Visualizing the Wealth Gap

My experience in Tijuana, Mexico, was the first time I remember noticing stark visuals of concentrated poverty and concentrated wealth side-by-side, with an effort to hide the poverty. I had seen poor areas and rich areas around the US prior to that, but never remembered that stark side-by-side contrast.

The next time I experienced a physical and emotional reaction to this kind of contrast was as an adult in Cardiff, Wales. I spent three or four days exploring the city and suburbs, while based in the center of the city near the Castle. The city center and the roads I walked while searching for adaptively reused religious structures (see Newport Road, Cathedral Road, and Inkspot) averaged a well maintained appearance. Some of the buildings were used by agencies providing supportive services, but overall, it gave me the impression of a blended mixed-income environment.

As a fan of Doctor Who, I couldn’t go to Cardiff without visiting Cardiff Bay, the location of a volatile rift in time and space where the Doctor and his companions have several adventures. When I looked up directions from my hotel, the recommendation was to take a light rail line. However, it was only a mile or mile and a half away and basically straight down one road. I chose to walk.

A few blocks from my hotel, after crossing a dividing swath of railroad tracks and highway, I entered a residential section of town. On one side ran identical row houses showing signs of poverty. On the other ran a stone wall 10-12 feet high above which ran the light rail tracks. The houses stopped before the end of the line, where there was a transition of what appeared to be underutilized mixed-use buildings before the touristy Cardiff Bay area began.

Around the Bay were several tourist destinations, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Several shops and restaurants catered to a clientele wealthy enough to make me feel nervous about approaching too close in my serviceable, middle class, traveling clothes. Wandering around the Bay reinforced the feeling that started when I walked through the residential area. I felt that I had yet again gone where tourists weren’t intended to go. Tourists were welcomed in the City Center with shops, restaurants, a castle, museums, and places of business, or in Cardiff Bay with shops, restaurants, museums, and entertainment. But to travel between the two, tourists were supposed to take the light rail (raised above and shaded by trees from the poor residential area) or take a taxi down the fast road on the other side of the tracks, thereby remaining ignorant of the presence of the hard working families and individuals of limited means in the midst of these two wealthy, tourist hubs.

I felt indignant on behalf of the residents over the obvious investment in the City Center and Cardiff Bay and equally obvious disinvestment of this residential neighborhood….

Caerphilly, Castles and Cheese

Caerphilly Castle

When I arrived in the UK last spring, I realized I had one major flaw in my trip: I hadn’t planned to visit any castles.  Cardiff has a castle in the center of town and my hotel was right across the street from it.  However, I visited this castle on my last trip and remembered much of it: the Roman wall in the basement, the ornate room in the clock tower, the nursery painted with scenes from fairy tales, and the view from the keep.  Looking for a new castle to visit, my guidebook recommended Caerphilly.

Caerphilly is a twenty minute train ride north of the center of Cardiff.  It is a small town and features a castle begun in 1268.  In addition, the guidebook noted that the town is noted for Caerphilly Cheese, a mild relative of cheddar cheese.  As I love cheese, especially cheddar, Caerphilly was an appealing destination to satiate my interest in castles and cheese.

So one morning, I went down to the Central Cardiff station, purchased an open, round-trip ticket to Caerphilly for just a few pounds and enjoyed the short train ride through the Welsh country-side.  Cardiff is very flat, but Caerphilly and the surrounding area are quite hilly.  The castle wasn’t visible from the train station, so I started walking in what seemed the most promising direction: downhill on the main commercial street.  After a short walk, the road made a bend and the shops stopped on one side, leaving a wide view over a green park to the castle and the valley and hills beyond.

Views from the Castle's Keep Views from the Castle's Keep

Views from the Castle's Keep

A Welshman once told me that the only real castles are those in ruins.  Ones like Cardiff Castle that have been fixed-up, renovated, or refurbished in any way are not real.  I thought that he would have approved of Caerphilly Castle.

When I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I returned to the town looking for cheese and lunch.  There were no signs of Caerphilly Cheese anywhere.  There were lots of tourist-y areas and signs directing the way to tourist-like attractions, but none mentioned cheese.  Wikipedia claims that there is a cheese sculpture somewhere in town, but I didn’t see it.  I ended up choosing a quaint little diner (of the early 20th century style, not the 1950s/60s style we think of in the US) as the place to eat my lunch in the hopes that perhaps they used Caerphilly Cheese on their sandwiches, but they did not.

Feeling let down in my hunt for cheese, I returned to Cardiff shortly after my lunch.  Caerphilly’s castle was well worth the trip, but I was beginning to believe that Caerphilly Cheese was a myth.


Seven months later, my family and I were visiting New York City for Christmas.  On our last day, we made the requisite visit to Zabar’s.  I had been particularly looking forward to this stop on our trip as the last time I was in Zabar’s I was a kid who knew that there was something special about the shop, but didn’t understand why as I thought the height of culinary perfection was Kraft Mac’N’Cheese.

The first thing that caught my eye on entering Zabar’s was the cheese display.  I quickly went over and scanned the names of all the various cheeses, looking for the exotic one that I was going to take home to try.  Most had names that sounded familiar.  On my second look through, my heart stopped.  There on the shelf right in front of me was Caerphilly Cheese!!

I was shocked.  I had gone to Caerphilly to get their cheese and been disappointed.  Now, months later on the other side of the ocean, in a small store in NYC, I’d found it.  Needless to say, I purchased a brick.  It was a nice cheese, almost like a cross between a mozzarella and a mild cheddar: smooth, almost creamy, with a slight hint of the cheddar kick.