-border, low-income poverty. The four laboratories we visit in the book demonstrate “in their particulars and in juxtaposition [...] how chronic, citywide poverty emerges” and more importantly, what happens when we take our communities into our own hands through effective, compassionate local government. 

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