“Can you come to a meeting at 6 tonight?”
The text came from my fiancé, Colin, on a Monday afternoon. He had just learned that a proposed zoning ordinance focused on syringe exchanges was going before our city’s Public Safety Committee that night. Although he ran the only syringe exchange in town, Twin City Harm Reduction Collective (TCHRC), he knew nothing of this proposal until a reporter called him that day to give him a heads up.
The zoning change would designate syringe exchange as its own use and assign it to 4 zoning categories, all commercial/office/campus. TCHRC operates out of Green Street United Methodist Church, located in the West Salem Neighborhood of Winston-Salem, where Colin and I both live—my house is maybe 100 feet from the church. Should it pass, this ordinance would require TCHRC to either close or relocate by 2019.
I joined Colin at City Hall along with another friend of ours to stand in support of TCHRC. It was good we were there. When the ordinance was presented, a councilman asked a question about the effectiveness of the exchange—but the presenter was unfamiliar with the program. Fortunately, the committee recognized Colin to speak.
The councilmembers asked good questions, and Colin gave good answers. In the end, they decided to table the matter and asked him to bring more information to the next month’s Public Safety Committee meeting. It all went as well as it could have gone.
But that meeting was just the start—or really, just the latest chapter in TCHRC’s journey toward neighborhood and city acceptance and support.
TCHRC started in December of 2016, soon after syringe exchanges became legal in North Carolina. Colin and a small band of committed individuals had been operating an underground exchange for some time in response to the overwhelming need in the community, and they were thrilled to finally come out of the shadows. The moment they found a location—Green Street Church—they fast-tracked a plan to open a fixed site while continuing their mobile exchange.
Amidst the excitement, they failed to seek neighborhood buy-in, and it came back to haunt them. The West Salem Neighborhood Association found out about the exchange on social media, and a heated, at times nasty argument erupted in the neighborhood Facebook group.
Colin and Erika, the other co-founder of TCHRC, quickly called a neighborhood meeting. It was well-attended, and people shared concerns and support. As at the public safety meeting that would come months later, Colin and Erika answered questions and assuaged many fears. They provided studies on the (positive) impact of syringe exchanges on neighborhoods as well as their extensive safety plan, which had been submitted to the state as required by law. The basic conclusion was that TCHRC would stay in touch with the neighborhood about any issues that might arise and be ready to assess the situation as needed.
The meeting did get heated—but not over the syringe exchange. A theme through many neighbors’ concerns was a sense that a group had been working to improve the neighborhood, and the fear was that this service would bring in undesirable traffic and cause a bad element to resurface.
It was the question of what it meant to “improve” the neighborhood that sparked tension. A few African-American residents, some of whom had been in West Salem longer than many of the people present at the meeting, raised concerns about what the gentrification that “improvement” brought meant for this historic, urban neighborhood. West Salem is just on the edge of downtown, and plans for development in the coming years are sure to only further urbanize the neighborhood—but there doesn’t yet seem to be consensus about how best to do that.
It quickly became clear that there were undercurrents of race and class at work in the room that had nothing to do with the syringe exchange. Winston-Salem is a pretty segregated city, but West Salem is one of a few neighborhoods that are remarkably diverse—in a sense. There is a street that is referred to as the DMZ—De-Militarized Zone—between the poorer and wealthier parts of the neighborhood. I’ve gathered (though can’t say with authority) that some folks who live in the nicer section, where my house is, don’t often venture too far past that invisible line.
Unsurprisingly, the question of home ownership vs. renting came up. When a white woman asked a black woman whether she owned her home, the latter replied, “Not that it should matter, but yes, I do.” A friend who works at Green Street Church but lives in another neighborhood nearby said that if anyone asked that question at one of their community meetings, they would get kicked out.
Zoning began in America in the early 20th century. It didn’t take long for the South to start using planning to racially segregate its cities. A National Municipal Review from 1914 details the earliest of these kinds of ordinances. Boston started the trend in 1910. Winston-Salem passed its first segregation ordinance in 1912.
In Winston-Salem, as in many other Southern cities, the legislation introduced zoning for the entire municipality, making certain blocks white and others black. Residents were given a certain amount of time to relocate, after which it became illegal for a black person to reside in a white neighborhood and vice versa. The punishment for violating the ordinance was a $50 fine or 30 days’ imprisonment.
An overlooked implication of racial zoning was that although whites and blacks could not live on the same blocks, whites could still own property in black neighborhoods. This led to an increase in absentee landlords—something West Salem deals with today—and, notably, decreased rates of black home ownership.
On top of the effects of zoning on racial disparities in home ownership, blacks have been at a disadvantage when it comes to landholding since the days of slavery. Most wealth in America is inherited. If your great-great grandparents were slaves, your great-grandparents poor sharecroppers, your grandparents tenants to white landlords—at what point were you supposed to accrue the resources needed to become a homeowner?
I bought my house with the help of unused dollars in a college fund my parents had built up since I was born. I got a good interest rate due to a high credit score for which I could thank not just my fiscal responsibility but also my parents’ support and planning. Many Americans—of all races, but particularly immigrants and people of color—do not have that advantage.
The white woman who asked whether her black neighbor owned her home didn’t realize that her question placed a finger firmly on the bruise of this painful history.
This article by Christopher Silver gives a thorough history of city planning, in particular its racial origins and impact. He quotes Yale Rabin: “What began as a means of improving the blighted physical environment in which people lived and worked [became] a mechanism for protecting property values and excluding the undesirables”—namely African-Americans and immigrants.
Some of the language used in the zoning proposed for syringe exchanges in our city felt coded to me. Concerns about “traffic” have stuck with me. The term “traffic” gets used differently depending on where you are. In downtown Winston-Salem, it might refer to people coming to shop or eat—or it might be a cautionary word about the homeless congregating in certain areas. In my neighborhood, it refers to people coming to Green Street Church for the food pantry, clothing closet, NA meetings, and more.
I fear we may unintentionally be making “traffic” a cipher for “undesirables.”
This piece, written by David Walters, a professor at UNC Charlotte—Charlotte being my hometown—offers insight into what cultural values are embedded in zoning ordinances. He writes:
“Zoning as traditionally practiced in the U.S. since its inception in the late 19th century, has been based on categorizing uses and separating them into geographically segregated areas. But classifications we make are based on a worldview. With zoning, such views continue to be based on concepts of separation, social order and hierarchies. Indeed, within the dry and often obfuscatory language of zoning codes lie deeply embedded cultural clues to American history and current community politics.”
What is our worldview? What are our values? What are we really saying when we propose zoning ordinances and decide what kinds of uses, services, and people should be where?
Winston-Salem’s racial ordinance was first challenged in the 1913 case State v. Darnell. William Darnell, a black man, had moved into a family home on Highland Avenue (which, interestingly enough, is today in a predominantly black neighborhood).
Actually, it’s unfair to say that the ordinance was challenged—what really happened was that Darnell was tried, found guilty, and fined. He appealed to a higher court and was again found guilty and fined.
It would not be until 1940 that racial zoning would truly stand trial. In Clinard v. Winston-Salem, the ordinance was finally dismantled.
Before you give 1940 Winston-Salem a high five, let’s dig a little deeper. All but one of the plaintiffs were white homeowners who wanted to be able to rent to blacks but were prevented from doing so by the ordinance.
In the case text, it’s clear that the racial zoning was struck down, not because it was unjust, but because it infringed on white homeowners’ rights to rent to whom they please. Doing away with the ordinance didn’t disrupt segregation—if anything, it cemented the power structures that perpetuated it.
If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, is it still right?
Syringe exchanges were legalized in California in 1999. Casa Segura became Oakland’s first harm reduction clinic, but from the very beginning, it faced opposition. That escalated to such a point that its drop-in center burned down in 2001 in a case of suspected arson.
In the wake of the fire, Casa Segura went completely mobile, struggling to comply with strict Oakland zoning ordinances. Even when they did find a site that met all the requirements, a city councilor passed a 90-day “emergency ordinance” that applied to organizations serving drug users. Such groups needed a conditional-use permit in order to operate. The measure effectively blocked Casa Segura from reopening a fixed site.
The article I read about the case said this:
“Although Casa Segura eventually satisfied the requirements of the major conditional use permit, individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the substance of the emergency ordinance, as well as the process by which it was adopted, allowed community opposition to trump public health needs. While not insurmountable on their face, the ordinance’s requirements did not apply to comparable health services that targeted populations other than drug users.”
I asked a concerned neighbor a question that echoed that observation. Why was the syringe exchange different? Green Street church has a food pantry and clothing closet, hosts NA meetings, and is a revolving door for community and support groups of all kinds. How was giving needles to addicts different from giving food to a hungry person?
I was being a tad facetious, knowing generally what the response would be, but my question was sincere. What does make this different?
The neighbor conceded that certainly there are active users who come to the pantry, the clothes closet, and probably even NA meetings. But, she said, TCHRC is the only organization encouraging drug use.
I had to argue. TCHRC does not encourage drug use. They just refuse to close their eyes to its reality. Colin and Erika constantly hold out hope that their clients will one day get clean. Part of the point is to keep people alive long enough to decide to get help. Too many users die of an overdose or contract a disease before they get to a place where they can seek recovery.
The ultimate goal of TCHRC is to alleviate suffering in the short term—which means preventing disease, stopping overdoses, and offering a shred of dignity—and in the long term—through treatment. But only when the client is ready.
I used to think of drug users in moral terms. They were bad people making bad decisions. They might hurt me. I may never have consciously thought these things, but that’s probably a fair representation of my biases.
That has changed for me—and not because I’ve had all excellent experiences with addicts. I’ve seen how a drug—or, more accurately, drug-seeking behavior—can change someone for the utter worse. I know the suffering that addiction can cause, not just to addicts but to everyone around them, especially those closest to them.
Although it hasn’t been quick or easy, I’ve come to see that addiction is a disease. Addicts are people who are suffering, vulnerable people whom society casts aside. Why should we treat them any differently from someone wrestling with another form of mental illness, or a person in need of some other social service?
I had agreed to cover the exchange for an hour on a Saturday afternoon while Colin was in Greensboro working on a project for school. I had one client during that time. He was a few years younger than I am—mid-to-late 20s—white, and well-to-do-looking, whatever that means.
He was clearly skittish—around here, people are still getting used to the idea that syringe exchanges are legal, and addicts are understandably slow to trust. More than once, he squirmed and told me he felt sketchy. I tried to reassure him.
He had just gotten out of treatment the day before. He didn’t know why he couldn’t stop or what it would take. He had overdosed (or, as he put it, died) and been brought back multiple times, gone through detox over and over, and every time he went right back to using.
I told him it takes what it takes, asked how many times a day he uses, multiplied that by seven, and gave him a week’s supply of syringes and some naloxone kits. He thanked me profusely, saying over and over how amazing it was that TCHRC even existed. As he left, I thought about how he could have been my little brother.
I have a friend who is also a neighbor and lives across the street from Green Street Church. When the syringe exchange started, she was concerned. When we talked, it was clear that if she didn’t know Colin and me, she would be opposed to TCHRC operating there. She didn’t like the idea of it being right by her house, but she loved and trusted us, so she was prepared to give it time.
And she eventually came around. She recently told me that her experience has been that she has no idea who is coming for the syringe exchange. She hasn’t noticed an increase in traffic. And although she still isn’t crazy about it, she said herself that it’s NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) on her part. She told me that the church has a duty to care for the community, and if this is a way of doing that, they should be allowed to do so.
I’ve never understood NIMBYism. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had children, especially if I perceived something as a real threat. I try to remember that when I hear people voice concerns, and to remember that even a year or two ago, I would have had concerns myself. But in general, when it comes to services for vulnerable people, it makes me proud for those things to be in my neighborhood.
Opioid deaths kill more people than HIV, gun violence, or skin cancer, according to the CDC. And it’s happening in our communities. More than half of TCHRC’s clients live in West Salem. In a 3-day span, there were 7 overdose reversal just a few blocks from where I live. Colin says he can think of 10 people in West Salem who would be dead if not for naloxone kits TCHRC has passed out. We aren’t talking about some mythical creatures known as drug users. We’re talking about our neighbors, our kids, our colleagues.
The question isn’t where the service is. It’s where the problem is. And the problem is right in our backyard.
I’ve heard it said plenty of times—“I support this, just not here.” I could understand this about certain things—but when it comes to a desperately needed social service, the sentiment troubles me. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people.
This has come up as our downtown church has hosted check-in for the winter overflow homeless shelter. Neighboring businesses are concerned about—there’s that word again—“traffic.” Yes, real issues have come up that needed to be dealt with. But it’s easier to oppose something when you think of it in terms of “traffic” or “a bad element” instead of seeing the people in need.
I used to live in a neighborhood not unlike West Salem, but in more of what some people would consider “a bad neighborhood.” (We called it “hood-adjacent.” It wasn’t the hood, but it was close.) Now, whenever someone refers to “a bad neighborhood,” I think about Mack and Rachel. It’s easy to judge a part of town from a distance, and harder to do when you know the people who live there.
This article on NIMBYism talked about two kinds of distance—social and spatial. Many people already have social distance from active drug users, which by default translates to spatial distance. But when a service targeted at those people starts up next door, they lose the spatial distance. The article says:
“Both sorts of ‘distance’—social and spatial—collapse into one; that is, the constructs that render the ‘other’ different, immoral, or dangerous can be implemented spatially so that physical distance helps safeguard social and moral distance. Smith’s (1994) research suggests that the sense of one’s social and moral responsibility for others decays as one becomes subjectively distanced from the other.”
You could argue that I’m biased toward TCHRC because my fiancé runs it. It’s not a wholly unfair criticism. But from my perspective, the closing of social and spatial distance between myself and those in addiction and recovery has forced me to care about such people. My social and moral responsibility toward drug users has been amplified by proximity.
I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet, so let’s go ahead and go there. (I’ve blogged previously about harm reduction from a Christian perspective, so if you want more of that, check this out.) Jesus wasn’t even a little bit interested in social or spatial distance, and in a time when both were deeply entrenched in religious and cultural practice, that was a scandal. Jesus basically tracked down the undesirables of his time and got as close to them as he could.
I recently preached on the story in Mark 5 about a woman who had suffered from a bleeding disease for 12 years. She ignored purity laws that mandated she be isolated from society, especially from men, and pushed her way through a crowd to touch Jesus’ robe.
When she did, she was immediately healed; but the story doesn’t stop there. Jesus turns to her, shocking those around him by speaking to a woman at all, much less one with such an impurity. He calls her “Daughter.” He tells her that her faith hads made her well well—using a Greek word that also means “saved.”
I told Colin that I had preached about how the church should be like that—we shouldn’t have to become pure or get clean in order to approach God or be part of Christian community. He took it a step further—“I think the church should go to the people.”
The church has spent too much time moralizing the suffering of the least among us. It’s time for us not just to open our doors, but to go to the people. It’s time for us to close the social and spatial distance, to take up our social and moral responsibility to all people. We can learn from what TCHRC is doing.
Zoning matters. I’m glad that WalMart can’t just open up a SuperCenter in the middle of my neighborhood. I am glad that parts of my city are able to retain their historic character because of how they are zoned. But we ignore the racial history of zoning at our peril.
We may not be overtly segregating our neighborhoods today, but we are still calling certain people undesirable and working to exclude them. In Quebec, mosques are having trouble establishing themselves thanks to zoning ordinances. As urban revitalization spreads around the U.S., concerns about gentrification are cropping up everywhere.
We must stay aware of what zoning says about our values, of who and what we are designating as “undesirable” in the process, and why exactly we are trying to create social and spatial distance between us and them. Otherwise, we will never dismantle the machinery of racism and discrimination that has run our country from its inception. We’ll just give it yet another new paint job.