Sunday, August 5, 2018

Baltimore leading the nation in stress (Almost - thank you Detroit!)

One could measure the stress of a city by counting how many one encounters on a sidewalk scowling or smiling. How many are angrily screaming into their phones or yelling at each other. Or whether there are any people out at all.
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One you count how many drivers turn into crosswalks without yielding to those on foot. How many middle fingers one encounters per day. How often someone cuts into line, on the road or in a store. How many are sleeping on sidewalks, how many squeegee kids, how many asking for money.  How many can barely afford their rent, how many suffer from diabetes, obesity or ailments that go untreated for lack of insurance? How many liquor stores per city block. How many have to fear for their lives or that of their children and loved ones even when they simply go around the corner to a store?

Those would all be good ways to collect anecdotal evidence of the stress and how stress shapes our days. Those who live here know already that Baltimore is a stressful place. Travel to other cities provides additional evidence.
“The city is not merely a repository of pleasures. It is the stage on which we fight our battles, where we act out the drama of our own lives. It can enhance or corrode our ability to cope with everyday challenges. It can steal our autonomy or give us the freedom to thrive. It can offer a navigable environment, or it can create a series of impossible gauntlets that wear us down daily. The messages encoded in architecture and systems can foster a sense of mastery or helplessness.” Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (I debated his book with him on WYPR once)
Now there is a data-based study which validates the impression that Baltimore is a stresser. Baltimore sits on rank six of 182 cities total. It would be a great rank for something positive. The instigator of the study, Wallethub, describes its methodology  in which they compared the four stress factors: Work Stress, Financial Stress, Family Stress, and Health & Safety Stress, each weighing in with 25% this way:
Stress and city are often associated
We evaluated the four dimensions using 37 relevant metrics, which are listed with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the highest levels of stress.
Finally, we determined each city’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample. (Wallethub)
One could easily dismiss this list as one of too many lists already, coming from a more obscure web company to boot, wouldn't it be that those four stress categories mirror Baltimore's problem areas so perfectly. Baltimore has actual deficiencies in all four of those categories. Cities with a better stress score, no doubt, fare also better when it comes to work, money, family, health and safety.

Baltimore as stress central is especially worrisome in a period where other cities are climaxing in success and happiness and have long climbed out of the dark valley of the financial crisis.  But we are still sputtering along with our slogans having sunk from "A city that reads" to "Nobody Kill Anybody". That in itself is a stressful thought. What is the possibly smallest common denominator?
Where emotions sit: People color in their body reactions

Every Baltimorean knows the depressing metrics in their sleep: the only east coast city which continues to lose population, a singularly high homicide rate, stubbornly constant vacancy rates, long commutes, high truancy and now record opioid death rates. All this produces stress even among those not directly affected. The key to low stress is a sense of control and the feeling that things are moving in the right direction. In Baltimore any sense of control seems lost. We can't even control our traffic signals. Stressed out people express themselves accordingly. This recent exchange on the Facebook page Baltimore City Voters says it all:
Person 1: "u think it’s okay for other people to come at me sideways and I’m supposed to let it ride... Nah, slim... I don’t play that shit!!!! I expressed my opinion like everyone else. Ain’t nobody gonna come for me".
Person 2: "This idiotic woman sees a grown ass man threaten to send a 12 year old to the hospital and then threaten to “beat the shit out of him” if he sees him AGAIN, meaning one random day AFTER this incident has passed but she thinks she needs to see more ! If brains were dynamite, you couldn’t blow ure fuckin nose!"  (Facebook "dialogue" about Baltimore police arresting a 12 year old who was with his sister looking for their cat)
Whether these two people know each other, whether they meant it or thought they were joking, the tone is an indication of a high stress level. The barrage of bad indicators can wear down the most hearty optimist and city booster. How one feels about one's hometown has a lot to do with individual well being and, in turn, provides the backdrop for public perception.

Trust reduces stress. Citizens want to trust politicians, police and teachers to get things going and having good intentions. But if schools cheat on grades, police robs its own citizens, politicians are indicted trust is replaced with a feeling of powerlessness and suspicion that far exceeds the actual number of such occurrences.
Stress as a topic: Fortune 
Anybody who regularly reads my articles knows this would be a moment to mention the feedback loops: The vicious and the virtuous cycles, upward and downward spirals. It has become harder and harder to ignore the local stress, even for those who are doing well.

Progress difficult to enjoy when it is distributed so inequitably. Even simple fun (like an electric scooter) can be quickly squashed by wielding the large clubs of moral righteousness which declare the fun variably as exclusive, white, elitist, thoughtless or all of the above.

The gender gap, the income gap, the incarceration rates, supremacy, elitism, white privilege, gentrification and sexism are always at the ready for guilt and stress. In a city where so much is going wrong, it is easy, and all too often justified, to unleash those terms to accurately describe what is going on. Facebook and Twitter have become the battle fields in which the new civil wars are being fought, person against person, slur by slur and it has become difficult to find the pics of grandchildren in between it all. The victim of the wars of stress is the consensus without which a community can not make progress. The consensus that makes the people of Baltimore have a sense of common ground is lost. Stories suggest, it did, indeed, exist.

Nothing creates more hopelessness than having the light at the end of a tunnel declared an illusion or worse, light that creates more shadow for those on the right side of whatever issue. Generations too enlightenment, the Enlightenment with a capital E, that is, as seeing the light, once and for all.

Of course, it isn't just Baltimore which is caught in this conundrum, even though people in other cities seem to be a lot happier, it is the entire country which has lost the consensus what it means to be American. Hope as a concept is ridiculed by authoritarian leaders who are not plagued by any doubts (Putin, Erdogan, Modi and Trump) and stoke the fires of stress, fear and depression with ploys, that unlike good old warfare and torture, are too ephemeral to grasp, such as cyberwar, misinformation, lies, insults, election tampering, Twitter storms, hacking, and other stuff most don't even understand. Thus stress has become international. Enlightenment and the arc of history towards progress is not only once again uncertain, to many the entire idea has been suspect all along.

Weather is some kind of equal opportunity stresser.   Indeed, the happy go lucky Californians (Fremont, CA, stress rank #182) are presently choking in smoke and coughing in droughts while stress laden eastern industrial cities (Detroit, Newark and Cleveland, #1, 2 and 3 in the stress ranking) drown in floods. Climate change takes the crown as a stress inducer. Articles like "How Did the End of the World Become Old News?" (New York Magazine, July 26, 2018) are re-tweeted until the last spark of optimism is extinguished.
Surrounding ourselves with positive and encouraging people during stressful times can brighten our mood and help us put things in perspective. Who wants to be with someone who is negative all the time? There’s nothing more depressing or stressful, so avoid those who stress you out. (Tip #7 of 15 against stress, Fortune)
The best thing to do: Pack the bags, visit new places, shut off the Twitter feeds and read a good book. Of course, not everybody can afford this and pangs of guilt will reverberate long after one has left town.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

This blog will have fewer articles in coming weeks due to travel. 

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