February 11, 2018

I live in Steel Town


In 2010 I emigrated to Canada. Specifically, I moved from North Carolina to Ontario to marry my wife and start a family. We live in Sault Ste. Marie, a city of 75,000 people that shares a border with the upper peninsula of Michigan. Sault Ste. Marie, called merely the Sault by locals, has a lot of great stuff. The Mill Market has some of the best smoked fish you'll find anywhere, artisan soap that'd be right at home in a New York boutique, and beef as good as anything I could eat at the Angus Barn in my native North Carolina. There's also the Hub Trail for people who enjoy bicycling and running, Whitefish Island for folks who enjoy nature, and some of the best fishing anywhere can be had in St. Mary's Rapids. And that's not even getting into the food: you can get Italian in the Sault as good as anywhere you could hope to find it.

It's easy to find what's good about the Sault when you're looking for it.

Coming off the International Bridge you can turn right or left. If you turn right, you'll flow toward the waterfront and Queen Street where you can enjoy the boardwalk, shop at the mall, and walk a well-lit main street. Follow the flow of traffic further east and you'll reach Bellevue Park with its playgrounds, walking trails, duck pond, boat harbor, and dog park. Keep going further east and you'll find Algoma University where you can take classes in Ojibwe language as well as environmental science and fine arts. Truly, the Sault has it all.  

It's also easy to ignore what's bad about the Sault when you're not looking for it.

If you turn left off the International Bridge, you'll travel away from the waterfront and go west into Steel Town, known locally as Steelton, which is also known locally as the edge of the ghetto. Go a little further west and you'll reach Carmen's Way which leads into the Jamestown neighborhood specifically named in the documentary as a hotbed for drugs.

I live in Steelton. This is my home. Much of the documentary "Steel Town Down" was filmed in my neighborhood. I know the places in the documentary because I see them out my bedroom window. You have to be skeptical about what's on TV because fiction has a way of selling better than reality, but as it regards Steel Town Down, you should believe all of it.

One of the impressions given by the documentary is that the city is flooded with drugs. For the seven-plus years I've lived in the Sault, my wife and I have joked about the four-room apartment building across the street. Some people call it a drug house, but we call it an unlicensed pharmacy. And mind you, this isn't nested down a side street, but is within sight of the International Bridge: turn right and you go into the beautiful, well-promoted, waterfront business district. Turn left, and you go to Steelton.

One of the impressions given in the documentary is that our elected leaders are either ignorant to the drug problem or they just don't care. The latest debate in the city is about where to install a splash pad. One side of the debate wants to install the splash pad at Bellevue park alongside all the other playgrounds where it'll be easy to find and access. The other side of the debate wants to install the splash pad on or near beautiful Queen Street as a way to encourage more people to visit the downtown business district. Meanwhile, it seems that not many people are asking if the estimated cost of $575,000 to install the splash pad plus annual operating costs of about $14,000 is really the best thing to do considering all the other problems the city is facing... and the mayor still won't declare a drug crisis in the city even with multiple overdoses happening every day.

One of the impressions given in the documentary is that the city's employment opportunities are dying. When I first moved to the Sault, I looked for work wherever I could get it, but getting a job in the Sault is little to do with your resume and more to do with your network. I have an associate's degree in Russian plus additional education in management, organizational development, and business, plus extensive training in direct sales, but I have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find employment.

I worked for a while at a call center, but seeing as I'm a US citizen it became problematic when the management liked to make jokes about dumb Americans. After that I worked as a security guard, but they wouldn't guarantee my hours and rotated my shift every week until my family obligations made it impossible for me to adhere to the schedule. After that I apprenticed as a granite polisher, but I was let go when it was made clear that the employer wouldn't receive more than two weeks of subsidy from the job placement program that helped me land the interview. There are so few jobs in this town, and it's such a relatively small town, that friends make sure their friends get the job. If you don't have connected friends in this city, you're not going to get the job. I gave up looking for work in the Sault a long time ago.

One of the impressions given in the documentary is that the quality of life in the city is degrading and crime is rising. Both of my cars have been opened during the night more times than I can remember over the past seven years. We don't leave anything of value in the cars overnight after a purse and a backpack were stolen on separate occasions. One time I made the mistake of forgetting to lock my back door when I went to pick up my kids from school. In the 30 minutes I was out, somebody jumped my fence, walked through my back door, and stole my laptop plus a few other items. There's also the time somebody jumped my fence overnight and stole the propane tank off my grill, or the time another fence-jumper inexplicably stole my daughters' outdoor kitchen play-set and accompanying table.

One of the impressions given in the documentary is that the Sault is dirty and dangerous. Every spring the local newspaper reminds people that as the snow melts to be careful of discarded needles, and this goes along with public awareness campaigns about where residents can safely discard used needles. Meanwhile, locals are organizing walks to collect discarded needles. Provincially, there's an estimated $19,000,000,000 gap for infrastructure spending, and like most money in Ontario, it travels south toward the greater Toronto area and not north to small cities like the Sault with a bare 75,000 residents.

One of the impressions given in the documentary is that the Sault is segregated between users and non-users, and that non-users don't see the users. I live in Steelton. I've been impacted by the crime, I've picked needles out of my garden, I've watched businesses open and close, I've watched people come and go at all hours from the den across the street, and I've watched police and EMS come and go when somebody's having a problem, but even with all that I don't personally know anybody who uses.

I live in ghetto of the Sault, and if the documentary is to be believed I'm inside the epicenter of the city's opium and fentanyl crisis. And yet, I'm not personally acquainted with even one user. I'm only tangentially affected by the crisis, but the people immediately involved and impacted might as well be living on the dark side of the Moon for all the contact we have. I live in immediate proximity to the subjects of the documentary, but I don't hear them, see them, or know them. These people are right in front of me and they're still invisible.

This is depressing because I've got two daughters, aged 9 and 5, and statistically speaking they're almost certain to encounter drugs either at school or in the company of their friends sooner or later. Going by the numbers, children are overdosing on opiods as young as 15, and I don't have to do a Google search to know that kids are using opioids even younger than that. Going by the numbers, my oldest daughter is going to start hearing about opioids and probably be offered them either this school year or the next. In the worst-case scenario where she becomes a user, would I be able to see it? Would I be able to stop it?

I don't know.

But so long as I live in Steelton, these are questions I need to start answering real fast. For a Tarot reader who's supposed to know everything, I'm coming up short here. The only answer that's real clear is that I can't afford to believe in the myth of Satanic superiority and deceiving myself into thinking that my family is magically immune to the risk of the same problems that are afflicting so many other families in my city. There are the people who take the attitude that we should let users die when they overdose, but in the nightmare scenario where the user that just overdosed is my daughter I'm inclined to embrace harm reduction strategies. Or, what if the person over-dosing is me? I don't use, but then, how many people got initially addicted as a result of prescriptions given to them by their physician? Statistically speaking, it's possible that I could find myself as one of those people who starts on the path of addiction as a result of well-intended medical support.

The Satanic argument in favor of letting users die when they overdose because "survival of the fittest, bitches!" is massively short-sighted and relies on the myth of Satanic exceptionalism and the false belief that, "It can never happen to me," or "It can never happen to the people I love." I'm not sure what I can reasonably do about the drug crisis at the community level, and I fear that I might not be doing enough at the family level, but doing nothing is a terrible choice.

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