Saturday, January 25, 2014

Diversity, Sequestration and Relevance in the Adirondacks

yupLast week I wrote a column about my personal experiences on the South Side of Chicago.  My purpose was to frame the issues in terms of sequestration: when a region or area is overwhelmingly of one socioeconomic or racial class, it gets cordoned off – literally and figuratively.  Other classes know little about it in experience and understanding.   Stereotypes predominate.  Economic and cultural gaps persist, even widen.

This is a two-way street.  An obvious example is the gap in understanding between people who have lived all their lives in hyper-urban areas – say East 55th Street in Cleveland – and people who have lived exclusively in very rural areas – say farm country near the Ohio River.  When the only experience of another way of life is popular media, the lack of understanding can be fractious indeed; witness the current divisions in American politics.

When inequality is added to this dynamic, when the two-way street becomes a gradient, an upward slope from one group to another, then the issues become more than just about understanding; they become issues of social justice and the universal welfare of human beings.  That’s the lesson I learned from my experiences in Chicago.

What troubles me about the situation with the Adirondacks is that I see exactly that kind of sloped sequestration, but in each direction – in other words, a deleterious gradient that cuts both ways.  The relative lack of understanding of non-white urban populations that we see in the Adirondack region is an unfortunate thing and the relative lack of understanding of the Adirondacks by non-white urban populations is an equally unfortunate thing.  Everyone’s losing.

In his related column earlier this week, Paul Hai described the issue in terms of relevance, a way of framing the issue that I like very much.  He also quite correctly described diversity in terms of more than just racial diversity, suggesting instead a definition that focuses on urban populations with their richness not just in race but in culture, ethnicity, ability and economic status.  I think that he’s largely right, but from the standpoint of both experience and demographics I see the non-white aspect as critical.  So I’ll take Paul’s lead and modify it a little, posing two key questions:

How can we make the Adirondacks more relevant to non-white urban populations?

How can we make non-white urban populations more relevant to people in the Adirondacks?

Many will ask if these uncomfortable questions are necessary, if they represent as serious a problem as I claim.  One of the things that really motivated me to write this series on diversity was the reaction – or lack of reaction – to Brian Mann’s sensational Prison Time Media Project.  Brian himself noticed a lack of reaction or discussion; he wrote an essay in response entitled “Why don’t we talk about prisons in the North Country.”  For his trouble he got lambasted with reactions defending Corrections Officers, which missed the larger point.

The lack of substantive attention to the Prison Time project, my own experience in the Adirondacks and many of the comments made on my diversity series demonstrate that there are plenty of people who don’t think we have a problem here – live and let live, they will say.  But that fails to recognize how deep this sequestered misconception and lack of understanding runs.  Listen to Senator Betty Little’s quote in this excerpt from North Country Public Radio’s story on Governor Cuomo’s statement about the “madness of an incarceration society”:

State Senator Betty Little, speaking yesterday afternoon, said Cuomo’s language about New York’s prison industry doesn’t play well in the North Country, where corrections work is a major part of the economy.

“It doesn’t, and I think we think differently about crime we think that there should be punishment and penalties for committing crimes and I’m not so sure that people in the New York City area or the metropolitan area think about that as much as we do.”

This is a textbook example of sequestered thinking.  Note the we-they tone, for starters.  But it’s more than just that.  Perhaps it will help to imagine for a moment that you are a non-white resident of a poor and violent area of New York reading that quote.  A white politician from the Adirondacks, where the crime rate is a tiny fraction of what it is where you live, is saying that up there they think differently about crime, that there should be punishment for crime.  She then goes on to presumptuously tell you how you think, that you don’t think about crime and punishment as much as she does, even though you live daily with the profound effects of both on a scale utterly unfamiliar to most people in the Adirondacks.  Furthermore the prisons in her neck of the woods are filled with non-white people, courtesy of a drug war that is demonstrably and inarguably unjust and racist.  Can you imagine how you would feel?   Would it be easier to try this thought exercise if you actually had experience of life in urban New York City?

Whether voiced by a politician, a resort worker or a Corrections employee, these kinds of sequestered sentiments do nothing to improve the welfare of people in urban communities beset by a raft of problems born of discrimination and socioeconomic inequality.  That speaks directly to questions of social justice.  But these sentiments also do nothing to make the Adirondack region more relevant to the urban population. Instead the Adirondack region becomes even more sequestered in perception.  That speaks directly to the future of the park.

As I will share next week, the demographic evidence to support this model of sequestration is overwhelming and it shows little or no material improvement so far.  But as Paul Hai’s column showed, lots of people are working hard to change that.  And there is more on the horizon.  But first we must begin with recognition.  We are on a dangerous and morally troubling two-way street and everyone is losing for it.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

23 Responses

  1. Robert Bentley says:

    President Jimmy Carter talks about our growing prison industry in his book. Endangered Values.
    He says that when he was Governor , governors would boast who had the lowest percentage of population in prison, he goes one to state that now governors boast if who has the largest population in prison. Carter states that we now have a higher percentage in prison than Nazi Germany, he mentions that our society has become extremely fundamentalist in our thinking, reveling in ” I am righteous and you are condemned ” it’s an interesting read.
    I am a very fortunate person in that I divide my time between Manhattan and Hamilton County. I spent much of my childhood in Herkimers county and have lived in NYC for 45 years.
    I do have to say that much has changed here in NYC and there aren’t really poor and dangerous neighborhoods in NYC. Every borough is quite expensive now muggers just can’t afford to live here anymore!

  2. zyxw says:

    My initial morning thought on this, before the coffee has kicked in fully, is that the overwhelming factor that we have some control over is economic inequality, which has demonstrably grown much worse in recent decades and may be the highest it has ever been in this country. If we as a people could truly provide equality of economic opportunity than we would also see much less sequestration of the population. You already see this in areas where there is more economic opportunity for everyone, like within 50 miles or so of Washington, DC, for example. There is a region with a robust African American middle class that also does what are being called here traditional white European things, like owning boats, taking vacations, or owning a second home. Our urban population from NYC is well represented in the Adks. by the wealthy white European cohort because they have the money, the leisure time, and the wherewithal to get to the Adirondacks, purchase a second home there, and possibly even retire there at least part time. So, if we in New York could “raise all boats” I think you would find greater support and understanding amongst all peoples. However, that is a very tall order and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I would focus on things that Adirondackers and urban populations can both benefit from and hopefully agree upon: continuing to find ways to better fund education and provide a college education to everyone; things that strengthen all New Yorkers, like broadband access that you talk of; and efforts to protect and expand urban and suburban green spaces and access to nature, which is the first stepping stone towards an appreciation for and understanding of nature.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      These are good points and suggestions. I agree with all of them. In particular I think you’re dead on about the importance of urban green spaces and efforts to use and appreciate them. But this in and of itself is tricky, a sociological complexity far beyond my pay grade. Even so I’ll be getting to it.

  3. John Jongen says:

    Pete, a timely and frank topic that is much overdue. Having spent some college years in NYC and many decades traipsing all over the Adirondacks I can attest that we are seeing different cultural mindsets that do not necessarily adhere to white and non-white demographics. I distinctly remember a camping trip with some urbanized white friends from New York City who were traumatized be the experience. They could not adjust to the sensual experience of campfires, pine needles, and the dark, quiet, foresty surroundings of our campsite.

  4. Ye says:

    NYC is the safest of the large cities in the country… and interestingly the incarceration rate of NYC residents has actually gone DOWN (contrary to most of the country). The fact is – as others stated – much of the criminal population moved to other – cheaper parts of the country. In terms of the ADK – the fact is that many non-whites just don’t like the cold. It sounds stereotypical – but true. Unless the weather is warm – most just won’t want to visit – which means a couple of months a year. I know many non-whites from the NYC area that love Lake George for instance – but ONLY in the summer.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Just for starters, let’s talk about crime up here.
    The statements by Senator Little are laced with a bit of fantasy.
    We do have crime up here. True, the number of crimes up here are fewer than in the cities but that is mostly due to the fact that we don’t have the population. If you take Hamilton County with a population of about 5,000 and compare it to NYC with a population of about 9 million, shouldn’t it be obvious NYC should have about 1,800 more crimes committed than those taking place in Hamilton County?
    If you want to talk poverty, I’m certain our poverty rate up here is as high as in the cities and it might even be higher. We are shielded from needing to step over people living on the street, but this is mainly the result of the fact it is impossible to stay up here and live on the street when it is -30. When you reach that situation up here, you move to the city.
    I am sorry but there is no place in the Adirondacks that is a Lake Wobegone.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Actually, Pete, demographics and economic and crime statistics do not support your contention. I actually covered this ground in a previous Dispatch:

      Check out those numbers. But that’s just one example. Measured by per capita statistics crime and poverty in the Adirondacks are both lower than most large urban centers.

      That said, Adirondack communities have all the warts and wounds that any other human communities do, some in greater frequency than other places, some in lesser frequency. But that in and of itself has nothing to do with the arguments over sequestration and discrimination.

      • Pete Klein says:

        Pete, you might find the following link interesting:
        Equally interesting was an editorial in the North Creek Denton publication this week which complained about 3 strikes and you lose your drivers license for DWI.
        The Editorial suggests such punishment would be grossly unfair to people living in rural areas where they need a car to survive while those lucky enough to live in cities can survive with public transportation.
        I kid you not!
        To make a fair comparison between crime rates in the cities and crime rates in the Adirondacks, you need to factor in the demographics. Most crime is committed by the young and we jut don’t have that many young people to commit crime. Should we be happy to not have enough young people to have our share of crime?
        But if you don’t limit the danger of losing your life because of a crime, we certainly have ample opportunity to be killed in a motor vehicle accident, thanks to the drunk drivers who need their cars to get to work so they have enough money to buy beer.

    • Paul says:

      There certainly seems to be quite a lot of economic diversity in the Adirondacks. There are few places where a billionaire and a guy with hardly two pennies to rub together can live almost side-by-side.

  6. I think a first step is for everyone to read “The Nigger In You: Challenging Dysfunctional Language, Engaging Leadership Moments” recently written by Dr. J. W. Wiley of SUNY Plattsburgh. Then, maybe we can have a meaningful discussion. This Park is changing. I value its “history” and its “unique traditions/culture.” However, the fullness and diversity of that history and those traditions has focused on “white men.” There are many other stories to be told. The problem is that it requires a lot of digging to find them because they have been squashed. And, the present and future will, hopefully, be more inclusive of “all” human beings who appreciate (or desire to appreciate) the Adirondacks.

  7. Dave Mason says:

    Pete Klein says “If you want to talk poverty, I’m certain our poverty rate up here is as high as in the cities and it might even be higher”

    Pete – this is not the case
    See poverty rate data below.

    “percent of persons below poverty level 2008-12”

    Hamilton County 8.8%
    Essex Cty 12.4%

    New York City 19.9%
    Albany 25.4%
    Plattsburgh 23.3%
    Syracuse 33.6%
    Rochester 31.6%
    Buffalo 30.1%

    NY State average 14.9%

    The following data is sourced from this US Census site

    • Pete Klein says:

      When they say Hamilton County is different, that’s because it is.
      Hamilton County has a very high percentage of people who work for local governments, schools and the state. During the summer we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. In the winter, we usually have the highest rate.
      Percentages are interesting but they don’t tell the whole story.
      And let’s not forget what I tried pointing out to Pete above. If you haven’t figured out a way to survive here (often the young), you get out. That is why the population keeps falling. People, mostly the young, leave.
      Aren’t we happy! Low crime, low poverty, hardly anyone left to be poor or commit a crime.

      • Dave Mason says:

        It isn’t just Hamilton, Essex is similar. I get your point. Numbers never tell the whole story, ever. I just picked poverty because you mentioned it.

        These are annual stats, over 4 years, not seasonal. There is much more data about income, age distribution, etc. Spend some time with it. Real data always surprises.

        I guess my thought is to suggest this is the government’s basic population fact base. If you go to government claiming poverty, for example, and they look at this data you are not going to get very far. Better awareness of the larger DATA context that the Park exists in will be helpful to everyone. That context is NY State.

        The available data sets are rich, diverse and easily found. Use them to inform and build your positions and you will be more successful.

  8. Alan Senbaugh says:

    The Adirondacks are a wonderful place to live! I am so glad I moved back here 20 years ago. Imagine a utopia where the most contentious topic in town is regarding a Rail/Trail.

  9. Paul B. says:

    Alan, if the prevailing sentiments of the posters here are any indication, prepare for diversity in the Park. At the very least, the contentious topics of discussion will be more….interesting to say the least.

    You might want to see the past results of other areas that have been diversified. To paraphrase the Vietnam-era saying, “We have to destroy the Park in order to save it.”

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Wow. This comment is a wow.

      “…past results of other areas that have been diversified…”

      Like which areas, Paul?

      Meanwhile it sounds like you ought to be getting busy preparing for diversity. What does that entail? Stocking up on canned goods? Erecting fences? Packing heat?

      Thanks for reminding me why this issue is so important.

      • John L says:

        Pete, you bring up a good point. Yes, we can ‘pack heat’ as you call it. As you know, that right is written in stone in the Constitution. If anyone has a problem with that, see Article V of the Constitution to see what one has to do to change that. And, by the way, calling it ‘packing heat’ is a much more provocative way of saying that we have the right to keep and bear arms. Your saying that doesn’t surprise me though. That’s it, I’m outa here. After all these articles, comments, and counter-comments, I STILL don’t know what anyone has in mind for an end result from all this. So, I think I’m going to go with looking for cougars in the Park instead.

      • Paul B. says:

        “Wow. This comment is a wow.”

        Funny, I was going to say the same thing about your post.

        If you want a sample of what diversity will bring to the Park, checkout:

        • zyxw says:

          I’ve seen some Adirondack properties that would put those LA street trashers to shame, and often the Adk variety is surrounded by a beautiful forested vista. Plus, the Adk variety often features spilled and dumped toxics like motor oil and batteries! Even trash dumpers are diverse.

          • Paul B. says:

            No doubt you have. When the NY Times puts a story about what you have seen on the front page, get back to us.

            The LA Times never lets a week go by without an illegal alien sob story. So it was particularly noteworthy that even the LA Times ran this story.

  10. Tim says:

    At one and the same time you want pristine wilderness AND more people? Nonsense.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Did you read my column on “Pristine” wilderness? You’re missing the point.

      But the open question is, which people would you like to keep out?

    • Paul says:

      At one time in the not-too-distant past Saranac Lake (the largest town in the Adirondacks) had about 3 times as many residents than it has today. The Wilderness that surrounded it was as pristine if not more pristine than it is today? Nonsense?

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