Monday, July 16, 2012

On "Good" and "Bad" Neighborhoods

EY got to Colorado the night before last. Yesterday, she drove to the school that she's going to be teaching at and checked out the surrounding neighborhood, looking to see why people have suggested that she not live in that area. Her report back to me was, and I quote, "I could not [live there]. I mean, I could...but I would not be comfortable. I didn't see a single white person, and the kids walking around on the street were dressed like hoodlums." 

I couldn't have predicted word for word, but I knew what was coming after she said the word comfortable. I was dreading the rest of her statement. And once it was there, staring back at me in little black letters in our Skype window, I wanted so badly to get angry. To rant and chastise, to want to smack her. I wanted to ask how she could think and say things like this...but I already knew how.

I'd thought them, too. I'd thought them when I was room-hunting. I thought them when I was on the bus going to see my very first place and I looked around and saw that all the non-Black people who had been on the bus with me got off before I did. When I got off the bus at the corner by a gas station and there were (Black) men standing around in three-sizes-too-big white t-shirts and basketball shorts and sneakers just talking, and I seriously entertained the idea of crossing the street before I got to them (but they were on the side of the street I needed to be on, so I didn't). I remember later that night, being in a different neighborhood where I saw people on dates holding hands and brothas in button ups and felt safe. I recall chuckling at the way the Pakistani girl at the first place said that the neighborhood was incredibly safe, even if it looked a little rough around the edges, and that she'd never had any problems in the 4 years she'd lived there, while the 5 white girls at the second place all seemed more than a little uncomfortable with the ethnic mix of their neighborhood ("It's not the beeeest neighborhood..."). I recall thinking that the relativity of neighborhood quality was a fascinating concept, and that I should explore it more in a post.

Oh, how much more complicated it became. See, I didn't get anything but a crushed dream out of my solo place-hunting adventure, so later came back with my mother and grandmother. As they drove me from place to place, my Nana kept saying, "Oh, this is a Puerto Rican neighborhood." "Oh, this is a Chinese neighborhood." And the way she said it, it was clear that these were not places that she would like for me to live. My grandmother's favorite place, by far, was a basement apartment I looked at in Friendship Heights, which was as suburby as the city gets and where I saw exactly one person of color. I did not like it there--the apartment was stuffy and it was too far away from everything, much to my grandmother's disappointment.

The neighborhood I moved to is mostly Black, which my grandmother also had some commentary about (despite the fact that both she and my mother live in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods), but it is in the process of being gentrified. I am as likely to be hit on by a Black man in an oversized tee who has lived in my neighborhood for the entirety of his 27 years as I am to be smiled back at by a gay couple walking their dog. I don't live far from Howard, so when I'm lucky, I see a fine-ass brotha in a button up and he asks me how I'm doin. I get catcalled. I also get my "Good morning"s ignored by White women also on their way to work. We have a bodega-like store on my corner, a housing project down the street, a hipster cafe further down the street, and a farmer's market on Sundays. We have a baseball field and a basketball court. We have a rent-a-bike station. We have a public school and a charter school. We have a strong police presence. 

Getting catcalled doesn't scare me. This literally has happened every time I'm walking alone in an even somewhat urban environment--remember my posts from New Brunswick? But I am extra-vigilant when I'm walking home at night. And I have crossed the street--to the side of the street my house was on, but still--to avoid walking past a group of Black men when it's dark. And yet, it slightly offends me when my parents suggest I take a cab home, or RG doesn't want me to walk home alone. I hate the question, "Is it safe?" I want to respond that the color of my neighbors' skin does not make them inherently dangerous, nor does their style of dress or the comparative amount of money we make. I walk home, but I walk quickly, purposefully, and with my eyes and ears wide open.

Sometimes while I'm walking to or from work, or on my way anywhere else, I wonder whether I belong here, in the neighborhood where I live. I am a Black woman living in a historically Black neighborhood, but that doesn't preclude me from being a gentrifier. I am a sociologist living in a city, which means I know that Blackness isn't dangerous, but concentrated poverty is. My personal history includes both free lunch and an Ivy League degree, so I'm a little confused about my class status. And even as a social scientist, I can't tell you what does more to mark me "us" or "them," only that it depends who I'm asking. 

I can't tell whether I belong here, but like E, I knew that I couldn't live in that other neighborhood in NE with the Pakistani girl. It was too...all the things I am not with respect to who/what I am. I felt like I was in the hood, and it scared me. I was uncomfortable in broad daylight, and didn't want to be around after dark. I was uncomfortable there, even being me. I just don't know where to draw the line between things I want to call "comfort" and "caution" and things better called "racism" and "classism". It's like this essay, by Taigi Smith, that ChoosingPancakes and I read in a feminism class last semester, called "What "Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express?" Taigi writes:
Do my low-income neighbors realize that the new buildings being put up like wildfire are not for people like them but for people like me, who can afford to pay inflated rents for renovated apartments in the hood? I am keenly aware of exactly what is happening, and I realize that neighborhoods don't have to be financially rich to be culturally vibrant, and that white people moving into poor neighborhoods do little good for the people that already live there. When white people move into black neighborhoods, the police presence increases, cafes pop up and neighborhood bodegas start ordering the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times...When I think about this, I am caught somewhere in the middle, because although I have the money to live in a neighborhood that is being gentrified, I still hear the words my black real estate agent whispered to me: "Just think of this as your own little castle in the hood."
When I come home at night and see the crackheads loitering in front of the building next door, I realize I may have switched sides in this fight. When I dodge cracked glass and litter when walking my dog, I realize that this neighborhood really could use a facelift and that the yoga center that just opened up on the corner is a welcome change from the abandoned building it used to be.
Walking the streets, I realize my neighbors and I are alike in many ways. We like the same foods, the same music, and most important, we are a group of African-American people living together in a neighborhood that is on the verge of change. But in the end we are also very different. If the rents go up, I will have options and they may not. They may have to move and I will get to stay. Although we look the same, we are different. We are connected by race but remain separated by a slip of paper called a college degree. 
Smith, Taigi. "What Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express?"
Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism, 67-9 

I beat myself up about it every time I cross the street to avoid a person/group that I'm approaching. Every time I smile at a non-poor-looking person on the sidewalk without hesitation. Every time I approach my corner and hope that "these fools" aren't hanging out across the street, and become painfully aware of how easy it would be to replace "fools" with a word with one more letter. I come into my renovated house with its electric fireplace and exposed brick and cook dinner and chitchat with my White housemates and watch The L Word and feel bad about the way I behaved. And that just makes it even worse. 

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