One Hundred Twenty Steps

This reflection was originally posted on August 9, 2015.

On this anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, let’s talk about housing. Odd subject, I know, but bear with me for a second.

Those of you who know me well know that I am the largest The Wire acolyte in existence. I do not consider David Simon infallible, as he is only human (and Treme is only Treme), but he has an often masterful gift for storytelling and for illustrating the assumptions that underlie difficult and multifaceted problems without beating you over the head with them. As such, I have had Mr. Simon’s upcoming miniseries, Show Me A Hero, in my mind. The series follows the city of Yonkers, a declining white industrial city (personal interest: +5 points) that was ordered by a federal court in the late 1980s (+1 point) to desegregate its public housing (+5 points), and the political and legal battles that followed (+3 points). Having grown up in an incredibly segregated metro area, having just lived in a city where affordable housing is the mayor’s pet project and the specter of gentrification is unavoidable, and having just moved to a city that fits somewhere (physically and culturally) between Cleveland and Yonkers, I actually am a little ashamed that I am not more aware of housing-related issues given my desegregation work two summers ago, at an organization that I’d probably sell a kidney to return to.

Everybody I’ve met so far in Albany has been very nice. However, when I mention where I’m living, reactions tend to range from slightly uncomfortable to mildly worried. It’s truly a luxurious apartment, and I’m pretty sure the bedroom alone is bigger than every apartment I’ve had in New York, save for one. (I’m only slightly exaggerating. Also, New York people shouldn’t ask me about the rent.) However, while the apartment is situated within the downtown zone, it’s right on the edge of development, with neither the building itself nor the under-construction townhomes up the street even viewable on Street View due to their recency. In fact, it’s likely on the wrong side of one of the natural dividing lines along which racial segregation was easily perpetuated in the past—a pretty steep slope.

Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY
New York State Capitol

At the top of this hill, the New York capital complex sprawls in many directions. The Empire State Plaza stretches on for weeks (only a slight exaggeration—the Swan Street Building, not included in the picture, is more than a quarter mile long). A block north, the Capitol building towers over the approach to the river. Another block north, the State Education Building is actually one of the most impressive buildings I have seen in the United States (I promise it’s more impressive close up, too).

New York State Education Building

One more block north is the steep slope downward. At the east end of the Education Building, a new parking garage straddles the slope and provides an easy shortcut down the hill that doesn’t involve walking several blocks east, past the Court of Appeals, and then turning right back around. From the bottom of this garage to the top is six flights of stairs totaling 120 steps.

120 steps is all it takes to separate a shining city upon a hill from the people that city can forget about. But before we go forward, one more step back…

The Empire State Plaza, that strangely Soviet-looking monstrosity I mentioned above, has its own less-than-ideal history. Originally conceived of in the late 1950s, it was constructed over statewide objection through financing secured by a deal between then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the mayor of Albany. The 98.5 acres were obtained by the city through eminent domain, without warning, in 1962, evicting anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 people from roughly 1,200 properties on the site. Most of those displaced were poor and working-class Jewish and Italian families, and while many simply moved a few blocks away, skyrocketing rents ultimately drove most of them from the city altogether (SUNY Albany studies in 1975 and 1981 were unable to track most of those evicted in the city directories). Many downtown businesses were also hurt as a result of the exodus, including two major department stores and the only movie theater in the downtown area that closed as a result of the loss of this community of consumers.

Nelson Rockefeller’s stated reason for his stubborn adherence to the Empire State Plaza project, even as the budget ballooned from $250 million (1959 dollars) to $1.9 billion, was due to his embarrassment upon a Dutch princess’s visit to Albany to celebrate Dutch heritage. While they were riding through the neighborhood ultimately obliterated by the Plaza, Mr. Rockefeller felt that the city looked too run down to be presentable. As a result, he displaced what amounted to 8% of the city’s population to make way for this project.

While Rockefeller’s achievements are many (including some key civil rights reforms), his actions here mirror his adoption of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Under these laws, either selling 2+ ounces or possessing 4+ ounces of almost any drug (including marijuana) came with a mandatory minimum of 15 years to life in prison. These laws were enacted, on the heels of three failed presidential runs to boost Rockefeller’s conservative credentials, as one of the criticisms of him in past runs had been that he was too liberal to capture the nomination. Their passage alone is likely connected to the tough-on-crime rhetoric that has pervaded political discussion at the local and state level for the past several decades.

Rockefeller was living in a different society than we live in now, but these examples illustrate that he was often willing to use the vast power that he possessed as governor of New York to actively ignore the well-being of others by placing his comfort and his desires first. And ultimately, that is the definition of oppression: an act by somebody with power that utilizes that power in a self-serving way that actively ignores (or intentionally harms) the well-being of others, or perhaps a collective series of these acts.

This may be a broad definition, sure, that breaks down when broad policy is concerned (more on this later), but it is a starting point for asking questions. With specific incidents, this is the dynamic that we have seen play out over and over again. Sandra Bland (who I have not yet devoted any words to because I have the power and the privilege to live my life without worrying about how these issues affect me personally), for example, was detained in a prison cell solely because Brian Encinia cared more about his own complete control of the situation than her (properly stated) rights. Sam DuBose’s murder was covered up solely because Ray Tensing and two other “corroborating” police officers thought they could get away with it, and that Mr. Dubose’s story and his family was unimportant. A certain sample of Bernie Sanders supporters care primarily about electing Bernie Sanders for racially “neutral” reasons, and are willing to ignore legitimate critiques regarding his race record from the very people who are affected by it.

My parents were here for three days to help me move in and to drive me around, and we managed to walk through a lot of different neighborhoods. To them, having lived in Cleveland for over twenty years now, the change from what was coded to them as a “safe” neighborhood and a “bad” neighborhood was immediate and shocking. Taking a look back at the Cleveland dot map, it’s actually pretty easy to diagnose:


Almost the entire Black population (denoted by green) is east of that massive blank area running vertically in the middle of the map (the Cuyahoga River and associated parks/industrial areas). The segregation in Cleveland generally has a buffer zone that is more than just 120 measly steps. (After all, in such a spread-out metro area with low property values, why not do white flight all the way if your neighborhood is creeping up on that magic 20 percent threshold that usually triggers your leaving?) For me, having grown up as a map nerd in Cleveland, it is incredibly easy for me to trace the lines of suburbs and city neighborhoods in the way that this map breaks down, and I bet those of you from Cleveland could at least estimate where things are.

Note the immediate change between a predominantly white neighborhood on Lark Street and a predominantly Black neighborhood to the north/northeast. This is where the slope exists.

But what is there to be done? The collective problem here is the accumulation of marginally oppressive decisions that leads to de facto segregation in our cities, which anybody on either side could tell you is at minimum tied to schools. But how do we fix it? I will not spoil the ending for the city of Yonkers for you (or its new mayor played by Oscar Isaac omg i’m so excited), but these are questions without easy answers. The government risks losing the faith of its people by choosing an option that may antagonize a majority, but a majority that may be entirely wrong. Is it a decision that wields governmental power with active disregard for a segment of people? Some of the population is going to think so. Can the government ever completely rid themselves of this disappointment? Should they? When do people have legitimate concerns, and when are they simply trying to lean on the government to subsidize their comfort at the cost of the well-being of others?

And certainly I’m not suggesting that people willingly plop down into strongly Black neighborhoods and set up shop. Gentrification is itself a massive problem, particularly in New York, where skyrocketing rents are already pushing working-class minorities past the point where they even have feasible commutes to work under 90 minutes. I fully recognize that I am doing essentially the same thing here, and while I am comforted by the fact that somebody else would be up here likely doing a similar thing if it were not me, this is at best a rationalization of the inexorable march of the downtown horizon into a decreasingly affordable neighborhood that does not have the same power, political or social, to move into other neighborhoods as those that are doing the gentrifying.

On the note of rationalizations (The Wire season 4 spoiler alert), Mayor Martin O’Carcetti (oops, did I do that?) decides to turn down state funding for city schools in order to better position himself to run for governor. One of his justifications is that he “can help the Baltimore city schools from the governor’s mansion.” These questions are often the hardest to parse—when can you legitimately say that you’re helping yourself so that you will have more power to help others later, and when are you simply perpetuating a cycle of failing to account for those that need your attention most? The first time through The Wire (during its original run), I actually started in Season 4, and saw Carcetti as a legitimately concerned mayor who was at least mostly justified in taking the path that he did. Of course, with knowledge of the ending as well as the added context of Season 3, David Simon introduces significantly more context than I had at the time, some of which cuts in both directions, but all of which serves to add nuance and food for thought regarding where the right balance is.

(end The Wire spoilers)

I myself am up in Albany doing work that is going to often be unrelated to my ultimate career goals, but I have viewed it both as valuable experience and as a credential to help me get where I’m going. However, there are plenty of organizations and people out there that take a slightly different view of the situation, stating that if you’re not actually in the field doing, say, criminal defense, your time is being wasted. In law school, I felt fairly confident that that viewpoint could not hold in most circumstances, let alone for everyone. But as I become more aware of my own ability to rationalize, I realize that truly being self-aware is being able to understand what you see as the difference between self-serving and rationalized privilege, the aggregation of which results in continued oppression. (The relevant factors aren’t necessarily going to be the same for everybody, but everybody’s experiences and perspectives are different.) Why should I, somebody who has had a privileged upbringing and has had all the tools I could ever want in order to succeed, be able to claim that I am trying to use this cushy appointment to transition into another cushy position that is aimed at helping people through essentially “buffet litigation”?

I am, of course, taking the uncharitable view of my goals. But there is always an uncharitable view, and being able to understand and respond to that uncharitable view is important. Even if your counterpart is willing to have their assumptions challenged, you must be able to challenge them.

Progress comes slowly, but we cannot progress if we cannot explain what must be fixed.

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