Nextdoor is a remarkably successful social media platform that enables neighborhood communities to converse, plan, and exchange views (and stuff) online. I heard Sarah Frier, Nextdoor’s chief executive officer, talk about the site’s social-capital boosting potential at an Aspen Institute “weave” program back in March, and doubtless she is correct. But like any such site, Nextdoor inevitably absorbs and radiates human social nature, some of which is gloriously benign, and some of which isn’t. So at a certain point, for example, concerns arose that Nextdoor was being used in some communities for the purpose of racial profiling, mainly concerning real estate “issues.” Local law enforcement personnel, too, quickly saw Nextdoor as a potentially useful way to engage with local residents, but that only stigmatized Nextdoor in the eyes of some as a tool of the local “police state.”
What do neighbors “talk” about on Nextdoor? Everything, it seems, and that includes local politics. (Tip O’Neill is smiling from his heavenly abode no doubt, because his famous aphorism, “all politics is local,” has yet again been proven right.) But these days talking about politics typically runs into the same misanthropies that our partisan-drenched polarized circumstances naturally produce. Nextdoor tends to be employed more in upscale communities than in poorer ones, and the ambient fear that stalks the land, sometimes tinged with class and race paranoia, often oozes through. That makes Nextdoor, whatever else it’s good for, a rich source material for those trying to get a handle on what’s really going on in American society at the ground level.
Case in point: In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, a local politician named Hans Reimer—a transplant from Oakland, California—introduced in January a resolution that would loosen the requirements for building additional dwelling units, or ADUs, on or next to existing private housing stock. When Reimer’s proposal became known, it touched off a firestorm of conversation, mostly opposition, on local Nextdoor sites. The relatively few people who have supported the idea argued that property owners ought to be able to do whatever they want with their property, so long as they do it within reasonable zoning rules. Some argued that it was great that homeowners could build apartments for elderly parents or in-laws. Some argued, too, that more ADUs would increase the stock of affordable housing.
The majority of those who opposed the proposal have referred to it as a formula for the further densification of the county. Many have argued that allowing more ADUs would add to street and parking congestion, would increase noise and litter, and lead to more crime—and so would set off a decline in property values, and hence lowering the tax base to fund schools just as they begin to become overcrowded as a result of densification. Many have argued that densification is also a safety issue; for example, illegal parking that blocks fire hydrants and obscures vision for pedestrians and drivers alike is rarely penalized.
Several commentators have also noted that, for the most part, poorer sections of Montgomery County, already struggling with a range of social problems, would be most affected by a change in the law. And several others demanded to know what the county intended to do about all the illegal ADUs that would potentially be grandfathered into the new law—which doesn’t mention these illegal units at all. Nearly all opponents were astonished that the county had undertaken no impact studies of what the new law would produce, although the County Council had run the proposal by the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee for review and recommendation.
A few interesting side conversations spun off from the main one. One Nextdoor participant chided an opponent of the proposed new law, saying that she should have bought her house in a neighborhood with a homeowner association (HOA). The opponent responded that she had bought her house before HOAs existed and now lacked the resources to move into one. The chider had an Hispanic surname, and the opponent did not—hold those facts in mind for a moment, please.
A few were bold enough to raise what is really the core issue that dare not speak its name: the existence of large numbers of undeclared and illegal ADUs in the county, some built on owner-occupied properties as required by law, but most the result of unscrupulous landlords trying to maximize their rent intake mainly at the expense of new immigrants. Quite aside from proliferating group houses of immigrants in violation of county ordinances, where individuals falsely claim to be cousins or otherwise related if asked (which they very rarely are), the proliferation of illegal, undeclared, and unregistered ADUs has dramatically changed the character of many county neighborhoods over the past few decades, and it has introduced its own safety issues—for example, illegal utility hookups that risk fires and other hazards.
The county has way too few inspectors to have kept up with the changes, and a large number of old-time residents have either moved away or, as illustrated by the Nextdoor chatter, are mad as hell. Several Nextdoor chatterati note that reporting ADU violations to the county rarely elicits any response, aside from hostility between neighbors if the identity of the complainant is discovered.
Most of the people who express themselves on Nextdoor are far too polite and decent to actually name the problem for what it is. But everyone knows what it is, so the conversation proceeds using coded language. The problem is the rapid proliferation of immigrant communities, mostly Hispanic but also Asian and African, and particularly in the case of Hispanic migrants a fairly large but unknown percentage who live in certain parts of the county without legal residency rights. The neighborhoods in which such people are concentrated tend to be poorer, and it’s easy to tell them by the litter on the ground and kinds of vehicles parked on the street. Aside from being numerous, the vehicles are often banged up panel trucks and other work-related rigs, some of them seemingly permanently parked on the street, in driveways, and up on the grass (which is also not legal).
Most opponents of the Montgomery County resolution on ADUs are not anti-Hispanic, and many cherish diversity. But a resident can be outraged about the safety issues all the same, and even more outraged by the de facto double standards that apply. Montgomery County police have been told, in effect, to apply one legal standard to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring’s nicer areas, and another to Wheaton, Connecticut Avenue Estates, and Aspen Hill, where there are far larger percentages of Hispanics—legal and otherwise. So you can drive your work vehicle home and park it on the street in Aspen Hill, but not in Bethesda. You can crowd into a group house and leave garbage for rats to feed on in Wheaton and no county official will bother you, but that doesn’t happen in Chevy Chase. Neighborhoods are penned in for safety reasons near major thoroughfares by hideous high metal fences and cables in Wheaton, but not in most of Silver Spring.
Why would people in Wheaton, Connecticut Avenue Estates, and Aspen Hill not feel like second-class citizens when they are treated differently by officialdom from other neighborhoods in the same county? James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” insight applies in spades: The more problematic neighborhoods get worse, and the less problematic ones don’t. So in due course the quality-of-living gap widens—within the same county.
Time for a few numbers: About 33 percent of registered and known Montgomery County residents are foreign-born, and nearly 41 percent speak a language other than English as their native tongue. That compares to about 14-15 percent foreign-born for Maryland as a whole and for the United States. If we include reasonable estimates for undocumented Hispanics, which actually includes significant numbers of indigenous Central American immigrants whose first language is not Spanish, Montgomery County’s percentage of foreign born is probably not double but three times or more the state and national average. And in the neighborhoods already noted above, they are near or beyond the majority.
In my experience, in what is a middle-class Wheaton neighborhood as measured by average real estate prices, our Hispanic (or Latino, pick your adjective) residents are mostly very good neighbors. They work hard and long at their trades, take care of their kids, pets, and properties, and are as responsible and friendly as anyone else. The percentage who rent rather than own their own homes is somewhat higher, and sometimes the houses are occupied, for a time at least, by more than one family. But it’s not much strain on the prior status quo.
In the county’s poorer neighborhoods, however—where the majority of new ADUs will almost certainly be built—the percentage of rentals is much higher, residential densities are much greater, and aesthetic conditions leave a lot to be desired. Worse, according to court statistics young Hispanic males from the poorer neighborhoods where they are most concentrated are involved in significantly disproportional incidents of breaking various laws and getting arrested. Some of that—drug-related and violent incidents, in particular—is gang related, but most of it isn’t. A fair bit of it, anecdotally at least, seems to flow from the fact that no one has told these folks that the age of consent is 18 in the state of Maryland. (Let’s please just leave it at that; it’s anthropologically complicated).
And finally on this point, there are more cases of identity theft and attempted identity theft in the county in rough proportion to the higher percentage of foreign-born residents. That is because those lacking legal residency rights tend to live with relatives or friends who are legal residents, and no one needs to borrow or steal a legal identity more than someone who doesn’t have one. Probably most identity theft victims in the area are citizens or green card holders with Hispanic surnames, for obvious reasons. But not all.
As a nation of immigrants, we should have learned by now that immigrants and first-generation Americans raised by immigrants require time to adapt to the norms of their communities and the broader society. Recently arrived (or born) Hispanics in Montgomery County are not the first group of people in American history to start out relatively poor by American standards, to crowd the dwellings they live in, and to exhibit cultural traits that differ from those of long-time residents and that sometimes rub them the wrong way.
That does not make recent immigrants any more immune to upward mobility than previous ones were. And it does not make all or even most long-time residents who experience problems during the adaptation period racists or bigots. As I wrote in November 2016:
Being able to count on certain reciprocal standards of ordinary behavior . . . has wider cognitive/psychic implications than one might think. . . . Public displays of emotion-driven behavior, behavior seen to be sexually unseemly or threatening, and behavior that subconsciously suggests a subversion of social orderliness, are not mere. Over time all of this adds up for many people . . . to a serious source of anxiety.
But while it doesn’t make them bigots, it may predispose many of them to become political reactionaries. To continue from my November 2016 piece: “This is partly why a lot of people actually believed Trump’s wild and irresponsible exaggerations about hordes of murderous Mexican immigrants roaming north of the Rio Grande.”
Now read the extract below—nasty as it is, sorry to the faint of soul among you—and see if you can fill in the proper nouns I have redacted:
The sense of this quality was already strong in my drive . . . from a comparatively conventional neighborhood; it was the sense of a great swarming . . . that had begun to thicken, infinitely, as soon as we had crossed to the **** side and long before we had got to **** Street. There is no swarming like that of **** when once **** has got a start. . . . The children swarmed above . . . and the very old persons being in equal vague occupation of the doorstep, pavement, curbstone, gutter, roadway, and every one alike using the street for overflow. . . . There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of ****. . . . [and] . . . the appearance to which they often most conduce is that of the spaciously organized cage for the nimbler class of animals in some great zoological garden. . . . [I]n each district, a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys. The very name of architecture perishes, for the fire-escapes look like abashed afterthoughts, staircases and communications forgotten in the construction; but the inhabitants lead, like the squirrels and monkeys, all the merrier life.
As some readers will know, this is not a contemporary Montgomery County resident ranting about Hispanic interlopers on Nextdoor. It’s from Henry James’s 1907 book The American Scene, and he’s writing about Jews in the Lower East Side. But were its language adjusted to sound more 21st century-ish and made to suit detached suburban housing rather than multi-story city tenement buildings, it could have been taken from Nextdoor, if the material from there were not couched in the aforementioned coded language. Just because people are more verbally guarded today than the logorrheic Henry James was in 1907 doesn’t mean that the better angels of their natures haven’t taken a long hike.
Most tragic are the many decent residents who are not at all anti-Hispanic bigots, but who know that the county’s de facto welcoming attitude toward illegal immigration has harmed them. The crowding that produces the safety issues, the second-class treatment of some neighborhoods, the crashing property values and the deteriorating schools have been caused overwhelmingly by relatively rapid and large-scale immigration—again, legal and otherwise—over the past several decades. There’s no way around the facts, and another fact is that not a single member of the Montgomery County Council lives in the aforementioned most-affected neighborhood. Saintly are those wise enough to blame county politicians and not the immigrants for the messes their neighborhoods have become. But those saints are still shit out of luck: On July 23 the ADU resolution passed the Montgomery County Council unanimously.
What does all this mean? Well, Montgomery County, Maryland, may be more of a poster child for immigration-fueled angst than most counties in the United States because of the numbers noted above, but it’s hardly alone. The same arguments and angers course though much of the country. Zoning and other residency regulations are relentlessly political, and these are the local politics that most Americans know and feel most strongly about, along with those having to do with education and the courts.
As the sentiments related above suggest, there is nothing simple about any of this. Reasoning is perforce complex, feelings are nuanced, and people are torn most of the time. Even people who disagree with the county’s lax attitude toward illegal immigration feel terrible when they hear about women being raped in group houses but not reporting it for fear of deportation. This is politics as real life, and real life as politics. Like real life, it is all very granular.
Yet the mainstream media are reliably oblivious to all of this, and to its cumulative political implications. Is it any wonder that for-profit polling businesses that orient themselves to and around the media have gotten so much wrong in recent years? Tens of thousands of micro-political engagements like that of the controversy over the ADU resolution add up to a powerful undercurrent of national politics. But the privileged elites of America’s political classes, which include mainstream media elites, are spared such concerns, making these undercurrents all but invisible to them. Opponents of the ADU resolution made a good faith effort to get the Washington Post, Fox 5, and other local media affiliates to cover the story—and failed. And the fact that so many local newspapers have lately gone out of business as the tech giants continue to strip-mine journalism doesn’t make it any easier to discern the granularities of such trends. Maybe would-be serious journalists should spend more time monitoring Nextdoor conversations.
Immigration angst isn’t the only politically salient subject that doesn’t get covered. Note how many years it took for the opioid crisis to become front-page news. And right now we have a still mostly unrecognized crisis on dairy farms throughout the country.
If you live in rural Wisconsin or in western New York State, you know what I’m referring to, but if you’re a typical resident of a bicoastal urban area, you very likely don’t. The Federal government, through the Department of Agriculture, in line with the latest farm bill, has set the price of milk too low for a situation in which Trumpian tariffs have undermined cheese exports to Mexico and elsewhere, and undocumented laborers are too scared to show up for work. A lot of small and mid-scale family dairy farmers have come under pressure to sell out cheap to agribusiness conglomerates, which is not a good thing for a whole host of reasons. Alas, the rural/urban divide has many dimensions, and the urban-based mainstream media seem unable to report usefully on any of them. Maybe when the price of dairy products goes way up and their quality goes way down the media will notice. And maybe not.