A Death in the City
We called him Shorty. He was 5’5” on his best day, and his nickname was so well-worn that I never asked him what his birth name was. He wore a forest green jacket with two large red and white triangles that stretched out from the back, brown pants and a baseball cap. We talked here and there, mostly chitchat about the weather or how much my son had grown since he last saw him. I carried his groceries for him sometimes when I passed him resting at the bottom of the staircase, a handful of plastic bags in one hand and his cane in the other.
I still don’t know what his cause of death was. He collapsed while climbing the stairs to his third floor apartment at 1:00 AM. He hadn’t made it halfway up the first flight before he tumbled backwards down them. I was asleep, the sound of my own snoring drowning out the world around me. I found out about his death the next evening when a neighbor told me. I didn’t even know he was sick. No one did.
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s shocking Electoral College defeat, dozens of articles and think pieces proliferated about the need to understand the “Trump voter:” someone who was struggling in the global economy, with few options for advancement, and who was invariably white. Democrats learned the central theme of Donald Trump’s campaign after it was too late- center the suffering of white people. The result has been a single-minded focus on the Rust Belt and other hollowed out regions of the Midwest. The cities, overwhelmingly black, brown and politically blue, are demographically safe in their calculations. African Americans, the foundation of the Democrat’s electoral base, would never vote for a Republican (except for the 4% of black women and 13% of black men who did). Perhaps they’re right, and large numbers of black voters are permanently ostracized from the Republican Party. Yet black voters have a third option besides the Democrats and the GOP. They can choose not to vote at all. Hillary Clinton received nearly two million fewer votes from African Americans in 2016 than Barack Obama received in 2012. Despite these startling numbers, there has been no flood of interest in understanding black voters. The focus of the political class has turned towards the American heartland: NAFTA and TPP allegedly destroying manufacturing jobs, heroin and methamphetamine ravaging rural communities. No one has come to ask me about the problems facing my city.
Hartford, Connecticut, by various measures, is simultaneously one of the most economically productive cities on the planet and one of the poorest urban centers in the United States. According to a report from the Brookings Institute titled, “Global Metro Monitor 2011: Volatility, Growth and Recovery,” Hartford has the highest per capita GDP in the world, beating out major global cities like New York, Paris, and London. The American Fact Finder page for the U.S. Census Bureau states that a full third of the city’s residents live below the poverty level. GDP and poverty rates are not directly comparable, but these statistics tell us something important regardless- that Hartford generates massive amounts of wealth, and that very little of that wealth benefits its residents. Hartford is not unique when it comes to more affluent outsiders extracting value from poor cities. The cause of the struggles in Hartford is simple: racism. It takes the form of redlining, exclusionary zoning, NIMBYism, white flight, any number of euphemistic phrases to explain the mechanisms of excluding black and brown people from the American mainstream. Strip away the clinical language, and you’re left with racism. It remains a problem that no one in power wants to meaningfully confront. The “chocolate city” that Eric Avilla described is still here. A larger number of us spoke on November 8th, 2016- three million more than those Trump voters. The idiosyncrasies of our election system effectively silenced those voices. The people of color in the cities cried out the loudest for relief and help to overcome the challenges we face. Instead, the Trump voter is whom America is listening to.
I recently bumped into a young man I’d met many years ago when we were both children. I was living in a suburb adjacent to Hartford with my grandfather at the time. I was about ten years older than the boy, who I’ll call Jason. He was barely out of his toddler phase, and wanted to play with the big kids. As a surly, self-important teenager, I tolerated his presence with a mix of annoyance and flattery at the idea that he wanted to be like me and my friends. When I went back to live with my mother, I lost all contact with Jason until I was walking down the broken sidewalks of the North End of Hartford when I heard my name called from a distance. Jason was learning against a black sedan, a puffy coat shielding him against the cold and swallowing his thin frame. He was an adult now, maybe as young as eighteen or as old as twenty one. We caught up for a few minutes. He has a cousin he visits who lives on the third floor of my building. Small world, I said. I’ve bumped into him a few times since then, learning a little bit more about his life in the intervening years. He finished his GED while he was in prison, a result of a fight he got into with his girlfriend. I asked him if he’d thought about college, that he could always start at the community college I was tutoring at and I’d help him apply. He said he would think about it, but that he was looking for work, which was difficult to find with his arrest record.
I thought about this as I watched Casey Affleck win the Best Actor Academy Award, a man who has been accused of harassing two women. I thought about my spell of unemployment in 2016, when I would walk my ex-girlfriend’s dog for two hours to escape the crushing repetitiveness of vacillating between idleness and writing cover letters to hiring managers who would never even read past my name. On those walks, I was surprised by the number of men I saw standing on street corners in the middle of the day. They laughed and joked with each other. They discussed the neighborhood gossip and argued about current events. They had the same kinds of conversations you hear in office settings everywhere, featuring more colorful language. These men weren’t in an office though. They’ve been locked out of employment for crimes that their white counterparts commit, but aren’t punished as harshly for. They’re skipped over because their names and addresses signal their blackness to potential employers, and blackness is not rewarded in the job market.
Finding work doesn’t solve our problems. I write in my apartment, a small one bedroom on Main Street in the North End of Hartford. The rent is subsidized, and renters hold onto their apartments for life. My neighbors have lived in these apartments for twenty or even thirty years. Some of them are older people nearing retirement age; some are single people living on their own. There are childless couples and large families. Our careers are varied- there are CNAs and grocery store employees and taxi drivers and the disabled. Some of the older children hustle, selling everything from weed to Polo sweat suits. The commonality between us is that we cannot afford to live in market rate housing on the money our labor earns.
A favorite topic of conversation amongst the political pundit class is the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. Statistics are bandied about regarding the loss of jobs- five million of them, according to some studies. Whether the blame is placed on China and foreign trade or automation and productivity advances, the decline in manufacturing jobs is positioned as a unique threat to blue-collar workers. The term “blue-collar” often assumes whiteness, as the political analysis of outlets from Politico to CNN demonstrate. The pundits fail to mention that the loss of manufacturing jobs is part of a decades-old trend, which saw those manufacturers leave the cities first, decimating work opportunities for African Americans and other people of color left behind during suburbanization. The streets of the North End are home to dozens of empty industrial parks and dilapidated factory buildings. The lack of decent jobs is as acute in Hartford as it is in the all-American small towns in the Midwest, and the knock-on effects spread from housing access to healthcare.
My ex-wife’s uncle lives on the first floor of our building. He is missing almost all of his top teeth, and uses a walker for assistance. Another neighbor has recently had foot surgery. My ex-girlfriend sustained a concussion two years ago and takes daily medication to deal with the symptoms. Shorty’s condition was so severe that he literally dropped dead. As America enjoys the irony of Republican Congress members being taken to task over their opposition to Obamacare, it’s easy to forget the black and brown faces who rely on the healthcare law as well. People who can receive coverage who otherwise couldn’t. Families and elders covered by the expansion of Medicare. Provisions which allow students to remain on their parent’s insurance plan until they turn twenty six. Obamacare is critical for people of color who don’t have access to employer healthcare because of the jobs they work and could never afford the out of pocket expense of buying a plan.
Meanwhile, the corporation which operates my housing has only accepted applications once in the six years I’ve lived in my apartment. On the day it did, Hartford Police were on hand to manage the crowds that were already forming at 7:00 AM, an hour before the rental office opened. My neighbors work. Many of them have stable relationships with two incomes, or must only provide for themselves. The single mother family caricature thrown around in discussions of urban poverty is the exception, not the rule. We cannot move, no matter how much we want to live where the white people live. So on that day when applications were accepted, the waiting list for affordable housing grew. New applicants were essentially hoping for a miracle to be placed into an apartment.
Like a death.
Rural white Americans are hurting. They’ve seen their wages remain stagnant for over twenty years. Inflation has made everything more expensive relative to the amount of money they make. The country is becoming browner and more diverse. Addiction is wracking their families and communities. The problems are real and frightening. African Americans, Latinos and other people of color are living under the same conditions. We watch as falling tax revenues degrade our communities even further, the unemployable remain idle, and the sick are left to quietly suffer from their maladies. Yet the energy of our political system is focused on addressing what they perceive as an eruption of discontent in white America. Our people are not getting any attention, and they’re slipping away in front of us. People like Shorty.
His name was Roberto Rodriguez. He died walking up a flight of stairs. His widow didn’t have the money to properly bury him, so he was cremated. No reporters showed up to ask how he could have been cared for better. There will be no congressional hearings. No one will write an article about how globalization left him behind. Roberto was a poor Hispanic man in a poor neighborhood in a poor city. His death didn’t make a sound, and the rest of us slept through the night.