I recently reviewed photojournalist Chris Arnade’s Dignity (and was fortunate enough to chat with him too). It’s a poignant and very important book and photo collection on the struggles of America’s poor communities of all geographies and races.
What sets Dignity apart from similar books is that his photographs and anecdotes are not employed to prop up a narrative or to merely illustrate data. They are the narrative. And that’s important: we should not rely on statistics seasoned with hit-and-run dispatches from flyover country to understand these left-behind Americans that Arnade actually meets, chats with, and, despite being a cultural world away as a former Wall Street banker, tries to understand.
But don’t leave it to Arnade. “Be open a little more to experiences,” he says, perhaps with a little understatement, though he dismisses fear of crime. Check out the dive restaurants, he says, the decrepit strip malls, the ethnic neighborhoods in “sketchy” parts of towns. If, like me, you live in the D.C. metro area, he suggests visiting the Hispanic neighborhoods of Arlington and Alexandria and the white working-class towns in Virginia down I-81. Readers should strike out with a little street smarts and figure out America for themselves. Or ourselves. Here’s my little contribution.
You can begin first by not going anywhere: explore your own community at irregular (for you) times of day. You may run into people you’re not used to seeing: folks who work longer or less favorable shifts doing late-night shopping; seniors going for early morning or late evening walks. You may meet people that you don’t even know live in your community if you only go shopping or driving after leaving the office or during the lunch break. You might notice routines and activities you never even thought of—observing workers opening up lunch joints in the mid-morning, listening to baristas chat during the afternoon slump, coming across groups of “loiterers” who are merely treating the strip mall plaza as the de facto town square that it pretends to be. Even small places are home to a multitude of micro-cultures, and even barren-looking places are often teeming with life.
But that will only get you so far. If you want to retrace Arnade’s journey, you’ll probably have to venture into places that a lot of affluent people instinctively learn to avoid, whether due to lack of interest, lack of necessity, or even racism. Though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I did a fair amount of this when I lived in College Park, Maryland, attending graduate school there.
Many of the white suburbanites I grew up with would be terrified for my life and safety knowing that I went out and about in poor, heavily immigrant and non-white D.C. suburbs like Langley Park, Hyattsville, and Riverdale. Some call this reaction racism; others, notably those who practice it, probably consider it risk aversion. And risk aversion it may be, though it is hard to conclude that it isn’t informed by racial attitudes and stereotypes. (Driving everywhere, for example, is much more likely to end in injury or death than walking around in a downscale neighborhood.)
Like Arnade, I never did have a brush with crime, and—though it makes me sound like something of an elitist—I felt that I learned something from exploring these places and meeting people there.
Compared to my own quiet exurban hometown in central New Jersey, these D.C. inner-ring suburbs had a more chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere—which can be unsettling, exciting, exhausting, or all three. Trips to the store, for example, are often neither brief nor merely transactional; they may involve more social interaction than you expect. They may involve being called “honey” or “dear” by a sweet Hispanic lady. They may involve a man in the thrift store asking you how some odd or end works (who knows?) or if you have any change to catch the bus that stops out front (sure). They may involve check-out lines backing up due to arguments, language barriers, customers simultaneously counting coins and keeping rowdy kids in check, and poorly maintained equipment. Parking lots are likely to host possibly unlicensed food trucks and de facto picnics, complete with thumping Latin music. The highways—now doubling as suboptimal main streets, since many of the current residents are carless—are congested and dangerous. There is a baseline level of stress in getting around and doing business that I’d never previously felt.
University Boulevard, the main commercial corridor in Langley Park, MD
My experiences at an Italian deli in Hyattsville (run by an Arab man, serving a largely black clientele) were particularly warm in contrast with the usual grocery chain fare. It sold all sorts of cold cuts I liked that were not available in the chain supermarkets. Sometimes the products were a little old; I avoided the olive oil that had expired in 2007, which was sitting out on the counter in the sun, and once I had to alert the clerk to a stack of spaghetti with dead bugs inside. At the counter, I would buy the deli meat ends, too small to put on the slicer. There was no set price; depending on the owner’s mood and the quality and size of the pieces, he would simply name one. Sometimes I would take it; sometimes I would decline; sometimes we would bargain. Every time we would chat about work and life. Once a woman came in and pointed to a choice mortadella chunk that she wanted for soup. The owner, slightly bemused, announced that it had just been sold to me. I felt that an argument might have been narrowly avoided.
One reason these places feel stressful and chaotic is that suburbia, often by design, lacks truly public space, and so things that are relatively normal in urban settings—handing out pamphlets or ads, screaming into a bullhorn about the end times, selling food out of trucks or carts, hanging out on the street in large groups—are transformed by the nature of the suburban built environment into suspicious acts or even crimes. The incongruity of this urban rough-and-tumble taking place within a suburban development pattern that was originally designed for middle-class nuclear families (and, of course, for cars) is probably part of why some people feel uncomfortable here.
This total combination of aging suburbia, ethnic and racial diversity, and relative poverty was new for me, back when I started my graduate program at UMD. I thought about the diversity of these places a lot; I wrote previously, based on these experiences, that at a personal, psychological level, diversity is hard. It is also beautiful, to see people from dozens of different countries finding a way to get along. Communities are ever-evolving things, emerging unpredictably out of social, political, and demographic trends. To artificially arrest this process is not only potentially racist; it is also rather absurd, as though Langley Park in 1950 was the purest expression of some Platonic form and not the result of specific, timebound political and economic conditions.
Kenilworth Avenue in Riverdale, MD
None of my experiences in Maryland’s inner-ring suburbs would be remarkable to someone who grew up in such a community; none of them would be remarkable to most Americans who grew up in the early post-war years, when downtowns and mom-and-pop stores were still predominant features of American life. Yet eventually I got so used to it that when I visited home in New Jersey, I would notice that trips to the store or walks around towns seemed low-key and kind of boring.
There is an irony here. The typical (or, perhaps, stereotypical) people most likely to avoid places like Hyattsville and Langley Park—white suburban Republicans—tend to favor more market activity, less regulation, and strong property rights. You’ll occasionally hear praise for a great-grandfather who built a vacation cabin, sans building codes, out in the country. Yet the closest thing to this in America today is probably the activity taking place in these relatively downscale, often heavily immigrant communities, which make creative ad-hoc use of existing infrastructure and buildings and sometimes stretch health and building codes in the service of entrepreneurship. In many ways, these places are a little step back in time, a throwback to an older, poorer, yet more tightly knit America. There is a lot of self-reliance and entrepreneurial rough and tumble. My Italian great-grandparents opened urban grocery stores that were probably just like that Arab-owned deli. That period and demographic in American history has now been given a nostalgic sheen, Norman Rockwell-style. But we don’t have to go back in time to see it again. We just have to take off certain blinders and be willing to see all our neighbors and countrymen.
Neither Arnade nor I have any grand answers. It’s a big, diverse, complicated country, with a political tradition of individualism and constrained government. Big solutions are both practically and conceptually difficult. This anticlimactic conclusion is not a copout; it is a necessary humility, and perhaps that is itself where we will start to find answers.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.