Neighborhood Class Divisions and Hope for the Future

princessOn Halloween in my neighborhood, kids come around dressed as princesses, super heroes and ghosts – nothing that would be offensive based on class, race or religion. Why not? What is different about my neighborhood is that it is a mixture of everyone. Black, white, poor, wealthy, conservative, liberal and pretty much all the religions common in the United States.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a series of articles about the different neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and it’s surrounding suburbs. I recognized the stereotypes as pretty accurate for each of the neighborhoods I was reading about. I wondered what they would say about my neighborhood of Highland Park/East Liberty.

When the article came out they said they couldn’t stereotype the Highland Park/East Liberty neighborhood. They said it was just an “eclectic mix, typical of neighborhoods often found near large universities.”

With such a mix of people all in one neighborhood it is not a good idea to wear an offensive costume at Halloween. But it also means the people who live here have self selected to live in a neighborhood that is a mix and did not want to stratify by race or money. And there are other neighborhoods like this in the United States.

Not Perfect but …

It is stratified block by block so all is not perfect. But it does not stratify block by block on Halloween. There are the low-income blocks, the middle-income blocks, the upper-income blocks, and a handful of mansions left over from the 1890’s. But everyone can easily walk all over the neighborhood and everyone does. Perhaps what allows Highland Park/East Liberty to be more eclectic is the homes were built prior to 1940 so it is a mix of housing. The suburbs that developed in the 1950s and onward were built with economic stratification very much in mind. The rich suburb, the upper-middle-class suburb, the low- income suburb, and with miles of distance in between.

Healthy societies mix and assimilate. Stratification does not help.

By coincidence I was visiting the Hudson River Valley two weeks before Halloween and visited the mansion and large estate where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, raised and lived for most of his life. Once you walked out of the front gates of his parents estate you were immediately on the main street of a small town of poor to modest incomes, 500 feet from his parent’s front door.

Although his parents were very wealthy, his immediate neighbors and neighborhood where he walked was not. And he did not think that was fair even at age 15. People at that time with as much money as FDR called him “a traitor to his class.” He inherited the estate when he was 59 years old and two years later gave it for free to the U.S. government. It is now part of the National Park Service. It gave me hope for the future.

Learning Acceptance and Respect Early

Raising children in an eclectic neighborhood tends to make them accept all the different types of people that there are. Not just to tolerate but to accept. Toleration implies “I’ll put up with you but you are inferior.” Acceptance implies, “You are different than me in minor ways, but so what, we are of equal importance.” It helps prevents ugly stereotypes and offensive Halloween costumes.

Even some stratified super wealthy people recognize the unfairness of class divisions and actually do something to change it. Probably FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt did more to change it than any other Americans I can think of. And that was after 50 years of extreme growing economic unfairness and class divisions.

It’s easy to get pessimistic after another 30 year period of growing financial class separation. But it can’t go on forever. The tide is turning to another period of progressive politics. The extreme last gasp attempt to overturn Obamacare and it’s extension of healthcare has failed. Things are better than they were before FDR when there was no Social Security and other safety net programs. The United States  has always alternated between periods of liberalism and long periods of conservative backlash.  Fortunately two steps forward but only one step back.

Remaining Optimistic

I look at countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark and see them as a model for where the USA can go. It’s not a coincidence that these countries are always rated the happiest countries in the world. Class divisions are smaller. The social network to prevent poverty and take care of children, the sick and the elderly is extensive (although recent policy changes may change this). Higher education is free. But these are countries over a thousand years old (near where Halloween originated) where everyone feels they are part of the same extended neighborhood and family. The United States is not there yet, but given time it will get there.

Remain optimistic, it takes lifetimes to get there. And keep pushing for fairness.

And, Happy Halloween.

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