Today on NPR’s On Point, the idea of “Snob Zones” were discussed. Basically, it was a discussion about how towns have used zoning laws to create a kind of de-facto segregation by class. It is no surprise that two Connecticut towns were brought up over and over again: Roxbury and Darien. Even little Bethany got a shout-out.
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Having lived in my fair share of crappy neighborhoods, and visited plenty of really nice ones, I loooooove to talk about this kind of thing. Apparently, the old-timers in Roxbury aren’t happy with having their quiet farming community turned into an enclave for the rich and famous. (Though I hear Glastonbury is glad that Candace Bushnell decided to move there, instead of back to her hometown.) And Darien is…well…Darien.
But for a moment, I’d like to talk about Norwalk, because I lived there. This town is bizarrely diverse in its class structures. In some parts of town you have unimaginable wealth. In fact, I believe the Rowayton section of town has a higher per capita income than Darien. But to get to Rowayton you have to drive through the straight-up hood. (I looked at some apartments there but ended up in a different shitty apartment in a slightly less, but still pretty sketchy part of town.) You see, one of the things visitors to the trendy SoNo part of town don’t know is that the rest of South Norwalk looks like Brooklyn in the ’70s.
You can see it from the train. There are dudes sitting on milk crates out front of liquor stores at like 10 in the morning — only the liquor stores are so run down that the average person probably wouldn’t even think its open. And you have to drive by this neighborhood just to get to Rowayton, and if you wander a couple of block away from the heart of the uber-pricy SoNo, you’ll end up asking the guy on the milk crate for directions.
And of course, if you drive around town, there’s everything in between. And that’s a good thing, but I don’t think it helps the super-rich be any more empathetic — which is, ostensibly, one of the problems with these Snob Zones. I once met a banker in Rowayton who had recently lost his job. When I said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that” he said, “Oh don’t worry about me, I have plenty of money.” Of course he did…he was wearing boat shoes without a hint of irony. Something tells me that guy didn’t spend a lot of time trying to help his less fortunate neighbors.
You know what I do think is good about it, though? That the poor kids get to see that there’s an alternative.
My brother, who is 15 and goes to East Hartford High School, was staying with me recently while the parental units were off taking care of some family issues. He mentioned to me that Congressman John Larson’s son is in some of his classes. I have to confess, I was a little surprised. I knew Larson still lived in town — and that until her recent passing, his mother still lived around the corner from my ‘rents and brother — but I kind of assumed he sent his kids to private school. But he doesn’t, and I think that’s kind of great. His kids are dealing with the same fights and occasional stabbings as my brother and his friends. (You’ve got my vote, sir!)
I’m not OK with my non-existent children living in a secluded world where they never meet anyone who isn’t exactly like them, and that goes both ways. Unless my luck with the lottery takes a turn for the better, I’m never going to be rich, but I probably won’t be moving into a slum anytime soon either. But no matter my circumstances, I would hope that my kid would have the chance to know as many different kinds of people as possible, and that means living in place that is not only culturally diverse, but economically diverse as well.
I’m all for trying to keep the quaint character of a town, but let’s face it, you couldn’t build anything if that was really what you were doing. And these laws not only create Snob Zones, but they make it virtually impossible to create walkable villages. (Think about it: anyone who lives within walking distance of a viable town center lives in a house that’s ol’ as hell — or an overpriced luxury condo.) If every house has to be on 4 acres of land, you can be damn sure no one will be walking to a coffee shop or local tavern. So next time you go looking for a new place to live, ask yourself, “Is this a Snob Zone, and am I OK with being a snob?”