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Municipal Borders Have a Huge Impact on Millions of People’s Daily Lives. Here Are a Few of America’s Starkest.

Piedmont, California; Grosse Pointe, Michigan; and Roxbury, Massachusetts, may be separated by thousands of miles, but they've been shaped by the same man-made forces.

by Susie Cagle, Emma Ockerman, and Drew Schwartz; illustrated by Susie Cagle
Sep 19 2019, 6:03pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

There’s nothing quite as unnatural as the average American municipal border. The country’s nearly 20,000 cities and towns are carved out by invisible, capricious little lines that divide and define communities. Some were drawn up to follow natural breaks in the land, or to follow existing infrastructure, but many—thousands upon thousands—came into existence to benefit wealthy landowners who just weren’t keen to share what they had.

In the grand scheme of borders, these seem the most minor: They don’t dictate citizenship or our inalienable rights. People cross them every day, usually without even noticing. But sometimes it’s obvious. The old-growth trees on public sidewalks stop or start suddenly; the roads are freshly paved, or pockmarked and crumbling.

City by city, these lines define who has and who doesn’t; whether you’ll have clean water to drink; whether you’ll get a quality education; whether you can walk your dog in the local park; whether you can park your car on a public street near that park; whether you’re likely to have enough money to even own a car, let alone a house.

These boundaries have an outsize impact on millions of people’s daily lives. Here are a few of America’s starkest.

PIEDMONT, CALIFORNIA

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Before Marie Mckinzie and Greg Dunston arrived in the wealthy white city of Piedmont, California, this past January, they had been living on Oakland’s streets for 10 years. Mckinzie was owed years of disability backpay—as her case languished in the courts, she and Dunston slept in doorways, all their belongings packed in carts they made sure to keep close by.

They were still sleeping on the floor, instead of in the king-size bed their new landlord had furnished in their unit, when neighbors started calling the police on them—over and over again.

“Eight times in the first three weeks,” said Dunston, shaking his head. There was no allegation of a crime. It was just that he and Mckinzie, who are Black, were there, all of a sudden, and they didn’t appear to belong.

When their new landlord, a real estate developer named Terry McGrath who had read about them in the San Francisco Chronicle, reached out to offer the in-law apartment in his $4 million Piedmont home rent-free, they weren’t quite sure what to do. The streets had become home. “We never felt homeless, we just lived outdoors,” said Dunston. But it was winter, and, they felt, an especially rainy one. And, Mckinzie figured, “What did we have to lose?”

Though Oakland has recently enjoyed—and suffered from—an influx of richer residents, it still remains far poorer than Piedmont, which it surrounds on all sides. In a region known for its racial diversity, Piedmont is less than 2 percent Black. In 2017, the city’s mayor reluctantly resigned over inflammatory posts on social media, one of which claimed that Black Lives Matter “encourages cop-killing.”

Only a few dozen cities in the world are surrounded on all sides by another city, and Piedmont is one of them. First incorporated by a rush of new and moneyed residents fleeing San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, the Piedmont “doughnut hole” at one time had the most millionaires per square mile of any city in America. Today the 1.7 square mile town is home to roughly 11,200 people, on average far wealthier than their Oakland neighbors. While Oakland experiences a dire housing crisis and a surge in homelessness, Piedmont’s streets are free from RVs, tents, and carts piled high. The minuscule poverty here is hidden if it is here at all: According to the most recent census data, fewer than 5 percent of the people in Piedmont are poor. The median home is valued at more than $1.7 million.

Piedmont protects its borders with its vast resources, with license plate scanners positioned at the entry and exit points it shares with Oakland, ostensibly to look for criminals. And it protects those resources even more strictly. Outsiders pay more than twice what Piedmont residents pay to have their dogs off-leash in Piedmont parks. Piedmont maintains its own schools and police, but not its own libraries—for that, it relies on Oakland’s, but its residents pay just half of what Oaklanders pay for the same privilege.

McGrath knew moving in wouldn’t be easy for his new housemates, at least at first. He even wrote to the Piedmont police chief, anticipating his neighbors’ culture shock. Mckinzie and Dunston now have settled in to their new home, and the police calls have stopped, but there’s still some unease.

“We love it up there now,” said Dunston. “But I still wake up early in the morning and say, ‘Marie, we gotta go.’”

“And I tell him, we live in a house now; we don’t have to get up at six in the morning anymore,” Mckinzie explained.

And the streets aren’t the same to them anymore. “People say to us, ‘Oh you’re rich now, you’re living up there!’” said Dunston in disbelief. “We don’t have money, we just live in a house.”

While they wait for some resolution to Mckinzie’s case, they stay in Piedmont, though somewhat reluctantly. It is beautiful, and they are grateful to McGrath, but Mckinzie is emphatic: “I want my own place.” And Piedmont is not that place.

They still spend many of their days in Oakland, at the marina. It’s not always easy to get there— Piedmont offers limited bus service, and none on the weekends in residential areas. But this is where they feel comfortable. Sometimes they take the ferry across the water, free and unburdened by their old carts. But often they just sit in the sun, watching the bay, sharing what food they have with the birds.

For all its amenities, its tech-enabled security, and exceptional wealth, Piedmont is still hopelessly landlocked, by its own selfish design. The city on the hill may offer sweeping views of the bay from the verandas of its mansions, but Piedmont is an island that will never touch the water. —Susie Cagle

GROSSE POINTE, MICHIGAN

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In trying to explain where she grew up, Miracle Bailey will attempt to carve a clear line. There’s Grosse Pointe, the place where she played in the park when she was a girl, joined the cheer team, and founded her predominantly white high school’s first Black student union. And then there’s Detroit, just a few miles down the road—where the suburban streets choke off into dead ends, the vacant lots begin, and the predominant whiteness ends.

Bailey left Grosse Pointe utterly disenchanted in 2016, the year her white classmates went viral for scrawling the N word on their stomachs at a party. Now 21 years old, Bailey is studying strategic communications at Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia. When she came back home to the lakeside Michigan town in May, she drove her car to that stark line—Alter Road, the border where the wealthy suburbs cordon themselves off from one of the poorest cities in America—to define it, again.

“This is actually like, terrible now. This is Grosse Pointe,” she says in a cell phone video, pointing her camera to the passenger side of her car, toward manicured lawns and a dead end blocking passage into the suburbs. She pivots back to the driver-side window, toward the border’s overgrown grass. “And this is Detroit.”

For decades, Grosse Pointe has proudly served as an idyllic enclave for Michigan’s yuppie class living along the heart-shaped Lake St. Clair. Composed of five so-called “Pointes”—Shores, Woods, Farms, City, and Park—the region is also an enduring reminder of metro Detroit’s legacy of segregation. The suburb’s desire to wall off Detroit entirely still manifests on Alter Road.

While Grosse Pointe Park is among the closest suburbs to Detroit, it shares nearly none of the city’s characteristics. The town of 11,000 is nearly 86 percent white, compared with Detroit, which is 79 percent Black. Nearly 38 percent of Detroiters live in poverty, compared with 6.4 percent of residents in Grosse Pointe Park. Grosse Pointe’s pastel trim ends at the Detroit border, where skeletal homes sit vacant between crumbling sidewalks and empty lots. A few miles past the border, gentrification picks up again and melts into Detroit’s Midtown district.

When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Bailey’s former high school, Grosse Pointe South, a few weeks before his assassination in 1968, he warned that “every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one.”

But the divisions were manufactured, in large part, by white people. For example, in 1945 the Grosse Pointe Brokers Association secretly adopted a practice called the “point system,” which blocked people of color from purchasing homes in the suburbs and made it nearly impossible for Jews to live in the area by grading them on their overall “desirability.” This went on until 1960. When the suburb’s first Black residents finally moved in, they were met by “carloads of jeering whites hurling racial insults,” according to the New York Times.

“End of point system or not, there were still people who were doing their best to enforce racial exclusion,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a former vice president of the Economic Policy Institute and a Grosse Pointe Park native.

Sae’Vonne Williams, a 27-year-old designer, wanted to move to Grosse Pointe Park from Detroit because “it’s so clean over here and pretty,” she said.

But after her lease is up, she’s probably getting out. The town is so white that she can recall specific instances where she saw another Black person on her street. That doesn’t necessarily bother her, but it can feel awkward, she said. Then there’s the fact that her street near the border is a collection of densely packed flats. She heard that’s where Black domestic workers used to live to cater to the rich white people living along the water.

“I see that line,” she said. “One street over, it’s like big houses right down the street from me. The houses get really big, huge.” —Emma Ockerman

ROXBURY, MASSACHUSETTS

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Boston is home to some of the worst income inequality of any major city in America. Where you sit, on the spectrum between very poor and very rich, is determined overwhelmingly by the color of your skin. The median wealth of a white household is $247,500; for a Black household, it is $8.

You’ll find the most staggering example of that vast gulf in Roxbury, a majority-Black neighborhood racked by poverty and crime and deprived of critical resources—all compounded by the fact that its residents are effectively trapped there.

It’s only four miles from Downtown Boston—the city’s wealthy, majority-white epicenter of business and government—but if you live in Roxbury, Downtown feels much farther. It takes about 45 minutes to get there on public transit; if your bus is delayed, or you run into traffic, it takes about an hour and 15. You could walk that distance in the same amount of time.

Of the more than 7,000 kids Emmanuel Tikili has worked with as the co-director of Project R.I.G.H.T., a Roxbury nonprofit that serves low-income residents, he said a “majority” have never been to Downtown. For those who live in Roxbury, it might as well be in a different state.

The neighborhood is isolated by borders drawn up more than 80 years ago, trapping its residents behind invisible lines. In the 1930s, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlined it as “hazardous,” citing an “infiltration” of Black tenants, leaving residents incapable of getting loans to buy homes—one of the most important ways families build wealth over time. Coupled with discriminatory zoning laws, the designation siloed low-income people of color in Roxbury, locked them into poverty, and packed them together in multi-family apartment buildings.

Flash forward to 2019, and the crippling, long-term effects of those policies are shockingly clear: A third of Roxbury’s residents live below the poverty line. Only 20 percent of them own their homes. Every public high school in the neighborhood ranks among the lowest-performing 10 percent in the state. The homicide rate is more than twice the city average.

Roxbury’s low-income residents not only live in a place where violent crime is rampant, jobs are scarce, and access to quality education is virtually nonexistent—they can’t get out. Most can’t afford cars. Their only way to leave the neighborhood, and reach parts of the city with opportunities for employment, education, healthcare, and other crucial services, is on public transit.

But Roxbury is what Katherine Levine Einstein, a political science professor at Boston University, calls a “transit island.” According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DoT), “more than half” the people there “do not have convenient access” to the subway. A majority of commuters rely on buses to get around—but those buses are, in the DoT’s own words, “plagued by a variety of problems.” They are painfully slow. They rarely show up on time. When they finally do, they’re often so packed that you can’t board them.

“When they don’t have access to transit and low-cost ways of accessing these incredibly important services, you further entrench the poverty that exists in those communities,” Einstein said.

For many young people in Roxbury, their neighborhood is all they know. Jorge Martinez, Project R.I.G.H.T.’s former executive director, said he once took a 23-year-old client across the river to Cambridge to pick up a $75,000 check from a handful of wealthy white donors. They left Roxbury, turned onto Massachusetts Avenue, and crossed the bridge.

“What’s that?” the young man asked, pointing out the window.

“That’s the Charles River,” Martinez told him.

“Oh,” the young man said. “I didn’t know we had one of those.”

Twenty-three years in Boston, and he didn’t know that the iconic body of water that bisects the city—the one that appears on virtually all its postcards—even existed. —Drew Schwartz

If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.