Last month, I headed out west and took my community activism on the road to a War on Poverty conference in San Francisco.
Back in March, I submitted a research paper I had written, which detailed my work on an abandoned home in Cleveland. The house was owned by a man in prison who had no money, and no means to pay the mortgage, insurance or back taxes.
The paper detailed several twists and turns. There was bank law and betrayal; system failure and social ills; public outrage and poverty. I submitted it to my peers, and it was selected to be presented during a national conference for researchers.
Five Years in Cleveland: What Happened to Old Brooklyn? weaved together the story of a single-family home that might have been saved during a time when Cleveland was already knee deep in foreclosures. This little house sat next to a church and a neighborhood full of kids, and I watched it fade from beauty to abandonment.
Piece by piece, the home was gutted from the inside out and left for thieves. But it certainly began a colorful journey for me, as I began to unravel the details for my paper. I learned that the man who owned the house was a repeat sex offender, and he obtained the home through predatory means. No one was willing to reach out to him while he sat inside his prison cell, and I wrote about my frustration with the system and a number of issues related to crime, foreclosure and poverty. As an activist, there were challenges trying to navigate the red tape and work through a system that was bitter and broken.
I also examined the role of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, and why community activism is something to fight for. And I especially recall the day that my life changed in an instant. Last December, I was watching the bulldozer knock down the home and push it into a twisted pile of rubble. There in the far corner of the lot, a visitor watched with his head down. I introduced myself, and learned that he was the great-nephew of the couple who lived in the home many years previously. Later, we would meet and talk by phone. I learned about the history of the house through family photos, letters and happier times.
It was nice to hear his story and recount it to people who appreciate the power of an instant. We are not the only people who believe that this home could have been saved. But who had been willing to listen?
The conference in San Francisco was led by one of my former Case Western Reserve University colleagues, Dr. Anna Maria Santiago. Dr. Santiago served as President of SSSP, The Society for the Study of Social Problems, which hosted the conference. During the three-day event, she shared her research about housing issues in Denver and “how place matters.” She is one of many researchers who has studied urban neighborhoods over the years and their impact on children.
Her work — like much of the research I studied at CWRU — is leading me down a career path I never knew. The conference in California was especially meaningful to me, because the theme was Fifty Years Later: From a War on Poverty to a War on the Poor. In a previous blog post, I talked about why this was important to me, in great detail.
And it seems like every time I travel, I see a side of life that is hidden behind walls. Even in beauty, I saw homeless camps peering out of weeds and brush. As I drove along the Pacific Coast for this trip, for example, I took photos of a beautiful coastline, but I also saw the remnants of an underworld. I have seen this on trips before and have witnessed this while hiking along suburban trails and across streams and ponds. Hurrying to my next train in the city, I caught a glimpse of the young men who had no place to go, outside the cold-stained walls of a subway station.
One of my most meaningful slice-of-life moments occurred whenever I rode the bus through Chinatown and Haight, and witnessed the smiles and frustrations of everyday life along Lombard Street. The homeless and the poor are everywhere, and when you meet with like-minded colleagues to address this, you get a feel for what’s real and what stands in your way. I made a lot of connections I’ll never forget.
There is so much to reflect on from other research that was presented from around the world. So many people are doing such meaningful work to address poverty, food insecurity, and social inequality. The work really is transformative.
I am grateful for how I am being moved to act in these moments, as I begin to write the chapter of my next 50 years. It is incredibly moving to stare at an empty lot, and then again at the photos of a young man’s childhood memories. We all need to realize what was lost, for too many reasons, unexplained.