Our forgotten towns: struggle, resilience, love and respect in ‘back-row America’

In his new book, Chris Arnade lays bare what life is like for America’s marginalized poor – and exposes the broken social systems that have betrayed them

By Chris Arnade | The Guardian | June 5, 2019

In the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood, I found myself going to McDonald’s every day – because everyone did. It was an essential part of my new friends’ lives. Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free wifi. McDonald’s had all of those, and it also had good cheap food.

They started their day in the McDonald’s, often around noon, cleaning up and sometimes shooting up in the bathrooms and, since the bathrooms didn’t have mirrors, putting on makeup in the sideview mirrors of cars in the parking lot. Then they spent hours off and on hanging at a table, escaping the heat or the cold.

McDonald’s was a space where they could be themselves on their own terms. It was a place to momentarily escape the drama and chaos of the streets, a place that allowed them to rejoin society on the same terms as everyone else. They needed and appreciated that far more than I did. McDonald’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood.

McDonald’s was one of the few spaces in Hunts Point open to the public that worked. While wonderful and well-intentioned nonprofits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s.

When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of “What is that?” or “They’re always telling you what to do.” The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behavior, with a quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.

By the end of my three years in Hunts Point, I’d been spending part of each day in the McDonald’s. It had become central to me because it was central to the neighborhood. McDonald’s was Hunts Point’s de facto community center, and if I wanted to understand Hunts Point, I had to spend time in the McDonald’s.

Arnade

Photograph: Chris Arnade

Three years after I left Hunts Point, after driving 150,000 miles back and forth across the country, I pulled into Portsmouth, Ohio, looking for another McDonald’s. There wasn’t one in the historic downtown, where a series of 20ft high murals on the floodwall against the Ohio River depict past scenes of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth has suffered dramatically since its peak in the 1940s, when it was home to 40,000 people who manufactured steel, shoes, and bricks. Now the factories are mostly gone, and with them the jobs, and it is a town half the size, filling with drugs.

As the factories, jobs, and many of the people left, those remaining in Portsmouth have done their best to keep the city together, hold tightly to the past, and stay proud. That pride is reflected in the murals, a well- intentioned attempt to sell Portsmouth as a quaint place to visit, but they are also a distraction masking a larger decline. The bulk of the downtown area is mostly empty, beyond county and city services, and a few local businesses holding on.

Portsmouth is part of the other world – the world of Hunts Point, where the stories told are about wrongs endured, frustrations that seem truly insurmountable, and a longing for what once was. The anxieties here come from having limited options: My company changed ownership, and there are rumors it will move to another state. With my sisters gone, there will be nobody to take care of my parents if I move. I’ve got symptoms that scare me, but I don’t have the money for the doctor. I can’t apply for school because I’ve got an outstanding charge and don’t want to be found.

In this world the energy is found outside of downtown, and in Portsmouth that is where I find the McDonald’s. It is on a busy road heading out of town, one lined with fast-food franchises, shopping malls, vape stores, check-cashing stores, and auto shops. Anchoring the area is a massive Walmart, surrounded by acres of parking and next to a railway filled with cars of coal. This is where the steel mill once was. Now only a tall, slender smokestack at the edge of the parking lot remains.

Arnade

Photograph: Chris Arnade

It’s a Sunday evening, and I find a quiet spot toward the back of the McDonald’s parking lot to sit and rest from the drive.

In the morning, the McDonald’s is busy, and not just with families getting food. There are regulars who take over a corner table and booths nearby. Some collection of them are there all day, although it is busiest in the morning. They are mostly retired men born in Portsmouth who spent their lives working union jobs as firefighters, ironworkers, construction workers, and truck drivers, providing for their families.

They gossip about politics and one another and note each passing siren, often prompting speculation about where it is going and if it is another overdose. There are lots of sirens passing by and lots of shaking heads.

While Gary, Indiana, is larger (population 80,000) than most communities I visited, and only 40 minutes from Chicago, it has the feel and warmth of a small town. That warmth isn’t obvious at first because of the shocking visuals: while there are scattered clusters of neighborhoods with simple, well-kept homes, much of Gary is devastated, home mainly to rusted factories and overgrown lots.

Along with massive job loss, Gary has suffered from another big problem: racism. Gary is overwhelming African American and has been since the factories left, when most whites also left. Leaving to chase a stable job, or getting a loan to buy a better home, was an option few blacks had. Since then it has been endlessly studied, stigmatized, preached at, and finally dismissed as an example of “what was wrong with inner-city blacks”.