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Slums - social and economic problems

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

Slums are one of America’s major social and economic problems.

This in spite of the fact that we live in an “affluent society”; in spite of (he fact that we have had housing and slum clearance programs for many years; in spite of the fact that people have been moving out of the inner city to suburbia.

The slums are still with us and so is poverty. The two go together, along with assorted other relations, making for an extremely complicated “mul­ti-problem family” that threatens the health and viability of the American system.

They trap people and ensnare them in a way of life that in most cases can hardly be called civilized. They are equivalent to new-world ghettos. They drive vital elements out of the city and exert strong pressures toward dete­rioration of the city.

Sometimes “image”, America’s great concern, is regarded as a false value. The complaint is valid when it has to do with an image of high social status derived from the kind of cigarette you smoke or the car you drive. It is not valid when it comes to the image the rest of the world has of a nation.

“Slum” is a good, old-fashioned word that carries real meaning. Other terms have been invented to define more precisely different kinds of poor areas, or for euphemistic reasons, or just to get away from tired old words. Some of these are “blighted area,” “deteriorated neighborhood,” “gray area,” “lower class neighborhood,” “low income area.”

A slum is a cancer in a city. A city that is not making at least partially energetic and effective sorties against its slums is in danger of the slum’s metastacizing, and changing the essential character of the city itself.

In broad strokes the picture is something like this. Those who can afford it move out of the city proper to the suburbs. Those who move out are those who have better jobs, more money, less skin pigmentation. They pay more taxes and can effectively demand more and better education for their children.

In addition to people, much economic activity also moves out of the city.

The city proper begins to have more people with less money, less education, poorer jobs, and more social problems, while the suburbs collect the white, middle class people who are better able to pay for government and public services and who contribute to keeping suburban standards of behavior, education, culture, and physical environment up to par, in accordance with the American dream. Of course, as we know from the myriad books and articles on the ills of suburbia, there are problems at that end of the line as well: the suburbs are where most of the people on the way up want to be.

What follows is a downward, self-accelerating spiral for the core of the city, with an increase in blight, crime, dependency, and other familiar problems.

There is a difference between a slum and a gray area, although the line lie tween the two may not always be easily identifiable. A gray area is an area in downward transition. This is where wealthier people used to live.

They have now gone to the suburbs, and their houses and apartments are being subdivided to accommodate many more occupants, often people relatively new to the city. It is called “gray” precisely because it’s an in- between kind of place, neither a slum nor a high-income, residential zone.

Probably the introduction of many literate people to poverty, crime, all kinds of sinfulness, and the slums comes through Oliver Twist. Some of the allusions are out of date but the mood of a London slum a century and a quarter ago was not unlike that of our slums today.

“The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wran­gling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerg­ing, bound, to all appearance, on no very well disposed or harmless errands.”

From: The Slums. Challenge and Response by D. R. Hunter