Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip, Day 18: Neighborhood Watch

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Rosalie Quon, 7, eats watermelon at a neighborhood gathering in Lansing, Mich., on Monday, June 18, 2012, during Joe Klein's annual road trip

Lansing, Michigan

The neighbors started by apologizing. Their group was smaller than expected because some had run off to the state capitol, where they were rallying for a state legislator — who had been evicted for using the word vagina in a floor debate about abortion. Those who remained in the Averill Woods neighborhood chose to engage in a much slower, less sexy pastime: sitting around a table and trying to figure out what is wrong with the country. But then, that was pretty much business as usual for this community association, presided over by Melissa Quon Huber — and they spent a lot of their time talking about how to make communities better.

After a week on the road with Joe Klein, taking the electoral temperature in the heartland, certain patterns emerge. Driving on an interstate in Michigan, for one, is bound to be accompanied by at least 45 minutes of cursing in construction zones. Another is that Americans, from Dayton to Lansing, love to cast blame. “The economy is sick,” said Sandy Barringer, a retired convenience-store manager, “and it all comes from Washington, D.C.” That sort of reduction is incomplete but temptingly simple when there is so much complex anxiety going around.

There aren’t enough jobs. There’s too much stagnation. There’s not enough opportunity. There’s too much flamethrowing. Meanwhile, there’s nostalgia for decades when people had conversations across backyard fences, when kids had real values. “It’s just the difference in people’s upbringing,” said auto worker Jason Wilkes. “There’s no discipline. The parents themselves weren’t disciplined.”

Crises had brought the people of Averill Woods closer. They recounted hardships the area had endured during the past decade. Killings. Stabbings. Drugs. The aunt of one attendee had narrowly escaped rape close by. But the middle-class neighbors had their points of pride too. They were a racially diverse, educated group. They kept up their detached homes and lawns. And when there were problems they could tackle themselves, like teenagers drinking and shooting off fireworks in the elementary school parking lot, neighbors would come together quickly to solve them — with barricades or whatever it took.

Nearby, Melissa’s young daughter ate watermelon and Destiny Teachnor-Hauk’s young son swung a bat. “We as a society are not giving people hope about the future,” said Ken Jones, who works in health insurance. Reaching this point in the conversation, especially with more liberal groups, is a familiar pattern on Joe’s road trip too. People begin angry at Washington, furious that someone like Representative John Boehner might put controlling his caucus before reaching a deal. Someone will say voters are truly responsible, because they need to strike the politicians with the fear of being thrown out. Someone else will say people don’t feel empowered enough to do that. Why not? A third: Because we don’t provide children with the knowledge and self-assurance that we should.

Even if everyone is left agreeing, America’s problem has been defined in a way that will take decades to solve. Yet people want and expect instant change. And their anger is immediate. Destiny said she has a job, she works to raise her children with morals, and she balances the household. “I get that it was an important thing to do,” she said of the auto bailout, exasperated. “But nobody’s bailing me out!”

The conversation zigzagged around the question of how much self-reliance is preferable vs. receiving support from the government. Those assembled didn’t reach any revolutionary conclusion that could be adopted and championed tomorrow morning. Still, there was some catharsis. People would go home with things to consider. The neighbors were reaffirmed in their solidarity. That’s not unusual on these road trips. They’re more about tough conversations in remote neighborhoods than easy controversy in the media, and that bears more questions than answers. The headlines aren’t always snappy, but America’s problems aren’t particularly snappy either — as the people of Averill Woods will attest, the country looks different in every neighborhood.