Book review: “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” by Chris Arnade

In Chris Arnade’s prose and photo book “DIGNITY Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” he explores those surviving in the back row, the lower and lowest economic echelons of America.

A former Wall Street trader of 20 years, with a comfortable house in Brooklyn, Arande was a resident of society’s front row. He left behind stifling life in a small Southern town by attending a series of colleges, culminating with a physics degree from John Hopkins. However, his financial work brought yawning emptiness. Any degree of fulfillment was absent.

So he began traipsing though Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, talking with residents and taking photograph of his subjects even after being warned by so many ‘outsiders’ that it was not a safe area to enter.

Upon a mutual parting of the ways from his lucrative banking job, he enlarged his travel itinerary to the entire country, seeking down-and-out areas of towns and their residents. Among his many stopovers: Gary, IN, Portsmouth, OH, Youngstown, OH, Selma, AL, El Paso, TX, Amarillo, TX, Bakersfield, CA, Cairo, IL, Milwaukee, WI, and Lewiston, MI.

One of unusual discoveries: McDonald’s serves as a community center for so many, homeless and housed, in economically depressed zip codes. Some customers, primarily seniors, spent an entire day at Mickey D’s, getting out of the house while catching up and chatting with friends. Arnade noted the proximity of a McDonald’s as a critical component for such residents who don’t have the luxury of senior centers.

Although he provides no answers (are there any that are currently politically feasible?) for poverty reduction/elimination, Arnade explores many factors involved in producing lower income lives. He doesn’t cite studies or statistics but rather asks his subjects for their takes.

The responses included:

  • Racism being alive today as well as when blacks migrated from the south
  • Being forced to live only in certain ‘designated’ areas and then redlined when attempting to purchase houses and build equity
  • The reduction of the middle class via the disappearance of stable and decent-paying factory, ‘high school education’ jobs
  • Hearing “this is my home” over-and-over again when residents are asked why they don’t move to towns/cities/states offering better economic opportunities
  • The corollary to the above being the lack of capability (money) for most to just pick up and move
  • Another corollary being the unfeasibility of abandoning support systems (family and friends)
  • The power of religious belief with such being all that some have, providing hope, if not now, then for the future. Arnade notes he developed “intellectual humility” through finally understanding this spiritual element.

This is a moving book especially because the photographs of the subjects makes what is said and written within it human, and therefore, real.