Can we avoid putting up gates?

Essay by Ed Quillen

Small-town life – March 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

AT A MEETING in Denver nearly four years ago, I joked that development hereabouts was turning us into the easternmost gated suburb of Los Angeles — a protected enclave for people of means who prefer to live only among people like themselves.

But that isn’t entirely a joke, and it isn’t just happening to us. It’s a national phenomenon, as explained by a recent article in The Washington Post: Racial segregation is diminishing in America, but income segregation is rising.

“We have reached a new age of inequality in which class lines will grow more rigid as they are amplified and reinforced by a powerful process of geographic concentration,” said Douglas Massey, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania.

Economic class segregation increased by 26% from 1970 to 1990, the article went on to say. That is, poor people tended to live in poor neighborhoods. Yet although the typical affluent American lived in a neighborhood where 39% of the residents were also affluent in 1970; by 1990, it was 52%.

Now, the rich and poor have always, to some degree, been separated in this country — the mansion on the hill as opposed to the hovels on “the wrong side of the tracks.”

But the emerging difference now, according to Paul Jargowsky, an economics professor at Harvard, is that “Up through the first half of this century, generous portions of all classes lived in the same political jurisdictions — if sometimes on the opposite sides of the tracks. They voted in the same elections, drove on the same streets, sent their children to schools operated by the same school district. That gave the rich and middle class exposure to — and a stake in — the fortunes of the poor. And the poor benefited from the services demanded by the middle class and rich…”

But that is increasingly not true. Demographer Massey observed: “The rich and poor no longer are just on different sides of the tracks, they’re in entirely different political jurisdictions.”

That article focused on what this trend means for the urban poor, so I suppose it’s up to us to speculate about this trend and what it means to rural areas and small towns.

Essentially, we’re seeing “white flight” across larger distances. Instead of fleeing South Central Los Angeles for Brentwood or Riverside, instead of departing Denver for Lakewood, people of means are moving to the hinterlands — and the targeted hinterlands run the risk of becoming a sequestered enclave for the wealthy.

This is relatively new. Go back a century or more, and the typical mining baron, after striking it rich in Leadville or Aspen, naturally built an ostentatious mansion in Denver, like Horace Tabor, John Campion and the Browns of unsinkable fame. Or if he was Tom Walsh, he built it in Washington, D.C. But very few of them (John Osgood’s Cleveholm at Redstone is a conspicuous exception) built their palaces anywhere near the noise and smoke that had produced their fortunes. On the other hand, you can’t really blame them for wanting to get as far away as possible from stamp mills and smelter fumes.

Today, the traditional trend has reversed. Now it’s make your money in the city, then build your dream home somewhere up in the mountains. But there’s more to current migration than that.

IT USED TO BE QUITE DIFFICULT to run a business in an isolated small town. For one thing, suppliers nearby lacked inventory, and those with inventory were remote, and so you had to keep more of your assets tied up in inventory.

As an example, when we owned the newspaper in Kremmling, we had to keep hundreds of dollars of parts around for our typesetting machines, because that was the only way to be sure they’d be at hand when something broke.

But now, if a computer goes on the fritz, replacement parts are usually available just down the street. And if they’re not, we can get them shipped here overnight from almost anywhere.

That’s a transportation revolution on the order of the arrival of the railroads. It means that even if you’re in the big empty of Central Colorado, you don’t need to set aside a barn for storing parts and supplies. Just like the big boys in cities, you can operate on a “just in time” basis without tying up your assets in inventory, supplies, and spare parts.

Urban enterprises used to enjoy another advantage — easy access to specialized services like graphic-arts shops or lawyers who focused on arcane fields like copyright law or import-export regulations.

But a communications revolution has arrived. There’s the Internet and faxes, of course, as well as the casual acceptance of long-distance. It used to be that “I’m calling long-distance” would speed you from receptionist to executive. Now, however, if you dared utter that, you’d hear “So what?” in response.

Consider the cultural advantages cities once held — first-run movies, art films, offbeat radio stations, varied television offerings, etc. — and notice that with VCRs, satellite dishes, repeater stations, and the like, the city really doesn’t offer much that you can’t find at home.

While all this progress may seem pleasant, especially if you’ve lived here long enough to remember when the radio offered nothing but static-laden country-and-western and it took a week or more to get a gear that you needed yesterday, it also means that it’s much simpler for people to move here.

For us, moving to Kremmling from Greeley 24 years ago was like moving to a foreign country. Everything was different. In Kremmling back then, two television stations offered nothing but snow, while two red hounds slept in the middle of Main Street (allowing for passage only if you had the courage to evict them), and one of the only two clothing stores in town transacted business by appointment only.

Today, moving from Denver to Salida means much less of an adjustment.

So more people will do it.

Within limits, that’s good. But where’s the limit?

HERE’S WHERE WE run into the income-segregation problem. Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida — all were pretty much lunch-bucket towns. Wages were decent at union jobs, and even if wages weren’t high, living costs were reasonable — the average family could afford to buy a house and put down some roots.

Suppose, though, that these areas become attractive to people with higher incomes, able to migrate because improved transportation and communication have enabled them to bring their livelihoods with them?

Then demand for housing rises. The market either meets that demand, or prices go up. As prices rise, and wages don’t, fewer local working people can afford housing. And that’s why “affordable housing” tops the list when we get surveyed about major local problems.

Once, after a rail trip, I was trying to explain to a friend the difference between a train and an airplane. “Airplanes are like big cities,” I said. “There’s first-class and there’s coach, and you don’t mingle. On a train, there are the high rollers in the sleeper cars, and the rest of us in the coach, but we all have to use the same saloon and café, so it’s like a small town.”

That, to me, was always the virtue of a small town. The banker in Kremmling had the biggest house in town, but his kids went to school there, his street got plowed (or not plowed) the same as everybody else’s, and he stood in line at the post office with the rest of us. In short, we were all in the same boat, and it was in his interest to keep that boat afloat.

In Salida likewise, there are big houses and small — but we’re still in the same boat.

Leadville, though, is turning into a low-income ghetto for the I-70 resort belt. The executives of Vail Associates don’t send their kids to the same schools as are attended by the children of their chattels. They don’t share a political jurisdiction, and so their interests diverge.

Back to Salida — if prices continue to go up, the working poor won’t disappear. America, especially tourist zones, needs working people; somebody has to make the beds, flip the burgers, scrub the toilets. But if they’re pushed out, unable to make their homes in Salida, they’ll land in Villa Grove or Saguache or Howard or Hartsel. So before long, they’ll end up sleeping in a different boat, even though they’re the ones doing most of the paddling during their waking hours.

Which brings us to various comprehensive plans now underway for Poncha Springs, Salida, Chaffee County, and doubtless other jurisdictions in Central Colorado.

THE CHAFFEE CONSULTANT is Clarion Associates, and the liaison is Chris Duerkson. I’ve talked to Chris on several occasions, and he’s fully aware of the housing problem.

If you zone for low-density open space that means big parcels, 35 acres and up. And that means expensive housing. If you zone for more density, thereby increasing the supply of houses, you lose the open space, and you increase the burdens on schools, utilities, law-enforcement, etc. And just saying you’ll try to provide “affordable housing” usually means hustling state or federal subsidies, a notoriously unreliable source of funds.

Phil Derusha, who had sat on Chaffee’s plan oversight committee, resigned on Jan. 20, and sent a blast to the local newspaper detailing his reasons. His major concern: “At a time when we should be addressing the expansion and diversification of our local economy, all we seem to be able to come up with is a plan that focuses on preserving and promoting the quality of life for the county’s elite.”

Now, I think there are things local government could do to improve the situation, although no local government has the cojones:

Eliminate all zoning and building-code restrictions except those for health and safety. If it’s a fire hazard, outlaw it. But otherwise, no minimum house size, no required set-backs, no restriction on manufactured housing. If somebody wants to put a trailer on a 25-foot-wide lot, then it’s affordable housing without a subsidy, and we should rejoice.

Refuse to enforce protective covenants. If homeowners associations want to go to civil court at their own expense, that’s their right. But the county shouldn’t be concerned with whether they used asphalt shingles instead of shakes.

Restore the stigma to ostentation. Conservative critics like Robert Bork allow that while bastardy, profanity, and wenching were not unknown in the past, the modern society they decry has removed the stigma from these acts. They become socially acceptable, to some degree, and social structures start to break down.

I’d have more respect for these critics if they also mentioned that ostentation, once frowned upon in small towns, has also become socially respectable. It’s one thing to enjoy a 3,000-square-foot house and a new car because you’ve earned them; it’s quite another to build a 5,000-square-foot trophy house on a ridge line with a six-car garage that you only park in twice a year.

I don’t know that local governments could or should outlaw ostentation, but they could stigmatize it, say by passing resolutions denouncing such excess, or by refusing to protect such palace dwellers from unsightly neighbors.

IN SHORT, I CAN FANTASIZE about ways that we could avoid income segregation in rural areas. But then, alas, my fantasy extends onward, to some morning in 2007 when Pamela and Courtney are sipping designer coffee at their ostentatious home in Santa Fé, Telluride, or Boulder.

“You know, dear, I’ve concluded that we live in a very sterile homogeneous environment here, and I just read that the coming thing is communities with economic diversity.”

“You’re right, sweetheart. And there’s this town in the mountains that just won a national award for successfully protecting its economic diversity.”

“Great! Let’s sell out and move there.”

And so they do, driving prices up, and pushing poor people out, even though the local folks thought they’d enacted a plan to keep that from happening.

As the Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero observed two millennia ago, “There is no fortress so strong that money cannot take it.” As long as that remains true, I don’t know that planners and planning consultants can ever come up with a way to prevent income segregation.

But life here was interesting, and often more pleasant, when we shared the same boat. And it won’t be the same when we’re amid a flotilla of yachts.

— Ed Quillen