Last Friday I wrote about how depressing I found the BBC Four documentary Why Poverty? Park Avenue – Money, Power and the American Dream, which documented the rise and rise of the super-rich and the dramatic growth in wealth inequality over the past 30 years. If you need cheering up I suggest you look elsewhere, maybe even catch Les Mis. If you want to better understand the forces shaping our world (besides musical theatre, that is), I suggest you check it out.
Now I don’t know about you but I sometimes find focusing on the big picture, however important, can lead to apathy and a sense that the world is the way it is and there’s not much you or I can do to change it. Recognising this, I want to zoom in on an interesting surface detail of the Park Avenue documentary, namely the fact that only a small amount of water separates supremely wealthy Park Avenue in Manhattan from Park Avenue in the South Bronx, one of the United States’ poorest neighbourhoods.
For the documentary makers, the existence of two very different Park Avenues was a gift. The spatial dimension brought home the reality of accelerating inequality. Rather than leave the two Park Avenues as a neat storytelling device , I would like to suggest some ways in which the shared connections of both name and geography might be harnessed to reduce separation and build a shared future.
1. Twinning Communities
As a former local government officer, I am all too aware that the tradition whereby communities twin with towns and cities in other countries often gets a rough press. While it’s easy to scoff and say that twinning is simply an opportunity for local Councillors to go on a free trip, the concept of connecting with others and learning from and about each other is a sound one.
As important as international twinning is, I would like to see the concept of twinning expanded to cover communities with radically different economic characteristics. Connecting Manhattan’s Park Avenue with its lesser known namesake in the South Bronx could provide an opportunity to help people on both sides look outwards beyond their own communities and start to consider how and why lives in the two Park Avenues are so different.
Imagine if twinning of rich and poor communities was replicated globally? Would we as people think differently about the world we live in and advocate for a different kind of politics if we better understood the different lives people lead, often just down the road from us?
2. Building empathy
In my opinion high levels of inequality can stifle empathy and understanding between people from different income brackets. I’m sure if we’re honest with ourselves we can struggle to see the common ground we have with people from different backgrounds, whether we perceive them to be less or more well off than us. I found both The Spirit Level and Chavs provide valuable insights into how ‘social distances’ operates.
In the absence of any immediate prospect of a curbing of wealth inequality, twinning could serve as a springboard for activities and exchanges which promote empathy and trust between communities and people from different parts of the income distribution spectrum.
There would be many different ways of going about building links between communities. For starters, I would suggest building on the good practice which exists around promoting neighbourliness but specifically build in activities for sharing findings between the twinned communities.
One of my favourite sources of inspiration is the artist Candy Chang, whose work I often borrowed from when working at or thinkpublic.on projects to develop neighbourliness. Candy’s work focuses on public space and personal wellbeing and combines public art with activism and introspection. Perhaps my favourite project of Candy’s is called ‘I Wish This Was’, where residents were encouraged to voice to their wants and hopes for their neighbourhood by writing them on stickers which they then placed on store fronts, lampposts and other objects.
Making it happen
I’m all too aware that my ideas for connecting rich and poor neighbourhoods could easily be dismissed as overly simplistic and patronising. After all, we’ve all no doubt watched TV programmes like The Secret Millionaire and other ‘life swap’ shows. Crude initiatives which smack of rich areas trying to better the lot of the poor ones are misguided and bound to fail.
While it is essential we learn lessons from poorly conceived or implemented community building initiatives, we should not let these setbacks prevent us from aspiring to create spaces and situations where meaningful connections between rich and poor communities can occur. It is my belief that only by consciously designing these interactions into our everyday lives that we will begin to strengthen the empathy towards others that is essential if we are to build support for tackling growing inequality.
Over to you
What do you think about my ideas for building connections between communities with very different economic characteristics? Do you think there’s merit in them or or should we just accept that people will naturally prefer spending time in the company of people with similar characteristics to them? Would you be up for trying to set up twinning arrangements or is there simpler steps we should be focusing on first?