Friday, June 13, 2014

Voting with our feet

When I was an undergrad, I took an anthropology course on lifeways of the Pleistocene, taught by a professor who is a world-renowned expert on the subject.  She had a couple catch phrases she used frequently during class discussions, including:

  1. The jury is still out.  (Example: “We know there are Venus Figurines all through Europe and Eurasia during the Upper Paleolithic, but the jury is still out as to who was making them and why.”)
  2. Voting with their feet. (Example: "When the climate changed and their food source dried up, people voted with their feet and followed the big game.")
The voting with their feet one—that has come to mind a lot in the past few weeks and months, because it seems, almost literally, what we have done.
St. Louis just did not work out for us.  I met some really nice people, but the whole experience was nauseating.  We do not belong in a big city.  Especially not a big, crumbling city that is so precariously poised on the edge of decadence and decay.  There is such a huge divide between rich and poor, county and city, black and white.  The Delmar divide is real, and we never fit in on either side.  
When we were first contemplating our move to St. Louis nearly 4 years ago, a friend from the area contacted me to give me some information about life in the city.  William was only 1 at the time, but I was interested and curious about the school system and wanted to have a general idea of what was to come.  “Everybody will think you’re slumming it if you send your kid to a school that costs less than $13,000 a year,” she said.  She didn’t necessarily agree with this mindset, she was just telling me the truth as she’d experienced it.  Catholic schools were the way to go.  They were on the lower end of the price spectrum.  Non-religious schools cost upwards of $18,000 to $20,000 a year.  From kindergarden.  To 12th grade.
This made my head hurt, but it didn’t deter me.  I didn’t foresee myself caring if random “people” thought I was “slumming it.”  And besides, you couldn’t tell me that everybody did this.  Not with such massive, egregious poverty in the city.  There were definitely people who didn’t send their kids to private schools.  And the rest of them?  Who gave a shit what they thought.
When we were looking at houses in St. Louis, I kept asking our realtor what school district they were in.  I could tell she was trying to keep a polite face, but otherwise assumed I was crazy.  School district? As in public school?  She probably didn’t work with too many clients who were planning on slumming it.
I only realize now, but the St. Louis I knew was all about money, money, money.  Which I guess makes sense if you are faced with the prospect of spending upwards of a quarter million dollars on each of your children’s educations before they even get to college.  It kind of hit me last summer when some friends of ours decided to move to West County, and they put their house on the market.  It was a huge deal.  They hired the best realtor in town.  At the realtor’s behest, they took everything out of their house and put it in storage, then they had the house staged.  As you do.  They had several offers within minutes of their house officially going on the market.  But they ended up in a stressful situation with a buyer— and endless back and forth over a zillion tiny things, quibbling to the bitter end about a $2,000 credit the buyer demanded.  My friend remained firm in her conviction that they would not cave to the buyer.  “I need that $2,000 for a sectional in my new house,” she said.  Their current furniture just wasn’t going to go with the way she was planning to decorate.
I nodded numbly in agreement with her, to be supportive, but in truth I was completely bewildered.  This isn’t in any way to say that I felt my friend was “wrong” to have her heart set on a certain piece of furniture, it’s just that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way myself— about a sectional, or a $2,000 credit, or a house in a location that would require me to take 3 interstates to and from work.  I just didn’t fit in here, and I never would. 
I think the last straw was in September, when there was an armed police chase that ended in the parking lot of Will’s daycare.  The suspect was a 19-year old kid, who had no money, no opportunities, no one to look out for him.  He robbed a gas station or a Church’s Chicken, got caught, and was running like hell from the police.  
This kind of thing is going to go on and on, as long as the people who are (supposedly) in my social circle keep sending their kids to $20,000 per year private schools, all the while never considering that maybe, just maybe, if we all pool our $20,000 and put it together so that there isn't such a disparity of opportunity, such a sharp divide between the "haves" and "have nots," there wouldn't be so many gunfights and robberies and police chases that end in daycare parking lots.
Obviously, it’s more complicated that that, and many people certainly have contemplated the possibility of pooling resources to make the entire community a better place, but in practice, it just didn’t seem like anything was ever going to change. 
So we voted with our feet.
The vibe in Fort Collins is completely different.  I noticed that right away.  The main difference is that it’s not always all about money.  The people I’ve met here are totally, keenly aware that they live in a breathtakingly beautiful place, and they don’t take that for granted.  The bike paths are heavily traveled, and they are located all over the city.  Every person I've met either bikes, hikes, runs, climbs, or all of the above.  At least in my area of town, no one seems concerned with what the neighbors will think of an unkempt lawn or peeling paint on the trim of the house.  There are more important things to attend to, such as the great outdoors.  The mountains aren’t just a “leisure” activity— they are a way of life.
Earlier this week, I went to a book club with some new friends (two of the women in attendance had biked over) and was sort of able to articulate how I felt so much more at home here than I ever had in St. Louis—how I had never found beauty in its crumbling brick buildings, and I had never been able to muster a worry that the neighbors would think I was slumming it.  The women sitting around the table nodded enthusiastically—totally getting what I meant.  Money doesn’t guarantee happiness, and the important things in life are those which you cannot buy.  One of my new friends said she had some colleagues on the east coast who all seemed to do that expensive private school thing, plus expensive after school extracurriculars and tutoring, plus a different kind of camp (costing several thousands of dollars) every week of the summer.  She laughed at the absurdity, telling her colleagues, you know what we did last weekend?  Biked the Poudre Trail.  Hiked to the top of Horsetooth Mountain.  Had the most amazing time of our lives, and all of it for free.
I’m glad that there are people in cities like St. Louis who are working to make it a better place, because I understand not everyone is as fortunate as me— not everyone has the privilege to be able to get out. And I’m sorry, but I am not the one to stay and fight.
I am grateful that we had the ability to vote with our feet, with the wheels of our bicycles, and go to a place where we finally belong.
IMG 3404
Long term, I suppose the jury is still out as to whether or not we will continue to feel at home in Fort Collins, but in the meantime, life is pretty good.

Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

VOTING WITH YOUR FEET!!! I LOVE THAT!!!! Too bad most people. Can't see the forest for the trees! It makes me sad seeing the world in such a shambles with such horrible things happening! My precious little grandchildren , are going to have to FIX the MESS ,we have created!! I don't think it is fixable!!! :( Hopefully they will Vote with their feet ,and march to happy times!! May all your days in the beautiful state of CO, continue to bring you peace and happiness!! Luv and hugs mama

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, 4+ decades of people voting with their feet have left St Louis with some problems that will be difficult to fix.