Monday, March 26, 2012

Hiding the Problem

Shortly after my daughter was born, we moved from a carpeted apartment in a tony part of Washington DC (where we lived rent-free when we were dorm parents) to a hardwood-floor apartment in the next neighborhood over—a neighborhood one would politely call “in transition.” In other words, there was an open-air drug market across the street and broken glass on the sidewalks.

My wife noticed a challenge keeping house in the new place: hardwood floors are always dirty.  Or rather, you can tell that they are dirty.  The hardwood floors don’t create the dirt, but shag carpet does such a lovely job of hiding it.  The carpet isn’t any cleaner, it just hides the dirt.

And it occurred to us that this is somewhat like the difference between the city and the suburbs.  One could make an argument (go ahead and try) that suburbs are self-cleaning or (slightly easier) that the city generates social problems.  We’ll return to that in a moment.  But whatever may be true on those levels, part of what makes the suburbs so desirable is that, like shag carpet, they hide the dirt.

A FASCINATING HISTORICAL PROBLEM faces the urbanist (especially the conservative one) in the nineteenth century.  It seems like – and lots of people argue without reflection that this is the case – the Industrial Revolution created poverty.  All those cowering people in the cities, so dirty, so hopeless, so Dickensian.  Surely, agrarians and liberals have long argued, the factories caused those people to be poor.

The funny thing is, the country people flocked to the city.  Why?  Well now, this is a complicated question, as all historical questions are.  People claim that industrial farming implements put tenant farmers out of work.  That may be – though notice the delicious irony: urban industrialism made farming vastly more efficient.  More on that another time (though if you’re interested, you can read the first chapter of Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities, which will turn your little agrarian world on its head; or reflect for a moment on how you go about your gardening).  Industry did not cause there to be less food.  Industry did not cause people to starve.  To the contrary, industry made more.

So why did the people flock to the cities?  Well, in one very concrete historical case, we know the answer.  In Ireland, the country people were starving to death in a potato famine.  They came to New York – and the rest of the United States, including cities and countrysides – because they were even more desperately poor in Ireland.  They left their beautiful homeland, and suffered a very difficult journey, based on the letters they got from New York.  Oh, sure, to Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives it seemed that the Irish (and Germans, and Poles, and Italians, and all the rest) in New York were desperately poor.  But to the Irish in and from Ireland, New York looked pretty good.  New York didn’t make them poor; in fact, it made them vastly richer.  It made them the happy middle-class folks the American Irish are today. 

No, the difference between New York and Ireland wasn’t that they were richer back on the potato farm.  The difference is that in New York, there were journalists and novelists who noticed them.  (Silly journalists, of course – How the Other Half Lives is a very silly book, with all sorts of condescending claims about what criminals those people must be – “You know what happens in windowless bedrooms!!!” – and silly ideas about how to fix the problem.  But anyway, they noticed there was a problem.)

For the Irish immigrants, New York was like a hardwood floor.  It didn’t create the dirt, it just showed the dirt that was already there.  They were already poor – poorer, back on the land.  But the cities put them in sight, where something could be done about it.

What was done?  Well, Malthusians like the Rockefellers and Margaret Sanger said we should kill them off, or at least stop them from reproducing.  The first white flight tried to run away from them.  But others came up with social welfare schemes, ranging from the genuinely helpful to the stupid and unhelpful.  Mostly, people gave them jobs; ultimately, the reason they came to the cities (the reason the immigrants still come) was not to get welfare, but jobs.  They came to where they could be found, and where they could find work.  They wanted to be seen, so they got out of the carpet and into the city.

I AM READING a nice little study, Morton and Lucia White’s The Intellectual Versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright, about the American tradition of anti-urbanism.  Like How the Other Half Lives – and Malthus – people like Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson argue that poverty and the city create human depravity.  There is a valid argument here, to which I will return in a moment. 

But first, consider the “hiding the problem” critique.  Is poverty really an urban phenomenon?  Or does it just appear more clearly in the city?  Is crime really an urban phenomenon?  Is it the city that causes people to lust, and commit adultery, and rape, and incest?  Are these things unheard of in the serene countryside?  (If you think they are, you need to read more.)  Are there more sex shops and strip clubs in Manhattan than in, say, Southwestern Michigan (just to pick somewhere improbable I sometimes drive through)?  I’m sorry to tell you that lust, and violence – not to mention lying, blasphemy, hatred, and despair – are alive and well in small-town America, as they have existed always and everywhere.  Oh, they are more visible in a place like New York, where you walk past them instead of driving by at 65 mph.  But carpets don’t clean themselves, hardwood floors don’t create dirt, and these problems aren’t unique to cities.  The difference is that in the city they are visible.

What to do?  There is an argument that we should flee.  The strongest argument against the city, I think, is that we don’t want to subject our children to these crimes.  In suburbia, or “the country” (both the real, and the imagined countryside – really suburbia – where most people running off to the country end up), if our neighbors are doing drugs, watching pornography, blaspheming, hating, lying, and despairing, well, at least our children won’t notice it.  Right?  Better to hide it than to let it corrupt our children?

In fact, the argument goes on, there is a vicious cycle.  We may have lust in our hearts already, but when we see pornography available on the street, we are more likely to indulge.  (Interesting, though: most of us would be much more embarrassed to enter a strip club, buy pornography – or say hateful things about other people – on a busy city street, even in a corrupt place like Manhattan where it’s perfectly “normal,” than in the comfort of our own home.)  Again, I think there’s something to the claim that availability makes sin easier.  We are affected by the culture around us.  And I respect the good will of the parents who decide they must flee.  I love Newark so dearly it brings me to tears; but I sure can’t blame all the people who wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

BUT I THINK there are a couple responses.  One is in terms of responsibility.  Carpeting your house does not clean up the dirt; according to my wife, it just convinces you it’s okay to neglect it.  If the world is depraved, the only solution is to try to deal with it.  We have at least to deal with it in ourselves.  That’s not to say we should go to peep shows and try to toughen ourselves up.  It is to say that if our children cannot look at vicious people and know that they are vicious, our children are in trouble.  At some point, we need to explain to them that those things are bad. 

(And anyway, just anecdotally, I have children seven, five, three, and one, who have spent almost their entire lives in the inner cities of Washington, DC, and Newark, NJ, and we frequently take them to midtown Manhattan.  So far by a long shot the most perverse and corrupting things they have seen have been on television, not in New York: I gladly live in Newark, but I would never let a tv in my house.  There is sin in the city.  But we are not rolling in it.)

What they do see, and suburban children miss, is poverty.  I don’t think that corrupts them.  It humanizes them.

St. Peter the Apostle, according to legend, was fleeing persecution in Rome.  On the road out of town, Jesus appeared to him.  Quo vadis, Domine, asked Peter: Lord, where are you going?  “I am going into Rome to be crucified in your place.”  So Peter, rebuked, turned around and went back to the city.  The Christian has a responsibility.  The human being has a responsibility. 

Oh, sure, Peter didn’t have children.  But read anything at all about Bl. Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of the Little Flower, known for her extreme (sometimes cloying) bourgeois innocence; you will quickly find that they went out of their way, made it central to their parenting of the saintly innocent children who became Thérèse, Céline, and the rest, to seek out the beggers, to rub their children’s faces in the face of urban poverty.  Don’t romanticize it.  They didn’t.  It was ugly, and anonymous, and full of vice.  Read Story of a Soul with half an eye open, and you’ll see Bl. Louis taking Thérèse to all the most corrupt places in Europe.  Lisieux was a medium-sized town – much smaller than Newark – but they didn’t hide social problems in shag carpet.  Thérèse and Céline say they were strong because they knew what corruption looked like.  The Little Flower’s blessed father took her places where creeps tried to grab her.

The Christian, the lover of humanity, has a responsibility.  A responsibility as an individual to care about the desperate in his society.  But also a responsibiltiy as a parent to teach his children to care.  Hiding the problem is avoiding responsibility.

And, as such, it might be avoiding the fulness of life.  Sinners on tv are horrible soulless people who corrupt the weak.  Sinners in real life are real people.  Sometimes we might learn to love.  That’s not a bad thing. 

THE PROBLEM IS we are social beings.  You can’t hide forever from your neighbors.  Letting society collapse around your ears is no strategy for raising healthy children.  And anyway, it is not good for us to be alone.  Mercy is a beautiful thing.  Love of God and love of NEIGHBOR are inseparable.  Making sure you never have neighbors, or only neighbors who don’t need any love, might cut too deep.  We don’t do much for our neighbors.  But at least we show them that the love of our family is stronger than their corruption.

I can appreciate those who look at Newark and see danger.  I understand parents who want a neighborhood that gives to them more than it takes.  Of course, I would say that our urban neighborhoods give us all sorts of things that you can’t get in the suburbs: parks and neighborhood grocery stores, real neighborhood parishes and street festivals, the opportunity to walk and the spectacles of the sidewalk.  But finally, the greatest gift that Newark gives us (not unlike family) is the opportunity to love and have compassion.