Puttin' Out the Bone

Kick Down the Gates

Jan 29, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Isn't it time to open the damn gates? Anderson Township, open your damn gates. Blue Ash, open your damn gates. Hyde Park, open your damn gates. Mariemont, open your damn gates. Good God, Indian Hill, open your damn gates!

The deal is sickeningly clear. Working class and poor people are relegated to certain neighborhoods. Let me put it bluntly: Black people are welcome only on certain streets.

Oh, some African Americans move to neighborhoods that aren't on the welcome list.

After all, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is real. And there are places where African Americans properly ignore sentiment. They take their legal victories proudly.

But a scan of any Greater Cincinnati demographic data shows where the gates are tightly closed.

Doubt me? Then go to a variety of suburban government meetings and hear the whiney discussions about the threat of subsidized housing. In the end, it shakes out like this. "They" need to stay where "they" are, meaning in urban neighborhoods. "They" do crime, so keep the crime where it already is. Don't try to move it to our pristine neighborhoods.

Of course, most of the aged, working poor and flat-out poor people who get help from the federal government to pay for their housing each month are not criminals. But to hear the political dialogues that rumble through township halls, you'd think poor and black means rapist and murderer.

Federal law is not the problem with those closed gates. Federal law allows for subsidized housing to be dispersed throughout a region, either in the form of complexes where most residents get monthly housing help or in a sprinkle of individual placements through housing vouchers.

English Woods, on the West side, is an example of the former. For the other, look at Mount Washington, where a number of families live in various buildings through the use of federal housing vouchers.

Federal law also allows for a community — Anderson Township is an example — to reject federal dollars that accompany a voluntary, coordinated effort to plan for subsidized housing. But the law also says that communities cannot bar it. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can put people in those communities, against the will of township trustees or city councils, if rental units exist and owners want to accept housing vouchers.

But springing open the gates of the suburbs won't happen only from the force of law. Moral arguments have a part, and I'm here to make one.

Look, go to any church in Anderson Township on Sunday and listen to the congregations talk the message of Jesus. "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me," is pretty much the drift. You sit. You listen. You compute. You think, hey, these people get the notion of helping the downtrodden. And the downtrodden are, like, the poor. And the poor are often, like, African-American people.

Then walk across the parking lot to a township trustee meeting and somehow the message blurs in the short trip. During the meeting the words change to, "We don't want the federal money if it means we have to take poor people in our neighborhoods."

Ironically, even if taking poor people meant more crime would follow, Jesus Christ would say those same suburbanites should not only sell their SUVs, they should welcome the poor into their neighborhood, schools, hospitals, even their swimming pools. That's what His message is. It's love, not tennis and homeowners' association regulations.

Straight up. The suburban clamor that all subsidized housing should stay in Over-the-Rhine, West End, Avondale and a list of other urban neighborhoods is classist, racist and anti-Christian.

Imagine if the gates broke open. Critics of urban public schools would see children freed to attend suburban schools that have been judged excellent. Homogeneous communities would experience cultural and economic diversity, a healthy outcome. Poor families would finally be near jobs and affordable shopping. Yes, the bus system would have to adjust routes. No big deal. But where is it written that society should isolate the poor, shun the poor, gate out the poor?

Without question there are African Americans who say the movement to open subsidized housing in the suburbs is a plot to disperse black people in order to break up political power. Some say it's designed to weaken influence in something as specific as Cincinnati City Council elections.

Some say that pushing people out of English Woods or the West End to make way for Hope VI mixed-income housing projects merely forces human beings from places where they have history and comfort.

But at the same time, didn't the string of courageous civil rights leaders who lost time, blood and lives do so for people to live any damn place they want, including Anderson Township? But shouldn't those African Americans who, for whatever personal reasons, want to live in Anderson Township or Sycamore Township be able to — even with the help of government funds?

With Republicans owning everything political these days, there's not much hope. But I say the feds should ignore the little government lords in the suburbs, kick down the gates and shepherd in poor families who prefer living near an almost new school building or up the road from Home Goods or around the corner from the hospital where the best doctors have been setting up shop for the past 15 years.

That's the world that would square with George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" rhetoric. That's the world that would reconcile the actions of Tuesday night at the township meeting with the words heard on Sunday morning in church.

Could that come to be? Yeah, right. As usual, Jene, you're dreaming with your stupid eyes wide open.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.