The people of the Census Bureau are probably some of the unsung heroes of the United States government. In a representative republic such as ours, a census is absolutely vital to determining who gets represented, etc. My home state of Washington will get another representative in Congress, since we have grown since the last census in 2000. The census also collects other information, and that information can be an absolute gold mine. Specific census data — with names attached, that is — is opened up to historians, genealogists, researchers, and the curious after seventy years. Generalized data, i.e. averages without names, is revealed more quickly. The New York Times and Google Maps have now taken recent census estimates and put together a remarkable website, Mapping America, which shows averages on race, income, rents and mortgages, and education for “every city, every block” in the country.

(Ostensibly every block. The city of Mercer Island, near Seattle, simply doesn’t appear to have any information, as if the Census or the Times simply don’t think it exists. There are also considerable areas labeled “Low Population Area” or “Small Sample Size” that don’t turn anything up. But still, it’s darn close.)

By going to the site you are confronted with the racial breakdown of New York City. Zooming in you can get a better look, and can mouse over any census tract to bring up information. Zooming out you can get a national view, with county-by-county breakdowns available. Going up to the button “View More Maps,” you can switch from the racial distribution to other maps based on race; going over to the sidebar on the “More Maps” screen you can bring up map sets based on income, households, and education as well.

Let’s look at what the site teaches us.

First things first: I, as many of you no doubt will, brought up my own neighborhood. (This can be done by typing in any address next to the “Go” button.) The site reveals that in the city of Seattle I live in Census Tract 5, near the corner of Wallingford Avenue and N. 45th Street. Estimated population 3,257. To my total lack of surprise, I find that I live in a fairly racially homogeneous neighborhood: 86% White. The largest minority group is the ill-defined category “Asians,” at 7%. 3% Black, 1% Hispanic, and 4% “Other” — a catch-all category that includes everyone from First Nations folk (as finding the Navajo Reservation in Arizona shows) to Somali refugees. Despite being white,  and located in a quite nice neighborhood, my neighbors and I are not automatically prosperous; 19% of us make less than $30,000 annually, and in fact we are almost perfectly broken into quintiles: 21% make up to $49,999, 20% of us earn $50,000 to $74,999, and so on. Our median income is $54,087, a drop of 8% since the year 2000, but still comfortably well-off. 5% of us earn more than $200,000 a year. Rents average $971 per month — not bad; by a little rapid math we determine that someone making the median income and paying median rent would be spend about one-fifth of their income on rent annually. Homeowners are a little worse off, with 33% of people with mortgages spending 30% or more of their income paying the loans down. Educationally speaking we’re well-off: all but 1% of us graduated from high school, 81% of us have a bachelor’s degree, and 29% of us have a master’s — including me, although as this is 2009 data and I moved here six months ago I wasn’t counted. Again, these are all averages!

I live in Wallingford, though, a famously comfortable and convenient neighborhood. We’re north of the Ship Canal, too, the cut through the middle of this skinny city. There’s a basic rule that most in Seattle know: north of the canal, we’re mostly white and mostly middle-class. South of the canal, there are concentrations of whites but minorities start showing up. Famously poorer and more diverse neighborhoods such as the Central District, Othello, and Beacon Hill show up. These neighborhoods are inland, away from the valuable waterfront property, and displaying a longstanding though not inviolable trend of richer districts to the north, west, and on hills, with poorer folks living in valleys and to the south and east. Looking at the racial distribution map of Seattle, whites predominate in the middle and north, along the shores, plus clustered on high-density Capitol Hill; Asians are present throughout but start showing up in greater numbers south of downtown, especially in the International District (formerly Chinatown); and blacks barely turn up at all until you’re south of Madison Street.

Go far enough south, and you get to Rainier Beach.

Rainier Avenue and Othello Street is, perhaps unfairly, maligned as “dangerous.” Next to other cities that’s a joke; during daylight, at least, I can walk through there in perfect safety. But still: it’s known gang territory, with shootings now and then; Othello Street turns up in Seattle rap songs. It’s also roughly where my parents live.

They live in Census Tract 118: 7,450 estimated population, 21% White, 39% Black, 23% Asian, 10% Hispanic, 7% Other. 35% of the people were foreign-born. It’s reputedly one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the US; certainly it’s one of the most integrated in the city. I have to say, though, that their tract includes part of the lake shore, east of Rainier Avenue, and the property values are affected by the view. My parents live west of Rainier. Another tract, just two blocks north of their house, lies entirely between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard* and Rainier: a bit more representative of their neighborhood. 11% White, 33% Black, 35% Asian, 18% Other — mostly East Africans, in this case. 41% are earning less than $30k; the median income is only $37,000, down 28% in the last ten years. Meanwhile median rent is 20% up, to $830: one-quarter of an average income would go straight to rent. High school graduation rate: 66%. (Rainier Beach High School, just down the street, is famously rough, though the people there are doing good work with what they have.) College degree rate: 16%. Are we seeing the pattern here, my friends?

It’s fascinating how fast the shift happens. Cross Rainier Ave. from my parents’ front door, go up the hill two blocks toward the lake, and the bars come off the windows. The lawns look manicured, the cars and houses look more pricey, and the pedestrians get whiter. You start seeing joggers. A literal stone’s throw away, the poverty kicks in, the drug deals and drug busts scale up, the cop cars get more frequent.

It gets worse. Take New York, the American city, the city that has such sway over us all; the city where our wealth ostensibly lies, the city that came under attack because there could be no more “American” target. Try the corner of 96th Street and 5th Avenue, just across from Central Park at the lake. 4,135 people living in Census Tract 16001: 90% of them White. 1% Black. Median household income: $228,750. That’s up 16% since the Clinton days. 99% graduation rate — heck, 54% have master’s degrees. 81% of their elementary-age kids are in private schools.

Travel just fourteen blocks north — less than a mile, perhaps fifteen minutes’ walk — and you come to a dividing line far more severe than Seattle’s Ship Canal, a line so famous that even I, West Coaster that I am, know you can’t get a pizza delivered across it: 110th Street. Walk up 5th Avenue, take a left at the corner of the park, and you wind up in Census Tract 186. 5,543 people, the census guesses. 69% making less than $30,000 a year. Median income: $16,768, down 7% since 2000. Monthly rent: $515, up 30%. 55% high school graduation rate, 14% with a college degree. 52% Black, 31% Hispanic.

Think about that for a moment. Down on 96th Street they pull in six figures. Walk a bit north and you find people making one-thirteenth of that, forking out 36% for rent.

I’ve got to ask you: how does it happen that, separated by a distance of less than a mile, we’ve let such a chasm open? How is it that we say we’re so prosperous when such grinding poverty exists, and so close by? How do we get off saying that “if you just work hard enough” you’ll get ahead, when the numbers clearly say that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer?

I’ve got to ask you: how do we permit this?

How do we not even see it?

The poor break their backs and empty their wallets for a scrap of what the rich can pay for out of petty cash. The cycle perpetuates to the next generation with the huge discrepancies in education.

Does that seem right to you?

Census Tract 6912, 76th Street & Vincennes, South Chicago:
College degrees: 15%
Median income: $31,667
Racial breakdown: 100% Black.
Census Tract 8006, Kenilworth, IL:
College degrees: 88% (including 49% with masters’)
Median income: $247,000 (although they’re hurting; that’s down 4% since 2000!)
Racial breakdown: 96% White.

Census Tract 2141 Highland Ave. & Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles:
Race: 93% White
Median income: $112,188
Kids in private school: 84%
Tract 236202, corner of Coliseum & La Brea:
Race: 53% Black and 41% Hispanic
Median income: $25,684 (62% making less than $30k)
Kids in private school: 4%

It’s fascinating, watching the ripple effect of private schooling — the wealth pattern in LA is typical, the money getting better as you go uphill, but the private schooling actually drops off as you get further from the core of the city: get out far enough and the public schools start getting good again. As a substitute teacher I’ve watched this pattern up close and personal. Rainier Beach High School is dilapidated, no two chairs the same in the classroom I was in, working with chalkboards; Newport High School, barely five miles away as the crow flies, is essentially brand-new, with a SmartBoard in every room — teaching technology so advanced it looks like it was stolen straight from Bill Gates’ house. All that separates these two schools and their separate districts is five miles, a lake, and an a nearly impassable chasm of wealth, race, and privilege…

Census Tract 9702, Webster Springs, WV, in the heart of Appalachia:
Median income: $19,991
Change since 2000: -32%
Census Tract 629, Newport Beach, CA, in the heart of Orange County:
Median income: $218,984
Change since 2000: +64%

Census Tract 5701, four blocks west of the White House:
Median income: $13,594 — up 10% since 2000, at least.
Census Tract 58, two blocks east of the White House:
Median income: $107,208 — up 105%.

See some of this for yourself. Check Milwaukee’s racial breakdown. Check out “liberal” San Francisco’s economic disparity. Check out the college education rate in Pine Ridge, SD. Check out Baltimore on the racial map: the solid blue patch right in the middle, already visible at the third-lowest magnification, is Census Tract 1003, 82% Black — or, in other words, the 3,196 people jammed into the Baltimore jails. Across the street the median income is $10,000 a year and falling, down 32%.

Our nation is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln told us. Created equal we may well be, but born equal we emphatically are not. Assume for a split second that all adults living in the grinding poverty of 110th Street in NYC deserve to be poor — that they are lazy, incompetent, drug addicts. Assume that every slander you’ve ever heard about the poor is true. But sometime today there will be a child born in that neighborhood who will suffer all of poverty’s crushing and scarring evils. To say that child deserved to be born there is to believe in karma of the most vindictive sort. And the slanders are not true, not universally. Impoverished parents and impoverished schools rear impoverished kids who become impoverished parents, and here we go again.

Meanwhile, if that baby could pack up, walk fourteen blocks south, and get adopted into a family living there, the child’s future would be wildly and cruelly different: the best schools from day one, parents capable of sending the kid to any college in the country, the best nutrition and health care from cradle to grave. And one day the kid will be grown, pulling down a six-figure income in turn, and look down from the brand-new apartment on the Upper East Side at 110th Street, almost close enough to spit, and say, “Gosh, I made the right choice, didn’t I?”

There is no justice. Not when such enormous disparities of wealth exist. Not when those disparities break down so clearly on racial lines. Not when those disparities perpetuate themselves so obviously in education and subsequently in income. Not when such close neighbors might as well live on different planets; not when the wealthiest can literally look down on the poorest and hurl slanders about laziness and stupidity when they themselves were, by and large, simply extremely fortunate in their choice of parents. There is no justice.

But there is a chance for mercy. For compassion.

When we live so close — when I can move up three tax brackets by walking three blocks from my parents’ house, or by walking from one end of DC’s National Mall to the other — then the gaps between us are not those of miles, but of our minds. We do not need to go around the world to hold out our hands in generosity and kinship (although we should still do that too). We can just walk, and then talk.

The latter part, of course, is the tricky part.

The blocks — the stumbling blocks, the mental blocks — are in our hearts. This does not mean that the blocks are easy to overcome. The language obstacle can be enormous, more than we know. It can be so easy to set a foot wrong, to condescend or offend. Moreover the act of compassion does not always come readily. But we are neighbors, living close by. We built the blocks between us. We can also tear them down. Find common ground. Faith might serve, or food. It can begin with a nod, a smile, a handshake, an exchange of names. From these small seeds great things can grow.

I believe — I have always been taught — that those with more have a responsibility to those with less: more blessings, more money, more power. It’s the bedrock of my faith, when you look at the words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So I say this once again: reach out. Act with compassion. Give freely.

* — It seems every street in the country named for Dr. King runs through the poor part of town.

1 thought on “Blocks

  1. I would guess that a few short blocks from the great villas of ancient Rome, there was squalor and starvation. It seems that some things never truly change.

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