Suc­cess still elu­sive in his­tor­i­cally poor ar­eas

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Papp

John­nie Mae Wel­don has idyl­lic mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in Nor­walk.

Wel­don, 63, spent her first 11 years in the Rood­ner Court hous­ing pro­jects in South Nor­walk in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The aver­age black kid, that’s where we grew up, in the pro­jects,” Wel­don said. “That was the best place in the world to grow up.”

She moved with her fam­ily in the 1966 to Or­chard Street, near the Carver Cen­ter and dead in the cen­ter of the Way­pointe Dis­trict, on which con­struc­tion be­gan in 2013 with “the af­flu­ent cou­ples and fam­i­lies of Fair­field County in mind,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site. She watched, over the course of sev­eral decades, how her neigh­bor­hood and much of Nor­walk be­gan to change.

With up­scale apart­ments in Way­pointe came ex­pen­sive bars and restau­rants, and the de­mo­li­tion of large parts of the neigh­bor­hood. In South Nor­walk, too, young ur­ban pro­fes­sion­als have swarmed in droves, bring­ing with them busi­nesses, art gal­leries, mu­sic and in­creased traf­fic in what has be­come the city’s epi­cen­ter for nightlife.

But do ris­ing tides lift all boats?

Wel­don thinks not. In the years since her child­hood, she has seen th­ese cen­tral parts of Nor­walk be­come less safe and, in more re­cent years, less af­ford­able and less wel­com­ing to the fam­i­lies that for many decades called them home.

Her un­der­stand­ing, sup­ported by a re­cent study, of the sit­u­a­tion that many long­time Nor­walk res­i­dents face is that poor peo­ple stay poor in Nor­walk, or are ul­ti­mately forced to leave, as the city around them evolves.

The study, known as the Op­por­tu­nity At­las, is com­pre­hen­sive cen­sus-tract anal­y­sis con­ducted by a team of schol­ars at Har­vard and Brown uni­ver­si­ties and U.S. Cen­sus Bureau staff. It’s an in­ter­ac­tive map that pre­dicts chil­dren’s out­comes in adult­hood, in­clud­ing earn­ings dis­tri­bu­tions and in­car­cer­a­tion rates, among oth­ers, by parental in­come, race and gen­der. In essence, it de­picts a child’s so­cial mo­bil­ity.

In Nor­walk, the map shows how across ra­cial di­vides, chil­dren in the poor­est parts of the city — specif­i­cally South Nor­walk, Wall Street, and the area south­west of Wash­ing­ton Street, bounded roughly west to east by Martin Luther King Drive and Wa­ter Street — likely have less so­cial mo­bil­ity than chil­dren grow­ing up else­where in the city.

The three neigh­bor­hoods com­prise a red slab in the cen­ter of the city. Chil­dren born there, to par­ents of all in­comes, are ex­pected to make well be­low the city­wide and na­tion­wide me­dian house­hold in­come (even in ar­eas like South Nor­walk around Wash­ing­ton Street, where me­dian house­hold in­come ex­ceeded $70,000 be­tween 2012 and 2016 and me­dian rent was $1,300 from 2006 to 2010), and have higher rates of teen preg­nancy, in­car­cer­a­tion and evic­tion. They are also less likely to leave Nor­walk than chil­dren born in other neigh­bor­hoods. City­wide, the me­dian in­come is just over $80,000 ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus data. The At­las pro­jects that chil­dren raised in th­ese three neigh­bor­hoods will make no more than $30,000 as adults.

A na­tional trend

Th­ese are trends seen na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to Sa­cred Heart Univer­sity So­ci­ol­ogy Pro­fes­sor Ger­ald Reid, and are not par­tic­u­larly novel. Poverty is, through laws and poli­cies, con­cen­trated and then passed down. Those con­fined to it of­ten suf­fer. But the in­ter­ac­tive map al­lows pol­icy mak­ers and mem­bers of the pub­lic to view the un­just trends in more vivid, and hope­fully, more in­struc­tive ways.

“As an area be­comes more de­sir­able for so­cial and cul­tural rea­sons, de­mand for hous­ing goes up, then the cost of hous­ing and rental rates go up as well,” Reid said. “What of­ten hap­pens is the process ends up push­ing out lower in­come peo­ple. They get moved into ar­eas where those so­cial and cul­tural op­por­tu­ni­ties, that do play an im­por­tant part in life out­comes, are less ac­ces­si­ble.”

The re­sult is of­ten re­lo­ca­tion into com­mu­ni­ties that haven’t yet been gen­tri­fied.

“You got a lot of peo­ple who used to live in Nor­walk who can’t af­ford it any­more. They live in Bridge­port, or Strat­ford, or even fur­ther up,” Wel­don said. “You still have a few who are able to hang in there, but the ma­jor­ity of those who lived here most of their lives are no longer here.”

Brenda Penn-Wil­liams, pres­i­dent of the Nor­walk chap­ter of the NAACP, grew up on Mer­win Street. She said it was once a vi­brant com­mu­nity that’s now been bi­sected by the de­vel­op­ment, which brought ex­pen­sive din­ing es­tab­lish­ments and bars that those still hang­ing on can’t af­ford to use.

“Every­body knew every­body, from Com­merce Street to Har­bor Av­enue. It was just like one big fam­ily,” Penn-Wil­liams said. That’s no longer the case. New res­i­dents and old res­i­dents rarely in­ter­act, she said.

Fix­ing the prob­lem

Im­por­tant in pre­dict­ing the suc­cess of any child is the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in which he or she is raised. But also pre­dic­tive are ac­cess to so­cial and cul­tural cap­i­tal.

So­cial cap­i­tal, Reid said, refers to ac­cess to so­cial net­works and role mod­els in a com­mu­nity, and across com­mu­ni­ties in the form of di­verse so­cial net­works. Cul­tural cap­i­tal in­cludes ac­cess to ex­pe­ri­ences, mu­se­ums, stores, leisure op­por­tu­ni­ties, parks and recre­ational pro­grams.

In the­ory, the kind of de­vel­op­ment hap­pen­ing at Way­pointe and in South Nor­walk could pro­vide more op­por­tu­ni­ties for so­cial and cul­tural cap­i­tal. But lower in­come res­i­dents are of­ten ex­cluded. Reid said ac­cess to af­ford­able hous­ing and to ed­u­ca­tion are two of the more cru­cial prob­lems to ad­dress if we want to re­verse that trend of seg­re­ga­tion.

“What needs to hap­pen along with so­cial and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment, is at­ten­tion paid to af­ford­able hous­ing, so peo­ple can re­main in those ar­eas,” the SHU pro­fes­sor said. “And greater ed­u­ca­tional, or more equal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity, I think is one of the key ar­eas where in­equal­ity might be ad­dressed.”

On the ed­u­ca­tion front, Nor­walk Schools Chief Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer Brenda Wil­cox Wil­liams said the dis­trict has worked to pro­vide more ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to stu­dents and fam­i­lies, and that the dis­trict’s Strate­gic Op­er­at­ing Plan was drafted in part with the goal of clos­ing achieve­ment gaps in mind. Dis­trict pro­grams like the Nor­walk Early Col­lege academy, the Marine Science Academy that is in de­vel­op­ment, the Health Sciences Academy, or mag­net schools that rely on ap­pli­ca­tions and lot­ter­ies are de­signed to help even the field.

The dis­trict has also de­vised a new tech­nol­ogy ini­tia­tive in which all in­com­ing ninth-graders are given a lap­top, which they keep with them dur­ing their high schools years. Stu­dents in need can also re­ceive Sprint WiFi hotspots for in­ter­net ac­cess at home. More than 400 have been distributed.

“This is one of those ef­forts around de­vel­op­ing equitable ac­cess for all stu­dents,” said Ralph Valen­zisi, chief of tech­nol­ogy, in­no­va­tions and part­ner­ships for Nor­walk Schools.

Sim­i­lar ef­forts are be­ing made in hous­ing.

Adam Bovil­sky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Nor­walk’s Hous­ing Au­thor­ity, said the city has long used sim­i­lar data from the Kir­wan In­sti­tute for the Study of Race and Eth­nic­ity to guide pol­icy.

“For a long time there’s been a drive to help our ten­ants to decon­cen­trate poverty and move into neigh­bor­hoods of greater op­por­tu­nity,” Bovil­sky said. “In many re­gards that is the pur­pose of the hous­ing choice voucher pro­gram (known as Sec­tion 8). That pro­gram says in­stead of build­ing more pub­lic hous­ing in con­cen­tra­tions of poverty, we want our low­in­come fam­i­lies to be able to move into neigh­bor­hoods of less poverty con­cen­tra­tion where they have more op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Decon­cen­trat­ing poverty does ap­pear ef­fec­tive.

Ac­cord­ing to the At­las, chil­dren born to low-in­come par­ents in neigh­bor­hoods in af­flu­ent north­ern Nor­walk neigh­bor­hoods like Sil­ver­mine or Cran­bury are pro­jected to make $48,000 an­nu­ally as adults. In every other neigh­bor­hood in Nor­walk, low-in­come chil­dren are ex­pected to make more money as adults than would their coun­ter­parts in the three poor­est cen­sus tracts.

The abil­ity for res­i­dents to make th­ese kinds of moves, how­ever, is lim­ited.

Since 2007, only 34 per­cent of voucher par­tic­i­pants moved to lower poverty ar­eas. From April 2016 through March 2017, 72 of 128 to­tal movers re­lo­cated to higher poverty tracks. Among other things, Bovil­sky said there needs to be in­creased ef­forts to build pub­lic hous­ing in sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties in the area.

Plus, the Hous­ing Au­thor­ity’s reach is lim­ited. Bovil­sky said there is a wait list of roughly 700 peo­ple wait­ing for pub­lic hous­ing. Those who don’t re­ceive vouch­ers must find other hous­ing op­tions in the pri­vate hous­ing market.

“If we want to make sure every child in Fair­field County has a bright fu­ture and good op­por­tu­ni­ties, we need to make sure that we build fam­ily af­ford­able hous­ing in th­ese com­mu­ni­ties,” Bovil­sky said.

But, from Wel­don’s per­spec­tive, not only is there not enough af­ford­able hous­ing be­ing built in the sub­urbs, there are in­creas­ingly less rea­son­ably priced units in ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods.

“There’s no de­vel­op­ers that are be­ing sym­pa­thetic to the peo­ple who’ve lived here all their lives,” the long­time Nor­walk res­i­dent said.

As a re­sult, a sig­nif­i­cant seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion is feel­ing squeezed, which, as Reid said, is not a new phe­nom­e­non. But data like the Op­por­tu­nity At­las does pro­vide new vi­su­als for th­ese very Amer­i­can trends of in­equal­ity.

“I think what it re­ally brings into re­lief is some­thing I knew be­fore,” Reid said. “You can have sig­nif­i­cant poverty and sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced life op­por­tu­ni­ties, right next door to sig­nif­i­cant wealth and in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity.”

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

John­nie Mae Wel­don out­side her child­hood home, one of few houses that still stand on Or­chard Street in the shadow of the Way­pointe de­vel­op­ment in Nor­walk.

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