Thanks to bonnie’s review for turning me on to this book.
This was a brutal, heartbreaking, depressing and necessary read. Desmond is a sociologist who spent several years living in Milwaukee’s depressed and impoverished areas, befriending and interviewing the residents of trailer parks, flop houses, and slums. He tells their stories in intertwining chapters that would read like fiction if you didn’t already know that these people are all incredibly real. Because often fact is stranger than fiction, or in this case, revealing, Desmond’s book reveals an inherit problem in our collective culture; housing and it’s direct root in poverty, addiction, and crime.
Through his personal experience in these places (which he keeps completely under wraps through his story, you have no idea he was so involved until his epilogue at the end) Desmond builds us the startling unfair and depressing situation facing many residents of Milwaukee’s inner city in vivid detail and without judgement. The most wonderful thing about Desmond’s book is there is absolutely no way anyone can sit on their ivory throne, reading these stories and condemn the individuals for the ‘choices’ that put them in their situation. You become friends with Arleen, Crystal, Pam, Scott, Larraine, and Lamar. When Desmond leaves one family to follow another you cry because you need to know what has happened to these people. The terrible hand lent to them by the housing and governmental system makes you want to reach into the book and help them in any way you can.
The system fails them at every step and the cycle is vicious. As much as Desmond paints landlords in as objective a light as possible, I still wanted to slap some sense into them for taking advantage of people who were so very obviously in need. And Desmond explains; he does. He explains why the landlords hike their rent, he describes their own trials and financial struggles when renters don’t pay up. They have mortgages, repairs, fines, penalties, taxes, the list goes on. But I couldn’t help myself screaming “then stop buying up so many properties, and take care of the ones you have.” I also threw the book across the room when tenants bartered to do work on their dilapidated houses in place of their rent and the landlord agreed, and then reneged when the work wasn’t up to their standards….which were never laid out for the tenant in the first place.
Although the most heartbreaking part of this whole book for me was that the only person in this narrative who actually manages to get out of poverty and into a comfortable financial place is the young, white, unmarried male. He’s it. And it’s obvious from the statistics, laws, and sociological studies in this book that his race and gender and unfettered singleness are exactly why he made it out. Yes, he worked hard. Yes, he broke his addiction and started making ‘better’ choices, but the societal doors that opened to him while making those ‘better’ choices were open to him because of what he was. Nobody opened doors for Arleen or Larraine, no matter what choices they made; no one opened them for Lamar or the Hickstons, and that was the part that truly broke my heart.
Desmond offers up solutions for fixing this systemic problem in his epilogue, and many of them seem feasible and encouraging, but there is a feeling of utter defeat as you finish this book because this problem is so much bigger than anyone can imagine and it’s not getting better as the years march on. We’re not so far away from the infamous Five-Points of the Victorian age, or the stinking cesspit that was the London slums in the 1830s. Literally millions of families cannot afford to pay their rent because of the system built around city housing.
As depressing and heart-wrenching as this book is, it’s a must-read. For those of us who’ve been there, we’ll see ourselves and maybe better understand why we had to endure what we endured. For those of us who’ve never worried about paying the rent or the mortgage, this will open our eyes to a problem that could very literally be happening next door. I don’t care who you are….you need to read this book.