Take a ride to a welfare neighborhood some fine morning, evenings are best avoided even in the safest such places. Don’t go in expecting Detroit. Even much of Detroit doesn’t look like Detroit. Newark and Oakland aren’t even there yet. Detroit is what happens when the load is too big and there’s no one left to carry it. Most welfare neighborhoods are still located in cities where there is someone left to pick up the tab.
You’ll see less charred buildings and more towering multistory housing projects. Some of these are the ugly bestial fortresses that date back to FDR’s championing of affordable housing. One such monster, the Knickerbocker Village, former home of the Rosenberg spies, had to be evacuated in the recent hurricane and residents lived without heat and power for weeks.
30 years later they began to run to 20 story gray and brown towers reek of hopelessness. When power company workers came to restore power to the Brooklyn shoreline, they were sent to these places first in the hopes of calming mob reaction. Instead televisions came raining down from the upper floors forcing the workers to flee for safety. But don’t expect that to happen during your visit. That sort of thing is reserved for major holidays and power outages.
More recently the trend has been smaller homes that look almost like normal housing, except that there are too many of them lined up all in rows that go on forever, and even the red brickwork and white doors quickly darken with neglect, fumes and that intangible pollutant that comes to all places where the people have nowhere to go and nothing to look forward to.
There are businesses in the welfare neighborhood, but they aren’t really independent businesses. The bodegas, cheap corner groceries stores lined with ads for cigarettes, or government ads against them, with malt liquor ads and posters for a local performance by a rap group, Hong Kong crooner or Latin singer, get most of their business from food stamps. The bodegas, despite their name, are usually run by Indians, Koreans, Arabs or Bangladeshis. The few things they sell for real money are, in order, lottery tickets, beer and the occasional magazine.
70 years ago the small corner store was part of an economic ladder. Today it’s as static as the rest of the neighborhood. Sometimes the owners make the jump to a welfare supermarket, that deals almost entirely in food stamps. Mostly though they are family businesses whose owners import some of their endless stock of cousins from the home country as unpaid labor. Sometimes the cousins marry into the family and open another one of the stores with money advanced by the patriarch of the clan, and with most of the profits going to him.
Then there are the check cashing places, where welfare checks are deposited, and money is sent home to Haiti, Mexico or Puerto Rico. These places too would dry up and go out of business without a steady supply of government money.
There are clinics, a surplus of them, running on government grants, taking in government money from their patients, and consisting of the usual uncomfortable multicultural mix of balanced groups, most of whom resent each other. There may be no supermarket in the neighborhood, no store that sells fresh fruit and vegetables, no bank or clothing store that sells anything more upscale than t-shirts and sneakers, but there will be several clinics specializing in every conceivable illness a local could come down with. And several that they can’t.
Of the few independent businesses in the area, there will be a restaurant or two, cheap and dirty, where families troop in at night and old men sit during the day, there will be churches that young people rarely go to, and there will be 99 cent stores selling things for more than that. There will be schools, large buildings, and a variety of community centers, day care centers, libraries, prep places for students; all funded by the government. There will be places for teens to sit playing video games after they leave school, full of inspiring posters about achievement. And there will be social workers to help residents fill out forms for more benefits.