Saturday, January 24, 2009

More Price Than Promise?

Regarding my last post on The President's Inaugural speech, NV at This D*mn House pointed out that the cited passage is a call for accountability. Personally, I was drawn to the part about challenges as satisfying to the spirit. But I liked NV's connection to accountability because it seemed pertinent to two of my earlier posts, about my neighborhood's problems with tagging and with litter.

The President's call for responsibility is called the price of citizenship. But he also referred to the promise of citizenship.

So perhaps therein lies the answer to my questions about why my local perpetrators of tagging and littering do not feel responsible for their actions. Perhaps they do not see themselves as accountable for or to their community because their community has not been accountable to them. They do not see a future for themselves in which they are likely to benefit from their responsible actions. They are much like the foreclosed upon homeowner who trashes his house just before eviction. Without a stake in the value of the property, why not take out anger and frustration on the property?

As stupid as John Edwards was about his personal life, he was right about one thing - there are two Americas. In the U.S. we don't like to talk about social classes or class divisions. But whether or not we talk about it, there has always been two Americas. It is likely there will always be two Americas. The reality of it will be become more obvious in the year ahead.

The distinction in the U.S. may be more subtle than in other countries. Perhaps our class divisions are less a matter of wealth or ancestry than of personal beliefs and aspiration. After all, I did not grow up in a neighborhood of privilege. But I did grow up with expectations and it was those expectations, both my own and those of my parents, that made all the difference in my life.

We can try to exact a price for citizenship in our expectations of greater personal responsibility. But we must also be cognizant of fulfilling the promise of citizenship, lest we create a class of vandals.

Before buying a house, I was dubious about the legitimacy of ownership. Do we really ever own anything? But since then, I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter if you really own anything. What matters is the belief that you own. And in America, what matters more is the belief that you can own. Whether it's large or small, whether it's now or later, the potential must be there.

And maybe that is the duty that We Who Have, have to Those Who Have Not - to make the promise that the potential is there for Them as well as for Us.


Christopher Busta-Peck said...

You've gotten to the core of a very difficult subject.

As an individual who works in the inner city, one might think that I had some greater insight as to this issue. I know things are different here, in Cleveland, than they are in Baltimore, Maryland, where I lived for the past three years.

The cost of real estate in Baltimore was insane, and still is, even though the bubble has burst. Mortgage payments were about three times equivalent rental properties. People who worked in Baltimore couldn't afford to buy there - the only people who bought houses there worked in DC.

It was truly impossible to get anything done. It really seemed like no one cared about anything. There were so many layers of bureaucracy in city goverment that things moved at about the speed of molasses. I'd suggest an idea at work, and it would take ages for it to be rejected. It was always someone else's responsibility - even though that other person had so many projects that there was no chance it would get done.

My wife was mugged and her cell phone was stolen. It took a week for the detectives to get a warrant to get her call records. They seemed to be unable to act upon the printout of her phone records for that evening, which we provided to them the next day. One would have thought that they might want to question the individual that the mugger talked to for a good half hour, on a land line. I've a good feeling that that individual knew who the mugger was. But alas, this was not pursued - at least not to my knowledge. This mugging was but one of several with a similar set up that had happened over a couple day period. Nothing ever happened.

There was trash everywhere. A bit of road would be cleaned and then, a couple days later, it would be covered with trash again.

I couldn't find a decent landlord to save my life. Call after call after call, all unanswered. The after hours maintence service, to deal with emergencies was a sham. Truly - they never conveyed the messages about problems, period.

When one lives in an environment like this, where there are so many major quality of life issues, where the cost of living makes it such that even a professional couple living cheaply has trouble making ends meet, it wears on you. It takes what hope you may have about improving your standing in the world and changes your focus to just getting by.

I don't know what can be done in a place like Baltimore. There's too much at too many levels that is simply wrong. Maybe you just smoke more or drink more.


Cleveland seems different. There are many of the same problems: boarded up houses; trash; crime. Something is different, though. I'm not sure what. I feel like I can breathe. I feel like there's some belief of hope. I talk about creating a community garden with the kids that I work with and I see surprise and enthusiasm in their faces.

In Cleveland, and in many other similar places, the issue you bring up can at least be addressed.


Perhaps this is naive, but I wonder if the issue between the hope and the hope-nots is one of knowledge.

I am new to this neighborhood, and we are one of the best supported and funded public library systems in this country, so that may affect what I say. I think, though, that sometimes people don't see the potential for change because things have just been as they are for so long. It takes a certain amount of knowledge to learn how to make working on an old house cheap. It takes information to figure out how to grow food on the many vacant lots around here. And it takes some crazy guy from the burbs, perhaps, saying that it would be a good idea.

I'm really not sure what I'm saying here.


Living well, once one is able to meet certain needs, can be an issue of time, when one lacks money. The amount of slightly used stuff available in this country, cheap, is just ridiculous. I really can't believe all the things I see on Craigslist - if I wasn't trying to be quite so picky, I could fix up a house for almost nothing.


Perhaps what this all means is that the hope-nots just need a little hope and the knowledge that things can change.

I will revisit this later, once I've been able to think more.

Why S? said...

Wow, Christopher. Thanks for your great, thoughtful comment. "Hope" is really the key word here. I used to volunteer as a reading coach in a library program. The boy assigned to me just knew he would never go to college because it was too expensive. So he didn't feel there was any point of putting energy into school. I wonder how many times that scenario is repeated? That's a failure of hope. Why did so many people buy houses they really couldn't afford? Because housing prices were rising so quickly that they were fearful that if they missed the opportunity they might never have another chance. That's a failure of hope. What will happen now that lending has tightened and we'll be expected put down 20% again? Even with the collapse of home prices, in my area that's still a lot of money. 20% of any home in this city would be beyond my grasp and is beyond the grasp of many of my friends. And these are people with college educations and good careers and most without kids. For those in less fortunate circumstances, the situation is much worse.

I'm not suggesting that everyone should own a home or even go to college. Both have challenges that are not for everyone. But I do think that both should be reasonably attainable for those who truly want to work towards those goals. If they are perceived as absolutely unattainable for a group of citizens then we are all looking at a lot of trouble down the road.

Jennifer said...

Interesting. The promise of attainability.

I know growing up, I had a certain expectation... that I would go to college, earn a living, buy a house. So much of that is happening. But there are others who have no expectations of these things, and who don't do them, for better or worse.

The neighborhood I am in seems to be mostly homeowners. Owners of tiny cottages, yes, but owners who take pride in their houses, who shovel their walks and pull their weeds and trim their trees. With homeownership is an expectation that you get with the house... the expectation of yourself to care for the property and keep it's value up, to use it to it's best. So often with renters, you see the opposite... how much can I get OUT of this living situation, how little can I do, etc.

NV said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Why!

Again, this all goes back to accountability. The choices you make and the consequences of them. (and whether or not you actually care about either.) Opportunity certainly has a role to play but sometimes we make our own "luck" right?

One of the things I love about Obama is that he is all about trying to make sure that everyone GETS the opportunity. Accountability comes in in how you use that chance. For some reason, uh, maybe their PARENTS, this younger generation seems to think everything should be handed to them, BECAUSE. Well, sorry kiddos. If you get an opportunity, it's a whole hell of a lot more than a lot of people got and they went on to do something productive with their lives. Buck up.

"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself." -- Benjamin Franklin

Why S? said...

NV, you're right about parents. Contemporary parents often don't ask enough of their kids. Often they're afraid of their own kids. But I worry too that our schools are failing kids as well. As with the parents, they seem to have given up on some kids before they've even begun. The kids sense that and feeling that everyone around them has no expectations of them, they give up on their future and place in society.

My final analysis? Schools have to toughen up and expect more from everyone. And young people need to be told how tough it is to be a parent so they do not enter lightly. This is a huge missed opportunity in our culture.