"Cool, wrong side of the tracks..." - Bart Simpson
My little journey landed me in Baltimore this week, where I have yet more generous friends who are willing to put me up for a little while. As we were sitting around the other night, one of them got an email about a local fundraiser. The good people at Friends of Patterson Park have raised $7,000 out of a goal of $11,000 to put some extra trashcans in the sprawling, 137-acre park. The message notes that this isn't something the city is going to pay for, and that Baltimore in fact has one of the lowest levels of parks funding per capita of any big city in the country.
On the face of it, this a worthy little civic initiative. Folks from the neighborhood get together to make their community a nicer place to live, film at eleven. Scratch the surface, however, and you'll see some of the ugly structural problems that undermine American civic life.
Baltimore, like a lot of other major American cities, has seen its taxbase eroded to the point of budgetary starvation over the last fifty years. There are a lot of reasons for that - entire academic subdisciplines study this sort of thing - but it can be roughly chalked up to some combination of de-industrialization, globalization, "drugs" and the war on them, lead in the drinking water, suburbanization, automation, and good old fashioned racism.
I'm sure I missed a few, but you get the idea. Cities like Baltimore (and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Kansas City, and Fresno, and and and) may not be exemplars of clean governance or good policy, but they were crushed by forces far, far beyond their ability even to influence, much less control.
A relative lack of trashcans in Patterson Park isn't going to make the first ten pages of a list of the problems caused by all that urban decline, but it nicely illustrates how deeply those problems have gotten baked into our civic infrastructure. To understand why, start with my favorite shorthand tool to 21st Century America, the Racial Dot Map:
This is Baltimore, a city that was 29% white and 64% black in the 2010 census. The green dots are black people, the blue dots are white people, and Patterson Park is the blank spot in the small sea of blue on the southeast side (circled on the above image). Put deliciously, it's a vanilla park in a chocolate city. (Since Blogger Law requires that I mention The Wire at least once in anything written about Baltimore, I'll simply note that Tommy Carcetti came from District 1, which is that same blue area around Patterson Park.)
For all its complex factors then, the problem is simple and plain: the city as a whole cannot afford trashcans for all its parks, but the people around Patterson Park can afford trash cans for their park. That leads engaged, civic minded people of the type every city needs to pass the hat locally rather than city wide. This has the immediate good of getting trashcans into the park, but also has a lot of unseen effects that reinforce the broken system that made the local fundraiser necessary in the first place.
What the Friends of Patterson Park are doing (and none of this is a knock on them, they're just trying to fix a problem) is privatizing a public good. If parks are going to stay green and pleasant, they need places for people to put their trash, they need paths to be maintained, they need the grass to get cut and the leaves to get raked. All of that costs money, and in a city that struggles from year to year just to pay its bills, cutting the parks budget is an easy way to save.
And what happens when Patterson Park gets its privately funded trashcans? All kinds of things:
- The already wealthier and "nicer" part of town becomes that much nicer than the rest of the city
- The residents around Patterson Park have a pain point relieved, and have less incentive to get involved in local affairs
- The residents not around Patterson Park who may nevertheless visit it from time to time can plainly see that somebody else's part of the city is better than theirs
In other words, the overall unity of the city takes a hit. This is the process of suburban segregation writ small. People with more options (which usually means being more prosperous, whiter, or both) pull themselves away from those with less, deliberately or inadvertently. So while it's nice that Patterson Park is going to get its trashcans, it's really not the way we want these things to happen. But in a city surrounded by suburbs with a narrow taxbase, it also probably wouldn't happen any other way.