Sociologists call them "toxic neighborhoods," communities where the confluence of chronic poverty, drug trafficking, unemployment, violent crime and low educational levels create and sustain a perpetual underclass.
Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, where I and 30 other students from UB's Newman Center spent our spring break, is a textbook case study of such a community.
The neighborhood made headlines last April as the epicenter of the city's three-day race riots, sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white cop. Vine Street, the infamous haven for prostitutes and crack dealers that snakes through the impoverished neighborhood, was featured in the 2000 movie about the drug trade, Traffic.
The statistics that quantify the city's troubles are staggering; the human faces that embody those statistics are heartbreaking.
More than 25,000 people were counted as homeless at some point in 2000-2001, including people living in shelters, on the street and doubled-up with friends or family, according to the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. A one-day count by the U.S. Census in March 2000 documented 996 homeless individuals - a conservative number, by any account.
Three-quarters of the students in the city's public school system will not graduate from high school, a virtual death sentence in terms of later employment and advancement. Crime rates have soared over the past year, including a 52-percent increase in homicide, with 61 people murdered in 2001. And Over-the-Rhine boasts the highest proportion of abandoned buildings in the city, reminiscent of Buffalo where rows of vacant and boarded-up structures serve as an ever-present reminder of the city's decay.
Those are just some of the obstacles that face Over-the-Rhine, where broken homes are the typical family, soup kitchens outnumber employment agencies, and even in the homeless shelter, where hunger would seem to be the great equalizer, distinctions on the basis of race flourish.
The Drop Inn Center Shelterhouse in Over-the-Rhine, where I spent several hours of my week, supplied the faces and the stories that humanized the otherwise lifeless statistics. The mission of the nonprofit, privately-run center is simple - to provide a place to sleep and food for anyone in need, regardless of personal circumstance.
Upon entering the center, the view was much of what I thought it would be: about 30 or so people, mainly middle-aged men, lounging around in chairs, watching TV or staring vacantly into space. The scene fit the stereotype of the homeless - lazy, unambitious people who could be working, but choose not to.
On my first day at the shelter, a former resident-turned-staffer asked me what types of people I thought frequented the shelter.
"Unemployed," I said, offering the first thing I could think of. Drunks was another label that came to mind, but my brain's PC filter kept that one from leaving my mouth.
That notion, however, was quickly shattered when I learned that close to 300 people had crashed on the center's mattresses the previous evening and that the bulk of those residents held jobs during the day, only returning to the shelter at night.
The fact that people who worked full time could not earn enough money to feed their children or put a roof over their heads was mind-boggling to me. As one of my colleagues said, it brought a whole new meaning to the word "living wage."
A local apartment costs about $600 to $700 a month, even in Over-the-Rhine. The city's admitted lack of affordable housing means that men and women earning $7 or $8 an hour - not merely the unemployed - are forced to call shelter home.
The shelter's residents defied categorization, each with a story to tell and a lesson to be learned. In one corner of the center, Jim Arnold, a college-educated writer brimming with historical knowledge penned poems about life on the streets, while in another corner of the room, a fellow spring breaker's life flashed before her eyes as she witnessed a drug transaction while cheerily handing out homemade sandwiches to the residents.
The only thing uniting the center's inhabitants was the stench - of unshowered laborers, unchanged clothes, dime-store liquor, and most of all, wasted lives, unrealized human potential and the smell of people who have been given-up on and therefore give up.
While the habitual problems that plague Over-the-Rhine cannot be pinned on any one cause, actions of local political players seem only to exacerbate the desperate situation. Efforts to "revitalize" the city, while praiseworthy in intent, translate to pushing the already marginalized population farther and farther outside the urban core to the river that demarcates Cincinnati's ultimate boundary.
As part of its "revitalization" process, city officials are attempting to close down the Drop Inn Center, to replace the homeless population with a posh art gallery, out of reach for most of the residents of Over-the-Rhine. As another example of the city's misplaced priorities, the Cincinnati City Council gave Saks Fifth Avenue a $6.5 million subsidy to maintain their downtown store, only blocks away from the prostitutes and open-air drug deals that provide the economic mainstay of the city's poorest.
The debates taking place in legislatures around the country, particularly the red-carpeted houses of Congress, seem hollow and completely devoid of the ugly reality that politicians with polished shoes and three-piece suits may never have encountered or have long since forgotten, immersed in a world of cocktail parties, posh fundraisers and Ivy League appearances.
It is a reality that, while branded in my brain, is escaped as I return to the safe halls of academia, encircled by the insulated bubble that is suburban life, where the plight of downtown Buffalo creeps into the news or town hall discussions but is successfully kept on the outskirts of consciousness, just as the urban Metro Rail line stops just shy of the sign welcoming passersby to Amherst.
The issue is not about blame - although there is certainly enough of that to go around - but the simple brutal fact that for the vast majority of residents in Over-the-Rhine, and other urban communities, success is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of children born into "toxic neighborhoods" will never walk the halls of an institution like UB; they will be lucky if they graduate high school, lucky if they escape their childhood without abuse or neglect, lucky if they survive adolescence without a criminal record or jail time, lucky if they are able to rise above the quicksand of hopelessness and helplessness that leads many of the residents to become casualties of their surroundings.
And whether you're a bleeding heart liberal or a compassionless conservative, I think we can all agree that's a shame.