How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?… I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.
One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
Earlier this year, National Geographic published an article claiming to have discovered the 25 happiest cities in the United States. The measurements were based on a scale developed by Gallup, with input from Dan Buettner, who has spent decades traveling the globe in pursuit of the roots of happiness. Even with all that experience, Buettner’s findings (reported in the article by George Stone) seem to overlook one glaring problem: American happiness appears to be rich and white.
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The city that tops Nat Geo’s list this year is Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, known for its biking paths, clean air, and youthful population; the latter of which can be attributed to the fact that it is home to the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and Naropa University, in addition to several specialty and trade schools. Naropa University includes the writing school that was founded by beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. It’s also where I attended grad school.
Before I moved to the city, I had farewell drinks with a friend and a schoolmate he brought along, an Asian woman who spent one short academic year at CU before bolting.
“It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been,” she told me upon learning where I would soon be moving. “Everyone there is white, and if you’re not,” she swiped her hand through the air as though swatting away a bug. “It was like being Asian made me an alien,” she added.
There was a moment of silence as I thought about my Cuban heritage, and whether I’d fit into the city that Nat Geo this year described as “bolstered by a sense of community, access to nature, sustainable urban development and preservation policies.”
Then my friend (a white gay man, if you’re wondering), said, “Oh, don’t worry, you pass.” Ultimately, he’s right. I do “pass.” My skin is olive-toned but not brown, my eyes are hazel, and my hair is a shade that in Latino communities is considered rubio, which roughly translates in English to blonde. I did not personally experience the racial alienation my drinking partner described that evening, but I saw and experienced other events that made the generous smiles, the lavish, clear-aired sunsets, and the folded yogis in the parks all seem like part of a deeply exclusionary facade.
* * *
In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” author Ursula Le Guin describes a city of immense but ambiguous happiness, where “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky.” There, in Omelas, the people “were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.” But buried somewhere out of sight, in a small windowless room, an emaciated child sits alone. Le Guin describes its fear and decrepitude; the terrible squalor of its existence, and the feeble, hopeless waste of its mind and body. The child is always referred to as “it,” because to imagine an actual human being treated this way is beyond comprehension.
But, Le Guin explains, the people of Omelas have had to make a choice. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done … that would be to let guilt within the walls.”
And so the Omelans reason that it is simply a matter of math. Every life in the city stays joyful and beautiful—and the one that is not is hidden.
* * *
National Geographic writes that in the happiest places, “locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals.”
This type of happiness, the article admits, relies upon wealth. What it doesn’t mention outright, however, is that for an entire city to be dubbed “the happiest,” poverty cannot play a significant factor. In Boulder’s case, this is not because the social problems that cause poverty have been fixed, but because the poor have been pushed out.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 percent of Boulder is single-racial white. The median single-household income is just under $60,000, and the mean a whopping $90,000. Median monthly housing costs are reported at $1,320, with the number of renters and homeowners roughly the same (in 2015, there were only about 2,000 more renters than homeowners). This should be surprising, considering the fact that Boulder houses two universities, and the average student does not own the home she lives in. While I was there, I watched a slow, quiet change take place; one that I doubt many of my mostly white and affluent grad school cohorts noticed. It was something I saw not from my vantage point as a grad student at the Jack Kerouac School, but as someone addicted to heroin, who would, while in Boulder, eventually become homeless, pregnant, and on methadone.
First, the natural food markets—which were more available than average grocery stores—began stocking security guards alongside their expensive, organic products. Then the city discretely installed security cameras near the Boulder Public Library, which were able to spy on Central Park—once a favorite hangout spot for the city’s small homeless population. Wayne, a local methadone patient who asked me to change his name for privacy purposes, tells me there is no longer a homeless presence at that location—or, he says, much of anywhere in Boulder. That’s not surprising, since the city passed several ordinances that essentially prohibit homelessness: They outlaw sleeping in vehicles, “aggressive begging,” and public camping.
My methadone clinic used to be located just off Pearl Street, the beflowered street pictured in Nat Geo’s article. A short while after I left the clinic in late 2012, it moved from Boulder to Longmont—Boulder’s poorer, browner neighbor to the north. It remains there, in a large, unattached building that stands near several bus lines but away from any downtown area. Wayne has been a client there since August of this year, previously attending the sister location in Denver. He was never a patient at the Boulder location, but works as an Uber driver and tells me over Facebook that the attitude toward addiction and poverty has shifted dramatically in Boulder over the past several years.
“The influx of new wealthy people from all over the country … has made people more judgmental and ignorant,” he says.
And what of the other cities that top National Geographic’s list? Number two is Watsonville, California. Although Santa Cruz County, where Watsonville is located, hosts a heavily Hispanic and Latino population, Watsonville itself is, again, mostly white—a shift that has climbed steadily since 2010. Rent averages around the same as in Boulder. Charlottesville, Virginia, earned third-place on the measure of happiness, even after making national headlines for hosting a violent white nationalist rally. It is around 70 percent white, with a mean household income just under $90,000.
Perhaps these facts are not surprising. Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.
When I look at the photos and blog posts from my classmates who are still in Boulder, it appears relatively unchanged. Ravishing sunsets frame wine glasses adorned by a backdrop of lush mountains. Pearl Street’s clean red bricks look as pretty as I remember against the quaint boutiques that line the street. In these photos, everyone is smiling. It’s envy-inducing, for sure.
But then I remember how, when I was in Boulder just a few years back, the photo of Pearl Street that heads the Nat Geo article could not have been taken without a street performer or beggar in sight. How the methadone clinic was pushed north, and along with it, I’m sure, all of those clients seeking refuge from addiction. The measure of Boulder’s happiness is not only healthy eating and learning new skills, but also a practiced ignorance of those who are suffering or in need.
One thing I know there is none of in Boulder is guilt.