"Starvation Alley," as one of the Peninsula's interior streets is nicknamed, isn't far as the crow flies from gated beach-front subdivision Butterfly Shores. The lives and expectations of some people living in the two neighborhoods could hardly be more different.
Other resort areas from Cannon Beach to Jackson Hole and Key West long ago went through the same transition from sublime places where ordinary people could adequately support themselves to places sharply split between the wealthy and everyone just getting by.
It only confirmed what most people already knew last week when the Associated Press reported Long Beach has the greatest divide between rich and poor of any community in Washington state. Ocean Park was fourth on the list, and although other unincorporated areas of the Peninsula weren't mentioned by name, they certainly also fit the same pattern.
Beyond the great gulf between well-to-do residents and the working poor revealed by the 2000 U.S. census, the Peninsula and its Clatsop County cousins also are shaped by the incredible number of high-end summer houses in each place. The part-timers who own these houses aren't counted as residents by the census. They bring a lot of energy and property taxes to these communities, but rarely put down roots in the conventional sense of serving on PTA committees or voting for responsible government. They own a house but may not consider this place to be their home.
But the problems associated with great income disparities in a democratic society go beyond traditional and often misplaced resentments against "summer people."
There was a time not that long ago when local boys just out of high school could aspire to make good, dependable money logging and fishing - opportunities for young women typically always were more limited. But those kinds of "living wage" jobs have dwindled both in quantity and quality. Most employment is in the tourism-related service sector, and wages haven't kept pace with the cost of housing and other expenses of living here. Health insurance and other benefits are but a distant dream for most workers, who are one accident away from serious poverty.
Meanwhile, considerable numbers of immigrants looking for their own versions of the American dream have moved into both Pacific and Clatsop counties in the past decade. Providing foundation-level labor for the lodging, fish packing and shellfish industries, they work in conditions many longer-term citizens find too strenuous or otherwise objectionable. They confront considerable prejudice along the way, despite working for wages more established citizens reject as inadequate.
Real estate prices on the Peninsula still drop off quickly the farther one gets from a body of water, allowing those who work for little better than minimum wage to continue living here. This is somewhat of an advantage over Cannon Beach, where many have to commute a considerable distance to their homes. But the quality of Peninsula housing at the lower end of the price scale is problematic. And as the U.S. adds another 100 million residents in the next 50 years, most within 50 miles of a coastline, local housing options are bound to tighten.
A place working families can barely afford to live is a place where it's difficult to find money for schools and teacher salaries. Thus, deteriorating schools contribute to the difficulties local kids have in overcoming our area's isolation and class differences. Many grow up and depart; others stay and struggle. Petty crime, domestic violence, racism and substance abuse also are all part and parcel of living in a place with a lack of ways and means to attain middle class security.
It's not acceptable to resign ourselves to all this. There are things we can do to encourage decent affordable housing, from forming community development associations to lobbying for more equitable tax policies based on ability to pay, not on some often-incorrect estimate of a property's market value.
We can attend school board meetings to advocate training programs aimed at giving career-oriented, non-college-bound students a head start on desirable job skills. We can encourage younger kids in reading and math. We can ask our legislators to work toward school funding formulas in which all children have the same opportunities regardless of where they live.
It's flattering that so many people recognize this as a premium place to live and vacation. But the Peninsula's diverse people and lifestyles are a large part of what makes this part of the Northwest coast so interesting. Not only our economic viability but our soul depends on making sure people at every income level can live here in comfort and dignity.