City Mouse and Country Mouse

I once read a criticism of Wendell Berry that, I think quite validly, pointed out that we cannot all abandon our cities to return to the land, and nor would Berry even want that. Good stewardship of land is not merely a matter of having an infinite number of small holdings, each with a farmer who farms no more than he can see from his front porch. It's also important to have some knowledge and training. The damage that might done, while perhaps not of the same type as modern factory farming, would still have the potential to be substantial. And even were all the arable land to be sustainably farmed under the tender care of a seasoned farmer, I suspect that many of us would find ourselves without a plot of land. Besides, an appreciation for pastoral life does not exclude the acknowledgment that there may be something of value to towns and cities.

But I do think that Berry's work has some redemptive merit against the charge thus laid. That is, while most of us will not run out to become tobacco farmers in Kentucky, we can still find something  there that might guide our understanding and our plans. Because so much of what he writes about also deals with the question of local economies.

I'm thinking about this right now because I was recently reminded of a woman I met on the last leg of my journey home from the Netherlands. My adventures rarely feature people, because I am not very skilled at engaging in conversation with strangers and accidentally rebuff most of those who try. But on this occasion, I was stranded at the Trenton Transit Center, within what felt like spitting distance of home, at 10:30, and nary a train to deliver me home.

Whilst I checked my phone for alternatives, I discovered that I was inadvertently by the taxi stand and a taxi had pulled up. A woman got into the cab, but the driver hopped out and asked if anyone else needed a ride and would they mind sharing. I was too tired to figure out something cheaper and so I took him up on the offer.

We dropped off the woman first, because she was headed to a local destination. She works night shifts cleaning at a psychiatric hospital in Trenton. The driver knew where she was headed - he's picked her up before - and when she got out of the car, he told me that he thought that another cab driver had avoided pulling up to the stand, because he didn't want to take her on. It turns out that Trenton is a "distressed" city and there are restrictions on how much the drivers can charge. Something like $9.75 a trip.

That was all very interesting, although I didn't give it more than a moment's thought at the time, being rather exhausted. In thinking about it a month later, though, I was struck by a different detail.

This woman is on janitorial staff. She can't be paid very well. I max her at $12 an hour, if she's lucky.

She had to take a train and then, because there were no buses, a cab that cost her almost $10, to get to this low or minimum wage job. I don't know if she could catch a bus back whenever her shift ended in the morning, but she's probably spending at least $15 per shift and possibly more like $25 with train fare factored in and having no idea how far she comes and what the options are.

Meanwhile I'm whining because I'll have to pay about $5 per workday on a pass, instead of the $2 I pay now. And I'm making... double her salary? At a job that literally sits above a regional rail station and a subway stop and one of the busiest bus stops in center city? I will never have a reason to take a cab home, unless SEPTA goes on strike again.

But no, that's not actually the main point, although conviction can be a healthy thing. I was thinking about that in the broader context of structural problems relating to transportation, access, and isolated communities. There's a body of literature that highlights the issues for especially people of color but anyone poor and trapped in an urban ghetto: many people flocked to the city for manufacturing jobs and found themselves stranded when those factories fled. Jobs relocated to suburbs or maybe city centers, but generally places far from where these people called home.

Lacking resources for a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or walking. Not just for work though. For literally everything. Kids need clothes for school? Bus trip to the mall, with a transfer, and two of your kids are over 12 years old, so you're shelling out half your budget just on bus fares and transfers to get you there and back. Big grocery stores may be located on the fringe of your neighborhood, but if you're older, even walking a half mile with a rolling basket can be agonizing and the stores are often along major roads that are lined with strip malls. They're great for cars and terrible for pedestrians, who have to cross busy four lane roads at dangerous intersections.

So where does Wendell Berry come into all this? Alongside his commentary on politics and farming, there's also this emphasis on a diverse, thriving local economy. There's this idea that money spent should circulate first and foremost in the community, going to the people who will also spend it there and not to the Waltons in faraway Arkansas or to Aldi's parent corporation in Germany. It provides jobs locally, lends strength and durability to weather hard times, and gives the next generation something worth staying for and building into.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, as is true, I am sure, of many cities. For outsiders, center city and Old City may be the extent of their experience, but Philadelphia is much, much, much more than that. Honestly, after living here for a year and a half, I find center city to be a false face, a dead heart, compared to the thriving, at times ugly and messy, at times beautiful and unique and goofy life of the neighborhoods. Kensington, West Philly, Bella Vista, Point Breeze, Fairnount, Bridesburg, Oxford Circle, Roxborough, East Falls, Mt. Airy, Port Richmond: all of these places burst with life in a way that center city can't compare to. But that's where all the jobs are.

Oh, not all. There are a few restaurants, coffee shops, laundromats. Mom and Pop corner stores that have been hit hard by the soda tax and are struggling. Grocery stores crop up here and there, on Aramingo, on Columbus, on Gerard, on Oregon, on West Market under the El. But the office buildings and the enormous network of lunch spots, food carts, dry cleaners, shoe polishers, couriers, valet parking attendants, security guards, window washers, 9000 coffee shops of an incredible range of qualities, all of these are located in center city.

We all have to leave our communities to work. And in the process, we contribute to an economic structure that means other people, who are maybe less able to afford the commute, also have to do so. And how much of that benefit really pours back into the community? How much more would we care about and lobby for better streets, more parks and green spaces, greater accessibility, if we actually spent more of our time where we live? How much more of an investment would we have in our neighbors if we actually knew the woman who owns the store that we buy our produce from - and cared to step up when it hits a rough patch or there's a fire, because we recognize the value of having her market nearby, where she employees two full-time clerks and takes on a few teenagers over the summer.

I've run out of time and energy to keep waxing on this theme, but hopefully there's something coherent buried in there. That spending money locally might, in some long term, actually help the woman who has to leave her community and spend $15-25 per shift just to get to a low wage job. And maybe it will help us too, if we can set down our devices long enough to discover that there's something worth experiencing, preserving, stewarding, and developing right outside our front doors.

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