Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Broadband gentrification

The following quote is from Steven Johnson's blog, citing discussions he had with friends who had just been mugged and were considering leaving Brooklyn. He notes in his post that, while these are seemingly close friends of his, he learned about the mugging via, one of the "hyperlocal" blogs I noted earlier (and the one Johnson started).

Johnson writes, "Let's start with the fact that the overall wealth distribution problem in the U.S. is not a problem neighborhoods can solve. There are going to be rich people, for better or for worse, and while I think we both agree that the high-low wage ratios in this country are seriously out of whack, that's a whole other question. The question for us is: given that there are going to be rich people, where should they go? Is it better to have them all leave the cities for the suburbs the way they did in the sixties and seventies and live in gated isolation from everyone else? Or is better for them to live -- they way they do even in the fanciest blocks of the North Slope -- within walking distance of housing projects in two directions, and pressed up against a public park that is shared by an amazingly diverse population from every major ethnic/religious/economic group imaginable. Yes, when movie stars and famous writers and people like you and me move into the neighborhood, prices go up and some folks get squeezed out. That's not reason to give up on figuring out ways to preserve economic diversity in city neighborhoods. But I'd rather have the movie stars and bankers taking their kids to the 9th street playground on a summer weekend than having them play in their private backyard pool in Westchester."

A couple of things struck me as relevant for philanthropy.
The Neighborhood Funders Group ( is an active and growing affinity group of foundations. Who defines neighborhoods? How does economic diversity fit into their ever-changing boundaries?
One of the books I have in my piles is Off the Books: The Underground Economy and the Urban Poor. I have it because I am interested in how it discusses the 'philanthropy of the poor.' I'm interested in this because I don't think the philanthropy of the rich understands the economies (including the giving and mutual aid) of the poor. Even when the rich and poor are neighbors.
Do the hyperlocal sites like have any chance of engaging the range of citizens in Johnson's Park Slope neighborhood (or anywhere?). His friend who was mugged blogged about it on his own site and his wife also posted on hers. But what about the mugger's friends? (not that I would expect said person to identify as such). Where - in what form, in what lingua franca, in what ways - are those perspectives being shared and shaped? Our online communities are no doubt as gentrified and economically homogeneous as our suburbs. Left to their own evolutionary paths, they may only further sever ties across classes. Rich kids may still be playing in the city's playgrounds, but their parents are only talking to those with broadband.
Finally, as Johnson's post makes so clear, some people can leave. Others - I would guess the mugger, for example - doesn't have the luxury of debating between Brooklyn or Bedford, Park Slope or New Hyde Park. There is power in having that choice; there can be power in not having it; and we all have the responsibility to know the difference between the two.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not pro-mugger. I've been a crime victim. It is life changing. And I do agree with Johnson - moving isn't the answer. However, simply staying isn't enough.

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