IT IS EASY TO FORGET ABOUT THE PROBLEMS of the wider world in a place like Benicia, my small town in Northern California. Our streets are safe to walk at any hour, and while Benicia has its share of people who have been affected by the economic crisis of the last five years, I think it is fair to describe my little town as a reasonably prosperous place.
I have described in previous diaries the troubles that beset other places in the Bay Area, particularly Richmond, the city across the Bay from San Francisco that is beset by poverty and violence that I lived in until graduating from middle school. It is too easy for those who don't live there to dismiss the problems of Richmond and similar places as happening to a bunch of remote and abstract “thems” with no real solution — to quote a line spoken by Anthony Hopkins’ heartless character in the 1992 film “Howards End”: “Do not concern yourself with the poor. The poor are poor. One feels sorry for them but … there it is.”
One can easily look upon the situation in our inner cities and feel something close to despair. There is chronic unemployment, rampant addiction, broken families and frightening violence. Despair is easy, and even understandable, but ultimately cowardly and unworthy of our heritage as a brave people founded on the dream of progress. Hope is hard and can seem almost naïve, but hope — true, vibrant hope — is the status quo’s most subversive foe, and is the absolute first requirement for any positive change.
It seems to me that, in the decades since the Kennedy era, we Americans have forgotten how to dream.
For the purposes of the following discussion I’m going to leave aside considerations of cost, and focus entirely on the problem itself: What would it actually take to comprehensively address the problems of Richmond? Before getting into specifics, I would like to mention some general characteristics that are essential for any solution to succeed:
First, any solution has to be holistic — address every problem at once — and should account for the inter-relatedness of the problems. Merely stepping up police presence to quell crime does nothing about the economic and social despair that motivates so many young men to commit crimes. Providing employment opportunities is of no use without job training programs to qualify young men and women to fill them; treating addiction is bound to fail if addicts leave treatment centers and arrive back in neighborhoods where drugs are plentiful and terribly tempting in an environment devoid of opportunities to be a productive and useful member of society.
Second, any solution has to be sustained. Centuries of persecution followed by decades of malign neglect cannot be undone with a few months or years of effort.
Third, any solution must be managed and implemented, to the extent possible, by the residents of Richmond themselves. Too much of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was managed from the top down, and ultimately was unable to adapt and adjust to realities on the ground. To someone who didn’t live in Chicago’s dilapidated slums, tearing them down and building high-rise housing projects probably seemed like a good way to raise the quality of housing at a stroke; what the designers of the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects neglected to account for was the many small storefronts and other retail space that provided an opportunity for residents to start businesses and perhaps even employ their neighbors in the slums those projects replaced. No one in Washington thought to go to a local pastor and make use of the wisdom and perspectives gained by a lifetime of service to the very people the Washingtonians were tasked with helping.
Finally, any solution absolutely depends on the immediate and sustained reduction of violent crime — particularly aggravated assault and murder. Violence is the biggest killer of hope in Richmond, in my opinion worse than drug use or poverty. The project of transcending your circumstances is made immeasurably more difficult if you spend significant energy trying not to become a victim of murder or mayhem.
I can think of an example from my time in Richmond to illustrate this principle. My elementary school had two classrooms of sixth graders, and I realize thinking back that if someone had removed perhaps two or three particular children from those classes, everyone else in the sixth grade would have had a transformed educational experience.
One of those children was a kid in my own sixth grade class. I’ll call him Rodney. He was a violent, dangerous kid — I remember seeing a girl in the grade below ours who had been taken to the school nurse after Rodney beat her to a lumpy, bloody pulp.
At the time, I coped as best I could with the danger posed by Rodney — I made sure I knew where he was and what he was doing when I was near him, which, since we had the same teacher, was basically every moment at school in the sixth grade. That diverted lots of energy that might have been better spent paying attention and learning in class.
The problems of being menaced by violence in my sixth-grade classroom are writ large in the streets of Richmond today, and the violence is an order of magnitude more severe, as is the psychological devastation wrought in the minds of the victims. There are perhaps thousands of people, including children, who suffer from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing their (often innocent of any crime) friends and family members being murdered on Richmond’s streets.
I’ll have more specific suggestions in Part II, but let me counter some of the darkness above by mentioning someone I’ve mentioned before in this column, a woman whose actual first name is, appropriately enough, “Hope.” She had lost her only two grandchildren to murder in East Oakland, and I held her hand as she wept for her lost children, but she took up the cross of her grief and reached out to the kids in the neighborhood, doing the best she could to prevent another mother’s or grandmother’s heart from breaking as hers had. She prayed, worked, and filled her days with service. She and servants like her deserve our help.