The Wall Street Journal, 05/15/1992 © 1992, Dow Jones & Co., Inc. Reprinted with Permission
Children of '60s and '70s Focus
Less on Others' Problems,
More on ' People Like Us '
Some Angst in Pelham Manor
PELHAM MANOR, N.Y. -- Timothy Fisher, a 44-year-old tax attorney, is sitting in his English Tudor home on a quiet street in this pristine suburb, talking to himself.
Actually, the conversation is with his earlier self -- a fondly remembered 20-year-old who worked for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, worried about the poor and thought he would change the world.
"The young Tim asks me, `What have you done to help anyone today?' I have to say, `Not much -- well, not anything.'"
Mr. Fisher falls silent and fidgets with his tortoise-shell glasses. "Did we all grow up," he murmurs, "or just grow away from the things we really believe? I guess he'd say I've become part of the problem, and he'd be right."
Pelham Manor, a quiet enclave of 5,400 residents just north of New York City, is an island of prosperity in a volatile urban sea. To its south lie the mean streets of the Bronx. To the west lies working-class Mount Vernon, where hundreds regularly visit four local soup kitchens. To its east is New Rochelle, with a delicate mix of wealth and poverty that has led to some racial tensions. To its north is Pelham village, a mainly white community of 6,400 with a large blue-collar population, that shares less and less with Pelham Manor other than a name.
Like a number of residents in well-to-do enclaves across America, many people here in Pelham Manor have retreated not only into a geographical but a psychological suburbia. They pulled up the drawbridge and, perhaps reluctantly and unconsciously, recoiled from growing societal problems.
Some residents here, as in exclusive suburbs elsewhere, give generously to charities and volunteer to help the poor and homeless. "This is as diverse a community as you could find," says Dick Menaker, a Manhattan lawyer. "People here are involved and do care. We haven't cut ourselves off." He mentions the town's strong showing in a recent United Way fund drive, and his own involvement with pro bono legal work.
But others acknowledge some angst over distancing themselves from not-so-distant problems. "The world has become a far more dangerous place, with guns and AIDS and crack. It makes you less likely to take on problems, to get involved," says Kay Klippel, 43, who moved to Pelham Manor 10 years ago from New York City.
The divisions between white and black, rich and poor, suburban and urban were thrown into stark relief recently in Los Angeles. Of course, there have always been haves and have-nots. But growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, liberal children of conservative parents vowed they would be different. In fact, many of them have become so detached that the cognoscenti have a phrase for them: People Like Us , or PLUs.
"It's a strangely evocative and ironic term," says Whit Stillman, producer and director of "Metropolitan," a 1990 movie in which young Manhattan socialites refer to themselves as PLUs. "It means People Like Us as opposed to People Like Them -- who we find threatening. It's a term of distinction, exclusion and, lately, it stresses defensiveness and escapism."
To some extent, PLUs are the product of demographic change. In commuter towns like Pelham Manor, most of whose professionals and executives trek to New York City, both husbands and wives often work to support their life styles. With their lives consumed by their careers and their children, they find little time or energy for anything else.
Many also suffer from compassion fatigue. Frustrated by the lack of progress despite enormous resources devoted to society's problems, they have turned inward. "It's not that PLUs don't care about other people, it's just they are focused more on people who are like them," says Nancy Corkery, 33, a housewife in the Boston suburb of Needham, Mass., who uses the term PLU to describe herself and her friends. "By and large, they give their time, effort and money to things that return a benefit to them. Is that wrong? I mean, where do you begin with some of these awful problems out there?"
Whatever the reasons, the gap that separates PLUs from others has widened. Recent Congressional Budget Office studies show that the after-tax family income of the top 20% rose 32% between 1977 and 1989, while middle-income Americans showed small increases and the bottom 40% actually lost ground. Meanwhile, more of the burden for funding education, social programs, public works, recreation and welfare has shifted from the federal government to states and then cities over the past decade. The result: an increasingly privatized America where well-to-do suburbanites can fund safe streets, good schools and well-stocked libraries -- and many others can't.
For Pelham Manor, 1.3 square miles and with a black population of 1%, growing gaps are apparent in every direction. Income here increased faster in the 1980s than in any of the surrounding communities. Average household income is about $120,000, and the median home price at the end of 1990 was $407,000.
Thirty years ago, the Manor, Pelham village and a small upscale area called Pelham Heights that abuts the Manor "all shared a real sense of community," says Nancy Baquie, 52, who grew up in the Manor and still visits regularly. "You had longstanding relationships with merchants in the village, you saw people in the shops, we had friends in all parts of the town. You never saw things in terms of them and us." Nowadays, Manor residents say they spend less and less time in bordering towns, whether for shopping or community outreach.
At the Manor Club, a group of women meeting for their weekly lunch just before the Los Angeles riots note that their generation had more time to get involved because few women had careers years ago. "The troops whose good works smoothed the rough edges of this community were young ladies who stayed at home, and they're gone," says Regina Kenworthy. "Now, au pairs raise the children. Young women today are all so busy working and whatnot that no one has time to think genteel thoughts about social obligation."
At a coffee klatch, older parishioners from the local Huguenot Memorial (Presbyterian) Church tick off activities they once engineered: clean-up details, eye screening for preschoolers, drama troupes that entertained at hospitals and choral groups that sang at prisons and nursing homes, all efforts that commonly extended to neighboring towns and down to New York City. "We're very concerned that in the past 10 years projects are always directed toward ourselves and rarely reach out anymore to communities around us who have such great needs," says Joyce Murtha, sipping her coffee.
While activities extending beyond the Manor now are fewer, Manor residents have helped fund numerous charities that cross into Pelham village, from the Boy and Girl Scouts to a library to the Pelham Arts Center, says John Higgs, a longtime community leader who was the Manor's mayor in the early 1980s.
"The people who moved here have not withdrawn. They're still involved in the urban life of New York City, with its cultural opportunities and certain problems," he adds. "If you really don't want to see black faces, you can move to plenty of places other than the Manor." Ron Wiersma, who helps run a soup kitchen in Mount Vernon that serves more than 2,000 meals a month, says contributions from Pelham Manor are strong.
But other Manor residents acknowledge that they are isolated from the rest of society more than they imagined that they would be. "If you look, you'll find a lot of PLUs around here. You just have to knock on doors," says Kay Klippel, waving to workmen renovating the upstairs of the six-bedroom Victorian where she lives with her husband, an advertising executive, and three children.
Ms. Klippel, who has two master's degrees, spent three years in the mid-1980s organizing social work and recreational programs in New York State prisons. "We did our part, once, like when I worked in the jails," she says. "Now, I suppose I don't do much, other than things like help out at the school where my kids go, or donate money to my church."
She recalls how her father, a doctor, made a sacrifice in mid-career to open a medical clinic in the housing projects of St. Louis and how much time and money her parents donated to charities and the less fortunate. "I wonder why they were better at giving than we are," Ms. Klippel says, before proffering an answer: "Maybe we were brought up to feel we were more special -- and we turned out to be more selfish."
Like many affluent young families in the Manor, she increasingly sticks with people who are very much like her, and laments that the Manor isn't more diverse in terms of race and income. "I don't think our generation is any freer than others from economic discrimination, with race as a subcategory. Maybe we're even worse on that score, and that makes me feel kind of queasy," she says. "We're just more artful at justifying and rationalizing what we do. . . . The discrete boundaries of this town, I think, provide borders for our conscience."
In a four-bedroom colonial a few blocks away, Karin Davies, a 33-year-old lawyer married to a lawyer and these days staying home with her two young children, says she tries not to think that "there are hungry people just 17 blocks away" in Mount Vernon. Ms. Davies, who once did pro bono immigration cases, says she helps out at the elementary school, where her child goes, but that's about it.
Then she describes an incident that occurred 15 years ago -- a specially organized dance between her school, the Lycee Francais school in Manhattan, and a high school in Harlem. "I remember how excited I was about it. It was a great thing, the right thing to do. And my parents said I wasn't allowed to go, and I was so upset, I went crazy," she says. "But would I let my kids go to a dance with black kids from Mount Vernon? Probably not. Oh God, that's terrible."
Timothy Fisher, the tax lawyer, says, "Because people like us know what it is to be committed, we know what we're not doing, and it hurts. . . . But if you're too hard on yourself, you just get depressed."
One thing that rouses PLUs to action is education, which is something that the Manor and Pelham village do share because of a common school district. The schools are good, ranking in the top 25% nationally in test scores. But with state aid dropping and taxes already high, the district laid off 10% of its teachers last year. This year, it is in the process of consolidating second and third grades.
The budget pinch may prompt some Manor residents to sever the strongest link they still have with Pelham village. While Manor residents send 89% of their children to public schools, more are weighing private schools. "We'll just send the kids to private school if they cut back," says Andrew Chestnut, 38, a controller at Elf Sanofi Inc., a subsidiary of Elf Aquitaine, the French energy company. "I was talking about it this morning with a friend on the train -- what you might call a People Like Us discussion. We'll just pull 'em out of the public." His wife, Heather, adds: "Couldn't they just cut some janitors or bus drivers if money's tight?"
Over dinner at his six-bedroom house, Mr. Chestnut talks about how " people like us would get involved if they had any confidence that it would make a difference." A few moments later, he adds, "The track record of people who've given of themselves for the past 25 or 30 years is that they've been shown to be suckers."
The Chestnuts say they give several thousand dollars a year to their church and the United Way, and also contribute to a foundation to preserve the Adirondack Park in northern New York state. "I know I'm not perfect, I'm not Mother Teresa. I know there are people out there, all around us, that need help," says Mr. Chestnut. "But if you left a bag of groceries on the doorstep of everyone who is hungry tonight, it still wouldn't solve the problem."
Such talk bothers Pastor William P. Saum II of the Huguenot Church. His church aids charitable activities in the area, organizing food drives for soup kitchens in neighboring Mount Vernon and New Rochelle and operating a "midnight run" that takes food and clothes to shelters in Manhattan. "You don't want a crisis. You don't want our cities in flames," he says. "But short of that, I don't know what will shake people from their complacency -- what will make them realize we're in this together."
"Listen," he adds, "the handful of people who get involved, who step beyond their little enclave, are better for it."
Indeed, consider Lucy Luc, 34, who lives in a spectacular house just across the border in Pelham Heights. She recalls going on one of the church's midnight runs in New York City a few months ago.
It was on a particularly bitter cold winter night and the van, full of bag lunches, soup and hot chocolate, donated clothes, sleeping bags and blankets, had only four volunteers: three women and an elderly man.
At the first stop -- Central Park at about 1 a.m. -- 50 homeless men and women descended on the van. Ms. Luc was terrified: "All I could think is what my friends had said -- that I was crazy to do this, that they're all drunks or crazy or drug addicts." Ms. Luc, who was once a clothes buyer for department stores, said she passed clothes through the window and wouldn't get out. "Then I watched them measuring clothes against themselves, saying this is too small or too big, give it to someone else, all of them so gracious and appreciative. I said, my God, they're just people -- it was like I was at Macy's."
At the next stop, Ms. Luc worked the hot chocolate cart and by 4 a.m. she was delivering bags to men huddled under overpasses and in drainage tunnels. She spent the rest of the day "crying and laughing mostly, it was so emotional," until she and her husband went to a dinner party that night.
While some at the dinner party were moved by Ms. Luc's experience, others said "what I had done was 'flat-out stupid, that you're feeding the people who are burglarizing our homes, you're taking care of them -- now they really won't get jobs,'" Ms. Luc says through pursed lips. "They look at me now like I'm different. I guess I've lost my sense of boundaries."
The past few months have been busy for her, working with food drives and a shelter for battered wives. She's planning to take more midnight runs to New York City.
"You can think you have it all if have a nice house and money in the bank, and you're safe," Ms. Luc says, as she begins to cry. "But that's all a lie. Those homeless, hungry, destitute people that we spend so much energy trying not think about? You know, they're just people .