Why do ghetto day care centers look like prisons?

Collected images.
Oct. 8 2009 6:55 AM

Iron Bars and Razor Wire

The forbidding, prisonlike architecture of ghetto day care centers.

Click here to launch a slide show on ghetto day care centers.

In poor urban communities, day care centers present themselves as places where "miracles" occur, as places where minority children are given "tender loving care" and can experience "love in action" in an otherwise hard world.

I am constantly amazed by the contrast between the lofty ideals expressed on the facades of inner-city day care centers and the mean, barred, and windowless buildings they occupy. Often, they occupy former movie theaters, stores, or old industrial buildings in the midst of decaying neighborhoods. Others occupy fortified prefabricated buildings. Children spend their days in windowless rooms or on playgrounds surrounded by cyclone fences topped with razor ribbon wire. When they go out for a stroll, they walk, holding hands, along streets lined with empty buildings and vacant lots filled with trash and rubble.

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Those who work in these day care centers tell me they have to "build them like that" to prevent their equipment, furniture, and even food from getting stolen. The fortress look, they say, is a consequence of the surroundings. Day care center workers say the gritty exteriors protect interiors that are clean, safe, and colorful places where children are given fresh fruits and healthy meals and are well cared for.

Some centers in these photos, such as the Box of Joy Developmental Center in Detroit, have gone out of business. Others have added new signs in an attempt to brighten up an otherwise prisonlike building.

I am surprised at how little America's inner-city day care centers have changed over the years. Although they may be a key to their little charges' success in life, their grim appearance suggests the permanence of the American ghetto.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

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