Life in the Rust Belt’s Growing Concentrated Poverty Zones

The results of the Brooking Institution‘s report on poverty chronicling the changes of the previous decade were released last week and not surprisingly they proved to be staggering, particularly so for the Rust Belt.

In the Detroit Metropolitan area, the number of poor people living in a designated census tract of concentrated poverty grew by 30%. An area of concentrated poverty is defined as any census tract where 40% or more of the population is below the poverty line. Toledo led all cities with the largest increase in this acute condition. In general, after a steep decline during the 1990s, Midwestern metropolitan areas saw a nearly 80% increase in extreme poverty during the previous decade.

The worst of the worst though, was reserved for Youngstown, which finds itself with the dubious honor of leading the nation in concentrated poverty. About 50% of Youngstown’s residents live in an area of extreme poverty.

It is deeply saddening to see city officials surprised by this. Walk through some of these neighborhoods and you’ll see poverty so extreme you won’t even think you’re still in the United States.

The east side of Youngstown is a particularly isolated and ignored area of visibly stunning poverty. Many people, even within the city, regard it as a “no go” area.

This Summer I accompanied Adrian McDowell—a young community activist who recently ran for city council—to the Plaza View projects off of McGuffey Road. McGuffey snakes through the east side, tracing a route through blight and devastation, which have resulted from many decades of economic decline.

The Plaza View Apartments are located in an extremely isolated area of concentrated poverty. Within walking distance from Plaza View is the sprawling an abandoned McGuffey Mall. Once a popular shopping attraction, small trees, weeds, and junk now fill McGuffey’s parking spaces and boarded up windows cast a forlorn shadow where middle class shoppers once strode.

Considering they have almost no access to shopping, no grocery store in the vicinity, and poor public transportation, the residents of Plaza View are embittered at the state of affairs on the east side. One resident explained her view of the situation to me: “The people downtown want us living this way…we don’t even have the basics. What are these kids supposed to do?” As she spoke she gestured to an antiquated and dangerous looking playground that serves as an “outlet” for the youth.

Plaza View is located only minutes from another public housing project known as the Kimmel Brooks. Gangs from Kimmel Brooks and Plaza View have long had an on-going rivalry. Yet, despite this, not far from the darkened husk of the McGuffey Mall, a small back yard and the side of an old garage serve as a gathering point on summer nights for make shift outdoor movies.

Every Friday during the warmer months, the Reign Supreme Motorcycle Club holds outdoor movies, shown from a commercial projector, for kids from the surrounding Plaza View and Kimmel Brooks.

Photo: Sean Posey

As it grows dark, children stream down to the small garage from all parts of the nearby east side, punctuating the silence of the old commercial corridor with sounds of laughter. Candy and snacks are provided.  During my visit on a warm September night, the children were extremely excited as the projector lit up the garage and the film began. Charlene Jones, one of the organizers of the event, apologized if some of the children were rather loud during the film: “ This is the first real (theater like) movie many of them have ever seen.”

This is just one example of how many of Youngstown’s communities now function—cut off from economic development, shopping, jobs, and nearly any opportunities for recreation for the young. Yet, human dignity persists and the jubilant faces of the east side children and the honest and open greeting of the adults of the projects constantly remind me of the lies used to justify the vast and growing impoverishment of the marginalized citizens of this city—and of this country.

As we read about growing poverty, now a real factor in the Sun Belt and in suburban areas once thought of as largely immune to concentrated poverty, hopefully we will as a society, begin to question our leaders and public officials who engage in demagoguery about the poor. And most importantly we must act: for a country that increasingly divides itself into areas of concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty—whether it be regionally or locally—is a country where democracy will wither on the vine. This is a lesson that should resonate far beyond Youngstown and the Rust Belt.

-Sean Posey

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