Poverty Mentality and Community Development

Poverty mentality boils down to the belief that:
...money shouldn’t be spent, opportunities are limited, any risk at all is dangerous, any success is temporary and non-replicable, and generally remaining in the back of the pack is safest.
We similarly have the idea of Culture of Poverty which is a concept for trying to understand persistent multi-generational poverty in some demographic groups but is not usually applied to community development.

What if small town America doesn't really lack opportunity and resources? What if small towns are failing to thrive due to the belief that small towns lack opportunity and resources, so people running them make choices which help make that a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Aberdeen, Washington has good bones and is an important city for the region in spite of being only 16,000 people or so, yet the downtown continues to languish in spite of having a local Main Street America program for advocating for the downtown.

The Main Street America program has a consultant come in and define your "historic downtown" area FOR YOU. You don't decide what constitutes "downtown" for purposes of this program. They do.

(See Defining Downtown and Downtown Revisited.)

Locus of control has substantial impacts on ability to thrive. Top-down solutions tend to be problematic because the people on the ground with firsthand knowledge and experience are not the ones making some of the important decisions.

My knowledge of the Main Street America program is primarily from going to meetings for the local program in Aberdeen (plus some reading/watching videos online), so I am hesitant to talk too much smack about the umbrella program. I have long wrestled with questions about "Is this PROGRAM simply broken? Or is the program fine and locals in Aberdeen are just THAT BAD?"

I don't have answers to those questions.

You can find videos on YouTube where folks in small towns will sing their praises but that doesn't prove anything. It's possible those small towns are thriving primarily because of the people who live there and if Main Street America didn't exist they would find some other path forward.

And that doesn't necessarily mean the people in those videos are not being sincere. They may sincerely believe this program is why they are doing so well but that belief is not objective evidence.

Many years ago, I read a study about a program that assigned mentors to at-risk youth in some community. The kids who went through that program and later had successful lives were happy to tell people that program SAVED them, but when you looked at the data, that group did NOT experience improved metrics compared to other similar groups of at-risk youth.

Objectively, the program made NO measurable difference in outcomes for its participants. Success rates for those kids were bog standard average for such demographic groups.

Main Street America is BIG on historic downtowns. And I think that's probably driven by a few things, such as:
  • Old downtowns typically have a mixed-use, walkable footprint that was created before the cult of the car took over and crammed excess parking down everyone's throat, so people VALUE that as something they don't think they can replicate rather than believing we can actually IMPROVE on that and marry walkability with a car culture for a win-win solution.
  • Small towns lack money -- or THINK they do -- and historic preservation programs are a means to get grants and technical assistance. And I have the impression small towns are failing to notice those are far from the ONLY grants and technical assistance available from state and federal programs.
  • Nostalgia. We remember things as being "better" in some way back in the day and that nostalgia is often a case of conveniently forgetting some of the bad stuff and longing for things we once had and often it is rooted in FAILING to recognize that the good and bad things of any given era are often two sides of the same coin.
Aberdeen, Washington seems really STUCK on the idea that its OLD buildings -- its "historic" buildings -- are an ASSET and NOT a liability. Yet, these buildings mostly remain EMPTY, probably due to a combination of mold and other unremediated issues plus parking minimums creating barriers to redevelopment of these old buildings "as is."

Someone once told me someone was thinking of buying the building next to their property in downtown to tear it down and provide adequate parking to be able to develop the building they owned. So I think it's pretty clear that you simply CANNOT adequately develop downtown Aberdeen and also insist on keeping all these old buildings.

The parking minimums written into the city codes conflict with a desire to PRESERVE the existing buildings. You have essentially three choices:
  • Keep the buildings and let them stand empty or mostly empty and rot. This is the current status quo and has been for YEARS.
  • Tear them down and build new, but LOSE some of the theoretical walkability of the old downtown -- theoretical because so many buildings are empty, there is little to walk to, which means it's like the ghost of Christmas past haunting the town, NOT a genuinely thriving, densely developed, highly walkable space.
  • Try to update the city codes and policies in order to develop a walkable downtown that co-exists peacefully with the current car culture of modern America. This is what I tried to propose in my parking minimums piece.
Aberdeen also has a high crime rate and it was actually a lot worse when I moved here. I think it is likely that the decrepit state of many of the "historic" buildings in downtown contributes to the crime rate, either from mold and chemicals having neurological impacts or due to the existence of "dead" spaces from so many being empty or half empty or probably BOTH.

The crime rate actively deters people from moving to Aberdeen and also creates high expenses for the town in terms of the police department being very busy and local businesses suffering from vandalization, etc.

People on Reddit routinely talk trash about how terrible Aberdeen is and how they hit the gas and speed through it, not wanting to stop. They talk about how depressing it is.

I did NOT see it that way when I first moved here because I CAN live without a car here and it has a high commercial service level for a town of this size. But after six years of watching the downtown continue to languish when I feel it really should be thriving, I am beginning to feel the same way.

Aberdeen is well-positioned to set the example for how small towns can get the best of both worlds and keep the good parts from their past while updating their practices to let this past co-exist with car culture instead of choosing EITHER one OR the other. But I don't see that happening.

And I feel that's ENTIRELY a people problem.

People make the rules. Whatever city codes and such are on the book that someone in the past wrote, they don't have to just be accepted. They can be updated if that's not working and it seems pretty clear to me it's NOT WORKING in Aberdeen.

So I am at a point where I suspect that community development is being held back not by lack of money or resources but by some variation of poverty mentality or a culture of poverty that makes people in charge make bad choices that stifle development, including but not limited to desperately holding onto their stock of "historic" buildings as if no buildings will ever get built again if THESE rotting corpses of buildings get torn down.

If nothing else, the chief of police ought to oppose this status quo. I bet he could identify the worst buildings based on crime records and point the building inspector to buildings whose REMOVAL would likely dramatically reduce the crime rate in Aberdeen and make a lot of headaches go away for the local police department.

Abderdeen's motto should be "Use it or lose it" not "Come as you are," at least for purposes of downtown development: FIX your old buildings and FILL THEM with businesses or residences or have them TORN DOWN.

Popular Posts