Main | A Depressed Community and the Struggle for Transformation: Albion High School »

December 13, 2011

A Comparative Analysis of Two Communities

The two communities to be compared are Barton Hills Village, Michigan and Albion, Michigan. These two communities differ greatly in median family income, with Albion at $37,399 and Barton Hills Village at $219,063. Albion is a community of 8,616 located in southern Michigan (American Factfinder 2010). The median age is 28.1 years old with a population of 46.6% female and 53.4% male. Racially, the population is 63.6% Caucasian, 29.9% African American, 5.8% Latino, and 2.2% mixed race. 42% of people living in Albion have graduated from high school and 8.9% obtained a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. Albion is considered an impoverished community with 12% of families below the poverty level and 55.5% as homeowners.

Barton Hills Village provides a stark contrast to Albion. The median age is 53.7 years old with a population of 48% male and 52% female. Barton Hills Village is home to an 88.1% Caucasian, 1% African American, and 6.8% Asian residents. 97.5% of residents completed high school and 83.5% have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. No one in the population is below the poverty level, and 93.5% are homeowners.

Based on the demographics, problems facing Albion include high poverty levels and low education rates. Barton Hills Village is quite different in that there is no poverty and high rates of home ownership and education. The racial breakdown between each community is also vastly different in that Albion is racially diverse and Barton Hills Village is overwhelmingly white. The demographics indicate that there may be fewer job opportunities in Albion because of the low education levels. Also, due to the elevated age and racial breakdown, it seems that Barton Hills Village is a highly segregated community.
Upon entering Barton Hills Village, one immediately notes that this is indeed a separate community from Ann Arbor. The streets leading up to the village work to contain the small community as a secluded sector, cut off from the rest of Ann Arbor. A sign posted along the entrance warns “No Thoroughfare”, letting others know this is a private community. Signs posted with addresses on the entrance for each street are displayed keeping unnecessary street traffic to a minimum. One only uses those streets to get to these assigned houses. Immediately upon entering the vicinity, residents are welcomed in with lush green forestry on all sides. The houses hide behind the trees, found only after long driveways that separate the home into its own world. Each house is secluded within its own property; one can barely see the neighbors through the trees. It offers a privacy not commonly seen within the suburbs. There are no sidewalks and no way for one to travel around besides driving down the twisting roads. “Speed tables” pop up to keep drivers from going too quickly, and the roads have beautifully manicured flower medians. On a given day, six or seven houses have landscaping trucks parked out front, maintaining the aesthetic perfection.

Within the community are several tennis courts that featured women in full tennis gear engaged in play at 11am on a Thursday morning. Barton Hills Village also offers paid access to the country club that sits proudly within the middle of the community. For a mere $31,000 one-time fee and a $6,000 annual fee, members have access to a sauna, gym, golf course, and fine formal dining within the clubhouse. Dress code is enforced strictly; some rooms cannot be entered without a suit jacket. Workers within the country club are friendly and accommodating, greeting one as soon as they walk in the door.

A realtor and member of the country club, however, was not as welcoming. While proud to be a member, she was notably skeptical and defensive to questions about her community. She was quick to comment that she would have lived there, but it used to consist of mostly older residents. When starting a family, it seemed unpractical to live in a place that lacked sidewalks for children to ride their bikes and play. Now, however, she calls it “very diverse” in that both younger and older families reside there. After passing on the information, she was quick to leave the interview without even so much as a goodbye.

The town hall nestled within the community is brand new, clean, and very white-and-beige. There are handicapped parking spots and handicap-accessible bathrooms, demonstrating how Barton Hills Village tries to accommodate all. Indicating an emphasis on privacy and maintaining barriers, the lone woman working there has to open the sliding glass window in order to acknowledge those walking in. Despite the physical wall which created a hierarchy between the visitors and herself, she was helpful in offering a town newsletter and answers to any questions.

Albion presents a very different picture. It was more spread out, with potholed roads and a general dreariness. Driving into town requires passing numerous run-down, dirty, and closed businesses. The downtown area has seen better days and instead boasts only a handful of stores still open. Then one comes onto the Albion college campus, and the shiny bright white buildings and large student housing contrast against the otherwise seemingly depressed community. All the resources and stores in the area are near the campus community, showing signs of a town that is functioning fully around its college campus.
Upon leaving campus again, the visitor is greeted with small houses, a lack of resources, and buildings falling apart. While the government housing is small, it is clean. There are signs posted throughout warning the residents to call in any suspicious activity, and cameras around letting passersby know their actions are being recorded. There is a small playground with a few swings for the children to play, and on a Sunday afternoon a couple of children no older than seven were playing alone without supervision. There are no flowers, no speed bumps, and no landscaping trucks in sight. Nearby, an abandoned schoolhouse gleams with its shattered windows and walls falling down. A home for many homeless and a place where drunk college students visit, it is slowly falling apart and sits as a definite eyesore within the area.

These communities differ exponentially in the types of environment in which people are surrounded. While Barton Hills has flowers, forestry, and privacy, Albion has small yards, houses cramped together, and broken down buildings. The contrast between the two communities is a clear example of stratification as described by Massey (2007) in that there is obvious “unequal distribution” among different classes of people, meaning “differential access to scarce resources”. While landscaping trucks maintain yards and flowers within Barton Hills, there are scarcely yards to enjoy within neighborhoods in Albion. Due to the division of people into different social categories, those who do not fit into the prestigious categories created are not invited in. Reliable means of transportation, like new cars, means that Barton Hills Village residents can live in a secluded community and still be able to travel to work at the nearby hospital or business. This is an example of an opportunity allocated and hoarded by those with the power to do so (Massey 2007). By keeping membership dues high at the country club, it keeps the boundary high and the risk of interacting with those in a different strata low. This is further explained by Massey’s (2007) idea that if “social boundaries can be made to conform to geographic boundaries…than the fundamental process of stratification becomes considerably more efficient and effective”. By enforcing dress codes and signs, it is clear that one must be part of the group in order to even enter the community, and therefore keeps the resources and social capital confined in this community as opposed to another, such as Albion.

Furthermore, the lack of diversity within a community such as Barton Hills Village may be explained by the power of the realtors. As discussed in Massey (1993), discrimination may impact racial makeup of a population as black home-seekers are sometimes “met by a realtor with a smiling face who, through a series of ruses, lies, and deceptions, makes it hard for them to learn about, inspect, rent, or purchase homes in white neighborhoods.” The homes in Barton Hills Village are all maintained by one single real estate company, and one realtor within that company. This realtor is also a member of the country club as mentioned earlier. As someone who describes a “very diverse community” as being composed of both young and old people, it begs the question of how much of her own prejudices are impacting the community. She was rude and skeptical of outsiders coming in the form of well-dressed professional graduate students, implying that she may be that way to others as well.

Furthermore, some of the greatest differences between the communities can be observed in the social institutions available. The educational systems within the town are one of the most evident aspects of the wealth distribution in each neighborhood. Children who live in Barton Hills Village attend either the Ann Arbor Public Schools (Skyline High School) or private schools, such as Greenhills School. When speaking with the realtor about the school system in Barton Hills, she stated that while some students attend Greenhills School, it is not necessary to attend private school because Ann Arbor Public Schools have a great reputations for high achievement. Educational outcomes differ significantly from Albion which has been listed as one of the worst performing schools in Michigan during the last two consecutive years (Wheaton 2011). The Albion school district has not only performed poorly but lost funding because of it and had to close Washington Gardner Middle School in 2010. The closure was due to this lack of funding and decreased amount of students (leaving the district to attend the school of choice in Marshall or Homer). During an interview with a teacher at Albion High School, “Ms. Smith” described that although the Albion school system has been suffering, teachers and administrators are enthusiastic that change is coming. With a new transformation plan and a $2.7 million federal grant for the current school year, teachers are excited to work towards a brighter future for the students.

While the communities differ greatly in the quality of education, both communities have many churches. Albion has roughly 30 churches (Lanoue 2009) and Barton Hills Village’s local community of Ann Arbor has nearly 50, with nearly all of the churches in both areas based on Christianity (Info MI 2006). There are differences, however, in how the churches are utilized in each community. In Ann Arbor, the churches are seen primarily as a place of worship, but in Albion, they are centers of the community. Because Albion does not have many recreational programs or educational funding for such programs, the church is seen as a place for students to come to spend time after school. For example, in an interview with Kids at Hope leader, Mr. Bonner, he described his program which takes place at the First United Methodist Church in Albion. While involved in the program, students do homework, receive mentoring, and play games after school. Both Pastor Williams of the Methodist Church (Caucasian) and Pastor Williams of Grace Temple (African American) believed that the churches were great resources for all community members for both recreation, faith, and educational programs for adults.

Other recreation programs in the Albion community include Double Vision Recreation Center. Set in a small building downtown, the recreation center has pool tables, computers, and study space and hopes to open a roller rink in the near future. This is much different from the available activities in Barton Hills. The Barton Hills Country Club provides many recreational activities for both children and adults. At the club there is swimming, golf, tennis, and many events that occur year round (although there are typically more in the summer). Also, it is noteworthy that their primary activities are those which have been historically segregated, such as blacks and whites swimming in separate pools and golf being a predominantly white sport (Wolch et al. 2005).

For those unwilling to pay the fee or if community members are looking for other types of recreation, nearby Ann Arbor has many other activities, such as a movie theater, concerts, football games, bounce houses for children, YMCA, museums, and much more. And while both communities have libraries, bowling, trails, and shops, the quality of these differs greatly between Albion and Barton Hills Village. Those in Barton Hills are cared for and utilized extensively, while in Albion they are run down or closed, small, and largely attached to the college, making them less accessible to the community. It seems that this may be largely due to the general trends of concentrated poverty decreasing the amount and quality of social institutions (Wilson 1996).

In speaking with community members in Barton Hills Village, it was difficult to entice people to describe challenges to the community. The only negative commentary was that there were no sidewalks along the winding roads, which made it difficult to visit neighbors or walk through the community. Personal observations include a lack of public social institutions within the neighborhood, (although community members may view this as a strength to keep the less affluent out) and a lack of diversity. In Albion, the challenges were more apparent. Between the lack of funding within the school district and a very small and rarely used recreation center, Albion is lacking in social institutions.

As for how the social institutions meet racial needs within the community, once again, Albion is lacking. Over the last 10 years, Albion High School has lost nearly 100 students per year creating a minority/majority flip, indicating that the needs of Caucasian families are not being met within the school system. Similarly, all of the youth who attend Kids at Hope are African American. It seems that most of the efforts in the town are being utilized by the African American population. In Barton Hills Village, there is no diversity. Wealthy Caucasian families seem to feel that their needs are being met by isolating themselves in a community where they do not have to associate with people of less affluent means or different races.

One of the reasons that Albion has continued to suffer since 1975, while other affluent communities (like Barton Hills Village) thrive is because there is a culture of poverty in Albion that is continuously reproduced due to policy (Schneider & Ingram 1993). Current welfare policies still account for an idea of a deserving and undeserving poor which is reproduced in low income communities, like Albion, which leaves them at a great disadvantage. Meanwhile, communities like Barton Hills Village are able to reproduce wealth through strong education systems, social and economic resources, and tax cuts.

Whereas poverty is nonexistent in Barton Hills Village, poverty is common in Albion, where 28.2% of the population is below the poverty level (American FactFinder 2005-2009). The economic disparity in these two communities can largely be attributed to the high unemployment, low education, and deindustrialization experienced by Albion. Barton Hills Village residents are mostly employed in educational, health, and social services—occupations that general require high levels of education. However, Albion continues to rely heavily on manufacturing as its primary source of employment. Interestingly enough, Albion also relies heavily on educational services, health care, and social assistance for its population’s employment, but this may be a result of Albion College’s presence in the community (American FactFinder 2005-2009). The fact that manufacturing jobs have decreased as deindustrialization has occurred and more jobs have been sent overseas as a result of globalization, makes Albion an at risk community for high unemployment. As Wilson explains, “fundamental structural changes in the new global economy, including changes in the distribution of jobs and in the level of education required to obtain employment, resulted in the simultaneous occurrence of increasing joblessness and declining real wages for low-skilled workers” (1996). Albion, without appropriate educational supports, suffered greatly from this collision of threats. However, a community like Barton Hills Village, with the available educational resources and the lack of high job loss was not as impacted by deindustrialization.

Additionally, Johnson’s theories of capitalism are clearly demonstrated in Albion. As manufactures had to keep up with cheaper prices as a result of globalization, they had to continue to maximize their profits. As Johnson explains, this leads to exploitation of the workers as they continue to accept lower wages because they have no alternative (2006). The basic system of capitalism locks communities like Albion into a cycle of poverty, where exploitation is commonplace.

In terms of political systems, Albion and Barton Hills Village also differ greatly as well. Barton Hills Village is a part of the Township of Ann Arbor and yet it maintains a certain amount of independence from Ann Arbor. In a way, Barton Hills Village is able to hoard opportunity even from the affluent suburb of Ann Arbor. Barton Hills Village is able to regulate its own private roads, control the waterways and streams within its boundaries, “to enforce all police, traffic, sanitary and other regulations in conflict with general law,” as well as other powers (Barton Hills Village Charter). These give Barton Hills Village the benefit of better sanitation and roads, but most importantly it allows residents to have autonomy and privacy. Barton Hills Village is able to use their unique position to reap the benefits of being a part of Ann Arbor Township and also hoard the opportunities that being a village allows them.

Barton Hills Village residents are highly invested in their community and take their autonomy seriously. In a recent election for the Board of Trustees (the governing board for the village) and for the maintenance corporation, there was a 42% and 60% voter turnout respectively (The Barton Bulletin September 2011). This is high compared to the voter turn-out in national elections and demonstrates how important these positions are to residents. Yet, when reading through the Barton Bulletin as to what the committees actually do, a lot of time seems to be spent enacting ordinances and maintenance with regard to lawns or property. An article from the Ann Arbor Observer notes that Barton Hills Village residents place a high value on environmental issues and spend significant funding to this end (Kane and Shackman 2005). However, it seems more likely that considerations are not so much environmental and rather, are more focused on maintaining high property values. Most of the June 2011 section of the Barton Bulletin was dedicated to “healthy lawn care,” in an effort to “encourage residents to follow best management practices for maintaining a healthy lawn while also protecting the environment and watershed.” Though the Bulletin is careful to frame this in terms of an environmental issue, it is clear from the instructions that follow that most of the concern is on aesthetics. In a way this regulates the community and keeps out undesirables, who may not take care of their property and therefore, drive down property prices. This idea is discussed by Massey (1993) who noted that the white stereotyped belief that “blacks do not keep up their homes” lead to many whites not wanting an integrated neighborhood. This emphasis on lawn care also presumes that residents are wealthy enough and have time enough, or more likely can hire a landscaping crew, in order to comply with the best practices. Therefore, exclusivity is maintained even within the community—ensuring that residents both have the means to own a home and maintain it in the “proper” way. In this way, even Barton Hills Village’s political system works to eliminate undesirables from its population.

Albion’s political structure is very different from that of Barton Hills Village. Instead of a Board of Trustees, the government features a mayor and representatives from each district (Resident’s Guide to City Services). In this way, in theory, all of Albion’s population should be represented in the local government. Little time is spent on discussing ordinances or lawn maintenance, as lawn upkeep matters little when so much of the town’s homes are in foreclosure or abandoned. Whereas, Barton Hills Village has few subcommittees, Albion has many ranging from the Board of Review to the Housing Commission. The political systems of these two communities mimic the communities themselves. Albion has a large system and focuses on trying to represent the entire population. Barton Hills Village, however, enforces privacy, exclusivity, and supports opportunity hoarding.

Barton Hills Village and Albion are two very different communities. The wide division of wealth and employment in these two communities can be attributed to capitalism. As discussed, capitalism leads to stratification with those who hold the means of production exploiting those who do not. This stratification expands to, as Massey explains, opportunity hoarding and exclusion (2007). Barton Hills Village maintains their opportunities by isolating themselves from the rest of the greater Ann Arbor community. Its roads are private, its properties expensive to buy and maintain, and membership to its social institutions (specifically the country club), even more expensive and creative of a culture that outsiders cannot access. This opportunity hoarding contributes to the high segregation in Barton Hills Village. It is predominately white and inhabited by those who have higher education, demonstrating a trend in how segregation is no longer exclusively racial, but also based on class and education level.

The disparity in wealth in Barton Hills Village and Albion demonstrates the high level of inequality capitalism creates. Whereas, communities like Barton Hills Village have access to better education and resources and are therefore able to attain jobs that are stable and come with a higher paycheck, Albion’s lack of resources leaves residents in low-skilled, unstable, low-paying jobs. The exploitation of the manufacturing industry keeps Albion’s residents in constant flow in and out of poverty. The economic failing of the community negatively impacts everything from home prices to the educational system. Segregation is also visible in Albion, specifically within the minority/majority flip that has occurred between the district population and the high school population. Though it appears that mostly white students are leaving, it is unclear whether this is exclusively white flight, since many teachers report that African American students with higher socio-economic status are also leaving the community. This too, supports the trend that segregation is now not exclusively based on race, but also class.

The underlying cause of all of these discrepancies between Albion and Barton Hills Village continues to be capitalism. The idea that everyone can succeed is blind to the fact that many are coming from an entirely different starting point, way behind the front lines. Those who are exposed to high amounts of hoarded resources will be able to go to the top schools in the state and continue to perpetuate the cycle of high income and success. Likewise, those whose parents struggle to keep a job in a desolate area and are attending schools that are losing funding are not on the same simple path. Capitalism, which fosters opportunity hoarding and exploitation, which in turn creates segregation, poverty, and inequality, can be seen in the lack of unemployment rates and poverty in Albion and in the private lives of those hidden behind the trees and winding roads of Barton Hills Village.

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Posted by desolada at December 13, 2011 08:28 AM


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