Tuesday, August 02, 2005
I live in a bad neighborhood.
At least that’s what people said about it. “Cottage Grove Avenue?” said a friend. “That’s a bad neighborhood.” It is? Our Mennonite friends lived just a block from the house we were looking at in South Bend. They weren’t bad. Then a man at work said, “I wouldn’t buy there. There’s no resale value.” We wanted a home, not a real estate venture.
Some warnings involved my children. “Don’t you want your kids to go to a good school?” asked one mother, appalled. Even our real estate agent sat me down. “Jeff, think about your wife’s safety.” (As if I could make her move somewhere she didn’t want to.)
But the fear began to work. I called our Mennonite friends. “Are you guys worried about your safety?” I asked. They paused. “You been talking to real estate people again?” We laughed, and they invited us over to dinner in the bad neighborhood.
As we drove up, I scanned the streets and doorways like on a recon mission in Fallujah. But our friends opened their door wide, welcomed us in. They poured wine, prayed at dinner and passed homemade bread. After dessert they brought out crime statistics, obtained from the South Bend police department. Crimes were marked on a city map with little symbols.
Sure enough. In the blocks surrounding us a car had been broken into. A vacant house vandalized. Drugs confiscated from a woman. A man passed out in a yard. This was as bad as…college. Then I noticed the same symbols dotting the rest of the city. Robberies. Domestic violence. Rapes. That month burglaries and auto thefts were worse in a wealthy suburb.
And that’s when I realized that all those warnings really weren’t about crime, real estate values, or schools. They were code words, white folks use to express fear, about low income people of color. No one ever said a racist word out loud. No winks or nudges. Instead, the racism was a perfectly concealed weapon. It didn’t break loudly into my house, or steal my precious car. It hid, like a virus, deep in the anxious beliefs of my own friends and colleagues.
Sometimes the truth does set people free. We bought the house on the near west side.
That was seven years ago. No one told us that the day we moved in, a pack of joyful, scruffy kids would run over to meet our kids. That our house on a double lot cost less than a minivan. About Demetrius, raising his nieces while their mother does time. About Jose and Maria. Or Latisha and other single moms. And Mike, the ponytailed Harley biker who one day stepped out directly in front of a speeding car. “Hey!” he yelled to the startled driver, bamming his fist on the hood. “There’s kids around here!” We sit on front porches, hear the neighbor girls’ jazz double jumprope riffs, and buy snow cones on hot days out of an old guy’s shopping cart.
There are nuisances here: litter, some orphaned properties, barking alley dogs. As far as danger? I’ve learned that stupid behavior is color blind, and bullets prefer alcohol and drug deals over law abiding citizens any day.
One day, driving out of our new neighborhood toward Grape Road I noticed the streets got cleaner, and the lawns got greener. But there was no one in the yards. The only thing I saw running house to house was a sleepy conformity I’d never noticed before.
Returning home, I realized I needed my new neighborhood. To balance my life out, show me real color, and save me from things far worse than litter or a stolen Subaru. Like the blindness and coded racism of privilege.
I live in a great neighborhood. On the near west side, on Cottage Grove Avenue, in South Bend, Indiana.
Before joining the Michiana Chronicles group, Jeff Nixa contributed this WVPE commentary to the American Democracy Project series.