Taking Down Walls Where We Live

February 5, 2019 0 By mbiggar

Note: This article was originally posted on Medium on January 28th, where you can post comments or applaud the article if you wish.

Wall of Empathy, BART Station at Mission/16th, Nov 2016

Disagreement over President Trump’s proposal of a 30-foot high wall along the US-Mexico border has sparked fierce debate and led to a historic government shutdown. With so many of us thinking about the symbolism and impacts of this proposed wall, we can also start to grapple with the walls found within America. This includes consideration of a broader definition of a wall as “something that acts as a barrier.” As such, walls exist in many forms including gated communities, freeways and train tracks that separate groups of people, often by class and race, from each other.

The walls that most pervade our country go beyond the physical. Economic, political and social divisions exist across America and are reflected in where we live, work and situate our daily life. The large, growing income gap in America is evident in the starkly different everyday conditions that different income groups experience where they live. Historically, these divisions were based on race and often through forced segregation. Today, the racial, ethnic and economic segregation of Americans by neighborhood persists. And these walls have consequences, especially for those in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Among other research, studies conducted at Stanford University’s Equality of Opportunity Project showed that this segregation reduces economic mobility—i.e. “the probability that children of low income families will, as adults, earn higher incomes than their parents.” New research has been able to drill this down to the neighborhood level, showing that where children live matters a great deal in how they fare as adults. The walls that separate where we live and go about our everyday life may not be physical but they are very real and impactful.

The political divisions in our country only seem to strengthen the walls between us. In The Home Buying Decision, David Brooks argues that the current political environment has made it even more likely that we self-segregate by where we choose to live. He writes, “We’ve become a ferociously fragmented country. People move close to people just like themselves. Every town becomes a cultural ghetto while Americans become strangers to one another and the civic fabric lies in ruins. People feel more comfortable in their insular neighborhoods, but self-segregation is damaging to one’s own open-mindedness and to the country at large.” These walls have consequences that affect us all.

Even when our communities are diverse, modern life often lends itself to being less connected to our communities in daily life. When we consistently transport ourselves in private cars, stay in our office or workplace, and spend most of our remaining time in a private residence, we are building our own walls and segregating ourselves from our communities.

Changing the structures and patterns that keep us separated from one another with great consequence may seem impossible, but working to change this has never been more important. An important starting point is changing patterns in our own lives and seeking out, cultivating and embracing diversity where we live every day. We can transport ourselves, whenever possible, in ways that get us out of cars and outside, experiencing community. Spending more time in public space—such as parks, plazas and natural spaces—is another way to take down walls. Public space can be utilized to foster dialogue and understanding, such as the Wall of Empathy (pictured above) that was set up after the November 2016 election at a plaza next to a subway station in San Francisco. Regardless of setting, participating in dialogue and talking with (and not at) each other can chip away at walls and help bring us together. However, if the places in which we live have little diversity, opportunities for cultivating and embracing diversity may be hard to find.

Cities and communities that welcome all people and bring diverse people together in everyday life settings take down walls. The many benefits of diversity can be realized in mixed-income communities that reflect America’s racial and ethnic diversity and offer affordable housing for people across different income levels. While far from the norm, according to an exhaustive study of census data, approximately 7 million Americans live in neighborhoods with high levels of racial, ethnic and income diversity. Cities with many of these neighborhoods often rank among the best places to live in the United States.

Columbia, Maryland opened fifty years ago and was designed to be such a community. This city of 100,000 residents remains racially and ethnically diverse and consistently ranks as one of the best places to live in the United States. While this community has taken down many walls between people, income inequality and market forces are challenging its socioeconomic diversity. As discussed in this Next City Experiments ebook, Columbia is wrestling with how to provide affordable housing and remain a community for families with a wide range of income levels. It’s history and culture suggest that the community will work hard to address affordability issues and keep the city diverse and a great place to live.

Mountain View, California is another community with racial, ethnic and economic diversity that ranks high as a great place to live. Mountain View is also working to keep housing affordable for new and existing residents, such at the city’s approval of a plan to build nearly 10,000 new homes that includes 20% housing for low-income residents, and many acres of public parks. Furthermore, community leaders in Mountain View strive to further build an inclusive community. In 2017, a group of citizens came together to propose a We Are Mountain View campaign in which “our community will come together to explore and articulate what makes one of the most diverse cities in the world a great place to live and work. At a time in our country when negativity pervades the messages filling our inboxes, we will shine a light on something positive; Mountain View, where diversity is valued as integral to the fabric of the community.” Community values of compassion, empathy and inclusion help break down walls.  

Spurred by funding from the Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods and other US Housing and Urban Development initiatives, public housing neighborhoods are being transformed into mixed-income communities in many metropolitan areas. Transformations such as in New Orleans and San Francisco include a mix of market-rate units, partially subsidized units (such as through tax credits) and public housing with neighborhood parks, community spaces and other amenities. In these transformative projects, many local agencies and organizations are working together to make these neighborhoods strong and inclusive, breaking down walls that had trapped residents in poverty for decades.

Diverse, inclusive communities are also promoted by organizations. The non-profit Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco values and celebrates the diversity of its students and audiences. Situated in a neighborhood where crime and drugs had been prevalent, some parents initially expressed safety concerns about taking their children to the theater. However, once it was open, concern about safety quickly subsided. The frequent stream of students and families in and out of the theater for classes and performances had a calming effect on the neighborhood. Dance Mission has become an integral part of the neighborhood over the years, benefitting both the neighborhood and the Dance Mission families and students. The history of Dance Mission illustrates how taking down walls can mean moving yourself into new communities as much as welcoming all into your community.  

Even when progress is made in diversifying communities, walls can reappear or persist. Diverse American communities, where they exist, can disappear when gentrification takes hold and pushes out those with more limited means. Respect and empathy among different groups in newly developed mixed-income communities may be lacking initially. In the 2015 book, Integrating the Inner City, (as featured in this article), a public housing resident is seeking to engage wealthier neighbors in a mixed-income community and is quoted: “You’re trying to interact, but it’s like you’re invisible. Nobody wants to recognize you. I know what the problem is. It’s them. It ain’t me. I can interact with anybody.” Creating truly inclusive communities is challenging, given the historic walls between us but possible if we open to it and recognize that, as shared by Kwame Botchway at the National Institute for Mixed-Income Communities, “mixed-income experience is incomplete without the full economic and social integration of all people irrespective of their income levels, skin color or social status.”

We have to be intentional and persistent about building, sustaining and participating in communities that welcome all people and build strong bonds among diverse people. Communities and organizations that strive to take down walls, serve as examples of how we can build strong, inclusive communities whose diversity benefits all of us.In nature, there are no walls. Just as the proposed US-Mexico wall threatens the interdependence of binational communities on the border, the wall would also disrupt the migration of many species, threatening their survival (including the jaguar profiled in this article). Human and nature’s ability to thrive is diminished when walls stand between us. Our work ahead is to take down walls of all types (and not build them) and embrace the reality and strength of diversity. When interaction with diverse people is a regular part of our daily experience, we can counteract the growing social divisions in our country. Taking down these walls, we can break down prejudice and increase empathy and understanding. In the words of John Lewis, “we have to believe that we’re one people, one family. And we cannot turn against each other. We have to turn to each other.”