I live in south Salem. Well, rural south Salem, above five miles from the city limits. Yet I can drive to downtown in about 20 minutes.
Where, if I go north or east, I'll reach a whole other sort of city: much poorer than the well-off enclaves of south and west Salem.
Several recent stories by Hannah Hoffman (nice job, Hannah!) in the Statesman Journal have cast much-needed light on Salem's income disparities.
West Salem is one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Oregon, according to a recent report by The Washington Post, and downtown and North Salem are some of the poorest.
The Post ranked every zip code in America based on median income and education level, measured by what percentage of adults have college degrees. West Salem falls in the 73rd percentile nationally, which means it is wealthier and better educated than 72 out of 100 zip codes in the country.
Meanwhile, downtown and North Salem are in the 17th percentile, and northeast Salem falls in the 19th percentile. They are in the bottom one-fifth of all American neighborhoods.
This is disturbing. As is the way Salem Mayor Anna Peterson looks upon these facts about how widely incomes vary in her city's neighborhoods.
Salem Mayor Anna Peterson was skeptical that Salem exhibits such stark income inequality.
“(West Salem) is a microcosm of this entire community. Don’t be misled by statistics,” she said. “There are millionaires that are downtown.”
Wow. Don't be misled by statistics.
The Washington Post report is based on census data, Mayor Peterson. If you don't believe in that solid data, I wonder how badly you're misinformed about other things a mayor should know about -- like climate change, transportation trends, sustainable technologies, urban design, and such.
What Peterson's comment revealed is that top public officials at the City of Salem aren't much concerned about income disparities among Salem's citizens and neighborhoods. They should be.
Neighborhood by neighborhood, Salem is sorting itself by income and by profession. The trend isn’t specific to Salem, or to Oregon, experts say. It’s happening nationally, as people choose more and more often to live near people whose lives are like theirs.
One thing is clear in the way Salem has sorted itself: Low-income and middle-income people still live side by side, but the wealthy aren’t mixing at all. They have their own neighborhoods and largely aren’t leaving them.
The Washington Post released a report earlier this month that ranked each ZIP code in the United States by median income and education, which showed a similar trend of people clustering with similar people.
However, one ZIP code can contain multiple neighborhoods, and it doesn’t give a complete picture of a town like Salem, where one neighborhood doesn’t resemble the adjacent ones at all.
The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis created its own report on Salem specifically, which shows how some neighborhoods show unusually large concentrations of one income level.
Analyst Josh Lehner said the report relied on two sources of data: Salem residents’ self-reported occupations and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ reported average wages for those professions
Check out Lehner's Salem Polarization Maps post. Here's the high wage map. (click to enlarge)
Where did Trader Joe's build a store? South Salem. Where did Natural Grocers build a store? South Salem. Ditto for the soon-to-open Cafe Yumm. Which I'm thrilled about, having blog-begged several years ago for this terrific restaurant chain to open a store in Salem.
Hoffman's story explains more about Salem's stratification.
On the middle- and low-income maps, the areas that appear dark green on the high-income map are washed out — the middle and low-income people just don’t live there.
Lehner said these mirror images can be found in nearly every American city. Portland shows the same pattern, he said, although the larger city has an “urban premium” that Salem doesn’t have. It is expensive and impressive to live in Portland’s Pearl District, Lehner said, but Salem doesn’t have an equivalent part of its downtown.
As a result, Salem’s wealthy have stayed in the more suburban parts of town with newer houses and larger pieces of property, he said.
Further, Portland has experienced rapid gentrification over the past decade, he said, which has drawn wealthier people to poorer parts of town. However, Salem’s older neighborhoods have largely not been renovated or changed to attract a higher-income population, he said.
Here's the Salem low-wage map. As noted above, pretty much a mirror image of the high-wage map.
Lehner makes some important points that Mayor Peterson and other City of Salem officials would be wise to pay attention to. For whatever reasons, Salem's urban core isn't experiencing the revitalization other cities such as Portland have.
Gosh, is it possible that one of the reasons is that other cities have a more enlightened City government than Salem? I say, absolutely.
Discussing what the City of Salem is doing wrong in regards to downtown, other low-wage parts of Salem, and to making this area more attractive to people who now work in Salem and choose to live in the Portland area will have to wait for another post.
I'll just observe that Mayor Peterson recognizes part of the problem, yet suggests an inadequate solution:
Peterson didn’t have a specific plan to address Salem’s economic disparity. She suggested part of it can be attributed to state employees who hold good-paying jobs in Salem but live elsewhere, taking that income with them.
“One of the things that I know about Salem’s demographics is that we have many managerial, specialized jobs, but those checks get cashed in Lake Oswego and Tualatin,” she said.
However, she said creating more jobs in Salem is the best way to solve the economic imbalance.
“Jobs is the crucial thing for us as a government to be doing,” she said.