Thursday, November 17, 2016

Outside the Bubble

 Sebring, Ohio: North 15th Street (August 2014)

There has been an interest since the election in geographic and sociocultural bubbles. In particular, there has been an interest in the bubble that urban liberals live in, divorced from groups such as the rural (white) working class. For a long time I was a part of this bubble. For the first three decades of my life, other than occasional travel, I lived in eastern Massachusetts. I grew up on the edge of the western suburbs of Boston, and went to college and grad school closer to the city. Then in 2007 I moved to Israel for three years. As fate would I have it, I moved not to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or their suburbs in the center of the country, but to the city of Ashkelon.

Ashkelon is a city on the southern coast, just five miles north of the Gaza Strip. Like the southern region as a whole, is poorer than the rest of country. Ashkelon is a resort town for those who can’t afford a pricier vacation in Eilat. The southern part of the country is also home to the largest concentration of olim (new immigrants), and Ashkelon is a major absorption center for these new immigrants. The city’s population – like others in the south – is composed largely of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews), Ethiopians, Russians, and most recently French and North African Jews. This is not by accident. Starting with the arrival of Mizrahim in late 1940s and 1950s, they were shunted to southern communities – and largely kept away from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and their suburbs in the center of the country, where the Ashkenazi (Jews of East European ancestry) elite lived. They were routinely discriminated against, sometimes viciously. They were trapped in these communities, and these communities were trapped in poverty. To this day these cities and towns are poorer and less educated than those in the center. I remember a friend, who taught at an engineering college in the southern city of Be’ersheva, who told me that his college was a necessary institution, serving poorer students in the south who didn’t have the grades to get into the more prestigious Technion in Haifa.

During my time in the country I often felt very uncomfortable, perhaps especially in Ashkelon, because of the massive difference in culture from what I had known. But something else bothered me too. From the moment I moved to Israel, I encountered constant bewilderment from Israelis about why I was living in Ashkelon. Sometimes it was snickering and mocking, of the city and its residents, as crass and rude, as behind the times. People I knew from the center of the country talked about the backwardness of the town. One insisted that, while things were bad in Ashkelon now, they would soon improve because the French were immigrating and they would clean it up. I was appalled by the condescension, by the classism and racism, by the mocking of the poor and uneducated.

* * * * *

I returned to the United States in 2010. For the last six years, I’ve lived in the South and Midwest. Again I’ve experienced massive culture shock. In particular, I’ve been genuinely disturbed by the number of Confederate flags, whether flying or as novelty plates. Besides the fact that the flag stands for slavery and the vilest racism, I am also struck by the inescapable irony that people who often see themselves as real Americans (as opposed to Northeast or West-coast liberals) proudly display the flag of secession.

The places I’ve lived – Fayetteville, Arkansas and Bloomington, Indiana – are college towns, where life appears fairly comfortable. This is especially true of Fayetteville, which is the beneficiary of large amounts of money from businesses like Walmart and Tyson Foods. But drive around a bit and you will see signs of poverty and urban decay here too. On the streets you can’t fail to notice the number of cars and trucks with damage, from dinged-up bumpers to missing passenger-side mirrors, broken or missing parts patched up with tape, because people can’t afford to repair their vehicles. If you go to lower- or middle-class neighborhoods you will see too many houses with peeling paint or rotting wood or other signs of disrepair, again because their owners can’t afford to maintain them. Or you may stroll through wealthier neighborhoods and suddenly stumble upon a small, broken-down house, little more than a shack, in its midst. Here you can also see, in progress, how gentrification is leading to the poorer members of the community to be priced out of them by the expanding universities.

Sebring, Ohio (August 2014)

Go a mere two miles from the center of these cities and you’re in a different world altogether. Sprawling farmland dotted by small towns. Places like Sebring (Ohio) or Hazen or Brinkley (Arkansas), with town centers deserted, shops boarded up or otherwise closed, buildings in disrepair. People with nothing to do but drugs.

The large cities are faring little better. Cities, like Memphis or St. Louis: major parts of them are hollowed-out, empty, in decay. In Memphis I was struck by the revitalized Beale Street. This consists of a few blocks that have been renovated primarily for tourists; when you step out of this zone immediately to the east you see empty lots and crumbling buildings alongside apartment houses in a residential neighborhood. (You can see the same phenomenon in smaller cities and towns, like Richmond, Indiana.)

As in Israel, I’ve been stunned by much of the reaction of people I know to these communities. I’ve watched self-described liberals laugh at the petty criminal activity of people stuck in these dead-end towns; I’ve watched them mock working-class Americans for their lack of education, pretending – for they certainly know better – that it serves as a proxy for intelligence, or even knowledge (remember, it does serve as a rough proxy for income); I’ve watched professors too eager to leave their Midwestern college towns every break for California or New York or abroad.

There are many great and beautiful things about the American Midwest and South. But there is too much of these regions marked by decay: decay of buildings, decay of institutions, decay of communities. And what of the people who live in these communities: mostly working-class Americans, white, African-American, Hispanic, and others alike? They deserve sympathy, and help. They deserve, with all of their flaws, to be treated with respect. Like anyone else.

1 comment:

Jean Hopkins said...

Thank you for showing us a compassionate view of the rest of America. It's needed now more than ever before to understand the growing economic divide. This past election showed how frustrated people are by voting out of anger or not voting at all.