Inclusionary Wealth

Amid writing my posts about how the wealth gap manifests itself in the built environment and the morality of unequal economic investment in cities, I took another trip to Chicago. I spent most of my stay in the downtown areas within a mile of Grant Park. I love the old stone buildings, established green parks, ornate fountains, and modern glass skyscrapers with interesting architectural embellishments. Yet this trip, I felt hypocritical as I walked around soaking it all in. All these elements that I enjoy are the result of significant financial outlay that I know is not evenly distributed throughout the city. So where was my moral indignation at this display of deeply entrenched wealth unequally spread?

Chicago’s display of wealth isn’t gaudy like Tijuana or Las Vegas. The message I absorb in places like those with their flashing lights is “come on in, so we can suck all the money out of your pockets.” Chicago businesses identified their presence on the street with regular signs leaving it up to the passers to decide whether to engage.

One bar did add a layer of enticement to their sidewalk advertising. I was searching for a place for dinner, with this bar in mind as the one that looked most appealing from Google maps. I was looking around to see if there were any other better options. The smell of the burgers from this first bar convinced me that it was the best option in that vicinity. It was only after I had sat down and ordered that I realized the smell wasn’t coming from the open window, but rather it came from pipes pumping the kitchen smells to the sidewalk. Still it was a subtle inducement and unlike flashing lights it did not have a nefarious undertone.

By pumping out the smell to the sidewalk, it also felt indiscriminate. Anyone passing was invited to enjoy. This was unlike my experience in Cardiff where if I couldn’t afford the items in the business, I felt I shouldn’t be walking past in the public space. I never felt like I didn’t belong in Chicago. There were economic barriers to certain experiences, but those places that I encountered still did not feel exclusionary. One example is the lounge on the 96th floor of Chicago’s Hancock Building. The stunning views are only accessible to those who can afford a $17 cocktail, but those who can afford one only once in a blue moon were just as welcome as those who can afford one or more every night.

In Chicago, I never saw that strong line, as in Tijuana and Cardiff, that divided those with and those without financial resources.  Everywhere I went, there was a mix of people with different economic statuses, skin colors, and first languages. This diversity gave me the feeling that anyone is welcome to enjoy the well-maintained investment in public spaces with or without hitting a minimum financial threshold.

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….

Border Crossing

With summer full upon us, I have pulled out all my summer straw hats. One I picked up as an emergency hat. I’ve squished it into a suitcase, sat on it, and abused it in other fashions for years, but it’s still a great plain soft straw hat. Another one is a broad brim straw hat with a plain black band I acquired in Old Town Sacramento to complete my 1860s costume. It’s a great hat, but without the hat pin, it blows off at the slightest provocation. The cream of the crop is a fine two-toned, straw hat with green and grey cords, peach-colored flowers, and an extra wide brim. This one came from Tijuana, Mexico.

I was fifteen or sixteen when my parents took me across the border for a day trip in Tijuana. My memory of this trip is fuzzy, but punctuated with sharp images of intense emotion. I vaguely remember booths and lots of lanes of cars, even by California standards, for crossing south, but lots of lines of people for crossing north. While we drove down, we had to leave our car somewhere along the border. All the tourists were funneled on foot onto the main drag, which was glitzy enough to rival Las Vegas. Shop owners stood on the sidewalk outside their stores to entice the US currency from our pocket to theirs.

I squinted at the glare and cringed at the solicitous fawning. After we visited several shops, my Dad asked a proprietor where he could find a CD of a particular kind of music. The proprietor gave us directions to a shop several blocks away from the main road. As soon as we stepped into the first side street, all the glitz and glamour vanished. Instead, we found blocks of small, plain adobe or stucco houses. The contrast turned my stomach.

The honest plainness of these blocks soothed my eyes, while throwing into sharp relief the fashionable begging of the tourist trap we temporarily left. I was surprised we were given directions that went outside the trap. I wondered how many tourists crossed that invisible line.

Though most of these buildings looked the same, we were able to locate the music shop without incident. My Dad found what he wanted and we went back the way we came. Not long after we returned to the border to cross back to the US.

We had to stay in a waiting area either for our car or for our turn to go through the border crossing. While there, my Mom had me try on hats for sale at a small kiosk. I suspect this was in part to distract me from the physical reaction I was having to the contrasts we saw and in part to encourage me to get a souvenir from this excursion. Having a weakness for hats, I ended up with a beautifully-crafted straw hat that I still wear for special summer occasions.