Part 2: How they live here — the challenges of the not so wealthy in wealthy Darien

The following article was the lead story in the most recent issue of the Neirad, the Darien High School newspaper. Part 2  is reprinted here with the author’s and the advisor’s permission. Part 1 appeared last week.

Due to the sensitive information discussed in this article, the identities of those involved have been protected and identifying details have been changed. It’s the story of two students, and the peculiar struggles of the poor in a town famous for the rich.

“Preserving the Character of Our Town”

When examining the economic and demographic homogeneity of Darien, it’s worth exploring the forces that have allowed the town to stay the way it is.

Sociologist and author James W. Loewen labelled Darien a “sundown town,” a term for suburbs in the mid-20th century that prevented African Americans and other groups from residing there. (Many Darienites have heard the term “Gentleman’s Agreement,” referring to an understanding among realtors to withhold real estate from Jews. The policy continued into later 20th century Darien). Actions were quiet and duplicitous: In the 1950s, when an all-black church from Harlem expressed interest in buying a Darien estate for a summer camp, the town adopted zoning rules that made such use impossible.

In May 2010, the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice opened an investigation into whether Darien’s zoning and land-use practices violated the Fair-Housing Act.

Fred Conze was the chairman of the Planning & Zoning commission at this time. In his State of the Town address in December 2010, he addressed the audience: “Our objective is to preserve the character of our town. The demographic and economic forces generated by our immediate neighbors to our east and west cannot be taken lightly,” Conze said. In videos of his speech, he is interrupted every few minutes by unseen applause. (“Immediate neighbors” presumably refers to the more diverse cities of Stamford and Norwalk). He also praised Darien’s increasing home prices: “Average year over year sale price of housing through September in Darien increased by 12.1%… and Greenwich a negative 1.6%. We must be doing something right.” Some Darienites didn’t seem to agree with him. Resident Christopher Hamer accused the commission of denying affordable housing projects (like his) in order to keep out black residents. A comment Conze made in 2008 likening affordable housing to a “virus” was cited in the complaint as proof of bias. Conze  repeatedly denied any discriminatory intent. He resigned from the Planning & Zoning Commission in 2013, after nearly two decades.

Darien is still incredibly expensive, and the lack of affordable housing (or even modestly priced homes for middle income families) partially explain Avery and Andrew’s living situations— Andrew in a tiny, hidden apartment, and Avery in a home her family is struggling to afford. But more importantly, it explains their lack of peers sharing similar experiences, the major factor in their feelings of frustration and isolation.

Sports

Darien’s athletic supremacy is easily explained by the intensity of its programs. But it’s also explained by money— a lot of money. And it starts long before students matriculate at DHS. “Overscheduled” childhoods are a burden of the wealthy. Equipment, camps, clinics, and leagues cost families thousands of dollars, a cost many Darien families pay with enthusiasm. But for some this price is impossible, or at least creates severe pressure for parents who don’t want to see their children left out by their peers. By the time students reach high school, a divide has formed. Unlike many high schools, freshman and JV teams at DHS have a huge pool of experienced athletes who’ve paid for lessons and clinics for years: a net result of high expectations and wealth. Athletes who haven’t had the same resources can struggle to compete, and the ones who make it often struggle with the ignorance of well-meaning teammates and coaches.

Just as with other areas, aid is often distributed generously to low-income athletes; but an environment where money is expected proves detrimental to diversity. As with other areas of school where low-income students must look for aid, the secretive nature of approaching coaches who seem surprised, or at a loss, is embarrassing. Avery has had coaches recommend getting new, specific $400 pieces of sports equipment without realizing that she doesn’t have any equipment at all; she borrows from her teammates. And the teammates themselves pose another problem.

“When we buy apparel, I only get what I have to. But my whole team loved a varsity jacket- it was $100, and everyone was going around say ‘buy this jacket, so we can all match!’ Then when they wanted to take a photo one day, they told everyone to come in wearing the jacket. Of course I didn’t have one, and people were asking me ‘where’s your jacket?’” Avery said. “They’ve also made senior day shirts as expensive as $33 just because they wanted a particular kind of material. Even secret psyches can be so expensive. People don’t get that.”

On March 17, member of the RTM education committee Jay Hardison published a letter in the Darien Times titled “Darien Education Run amok.” It criticized the Board of Ed for inaction on a number of issues and mentioned complaints of a “Pay to Play” policy he believes exists at DHS, where athletes are occasionally expected to pay coaches for extracurricular clinics, camps, leagues, etc.

The Board of Ed. responded to Hardison’s letter, attacking his credibility rather than addressing his complaints, labelling him “misguided”, “disingenuous,” and pointing out that he has not provided “a single first-hand account, sworn or otherwise, to substantiate any of the allegations he has raised.”   

Hardison’s claims are arguably not unfounded. The extra resources provided by outside coaching and programs give DHS teams an advantage unlikely to be relinquished unless an ultimatum is passed down by the state. In the meantime, a conflict of interest is fueled by cash. With a sport like lacrosse, parents trying to ingratiate themselves to a coach can pump thousands of dollars into clinics and leagues run by that coach— a system that leaves out students of a lower socioeconomic status.  And when it comes to doing what the coach recommends, there’s pressure whether real or perceived.

A few years ago, Avery practiced in one of Darien’s free sports clinics, where a DHS coach often came to visit. “He’d say, ‘you’d better be doing the summer clinic— it’ll really help if you want the varsity spot,’” she said. “Of course as younger athletes we felt the pressure. But it was expensive, and I also needed to work…it was different for me.”

When asked about pay-to-play, Athletic Coordinator Chris Manfredonia assured Neirad that CIAC rules are always followed.

Breaking the Silence

Ask a lower-income Darien student to share his frustrations, and often he will speak quickly, impassioned: “We don’t get to talk about this a lot,” Andrew said. But he will also be sure to mention how grateful he is for the many advantages of such a town— a great education, safe streets. They’re quick to acknowledge the good intentions of others, regardless of occasional ignorance. “Every year, my coaches make sure I get a t-shirt,” Andrew said. (Andrew and Avery agreed that Avery’s team seemed to be more difficult in their situation; every team is different). “But this year, they bought me the sweatpants. I just thought that was really nice.” Andrew beams.

The problem, as Andrew understands, isn’t direct or intentional— it’s a silent assumption. In a wealthy district, our first assumption is that everyone can pay for everything; in a poorer district, the first assumption is that most people can’t pay for anything. The first assumption is one we can get away with here. But it also excludes. It perpetuates shame and isolation and provides an unclear, intimidating course of action for students who don’t fit such an assumption.

Author’s note: This is unfair. Not only to the students who are excluded from the conversation, but also to everyone else. When coaches and teachers fail to acknowledge this population of students, other students fail to recognize that such a population even exists. As the author of this piece, I once had to spend 20 minutes explaining to a captain that “I can’t buy this shirt” does not actually mean the same thing as “I don’t want to buy this shirt.” It was an embarrassing conversation— on both sides.

I hope that one day the socioeconomic diversity that exists in Darien will be visible enough to avoid it.

Claire Borecki is a senior at Darien High School. She writes for the school paper, Neirad, and enjoys advocacy and local politics. She is involved with Darien High School’s Theatre 308 and Authentic Science Research Program, and works at Darien Mathnasium. She is currently applying to colleges and thinking a lot about the future. She hopes to work with interested parties in town to make financial aid, particularly in athletics, more visible to those who need it.

 

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