Recession-era realtalk from a Deep South roadtrip.
Job seekers wait in line at a construction job fair in New York, August 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
“I hate to say this, ‘cause it sounds so cynical,” says 24-year-old Alyssa Dinberg, as she swats her cat away from the couch we’re sitting on. “But it almost feels like America is on the verge of crumbling…and I don’t really want to be here when it crumbles.”
Dinberg went to the University of Alabama, had a brief stint at a marketing job in Pennsylvania and is now back in Tuscaloosa doing Americorps. She fits the description of many young people I’ve spoken with recently: She’s opting to stay in a small Southern city to be a big fish in a small pond, to be able to live comfortably on her meager pay rather than drown in bills living in a large metropolis. But she’s taking that strategy a step further. She’s planning to move to Israel to be a teaching fellow next year, and she’s not sure if she ever wants to move back.
“I’m young, and I just don’t feel like anything is holding me back,” she says. Plus, “they pay for your room and board and they give you a stipend. Sounds like a pretty good deal.”
The idea of becoming a financial exile—a recession-era job seeker who feels they’d fare better overseas—lurked behind many of the discussions I had during my Southern road trip. Sometimes it was wishful thinking: “Maybe I’ll just give Sallie Mae the finger and escape to Thailand.” Sometimes the application was already signed and shipped, like Dinberg’s. The prospect of giving up on the American system altogether has a certain appeal as income inequality grows and the cost of living rises; I often fantasize about abandoning my paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle in New York City and moving away, not just to a cheaper American city but to a country with socialized medicine and a low unemployment rate.
The thing is, this doesn’t happen much. For those of us who are childless and young enough to reinvent ourselves, moving out of the country may seem like a perfect antidote in theory. But in practice, we’re opting to stick it out stateside. The ex-pat community has grown a few percentage points during the recession, but people aren’t exactly fleeing in droves. If anything, young people are feeling more chained to their hometowns than ever due to a whole array of financial reasons.
When it comes to moving abroad, though, the hesitance has to be about more than money. Once a plane ticket is taken care of, the cost of living somewhere like South America or Asia usually plummets. It may also be an innate sense that yes, things are crumbling, but we can do something about it. Millennials have suffered the worst during the downturn, but they’re also the most optimistic about the future of the economy. Some have chalked this up to a naïve faith in innovation and technology; I see it as a heightened sense of class and political consciousness now that the bubble has burst. Perhaps we feel more motivated to sweep our own doorsteps.
Consider Tracey Brown, the co-op grocery store worker I met in New Orleans. She contemplates leaving all the time. Her girlfriend is a native of India, and she’s always coaxing Brown to escape with her. But Brown knows she’ll never go. The United States may be a screwed-up country, but it’s hers. It needs her.
“It’s like an abusive relationship,” she says, only half-joking. “I have to stay here even though it’s bad for me, because I keep hoping I can change it.”
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s travel dispatches here.
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. (Aaron Cassara)
I’ve known the story since I was a kid. At my summer camp, which has an infamous socialist history, one of the bunks is named after “Goodman Schwerner and Chaney,” and Goodman’s mom, Carolyn, had come to my camp to talk about what had happened to her son and his two friends. So last week on our way back to Birmingham, my husband and I stopped at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, tucked away on a rural road off Route 16 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It’s the church where Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner spoke to the congregation about setting up a Freedom School; they later returned to investigate a fire there. It was a few miles from where those same men had been murdered in late June of 1964, then buried in an earthen dam off Route 21 next to the water tower.
We arrived at the church on a Saturday just before sundown, so we didn’t expect to be able to go inside. But we were lucky—three guys doing construction on the lodge next door let us know the assistant pastor, Lindsey Kidd, was on his way and he’d surely have the keys. He did.
The church is pretty tiny—only about eighty members. The community room’s wall is adorned with newspaper clippings, tracking that first fire in 1964, the reports of an FBI investigation, the national outcry, the premiere of Mississippi Burning, the eventual indictment of Edgar Ray Killen in 2005. Outside, there’s a headstone for the three Freedom Riders on the left, a standalone plaque on the right, a trio of white crosses crudely nailed together in middle of the front yard.
I’ve been to civil rights landmarks before, from the Woolworth’s statues in Greensboro to the plaque on the Stonewall Inn’s bar. But right there, in the middle of rural Mississippi, staring at that famous “MISSING” poster, with a photo of a black man sandwiched between two white ones, I started to tear up and feel shivers. It was the most powerful reaction I’d ever had to a memorial, elaborate or humble.
At first I was embarassed—was I only crying because two of the victims were white New Yorkers like me? Then I realized I was being forced to consider how far I would go for another group of people’s rights. I’d never been confronted with something as life-or-death as 1964 Mississippi; nothing so urgent or morally clear. Those fights seem global now, belonging to the Arab Spring or Malala Yousafzai. I barely had the time to show up at Occupy, and that was a fight for my own rights. (Of course, that was partly because its very mandate and aesthetic turned me off. Yet if things had felt dire enough, I may not have cared.)
But maybe the scale of a movement and its moral purity was beside the point. I thought back to the words of Tracey Brown in New Orleans, who implored white transplants to “align themselves with these grassroots organizations”—and New Orleans residents—“that already exist, rather than creating new ones.” Moments in everyday life, not just historic movements, provide opportunities to be an ally. It’s up to us to recognize them.
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s report from Mississippi’s last abortion clinic.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization was just painted bright pink. (Aaron Cassara)
The Fondren neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, is one of those attractive, deliberately indie enclaves with coordinated pastel storefronts and cheekily named cafes—the type of place populated by artists, professionals and young families all living in harmony. Right in the middle of the main drag there’s a freshly painted pink building that blends in nicely with the teal and Easter egg-yellow facades surrounding it. Once inside, you’re hit with splashes of salmon and peach and purple. The furniture is red leather, and colorful art hangs on the wall.
The pink place isn’t an organic taco shop or a community center. It’s an abortion clinic.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization has been in the news as of late: it has been in serious danger of shutting down since Republican legislators passed a regulation requiring its doctors to secure hospital admitting privileges. After a temporary block by a federal judge, the clinic has been officially informed that it is in non-compliance with the new law. It has filed for an adminstrative hearing, knowing that it will be embroiled in a court battle for months to come. Protesters regularly congregate around the entrance with folding chairs and signs. The day I visited Jackson there were a few stragglers, awkwardly hovering by the front door with posters mercifully free of visuals. I was informed that this was a slow day.
At first glance, Fondren is the best place for this clinic to be. It likely has a higher concentration of pro-choice residents than any community in the state.
“I was stunned when I first came to Fondren in ’95,” says Diane Derzis, the owner of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “The district is totally unlike the rest of the city. It’s avant-garde. It’s got its own special thing.” She says people in the community are constantly saying things like, “Go, girl. Y’all are wonderful.”
But with an abortion clinic comes protesters. With protesters come harrowing chants and plastic babies and giant gruesome photos of aborted fetuses with missing limbs. Plopping an abortion clinic in a once junkie-addled, now hipster neighborhood produces an uncomfortable iteration of NIMBY hesitance. Would I, a pro-choice feminist, want to live next door to an abortion clinic in Mississippi? At that moment, I wasn’t so sure.
“We’re not welcome entirely in that district, because along with us comes the negativity of those protesters,” says Derzis. “I think we become a pain in the ass. The poor guy across the street is trying to have a lunch business, but instead his customers are assaulted by those images.”
A cashier (who preferred not to be named) at Rooster’s—the hipster burger joint directly across the street from the clinic—told me he doesn’t mind the existence of the clinic, but he hates having to look at the protesters’ “distasteful signs.” He notes that the restaurant sees “a drop in business. We see more to-go orders. They’ll be looking across the street when they’re waiting in line, and our regular customers, they’ll get [their order] to go.” Derzis told me about a bartender living across the street who gets woken up in the morning by loud anti-abortion refrains.
“I love you guys, but I hate these bastards,” the bartender often says to Derzis.
Of course, this is partly why the protesters are there: to stigmatize the clinic, to make the neighbors squirm. Derzis and Shannon Brewer-Henderson, the center’s director, both told me about a Republican landlord who owns a building across the street. Derzis and Brewer-Henderson say he dislikes the protesters more than the center itself—he turns his sprinkler on them when they get too close to his front yard—but when the anti-choice crowd calls for the clinic’s closure, he can’t disagree. Nobody wants to hear “baby killers!” outside their window.
Once in a while, this spectacle will have the opposite effect. Brewer-Henderson runs a clinic escort program and says that several volunteers hail from Fondren. “I had one young lady say she passes by here all the time, and it bothers her having to see what these patients are dealing with,” she says. “That’s why she decided to come help out.” It doesn’t always come down to partisan politics. Some of us just grow sick of bearing witness to harassment.
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s report on a very different kind of gentrification happening in New Orleans.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to a "Republican architect" who had an office across the street from the clinic. In fact, Derzis and Brewer-Henderson were referring to the landlord of the office building across the street, not one of his tenants. The post has been updated with that correction.
New Orleans' Marigny neighborhood, which has been gentrified in the past decade (Flickr)
“The post-Katrina influx just made it harder for people who are from here and are not the right color,” says Tracey Brown, a 24-year-old black New Orleans native who has watched her city get whiter over the past decade. “I have to ask those transplants: ‘Are you working a job where everybody at your job is not only not from here, but also white? Why do you not question that?’”
It’s a well-known fact that behind New Orleans’ sunny story of rebuilding and revitalizing is a tale of a whitening city: Before Hurricane Katrina, the city was 67 percent African American; now that number hovers around 60. But the story isn’t so, well, black and white. As Ingrid Norton pointed out in GOOD last year, young, educated, black entrepreneurs are moving to New Orleans, too. That still makes them gentrifiers, in the cultural and economic sense, but their race affects the way they’re received by their new neighbors.
Bryan Lee, Jr., a 28-year-old architect, moved to New Orleans from New Jersey in 2011. With his day jobs and side hustles, he makes a mid-to-high five-figure salary. He lives in Central City, a community that’s gentrifying—it kisses the border of the much more affluent Lower Garden District—but it’s also far behind the development of the Marigny and the Bywater. By anyone’s judgment, Lee is a gentrifier. But he’s also black and the vice president of the Louisiana chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects—hardly the type of outsider Brown describes.
When I ask what it’s like being a reason why the rents in his neighborhood are rising, he admits he feels “a little weird about it. I don’t want to be a proponent of pushing people out of their communities.” But Lee can’t deny that New Orleans natives react to his presence differently. Six months ago, he was out working at a job site when a local black woman wandered onto the property barefoot and bleary-eyed, angry that the construction noise had awoken her.
“Are you the foreman?” she demanded to know.
When Lee confessed that he was an architect, she hugged him and didn’t let go. She repeated, “I’m just so proud of you, I’m just so proud of you,” over and over.
“That was powerful,” Lee told me later. “In a community that doesn’t know architects, doesn’t connect to architects, I’m able to be a person in view and somebody that they can recognize, and I’m happy to do that.”
But Yasin Southall, a Cincinnati native who works at the Freret Street Neighborhood Center, says that even though he’s black, his transplant status is met with caution. “As soon as I open my mouth, people know I’m not from here,” he says. He admits he’s a gentrifier because he's an educated young professional, but at least he’s actively working alongside the community, rather than just coming here for a few years to have fun—not, in other words, a “hipster that’s sucking up air.”
Yet sometimes, even just having “transplant status” can trump prohibitive racial barriers that have traditionally plagued the city. A handful of natives I spoke with told me that employers seem to assume that locals of all colors are less excited, less educated, less…something. This realization is painful. Kezia Kamenetz, the New Orleanian I met last week, is white, and she told me that when she came home from Yale to get a job in the nonprofit sector, the preference for non-natives was crystal clear. Brown had planned to work at grassroots non-profits after school, too, but employers seemed to want visitors’ freshness rather than her extensive experience.
So the city’s gentrification story is less a color gradient and more a matrix of race, class and birthplace. But for many New Orleanians, it all boils down to whether these new “gentrifiers” are commited to the city, regardless of race. Brown wishes that white transplants “would align themselves with these grassroots organizations that already exist, rather than creating new ones.” Another native, 31-year-old Duane Williams, sees a huge difference between Southall (with whom he collaborates) and the “hipsters sucking up air.” The way he sees it, “they come here so they can go to a neighborhood, get something going, and then they can wander off and pat themselves on the back. That’s the most offensive thing of all.”
Could New Orleans be the labor movement's next frontier? Read Nona Willis Aronowitz's report.
For New Orleans bartenders, business is booming. (Doug Waldron/Flickr)
Right now in New Orleans, you can hear the whir of helicopters up above and the groan of trucks heading toward the French Quarter, preparing for the thousands of tourists about to descend on the city. New Orleans is expecting 150,000 visitors for the Superbowl this Sunday, and a million more to binge-drink during Mardi Gras a few days later. And behind every bar and restaurant counter, workers are signing up for extra shifts in hopes that they can make a little commission off the influx.
Post-Katrina New Orleans is making headlines seemingly every day—for its growing population of educated, often white YURPs, for its nonprofits, urban planning projects, startups and film industry. But the sector that keeps the city afloat, other than oil, is food and hospitality. It’s part of the reason New Orleans has been shielded from the worst of the recession. All these young creatives making movies, writing grants, toiling with Habitat for Humanity? Many are paying their rent with tip money. And so are the young natives—black, white, educated or not. Kezia, a 25-year-old New Orleans native I met today, estimates that 50 to 60 percent of people she went to high school with are in the industry.
I’ve spent the better part of a year obsessing about the growing number of young people taking orders and pouring drinks, as well as the possibility of organizing the industry to make these jobs better. And today, I can’t help but think that New Orleans, which bends over backwards to serve both tourists and natives several times a year, could (or should) be the next frontier for service industry unions. Las Vegas, whose economy also hinges on tourism, has had a measure of success with its Culinary Union. But if groups trying to unionize the service industries had the benefit of a critical mass of political young people—a mass New Orleans has in spades—efforts like these may really succeed.
A certain amount of organizing is already underway. “Ellen,” 24, makes an hourly wage at a “big place” downtown and has been helping UNITE-HERE work on campaigns in places like the Loew’s hotel and the food concession stands at Louis Armstrong airport. So far, their nascent efforts have improved working conditions for “hundreds of families in the city.” Ellen has been in New Orleans for three years and has worked several service jobs. She’s often been shafted out of her $2.13 hourly wages, if she gets a wage at all. “New Orleans has a low unemployment rate…[the service industry] is the ever-present option for everyone, but it’s an option that pays poverty wages.”
Still, there’s a major problem with my labor movement fantasy, something several New Orleans residents have pointed out to me: Much of the young population is just as transient as they are do-gooding.
“There’s so many people in the service industry,” Kezia tells me. “So it feels like this ripe thing, like we should be able to do something about this. The problem is, no one takes it seriously as what they actually want to be doing with themselves.”
In 2010, Salon’s Matt Davis wondered whether post-Katrina New Orleans was “somewhere for upwardly mobile people in their early 20s to come for a dose of gritty authenticity, before moving on to responsible, child-rearing lives elsewhere.” A huge chunk of New Orleans’ young people are from somewhere else, and it remains to be seen whether this whiter, more educated population will stay to raise a family or buy property—or even whether “responsible, child-rearing lives” are even in reach for them. In the meantime, it may benefit SEIU and UNITE-HERE to keep a close watch on this Southern corner of hospitality.
For more on the rising tide of progressivism in the South, check out Nona Willis Aronowitz’s dispatch from Alabama.
A Tuscaloosa BBQ joint. (Aaron Cassara)
Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, Nation contributor Nona Willis Aronowitz will be guest-blogging while she’s on a reporting road trip to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Jackson and New Orleans. Look for her dispatches at TheNation.com!
On Monday night, I met a bunch of high school kids at a private boarding school in Indian Springs, Alabama, a town twenty minutes outside of Birmingham. I’d been invited to read from my book, Girldrive, which they’d been assigned in class. I glanced at their impressive Women’s Studies reading list, which was splayed out on the table: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. During the Q&A, a girl with a shock of bleached blond hair snaking through her dark bob asked me: “What did you and Emma have in mind as your audience for Girldrive—given that this book would be banned in other Alabama schools?”
I thought back to reading things like On the Road, rife with hookers and drunkenness, in my New York City public high school. Then I remembered that, statistically, Alabama is the most conservative state in the nation. Book-banning, of course, is technically illegal, but “a teacher will try to teach a book, and someone will complain from the PTA, and then the book will be withdrawn,” says Jessica Smith, the school’s librarian. And it’s not just books with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. “Harry Potter is one of the most banned books in the country because of witchcraft—non-Christian thinking.”
Not all Alabamans think this way. But it occurred to me that the progressive parents of Indian Springs School pay between $18,450 and $41,000 a year for their kids to be able to read a book containing references to pot-smoking sessions, an acid trip, casual sex, blow jobs and rape.
So how do you raise a progressive child in a sea of red? It depends on which city you live in, but it usually takes a good amount of effort—and resources. Smith says that, like most cities with a cavernous wealth gap, Birmingham’s good public schools are white and the struggling inner-city schools are black. But both are dominated by religious students.
“If you have a kid [in Birmingham] and you’re raising them as non-Christian and any other alternative, there aren’t that many places they can go and not be harassed,” Smith says. She tells me that parents shell out not only for Indian Springs’ rigorous, open-minded curriculum, but for the ethnic and religious diversity the school offers. (Smith points out the school gives a good amount of scholarships, too.)
The night before Indian Springs, I stayed in Tuscaloosa, the state’s major college town. Staying close to a university has been an age-old way for both natives and transplants to carve out a “blue dot in a red state,” says Ann Powers, a journalist and Seattle native who moved to Tuscaloosa with her husband and nine-year-old daughter three years ago. Although she acknowledges that “being able to go to a magnet school is a sign of privilege,” Powers’ daughter’s magnet elementary school is racially mixed, which she finds extremely valuable. (“If we still lived in Seattle,” she points out, “it’s not unlikely her school would be predominantly white.”)
But even though Powers doesn’t have to throw down for a private school, she admits raising a liberal child takes a heightened sense of consciousness. She considers that a good thing: Her daughter will learn at a young age that diversity isn’t only about race but about politics and religion, too. “I now feel viscerally aware of the phenomenon of liberal privilege,” she tells me. “Where you live in a place where you are surrounded by liberal people…you can get lazy.”
Whereas, if you’re surrounded by political rivals, you may be compelled to change things. Laurie Johns, another lefty Tuscaloosa resident and a Montgomery native, credits her conservative upbringing for her local political activism. She tells me it’s a “virtual certainty” that if she lived in a city full of liberals, she would have never started a political PAC to fund progressive candidates for her local school board. Still, her 7-year-old son goes to a private, international school because “one of their strengths is teaching tolerance…. there are people who are very religious in his school, but they don’t wear it on their sleeve, which is appropriate.”
Johns’ son has been coming to meetings with her since “he was in his little carseat carrier,” and she hopes he follows her example. Yet there’s only so much she can do. “One fear that every parent has regardless of your political views is that your kids won’t share your worldview,” says Powers. “And that might seem more likely in a place like Alabama. Your kid might be taken to church or might want to be a cheerleader.” Then again, the spawn of a Vermont hippie may join the Tea Party. A Catholic school virgin may become Madonna. And your Christian baby from Montgomery may end up moving to Tuscaloosa and raising hell like Laurie Johns.
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s take on the complicated relationship between being broke and being poor.