July 28, 2017
I don't remember a time that I didn't want to leave the village in which I grew up (and, yes, it was a village; it says so on the sign as you drive into town). I'm sure there must've been a few years that I didn't know I wanted to get the fuck out of there, when I didn't really know there was much beyond the three blocks west and six blocks south that I was allowed to bike unaccompanied. But I definitely remember knowing about something called "college," and being certain it was my way out of there, long before I neared anything resembling puberty. I remember my teenage years, babysitting for the grandkids of the woman who'd been my babysitter when my mom went back to work, listening to my pre-calc teacher reminisce about his days prowling those same be-lockered hallways, and thinking to myself, "This town is a black sucking hole and if I don't have the energy to escape, it'll suck me back in, no matter what I do."
There's not a lot to do in a village but watch Star Trek, I guess.
I could blame my desire to get away on being a brainy girl in a blue-collar town, or blame the minor bullying I endured from various classmates—and I have, don't get me wrong—but the truth is that, even if I'd lived out some high-school movie dream of the nerdy girl who suddenly gets popular, I would've just used that, too, to propel myself away from that place and never return. Whatever I was going to do with my life, I knew it didn't involve teaching at my high school or working at one of the little factories in the industrial park (though I temped there one summer) or doing some administrative job at an HMO or for the state and it was clear, even to my child's eyes, that the village I grew up in and the city, Schenectady, of which we were a suburb were long past their economic heydays.
As I've gotten older and somewhat less terrified that some economic setback in my life—another layoff, a medical condition, some terrible accident—might force me to again take up residence under the sloped ceiling of my teenage bedroom, listening every night to the 1 a.m. freight train whistle as it trundles by half the village away, I can take a deep breath and empathize with the people for whom the village represents something better than a place from which to escape. The neighbors on my parents' block took turns this summer mowing the newly widowed woman's lawn across the street; when her husband died last year, the line for people to pay their respects was 45 minutes long and stretched from the door of the funeral home, through the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. Two years ago, when the daughter—younger than me—of another neighbor died, not only could the funeral home barely hold the mourners, but the hashtag her friends started in her honor made the front page of the local paper.
I still don't want to live there, but I do understand better that where you live is, for many people, much, much more than what you do and where you can do it. Someone, though, perhaps should've told President Donald Trump, who in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday explained that the people still living where I grew up should simply abandoned their homes and their communities and move to Wisconsin.
"I'm going to start explaining to people, when you have an area that just isn't working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you'll have another area 500 miles away where you can't get people, I'm going to explain, you can leave," he told the newspaper's editors and reporters. "It's OK. Don't worry about your house."
Now, maybe it's hard for people that didn't grow up upstate to understand the dynamic of a downstate businessman-president city-splaining to us rubes that we're foolish to hold on to something as meaningless as real estate when there's a $54,000/year job to be had 864 miles away in Kenosha, Wisconsin**, but let me try.
The just-abandon-your-property-for-greener-pastures plan has been a complete disaster for Detroit. It drives down property values overall, decimating what financial legacy those low-income and middle-income workers can provide to their heirs in order to influence their social mobility (and the lack of inherited wealth is a significant cause of continuing racialized economic inequality), reduces the tax base, undermines the provision to remaining residents of necessary services and rips established communities asunder. (Plus it wrecks your credit, erases whatever equity you might have in your property, and utterly screws up your personal finances.) What started with factories often seeking out tax breaks and lower wages in right-to-work states and was compounded, in many cases, by the trade deals that Trump so vociferously decried on the campaign trail last year would be finished by any federal policy that encouraged widescale property abandonment in order to seek out jobs the president was using his bully pulpit to create.
And that's assuming those jobs were even long-term prospects: Notably, General Electric, which does still have operations in the area in which I grew up, celebrated the 2011 addition of renewable energy equipment production, only to see the company move those jobs to France in 2015. And, at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis where Trump supposedly "saved" hundreds of jobs last year, 300 people will be unemployed just in time for Christmas 2017.
Jobs, as the entirety of Gen X found out long before millennials were astonished by the cruel, cruel world, are fucking temporary. But a home and a community, for many Americans, is not temporary, or something to be abandoned. Blue-collar workers are as entitled to be as emotionally invested in where they live as Donald Trump is in Mar-A-Lago, according to his own children.
For all that Trump and the Republican party have decried liberals as monied, over-intellectual elitists from New York and San Francisco who could never understand the plight of the working man the way that Trump can, there is nothing quite so elitist-sounding as telling people in the very communities to which you promised to bring jobs back that they can have jobs, just so long as they're willing to abandon everything else that's important in pursuit of them. That is not a way to make America any kind of great: It's a Bronx salute to all those people you think aren't smart enough to live somewhere better.
And, shit, no one knows better than me exactly what that it sounds like to think aloud that people are stupid to want to live in a place like where I grew up. But I was a hormonal, permanently aggrieved 16-year-old when I voiced that sentiment. What's Donald Trump's excuse?
** When I used Google maps to calculate that distance, the village in which I grew up displays as the burned-out husk of the burger-and-ice-cream joint that burned down last year, just to really underscore the vibrancy of our community. They're trying to rebuild.