Disturbing questions

Sacramento’s unemployment rate is currently at 12.9 percent, almost three times as high as it was five years ago. I don’t have to look far to see the real-world consequence of this statistic. I work in mental health. The demand for services is on the rise at the same time as government funding to provide those services is being scaled back. My brother, a recent college graduate, has been unemployed for over a year. Even as a unionized public-sector employee, my own job security is hardly assured.

But how much has the recession changed our lived environment? I got to thinking about this when my employer relocated me from the mental-health complex on Stockton Boulevard to a smaller clinic off of Florin Road. The two neighborhoods are very different, but I found they share a similar inertia.

Stockton Boulevard north of Broadway, with its array of hospitals and doctor’s offices, is a harbinger of the future. Due to the aging baby boomers, health care is projected to grow significantly as a percentage of gross domestic product. Hospitals and nursing homes will be the factories of tomorrow. The recession has made it harder for poor Sacramentans to receive health care, but you will see few signs of this on Stockton Boulevard. The UC Davis Medical Center recently opened their glittering new emergency department. The great leap forward toward a society based upon prostate exams and waiting-room ennui proceeds undaunted.

Florin Road, by contrast, is a part of the now-crumbling promised land in which the baby boomers grew up. For those who steer clear of South Sacramento, Florin Road is the main artery of a postwar suburb that has seen better days. Even before the recession, the area was economically disadvantaged. In 2006, the bankrupted Florin Mall was bulldozed to the ground. A Walmart was built on the site, but the property still looks bombed out.

What strikes me most about Florin Road is that the recession seems not to have killed off a single fast-food restaurant. After Armageddon, cockroaches and Taco Bells will inherit the Earth.

In fact, I have to get out of my car to see any definite effects of the recession. Many strip malls have cleverly disguised their empty retail space by covering the windows with paper. After some wandering, I find a shuttered office building that has been overgrown by ivy and bunch grass and an empty parking lot that is partly caged by a cyclone fence topped by razor wire. It is unclear what the fence aims to protect, but someone fears something.

Like Stockton Boulevard, Florin Road has resisted change. From all appearances, it is still a stable and functioning multiethnic ghetto. But how long can the center hold? What if Sacramento’s unemployment rate creeps up closer to 20 percent, as it has in other parts of the state? How long before we begin to see iconic images of the Great Recession like those that photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans captured of the Great Depression?

Hopefully, the economy will improve soon, so these disturbing questions can remain unanswered.