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Shawn Vestal: West Central not his dream, but poverty now his focus

Brian Burrow grew up near the corner of Nettleton Street and Boone Avenue in the West Central neighborhood and worked at Doyle’s Ice Cream shop as a teenager. (Dan Pelle)
Brian Burrow grew up near the corner of Nettleton Street and Boone Avenue in the West Central neighborhood and worked at Doyle’s Ice Cream shop as a teenager. (Dan Pelle)

When Brian Burrow returned to West Central – the neighborhood where he grew up, where his parents grew up, where four generations of his family now live – it wasn’t by choice.

Burrow lost his business and his South Hill home in the economic crash. He went through a foreclosure and a bankruptcy. Returning in 2008 with his wife and two young children to the block where he’d grown up, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, seemed like an utter defeat.

“I felt like I got my ass handed to me, and I had to move to West Central,” he said.

Two months later, his house burned down.

Between then and now, Burrow, 32, has had to scrape and hustle and work his tail off, just to begin climbing back onto his feet. Along the way, he’s also taken a close look at his home neighborhood – sometimes uncharitably called Felony Flats – and asked hard questions about poverty and fate.

He’s gathered demographic information. He’s analyzed the cumulative effect of poverty over the generations, side by side with the cumulative effect of wealth. He wondered whether poverty was some sort of life sentence. He pulled out his Holmes Elementary class photo from 1990-’91. Twenty-seven sixth-graders, lined up in three rows.

What happened to those kids? How had their West Central stories played out?

Like any neighborhood, West Central is more than any one characteristic. But the broad facts of the neighborhood are sobering. The most recent neighborhood-level census information is from 2000: Thirty-seven percent of families with kids under 5 lived below the poverty line – and that was before the recession. Home values, family incomes and education levels are lower than most of Spokane; unemployment, the “institutionalized population” and crime rates are higher.

Burrow’s own West Central story started three generations ago, when his four grandparents each moved here separately from around the country. His mother and father grew up on the same block in the heart of the neighborhood. Bounded by West Boone and Gardner avenues, and North Chestnut and Nettleton streets, and near Doyle’s Ice Cream – the block remains an epicenter for the family.

His parents moved away after marrying, following his father’s Coast Guard career; a divorce brought Burrow, his mother, brother and sister back to West Central when he was 3. His mom supported them while going back to school for her degree.

“We were poor for a long time,” he said. “We were very, very poor.”

Burrow says his mother went for years without a winter coat. The compound problems of poverty – crime, drug use, on and on – confronted him at a young age. He went through the neighborhood schools: Holmes Elementary, Glover Middle, North Central High.

And yet there was something in Burrow that was culturally separate. He had middle-class aspirations and expectations. He was interested in cuisine, languages, travel and “swanky” things. And, crucially, he was surrounded by family; he worked for his uncle at Doyle’s, helped his grandparents in their gardens. If he got into trouble, he said, he’d be held to account.

He graduated from North Central in 1997 and enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College. He eventually dropped out to run a home business. He married and started a family, bought a home on the South Hill.

He started a financial planning firm with friends, not too long before the economy crashed in fall 2008. Business plummeted. Burrow lost his home and moved back into a rental property owned by his mother and stepdad. In May 2009, his firm went under, and he found himself without a job or the ability to collect unemployment insurance.

The next month, there came a knock on the door about 4:30 a.m. A passing policeman noticed smoke coming out of the roof. Burrow, his wife and two young children made it out of the house, but they lost almost everything inside.

“I’m already thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ ” he said. “I was very bitter. And then we had the house fire, and that bitterness turned into something else and … that drove me forward.”

They moved into an apartment, and Burrow continued a job search. He soon decided that following the traditional routes – looking over job postings and sending in applications – was a dead end. He started networking, dressing up like a professional, seeking out small jobs here and there – anything from manual labor to helping a business with a short-term project. He went back to school at Eastern Washington University, graduated in 2011 with two bachelor’s degrees and went on to graduate school.

Burrow turned his part-time scramble into a consulting business. He landed a job with the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council and developed an independent study project as part of his MBA work at Eastern.

For his thesis research, he turned to his neighborhood. He wanted to see if he could answer the question: Does being born poor doom a child to failure? That question led him to that old class photo. He started tracking down classmates and asking them questions.

The answers were sobering but not surprising, he said. Four of 27 sixth-graders in the photo went on to graduate from college. Four became pregnant as teenagers. Of the school’s roughly 80 sixth-graders in that year, four died before the age of 25.

Saturday: Hard to ignore.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.