Separate and unequal

An interesting Q and A in today’s Boston Globe traced social decay in the United States to the widening gap between the poorest and the richest. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of “The Spirit Level,” posit that economic inequality is the root cause of problems like teen pregnancy, obesity, mental illness and crime — all of it fostered by divisive prejudice and rampant tension between the classes.

Wilkinson told the interviewer: “The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less….In Sweden, people don’t bother to check your tickets on the train or bus. And it just feels so much nicer.”

People have asked what I’ve found most striking about the privileged enclave of Cambridge compared to my Roanoke, Va., hometown, a culturally and environmentally interesting place that also happens to be one of the most segregated places in the South, with 68 percent of the city schools’ children qualifying for free or reduced lunch (compared to the stage average of 29 percent).

The Globe piece made me zero in on an intangible difference that’s been gnawing at me these past several months. I’ve noticed a surprisingly greater level of trust among strangers here in Yankeeland (with the huge exception of Boston-area drivers, who you can never, ever trust to stop for a red light or stop sign; note that I’m talking about trust, not necessarily manners). Maybe it’s because we’re in insulated Cambridge, the intellectual capital of the East Coast . There’s a great deal of diversity here, yes, but the diversity is more ethnically and more economically diverse.

The lack of bureaucracy at Cambridge public schools is comparably stunning. For instance, when you check your kid out early from school, they don’t make you sign out at a computer. In fact, Donna — most of the secretaries are named Donna, for some reason — doesn’t even ask you to sign out. She just calls your kid down and waves you along.

At my son’s elementary in Roanoke, you sign your child out on a computer, which actually takes your picture — at the least-flattering angle possible, typically resulting in several chins beyond my normal two. You feel like your photo just might turn up on a Most Wanted poster. (And don’t get me started on the local pediatrician factory, where the surliest front-desk clerks in history treat all who walk in the door as if they’re trying to pull something over on them or, worse, they’re uninsured.)

The high schools offer startling contrasts, too. Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin may leave campus to eat at nearby restaurants (sorry to say, it’s my teenager’s favorite thing about school this year). Whereas when the new Patrick Henry High School opened a few years back, administrators decided to literally lock the students inside the cafeteria, known by staff and students alike as “the cage.”

Comparing Roanoke to Cambridge schools isn’t fair, I know, especially considering that wealthy Cambridge spends almost twice as much per pupil as Roanoke does. That gap is about to widen, with the potential layoff of 200 teachers because of state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. (Here’s a thoughtful column by my colleague, Dan Casey, on the topic.)

A friend and civic leader predicted recently that we’ll be surprised by the uptick in cultural happenings in the ‘Noke. There’s so much interesting stuff going on now, it’s impossible to get to it all, he said, noting expanding offerings in theater, music, film and more. He also praised The Big Read, the valley’s collective effort to encourage reading, soon to kick off with a discussion of Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.”

I loved that book, and I love that Roanoke’s undercurrent of groovyness seems to be widening by the minute. I just wish we could harness the same kind of excitement around improving our schools. Perhaps the No. 2 book on Roanoke’s Big Read list could be “The Spirit Level,” a book that could foster dialogue about the complex social inequities and poor educational opportunities that lie at the heart of our region’s slow growth and high dropout rate.

Because the Roanoke I know and love is surely two cities, a place where the twain rarely meet — except on the inside of a cafeteria cage.