Fresh Eyes: Another American dream deferred

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by Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

July 29, 2014: Several pickup trucks were backed up to front entrance of the Heritage House apartments and all of the building’s doors were propped open. Garbage and people’s belongings lay around the foundation — they had been dropped out the windows onto the ground below. Three elderly folks in motorized wheelchairs rode off with gas cans across the parking lot to refill a car packed with their belongings. An elderly gentleman told me his wife was disabled, and that they hoped to find a place to move that night. The next morning, the city would condemn the building — everyone remaining would have to find a new place to go. It was already 8:30 p.m.

A woman standing guard over a shopping cart of her belongings said she was waiting for a friend to get her. She said she wanted to get out now, because “everyone’s going crazy in there.” She said that landlords had been coming in, ripping out cabinets and appliances and anything salvageable before the city boarded up the building.

A mother held her 6-year-old son on her lap as she balanced on top of a stack of plastic tubs. Behind her, a lamp and a mattress propped up the wall. I asked her where she was going the next morning, when the police would move through the building and evict everyone from their apartments floor by floor.

“I have no idea,” she said. “Its not like we wanted to live here, but we wanted to live somewhere.”

Every single major North Carolina city has recently received notoriety for ranking in the nation’s Top 10 for poverty growth. Greensboro-High Point ranked 10th and Winston-Salem an even sadder eighth. Greensboro further has the dubious credentials of ranking third in the nation for hunger.

How realistic is the American Dream when one in five people in the Triad not only fail to actualize it, but fall so far short that they are one step away from hunger and homelessness? Not only do they suffer physically and psychologically under the weight of poverty, but they also suffer under the weight of a stock story. A dominant story like the American Dream establishes cultural values and creates reality, making a normative point — one that just doesn’t add up for most of us.

The American Dream is a fable that reads like a factual equation. Suggesting that certain behavior results in a certain life, it is extrapolated that failure to have that life means a failure to abide by the behavior. The stock story masks social context and individual subjectivity — in this case implying individual pathology. The American Dream focuses on financial success without heed to ethical choices. It focuses on hard work without weighing social equality. Not only is the American Dream a false equation, it is a culturally destructive story.

The condemnation of the 178 units at Heritage House gave Greensboro an acute glimpse of the catch-22 of poverty in our city. Heritage House was known as the last stop in substandard housing — nobody wanted to be there but they also didn’t want to be forced to leave. Its condemnation was due to an outrageously high overdue water bill and hundreds of serious code violations, issues that no one suggests are the fault of the residents. When the building closed, however, hundreds of people had no place to go and many of those who did had no way to get there. The city provided police escorts and buses, and the residents were allowed to pack up what they could carry. Many were brought to an emergency shelter at the Interactive Resource Center. Many more left to stay in precarious situations doubled up with friends or in weekly-rental motels.

A full month later, sitting on a downtown curb, a man rests with his arm around his wife and nods towards a patch of trees where they have pitched a tent. “That’s what we’ve got now. Better than nothing? Maybe. All I know is that we always paid our rent at Heritage House. We did everything you’re supposed to.” There is no published estimate as to how many people have become homeless as a result of Heritage House closing.

The American Dream is a singular story, one that forecloses empathy on anyone who fails to achieve it. If there is anything that we have learned through the Great Recession, it is that we need a new American story. Too many people in our cities live in poverty to attribute it to individual pathology or poor decision-making. It is time for us to rewrite our stories about poverty. It is time to make a new dream, one that focuses on collectivity and connection. A new dream that measures success by how well we take care of each other, not how well we swim against the odds alone.

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