[In]Convenience and [In]Justice

Recently, I decided that I was spending an absurd amount of time trying to keep track of which of my emails had gotten replies. I went into geek mode and started trying to find a way to get a notification when an email doesn’t get a reply in x amount of time. I tried various automations, an Outlook add on, and a few other apps before landing on Spark. (Great email client, highly recommended.) Having a new reminder feature (and some other cool things) in my email client has made me unreasonably happy. I mean that literally – the amount of happiness I am currently deriving from a sleek new email client seems unreasonable to me.

But, this new toy high has me thinking about convenience and who gets it. Obviously, money buys convenience wherever you are. But, having lived in and spent time in a lot of different kinds of places, I have learned that access to convenience is the result of long-term investment in a community and its absence is the result of long-term divestment. Convenience is an important piece of the quality of life in a given place, which means its absence makes it hard to attract new residents and businesses. Thus, the cycle of divestment continues.

Think of the chain of events that led me to that shiny new email client:

  1. I have the kind of education and experience that leads me to believe that a software solution might exist.
  2. I have a personal computer and other tech on which to check email in a way that I prefer, regardless of my office computer.
  3. I have access to the kind of internet speeds at home that make researching online and downloading new software easy.
  4. I have the kind of job that allows to spend some time attempting to improve efficiency even if there isn’t a serious problem.

All of that represents a fairly significant investment of both public and private funds, just to make my life a little easier when emailing. And, really, emphasis on the little here.

If there’s one thing I think we can all be honest about in this country, it’s that money is not invested equally in all communities. Some communities (aka white suburbs) have been well-served by public money and private investment in infrastructure over the last hundred years or so. Others (aka nonwhite cities and rural areas) have been systematically and purposefully ignored by public money and most have seen private money follow the incentives and move elsewhere.

Infrastructure has real consequences in everyday life, even when it’s not obvious. For example, a few years ago I lived briefly in a suburb about 15 mins from where I currently live in Detroit. In that suburb, I could get fiber internet. It was amazing. Now, my best option is cable internet that goes up to 1GB speeds and costs about 25% more than I was paying in the suburbs. (To be clear, that is plenty fast, but fiber has a much faster upload speed than cable and it is JUST SO COOL!)

That difference is not an accident. It represents generations of the flight of both public and private money from Detroit, as it has fled from many cities. (For more on the history of divestment from Detroit, check out this book and this one.) Internet providers don’t trust Detroit residents, so they charge more to cover the “risk” of people defaulting. Public grants to support and incentivize the building of internet infrastructure have not been nearly so plentiful in Detroit as in the suburbs, so more of the infrastructure costs are borne by subscribers. As is often the case, the people of Detroit are charged more for less when it comes to internet because of their perceived poverty.

Let’s take a more mundane example of convenience – grocery stores. Grocery stores are, obviously, private ventures. But, they rely on public services like schools and roads and internet and electricity. The quality of that infrastructure matters and big chains also often rely on local incentives as much as market conditions when determining where to place a new location. So, the presence and quality of grocery stores represent both private and public investment.

I now live in a middle class, Black neighborhood that is diversifying. It has been a middle class neighborhood since it was built in the 40s, though it was not predominantly Black until the late 60s. There is local grocery store a few blocks away from my house that has been there for as long as anyone can remember. It’s not great, but handy for when you need a few things. So, I have the convenience of a market within easy reach, but the inconvenience of having to go elsewhere if I want to be assured of availability of specific items.

If I want to be sure that I can find just the right brand of soy milk or just the right kind of chard or the very cage freest eggs, I have to go deep into the mostly white suburbs. That can mean a 15-30 min drive and contending with major arteries. When I lived in that suburb a few years ago, such places were 5-10 mins away on side streets. The same was true when I lived in Houston (the city proper, not the suburbs). The hassle level of grocery shopping is noticeably higher now that I live in a Black neighborhood, in a Black city. The only time I’ve had worse grocery options was when I lived in rural Kentucky. I cannot bring myself to believe that either of these arrangements is an accident.

To be clear, I am NOT complaining about my grocery store options or the city that I LOVE and intentionally moved to. I get my soy milk and chard just fine.

My goal is to show how mundane inconveniences pile up in communities where investment has been lacking for generations. I think it’s easy to overlook the quotidian, human experience of hassle, annoyance, and inconvenience that characterize life in divested communities both rural and urban. If you look at the issue from a daily life perspective (i.e. some people get better utility and grocery options than others for no good reason), the fundamental unfairness become blindingly obvious.

Let’s do better.

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