How about this for a plan for sprucing up our nation’s crumbling housing projects: ship lazy black folks out to the subprime suburbs, privatize their apartment buildings and hand them over to real estate developers. That’s what T.A. Frank, a New America Foundation think tank shill, thinks Los Angeles needs to do with Jordan Downs, a notoriously dilapidated and crime-wracked project in Watts:
Not that Jordan Downs and its inhabitants should be left behind. Here’s a better way to spend $1 billion in Watts: Have the agency buy every family in Jordan Downs a $300,000 renovated house nearby, and you’ve spent $210 million. That leaves a clean $790 million for more law enforcement, new and improved schools and so much more.
As for Jordan Downs itself, the city could help plug its deficit and get additional residential units into Watts by selling the complex to a builder who comes up with a blueprint for pleasant, affordable, market-rate housing.
For years, the Grape Street Crips claimed the project as their turf. The gang’s hold was so pernicious — and the housing authority’s management so bad — that until a few years ago, gang members had seized some apartments and used them for drug dealing, prostitution and even dog fighting.
Sounds bleak, but not as bleak as what T.A. Frank and his corporate “free market with a smile” overlords want to unleash on LA’s urban poor, if given the chance. See, Frank may seem like he’s a nice fella—he’s played in an indie band, according to his profile, wears ironic Elvis Costello glasses and probably has a quirky sense of humor—but it does not change the fact that he’s a mean, free market segregationist. Just like that comb-over-in-training does not change the fact that he’s got one hell of a mean receding hairline.
Moving the poor out of the inner-city to enjoy an idyllic suburban existence may sound all cozy and wholesome like, but only if you’ve never set foot in one of these “nearby” exurb cities T.A. talks about. I’ve been living in one for the past 8 months, and let me tell you that it ain’t no fun, just ghetto.
My adopted home of Victorville, California, a McTractHome paradise on the edge of the Mojave Desert 100 miles east of LA, has a buttload of crime, non-existent employment options, racial isolation and a gestapo police presence—just like the real ghetto. True, people here have bigger houses, but they trade them for 50 miles of desert and a 6,000 ft. mountain buffering them from civilization. If all poor people lived this far away, Americans would really stop giving a shit about what happens to them. Outta sight, outta mind.
Not that this segregation by exile to Buttfuckville isn’t happening already. I’ve been watching this population transfer ever since I moved out to Victorville last spring. A lot of it has to do with Section 8 vouchers, a rent subsidy program that allows low-income families to rent on the open market rather than stay in public housing projects. Section 8 vouchers act as replacements for those grey government-owned apartment blocks for the poor, which are being torn down by the tens of thousands every year all over the country and replaced with new, non-public housing developments.
Here’s a NY Times article from last summer explaining our country’s public housing demolition craze :
[C]ritics of the demolitions worry about the toll on residents, who must qualify for vouchers, struggle to find affordable housing and often move to only slightly less impoverished neighborhoods. Especially in a troubled economy, civil rights groups say, uprooting can lead to homelessness if more low-income housing is not made available. Lawsuits have been filed in many other cities, generally without success, that claim that similar relocations violate residents’ civil rights and resegregate the poor.
The federal government has advocated variations of this approach for several decades, particularly since President Bill Clinton began the Hope VI program in the 1990s to disperse residents from centralized projects. Atlanta may be the furthest along, but its plans to demolish buildings, relocate residents and work with private developers to gentrify destitute neighborhoods are being mirrored across the country in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New Orleans.
Over all, 195,000 public housing units have met the wrecking ball across the country since 2006, and over 230,000 more units are scheduled for demolition, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department.
It seems that the segregation process has been speeding up, with Section 8 voucher holders fanning out across Southern California looking for the cheapest housing markets. That’s where Victorville and cities like it on the periphery of suburbia come in. They are the only places Section 8 families kicked out of the projects can afford.
I’m still trying to understand the political/business forces driving suburban segregation, but I have hunch that we’ll be hearing more people coming out with Frank’s message. After all, pushing the poor out into the exurbs would solve a lot of problems with one simple action: you’d get rid of the housing surplus (by unloading houses that no one wants anyway onto the government) and privatize valuable public land—and you’d do it all for the “benefit” of the poor and disenfranchised. Now that’s free market efficiency at its best.
I’ll have some more updates on this. Meanwhile, you can read my 21st century ghetto article from back in July:
It’s 5 AM in Victorville, California, and I haven’t slept in 48 hours. Outside my second-story window, the sun is rising up over the jagged mountains across the desert. In the three months I’ve lived here, I’ve seen more sunrises than I have in my 28 years. There is something about living in a barren house in a half-empty suburb out in the middle of a sun-baked nowhere that brings out the tweaker in me—and judging by daily news reports, most of my neighbors, too.
It’s a perfect lifestyle for a subprime city. Located on the edge of the Mojave Desert 100 miles east of LA, Victorville got higher and crashed harder, in terms of real estate, than almost any other place in California. In less than ten years, this place grew from an isolated hick outpost into a booming commuter suburb filled with the cheapest McMansions south of Fresno. It doubled its size to 100,000 in just eight short years.
But the boom is gone. A quarter of the houses on my street stand empty and most strip malls around me are vacant, too. I can go for weeks without saying more than, “Hey, how are you,” “Paper, please,” “No cash back,” and “Thanks,” to the fat kid with the greasy face who mans the check-out machine at my local megamarket during the late-night shift. Sometimes the isolation gets too strong, though, and I start craving human contact. When that happens, a bout of public drunkenness at some grimy local dive is sure to follow. And so is some sinister realization. This is Victorville, after all, the taint of the High Desert.
That’s exactly what happened tonight. About five hours ago, I decided to meet up with CJ, a Victorville native I sorta know, at a seedy lounge located in a motel lobby a few miles from my house. I was expecting it to be the same depressing redneck dive bar atmosphere I saw not too long ago: shriveled old men in trucker hats and saggy white women nursing gin and tonics praying for a lay. But I walked into a scene straight outta Hustle and Flow. As it turned out, Sunday nights at the lounge were “old-skool hip-hop dance party nights,” featuring two dance-floors, two DJs mixing rap and R&B classics, and a mini swap meet.
We paid the $15 entrance fee, got patted down by a security guard dressed in all-black full-combat fatigues, and started making our way over to the bar. We shouldered our way through a hot, dark, sweaty room filled with ass-jiggling and grinding, past a hallway where vendors had set up an upscale and scaled-down version of a flea market with assorted bags, shoes, shirts, skirts, canes, jewelry, and other assorted shit for sale, all laid out on tables and squeezed in at the bar right next to a guy in a pimp-white three-piece suit, white shirt, white tie, and thick gold chain who was leaning on his cane and hitting on a chick.
The bar was packed. Two old barmaids struggled to keep up with demand. The DJ was playing some soulful slow-grind tune I couldn’t place. To my left, two beautiful black girls in short summer dresses were ignoring my underdressed white ass. Behind me, the dance floor was filled with couples getting their freak on. Looking around, I suddenly realized I was the only white patron in the place.
“What, you scared, white boy?” CJ said, laughing at me when he saw me swiveling my head to take in the room.
“No, not scared,” I replied. “Just fucking shocked.” A hick bar filled with black folk—it’s not a scene I expected to find out in an isolated desert city historically known for its military bases, angry white people, and meth labs. But there it was anyway, a reminder that there are two sides to Victorville: the old and the new.
Before its stint as a dirt-cheap suburban paradise, Victorville was a tiny God-fearing community populated by white conservatives living an isolated frontier lifestyle. But these days, Victorville is more ethnically diverse than nearby Los Angeles. In 2008, African Americans made up about 12% of Victorville’s population compared to LA’s 9%. The racial mix has been growing every year, and that has not been going over too well with local old-timers who bitch and moan about the “race problem” any chance they get. They restrict their hatred for their new, non-white residents on Internet forums and comment sections—for now.
But I couldn’t be happier. There are three outside-the-house activities I have quickly come to enjoy here: shooting my gun, sucking down Vietnamese Pho soup, and eating amazingly authentic 99-cent tacos from the 24-hour drive thru. And now I could add a fourth: getting plastered at the Sunday night R&B party.
Yasha Levine is a mobile home inhabitin’ editor of The eXiled. He is currently stationed in Victorville, CA. You can reach him at levine [at] exiledonline.com.
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