Poverty phones

12 October 2014

There was an interesting intersection of a bit of yesterday's post and a series of tweets when I got up this morning.

Let me tell you about my empire.

I accidentally fell into this neighborhood: right after we got married ~raven got laid off and decided to take his education benefit (good as long as he had recall rights) and get a CS degree. Our lease was up at our far-suburban duplex and we decided we needed a cheaper place to live so he didn't have to work while he was taking classes. Right about that time a former co-worker of mine wanted to buy a new place but her old house was underwater and her bank told her she could only get the loan if she found a tenant. A year or so of payments would bring it positive. So we moved into a wacky built-in-1914 house in a neighborhood I didn't yet know the name of. And we liked it so much that a year or two later we bought a "starter" house there, where we accidentally have stayed for almost twenty years now even though it's almost-comically below our means (our mortgage is somewhere under 5% of our annual income). But this place gets into your heart, and it kind of hurts to see some of the problems here.

I linked to the Justice Map for its income levels, but let me do that again in case you missed it.


You can skip this, if you want, it just tells how we got where we are.

Delano is what they call a First Suburb, or a first-ring neighborhood. We're just across the Arkansas* River from downtown Wichita, and take our name from a little town that was founded within a few months of Wichita. It was kind of an interesting situation: both towns were on the Chisholm Trail, that brief but powerful phenomenon that shaped a lot of the cities around here. Delano is on the west side of the river, the side the cattle were coming from. Wichita was on the east, the side of civilization. The herds would come up, cross the river, and get loaded on trains. The cowboys would get their pay, but if they wanted to come to the Wichita side they had to check their guns and behave themselves. Delano was only nine blocks, but all around it on the riverbank were generally-unregulated brothels and bars and all the sort of thing you associate with Old Dodge City. (Dodge City's turn came a few years later, when the rails crossed the river and loaded the cattle further west.)

Almost immediately, the city fathers saw which way the wind was blowing - Wichita was growing fast (its nickname, before the real estate bubble burst in 1878, was "New Chicago") and so the town of Delano became West Wichita. By 1880 it was annexed and was Wichita's "Fifth Ward" or "West Side." The west-of-the-river stigma persisted for the next century-and-a-half; the newspapers over the years are full of stories about West Side residents complaining about the toll bridge over the Ark, then the quality of streetcar service, and so forth. West Wichita today still has nice neighborhoods, but never quite as nice as their east-side counterparts. Rivers are barriers; less so today, but the legacy is there.

At any rate, the Fifth Ward was a blue-collar neighborhood that boomed in two waves, one following each World War. Wichita is an aviation town, and things took off (um, no pun intended) like crazy then. That built-in-1914 house I mentioned had a storage area cobbled together under the basement stairs, and the boards used to make it came from Stearman Aircraft crates, according to the stencils on them. But like every other First Suburb in every other American city, the neighborhood fell out of favor as everyone fled to the suburbs. They ran a highway through it so white-collar workers could zoom through (and later, over) it commuting between their McMansions and their downtown jobs.

By the late 1980's, our downtown (Delano's, not Wichita's, though Wichita's had its own problems) looked like every other small-town downtown: a few low-rent storefronts and a whole lot of boarded up turn-of-the-century buildings. A few dedicated people - property owners, people interested in the history of the area - got together and convinced the City of Wichita to institute a revitalization plan, re-branding the neighborhood from the lame "River West" some consultant had tried to pin on it to "Delano." The City gave it a streetscape with wide sidewalks, angle parking, an iconic clock tower in a tiny roundabout, and today downtown Delano is at almost 100% occupancy with restaurants, boutique shopping, some anchor employers like INS, and so forth.


Where we are today

Mostly success. When most people hear "Delano" they think of our downtown - six blocks of streetscape. But Delano is almost two square miles, around 2400 houses, of pretty diverse residential area. My immediate neighbors' stories are repeated throughout the neighborhood..

The Art Of Neighboring

I read this book awhile back and at the time I could name all eight neighbors. I can't right now, which is something I need to fix. This is who they were.

  • One household is a retired couple who bought their house in the late 50's, raised a bunch of kids (in two bedrooms!) and still live there, though they hop in their RV and leave for a couple months every year these days.
  • Another household is a rental (went to auction after the couple who had lived there "since the war," also raising a passel of kids, passed on). It's currently occupied by a man and his elderly mother, plus a rotating assortment of twenty-something nieces and nephews and their couch-surfing friends. The unheated, unplumbed shed out back is occupied, and at one point they had a tent in the back yard. The extended family has lived in the neighborhood for generations. When they moved in the man had a car, but it died and he can't afford to replace it so there's always a thicket of bikes next to their porch. He's a day laborer, I think.
  • Another house has been empty for as long as I can remember. One of the other neighbors has the contact information for the owner, and occasionally calls to let them know squatters are living there, or a tree has fallen through the roof, or whatever. I have no idea what the story is there.
  • Another house was bought by a young couple who thought they could remodel it (to flip or to live in, I don't know). I never met them, and they only got a little way into remodeling before it got foreclosed on. It also sat empty for quite awhile before it went to a HUD auction, and was bought by a Vietnamese family who finished the remodeling and moved in.
  • Another household is a rental, a young Hispanic family. He's an apprentice electrician. They've lived in a few rental houses around Delano, preferring to stay long-term and garden when they can, but sometimes having to move when a landlord won't fix things or when neighbors become a problem.
  • Another house, one of the tiniest on the block went through several changes of ownership after its long-term owners moved to assisted living. Finally, it was bought by a local investor who put serious work into it and gave it to his daughter as a graduation present.
  • Another household is a young couple who bought it after the long-term owners went to assisted living. They put it on the market during the recession when construction stalled and there were no HVAC systems for him to install, but were too far underwater for it to sell. They managed to hang onto it, though.
  • Another household is another retired couple. They've got serious health issues, and home health services and occasionally an ambulance visit now and then. There's a wheelchair ramp, and they have a basement and a second floor that they almost never visit, but they refuse to go into assisted living. They keep very much to themselves, so I only know these things through the grapevine.

At least two houses on my street, fortunately at least a block away, have been meth labs. Others have been partitioned into apartments (one used to have "JUGGALOS OWN THIS HOUSE" spraypainted on the porch wall, which you could only see when the ice-cream truck wasn't parked in the grass). But most are just plain folks: older folks who've lived here for decades, young families starting out, new immigrants, hipsters, anybody who wants cheap housing in a fairly safe neighborhood. We're starting to see some gentrification as downtown Wichita revitalizes, but so far it's only nibbled at the riverfront edges.

The issues

The neighborhood used to have a grocery on every corner. The house we rented was across the street from a small Dillons (a chain now owned by Kroger) on the edge of the neighborhood, and little old ladies with granny carts would pass by our house (stopping to chat with our dog) on their way to and from. Dillons closed that store some years back, right after the last local grocery closed in 1995. The nearest grocery is now a half mile from one corner of the neighborhood… the opposite corner from the poorest section, so about two miles for them.

Until very recently, cutbacks in Transit meant we didn't have bus service between us and there either - and Transit had a rule (admittedly honored more in the breach) of no grocery carts, and no more than two bags. Presently we have two routes, but the City has linked keeping them with passage of a five-year sales tax (Kansas is one of seven states that has no exemption or rebate for sales tax on food, by the way), which is an ugly piece of blackmail for the people who can tell you exactly what those dollars will mean they can't buy on their next grocery trip. Even with the new routes, Wichita's transit is sorely lacking. Delano is slightly better off than modern suburbs in that we were initially built for a lot of foot traffic, but some of that has eroded. Wichita leaves sidewalk maintenance to property owners (albeit making it mandatory, at least when problems are reported). And we were built for no- or one-car households, so our residential streets are crowded with parked vehicles. And of course the foot traffic was assumed to be destined for a corner grocery or a transit route that no longer exists.

As I mentioned yesterday, most households don't have always-on Internet. Many older people don't have smartphones or computers, and many poor people might have computers but no reliable Internet connection. The recession has closed most public computer access; the nearest site within walking distance is the downtown Wichita library. Wichita has the lowest per-capita funding of libraries in Kansas, so needless to say they have neither the space for enough computers nor the budget to buy them if they did. Computer access is now critical for so many things we take for granted. If you qualify for public assistance, gotta register online (government cutbacks - websites are cheaper than clerks). Jobs, even blue-collar ones, are advertised and applied for online. Housing? Find it on craigslist. Registering your kids for school? Online, or a four-hour process in person. Need to track your kids' progress reports? Online.

Trying out the lifestyle

A couple years ago, I tried sourcing all my groceries within a mile of my house, and seeing where the lack was. It wasn't a completely scientific study - my pantry is well-stocked, we buy a side of beef for the freezer every few years, I have the free time to prepare meals from scratch, and I used my car instead of a bike or walking or transit. But it was still enlightening. Meat is either fresh and expensive, clearly aimed at the wealthier residents of Delano (we do have a stretch of beautiful huge old Victorians by the university) or at commuters stopping on the way home; or it's frozen and cheap and really iffy. We're fortunate enough to have just enough competition to avoid the $5 gallons of convenience-store milk and $2 shrink-wrapped bananas that some neighborhoods are limited to, but still it's clear that most people with the means are hopping in their car and driving further out to a conventional supermaket (whose sea of parking would never fit in Delano even if WalMart or Kroger deigned to look our way).

A few years ago, a newly-transplanted-to-Wichita friend mocked my choice to drive to her shop two blocks from her house. I was able to defend my decision by pointing out I was en route to the post office, but in honesty, I would have driven there anyway. Such is the Wichita mindset - we're in the middle of the prairie so we're very spread-out, and car use is so often mandatory that we stop noticing the times it's not. I started walking everywhere I could. This spring, when the bus added two routes through Delano, I signal-boosted as much as I could, even livetweeting and blogging our first trip to introduce non-riders to it. My mom thinks I've gone crazy. And this spring, I bought a thrift-store bike and started decking it out with cargo baskets and whatnot. Circumstances* conspired to keep me from using it seriously for most of the summer, but not before I rode it down to a further route, put it on the front of the bus, and threw it in the back of the van to bring the van home from the mechanic's. (Ironically, the van was in after an incident where I drove in a flood to get to a public meeting about a bike path proposal….)

My next experiment, as I've discussed on Twitter with @suchwinston (whose ~ escapes me at the moment), is I guess going to be dipping my toe in the technology gap. Turning off the tablet and the desktop and deleting the home wifi password from my phone. I'm conveniently already the owner of a "free/cheap shitty smartphone" (as he put it), in that I hate phones (the actual phone part) and so used an Asus Transformer as my mobile device of choice, and only reluctantly upgraded my seven-year-old Tracfone to a smartphone: a $50 ZTE Valet, with a fixed-focus camera, 3.5" 320x480 screen, and not-real-fast processor. ~raven reacts in horror every time he has to use it, because he's used to a work-provided 4G monster with unlimited data, but when it's all you know and it's only the device-of-last-resort, it's not bad. I'm kind of fired up about writing some Perl code right now, so it's probably not the week to do it (or maybe I'll unplug the network cable from the desktop and partition my coding from the experiment), but real soon now I'll see what it's like to live with just that tiny screen as my window into the wired world.

Some of this I do for empathy-developing reasons, but some of it is for problem-solving. It's hard to ask someone in this situation what will help them. (The answer is always "money," and while it's not wrong it's also not helpful since I'm not a Koch sibling.) I can't bring back jobs that no longer exist, or magically upgrade laborers and machinists into Teh Creative Class, but I can do what I can to make life less time-consuming and a little less expensive and maybe give some people just a little bit of an edge in breaking out of a bad situation.

* Pronounced Ar-KAN-zus, not AR-kin-saw. The pronunciation changes when it crosses the state boundary.

* A heart scare. Turned out to be something else (and trivial) entirely, but in the meantime I got to learn via pulmonary tests and a heart cath that hey, my heart and lungs are actually in better shape than my age and nerdy lifestyle would predict. They'd be even better if I hadn't unnecessarily missed out on three months of Y workouts and bike riding and walking, dangit.

Back to blog

tilde home
silver home

Click for the [ Random page ]
Want to join the ring? Click here for info.
join random join