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Wealthy Neighbors Cry 'Not in My Back Yard!' Over Pay-What-You-Can Restaurant's Low-Income Customers

Nimbyism, racism and classism are fueling neighbors' reactions to a new Panera Cares.

Nimbyism (“Not in my back yard!”) is on full display in the Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview, where some of the neighborhood’s generally affluent residents are concerned about a new restaurant that counts among its customers people who are low-income or homeless.

A local CBS affiliate reported this week that some Lakeview residents have voiced “complaints” about “safety concerns” in the three months or so since Panera Cares, the soup and sandwich chain’s pay-what-you-can restaurant concept, opened in the neighborhood.

The CBS anchor opens the story by noting that “concern about safety is growing” in the neighborhood, and “some of the people who live there say a unique restaurant may be to blame.” Well, of course, the restaurant is at the root of these people’s safety concerns. As one resident noted, “It’s just kind of scary. A crowd of guys won’t let you through a sidewalk. That’s invasive.”

What’s unclear is whether the residents’ safety concerns are founded. The CBS report provides no data showing that crime is on the rise in the neighborhood. Instead it notes that a nearby resident erected a steel gate, and there’s now some trash on a stoop that had once been clean.

That’s not evidence of rising crime; it’s evidence that one of Panera Cares’ neighbors bought a gate, and that someone littered. Did the neighbor buy the gate to keep Panera customers off his property? Maybe. But that’s still not evidence of rising crime, only rising paranoia.

Furthermore, if crime rates have increased in the neighborhood, local police say the restaurant isn’t at fault: “Police say there’s no way to prove that an increase in crime in the area is directly affected [sic] to the opening of the store.”

One longtime resident, Bruce Beal, told CBS that his neighbors are full of it. “I don’t see any more of that now than I saw before at all,” Beal said. “Before it was all relatively affluent neighbors and now it’s a mix of affluent neighbors and folks that aren’t as affluent.”

Crime statistics aside, what’s going on in Lakeview seems to be a combination of nimbyism, racism and classism that’s all too common in the U.S., even as many people who had once been affluent or comfortably middle-class find themselves knocked down the economic ladder. It seems impossible that the Lakeview residents expressing disdain at the presence of poor and homeless people on their sidewalks have not seen financial hardship among their friends and neighbors or experienced it themselves. Nearly 47 million Americans, or 14 percent of the population, now rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. That’s a huge increase from 2000, when the number was just 17 million. And the increase in food stamp use hasn’t been confined to Americans who were always low-income; a significant number of citizens who were once considered rich or who live in affluent zip-codes have found themselves needing to use the food stamp program as well.

But Panera Cares customers are still considered “other” by many wealthy Americans. There’s a reason Mitt Romney felt comfortable, in a room full of rich donors, expressing contempt for the nearly half of Americans “who are dependent on the government.” It’s the same reason the wealthy Republican candidate said he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and keeps referring to poor Americans as “them.” “They” aren’t like him. “They” are moochers. It doesn’t take much of a leap to get to: “They” are dangerous. “They” are ruining the neighborhood.

This sort of language and behavior fits into a sad legacy of mistreating homeless people in the U.S. As AlterNet’s Tana Ganeva reported last spring, homelessness has been unfairly criminalized in many areas of the country. In some U.S. cities, it is illegal to give food to people who are homeless or for homeless citizens to hold signs, sleep or even sit on the ground.