Saturday, April 2, 2011

From suburban to semi-urban to NIMBY

My father had a cousin who lived on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. Every blue moon or so he would decide to come visit the family out in Pottstown, and he would walk all the way. It's about 36 miles. He would get up early and make a day of it and show up at night, tired but not beyond belief. After his stay he would walk all the way home again. It was one of the family wonders.

My parents grew up seeing their home, Pottstown, as a factory town a very long way from Philadelphia. If you had called it a suburb in 1950, for example, or even 1980, I think it would have sounded funny.

Now the Pottstown Mercury (prounounced "Merkary") is reporting on a group called First Suburbs that views my parents' home town as one of several towns "which were once considered suburbs but now wrestle with many of the issues once considered solely an “urban.”" (Syntax sic. I see the Merkary's proofing hasn't improved.)

Astonishing how times and geographies change.

It turns out the group isn't out to do urban things like attracting a new bookstore or clamoring for a light rail line or even building one of these pedestrian mall travesties with restaurants serving local delicacies like Shoo-Fly Pie. (They could put it in the ruins of the steel mill that made the girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and hire the steelworkers' grandchildren to wait tables... but I digress.)

No, First Suburbs is "focused on what it considers to be unfair funding for education; an unfair burden of low-income housing and a resulting concentration of poverty; and an unfair focus on building new infrastructure in outlying communities when the existing infrastructure of existing towns is in dire need of repair and replacement."

I can see the infrastructure part. Outer-outer suburbs usually do get more new stuff than older factory towns like Pottstown, which it's still just weird to think of as being "suburbs" as all.

The "burden of low-income housing" part -- that's troublesome. (It's also even more depressing than the idea of a tourist trap replacing a steel mill. Steel mills were no fun to work in.)

On one hand, it's great to campaign for placing low-income housing in richer towns as well as poorer ones. The comment thread already forming below the news article shows a few examples of the class-based (and probably also racial) prejudice that Section 8 tenants and landlords are likely to face in those richer towns, and fighting such bigotry, from a civil rights perspective, would be a fine idea.

On the other hand, it's not exactly a civil rights message to argue that other towns than your own should have Section 8 housing on the general principle of "We don't want Those People -- you take your share of 'em -- don't foist 'em on us."

Knowing some of the history of Pottstown race and class prejudice, it's not exactly a stretch to imagine that a NIMBY anti-integration impulse is at work here.

Astonishing how times and geographies change, but prejudices in many ways don't.

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