Ever since we moved to Walla Walla, Washington, we’ve heard at least once a week that this is just a great community to live in. At first, I was new to town and curious, so I would ask whoever had made the declaration to elaborate. Why specifically Walla Walla? How was it such a utopia? What made it special? In one of the first conversations I had on this subject, the conversation went something like this:
VISITING PROFESSOR: It’s such a great place to raise kids. [NOTE: I did not have any children at the time.]
ME: Oh? Why?
VP: Well, it’s very safe here.
ME: Is it? By that you mean, what?
VP: I mean there’s low crime here.
ME: [THINKING] Hmm. Well, in many neighborhoods in DC, crime was pretty low too.
VP: Well, in Walla Walla you know your neighbors.
ME: I knew my neighbors in DC.
VP: We have a farmer’s market.
ME: I lived in Eastern Market in DC, one of the oldest, continuously running open-air markets on the East Coast. But okay, farmer’s markets are great.
Now then, the market in DC offered fresh local chicken, a gourmet cheese counter, eggs, all manner of fresh sausages, fresh seafood and fish (which we never bought, given Susanne’s allergies), cakes, pies, cookies, loads of produce, and the requisite crafty junk I’m never interested in buying, like handmade jewelry and such. In Walla Walla there is also a ton of produce during the season, a woman who sells lamb, and two farmers who sell pork. You can also get fresh milled flour out here and that wasn’t available in DC, but for the most part there was a lot more diversity in the city than here. But going back to the conversation, I do tend to like my neighbors in Walla Walla more than my neighbors in DC. Some of my city neighbors were kind of snarky. Not that I know anything about that.
But here’s my point, John Inman’s amazing chicken roasters aside—the mantra that Walla Walla is near-perfect belies its deficiencies and makes it harder to improve the material reality of the people living here. Consider:
- According to the 2010 Census, nearly half of all households in Walla Walla County are at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty limit. That means that half of the households here qualify for food stamps.
- Depending on the definitions used, there are anywhere from 420 to 580 homeless people living in the city, which has a population of 36,000. That is a homeless rate of 1.3 percent, against a national average (633,782 homeless people on any given day, out of a population of 313,900,000) of 0.2 percent.
- There is no single child psychiatrist working in the city limits of Walla Walla.
- There is no orthopedic surgeon in Walla Walla willing to operate on an HIV-positive patient.
- There is no medical detox available in Walla Walla.
- There is no capability on the part of the school system to support a transgender child who wants to stay in school through transition.
- There is no homeless or temporary shelter for youth, and the one that is in planning has no plans to house LGBT youth, who nationally make up 40 percent of all minor-age shelter seekers.
- There are at least two gangs in town, M13 and the 18th Street Crew. In 2010, according to the city police department, there were 173 gang-related crimes reported. This year has seen at least 3 gang-related deaths. There is since February 2013, a new approach to confronting and ending gang activity in the city.
- There is no comprehensive sex ed taught in the school system, and chlamydia incidence is at its highest level ever.
Okay, so I must hate Walla Walla, right? That’s something of a damning list, or at least, it’s all negative. Honestly, I don’t hate this place. I mean, it’s not Walla Walla’s fault that when I rolled into town I had a busted knee and no friends in town. It’s not Walla Walla’s fault either that the entire global economy crashed and I didn’t find a job for two and half years, after applying to more than 125 of them. Those things did mesh together for me, it’s true. And I’ve spent the second half of these five years pulling them apart in an attempt at understanding my environment.
In Walla Walla, I have a flexible job that lets me see my son for three hours a day in the middle of the day. We go on “adventures” together—to Klicker’s for berries, or a local park, or the grocery store—and I wouldn’t give this time up with him for the world. If I’d stayed in DC I could still be commuting three hours a day instead, still spending $750 a month on gas to drive to Baltimore, still paying out $2,000 or more for an apartment every 30 days. The stakes at those jobs were so high, the pressures on contractors and government workers alike so dire, and now with sequestration? I’m sure I’d be a ball of anxiety. I do miss having new abstract problems to solve, but I’ve taken on the long-term project of raising Emile, and in Walla Walla, I’ve finally found a way to get to a keyboard and write. In five years I’ve gone from no confidence as a writer to having a published book and another one about to be published, I’ve been honored as a keynote speaker in front of my transgender peers, and been named a Fellow at a prestigious writing workshop, getting to improve my craft with other emerging authors and a couple of legends in the literary and activist worlds. I may firmly believe that the liberal arts college needs to do far more to support LGBT students than ask the spouses of faculty members to be mentors to them, but in that mentorship I think I have found as close to a true calling as I will ever experience. And it is precisely because Walla Walla has so few resources for LGBT youth that I am humbled to put myself out there to serve as one of them.
When I bristle at the “Walla Walla is a great place to live,” it’s often because I feel like the resource gaps here are erased in that sentiment, along with the strife and violence and harassment that many people here face on a daily basis. Of course the country’s major cities have their politically extreme blowhards too, but they seem to get more time here to spout off in the paper, in the local businesses and in public, and they get much less pushback from reasonable people here. For me, what makes a town or city a great place to live is how inclusive it is and how realistic it is about its opportunities and limitations. There is nothing Walla Walla can do to situate itself closer to Seattle, as much as I would personally prefer a 2-hour instead of a 4.5-hour drive to get there. So since we are so geographically isolated from any population center, it would behoove the residents here to remember that people living on the margins need some targeted help, instead of just acting like they don’t exist. If I see us moving toward public policies to improve all people’s lives, and not just people with old money from the turn of the last century, then I’ll nod my head at the sentiment of Walla Walla’s loveliness.
But not before.