Terri Still has lived in Camden, New Jersey since she was in second grade. But these days, as she walks around her neighborhood, she tries not to look around her to avoid seeing the blight that surrounds her.
“It’s depressing seeing it all constantly,” she says. “You try not to think about it.”
Across the street, Christopher Toepfer pokes around inside an abandoned warehouse. There are stacks of broken palettes and scattered food wrappers, evidence of squatters. The building used to house a porta-potty company, but it’s been vacant for several decades.
“We call [these] ‘abando-miniums’ in the vacant building business,” he says.
But outside, the warehouse is getting a facelift. A small crew is painting the exterior dove grey, covering up years of graffiti. They're employed by Toepfer’s nonprofit, The Neighborhood Foundation, and the warehouse is one of about 40 buildings the Foundation has boarded up and painted in Camden this summer. Across the country, they’ve done about 1,500 similar projects, focusing primarily on residential buildings in 21 different cities.
Local officials who have to deal with large tracts of vacant and abandoned buildings often resort to one of two options: fix 'em up or tear 'em down.
Toepfer represents middle ground. His foundation paints the boarded-up buildings to look as though they have real, working windows and doors. Occasionally the painters even draw plants or pets in the window.
“Sometimes, we even do facades of trees, like silhouettes of trees, to cover graffiti,” he says.
Once an urban area falls into decline, there is a spiral effect. Abandonded houses fall into disrepair and are often used by vagrants or criminals. That depresses the value of occupied homes and makes the neighborhood less desirable. Property values decline, the remaining residents sell up or move out, and landlords find it difficult to rent the housing stock. Those houses fall into disrepair, and the downcycle continues.
The idea is that a makeover, even one that’s just skin deep, can stop this spiral and stabilize a neighborhood. The Neighborhood Foundation charges $500 to paint and secure a house or $2,500 for a larger commercial building. It's a lot cheaper than a renovation, or even a demolition, which could cost $10,000 or $15,000.
It's not just that a paint job can have a beneficial economic effect; it can raise peoples' spirits, too.
“I think when they fix things up, it gives people more encouragement,” says Terri Still, the Camden resident. “It makes them want to take pride in where they live.”
Beautification does work, agrees Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Small investments can have large returns."
It’s a strategy realtors and developers have long used.
“In the 'burbs, when you’re selling a property that hasn’t been lived in for a while, the first thing the realtor will say is 'mow the lawn',” says Wachter, adding that simple fix can boost property values as much as 20 percent.
Of course, securing and painting a property isn’t a permanent solution — it’s a Band-Aid, literally plastering over the wounds of a city.
But hopefully, that Band-Aid gives it the chance to heal.
The suburb of San Leandro sits just east of Oakland, California, within striking distance of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Underneath the city lies a loop of ultrafast fiber optic cable known as Lit San Leandro. Data speeds through these cables about 2,000 times faster than a typical internet hookup.
The cable exists because of one guy: Pat Kennedy.
Kennedy runs OSIsoft, a company based in San Leandro. A few years ago, he was looking to expand, but he wanted the kind of infrastructure he saw in towns like Palo Alto. So he put down $3 million of his own money to make it happen in his backyard.
“The reason I did it is that I’ve actually been a 40-year resident of San Leandro," Kennedy says.
It became clear to him that industrial cities like his were never going to be top picks for things like broadband or fiber. "We’re really going to suffer as a result,” Kennedy says.
Can broadband speed up the economic of industrial towns?
San Leandro was already struggling. It used to be a manufacturing town, but those jobs dried up in the '70s and '80s.
At one time, there were more than 20,000 manufacturing jobs in San Leandro. In 2013, fewer than 7,000 of those remained. Industrial-zoned land, much of it now used for storage, makes up nearly a quarter of the city. A 2013 report calls these areas “neither memorable nor particularly pleasant to get around.”
On the other hand, a presentation by City Manager Chris Zapata calls broadband “a laser cheetah with explosive power accelerating economic growth.”
Deborah Acosta, San Leandro’s new Chief Innovation Officer, frames the issue differently: “How do we re-energize this industrial space to actually become alive again?” Her job is to convince businesses that San Leandro is the place to be.
That starts with the bright red streaks running through her hair. They put people on notice, Acosta says.
“When they see my red hair, they’re going, ‘Holy smokes! Something’s different here, I think I need to pay attention,’” she says.
Investment in fiber and infrastructure — now at more than $13 million — wouldn’t have happened if Pat Kennedy hadn’t put down that initial money, Acosta says.
Analyst Craig Settles says private investment, like Kennedy's, is one way for cities to get broadband.
“The idea of going to local businesses and saying ‘can you contribute to the network?’ is one of the more viable options, in my book,” Settles says. Local businesspeople have helped get broadband off the ground in places far away from tech centers, like Emporia, Kansas; Fredericton, New Brunswick; Keene, New York.
In San Leandro, Pat Kennedy’s investment has paid off with buzzing and whirring on the second floor of the West Gate shopping mall. The sound comes from 3-D printers, manufactured by Type A Machines.
Based in San Francisco, Type A moved its manufacturing operations to San Leandro earlier this year. They’re currently based above a Sports Authority at the mall, a massive building that was once a Dodge auto plant. If all goes well this year, Type A’s workforce here could more than double, to about 50.
Since San Leandro first installed broadband a couple of years ago, the initiative has created about 90 jobs. But Acosta and Kennedy think they’re on to something. They’re doubling down, and point to half a million square feet of office space going up, with those ultrafast connections.
Comcast is expanding its "Internet Essentials" program, which lets low-income Americans apply to receive broadband internet for ten dollars a month. The move to draw attention to the program has been part of a campaign to convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast says, if approved, the merger would extend Internet Essentials to millions more low-income people.
Comcast is also announcing is that they're changing their eligibility requirements so that former customers who still owe payments on their bills will be able to use the program.
“If your bill to Comcast is more than a year old, you will be able to apply for Internet Essentials,” says Brian Fung, technology reporter for the Washington Post.
While Comcast has touted the 1.4 million Americans currently enrolled in the program, critics counter that up to 2.6 million households would be eligible for the program, were it not for the current enrollment criteria -- A household is eligible for Internet Essentials if it has a child eligible for free or reduced school lunches.
What the program does make clear, according to Fung, is that there is now an understanding that internet access, especially for poorer families with children, is essential.
In Cleveland, a public hospital may be succeeding at the seemingly impossible: saving money while making patients healthier. It's doing so by giving patients personalized attention.
And, what the adults in their lives should do about it.
What do sitcoms, dramas and reality TV say about poor people? For our yearlong series exploring poverty, NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at the television shows that place the poor center stage.