Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Neighborhood, Times Two

I was back in my old neighborhood a couple of weekends ago, walking toward the farmer's market, when I passed a little knot of people who were looking up and gesturing toward the dignified brick apartment buildings that line one of the boulevards. They were all clearly from somewhere else, and one of them was explaining the handsome buildings, which apparently struck them as odd, to the others:

"I think they're pretty dumpy on the inside, but they look good from out here," he said.

I thought that was pretty remarkable, because the guy wasn't actually claiming to have been inside any of the buildings he was talking about. He just thought they were run-down dumps inside. All he could actually see were the buildings' admittedly-impressive outsides, but he he didn't or couldn't permit himself to be impressed by them. So he assumed that the handsome buildings were all squalid inside.

He was dead wrong. I should know. He was pointing at my old building.

I lived in that place for seven years, in a big pre-war apartment with hardwood floors, and the only thing that was ever remotely squalid in that place was my bachelor housekeeping. It was a nicer place than I really should have rented right out of graduate school; my excuse is that I'd come straight from California, where the rent on even a shabby studio was always basically all the money you had, and so my big beautiful apartment with the fancy view seemed like a steal. And having an apartment like that made feel like I was finally, after so many years of school, a middle-class grownup. I only left that building when I got married and began my weekly interstate commute, because I needed a place closer to my office when I was in town.

Now, there may theoretically be an apartment building on that street that isn't well maintained on the inside. Maybe they weren't all as nice as mine. But I've been in lots of those buildings, either as a prospective renter or while visiting a friend, and I've never seen any of the dumpy apartments this guy was talking about.

The guy explaining how terrible the apartments on that street were (don't let the fancy outsides fool you!) wasn't saying that because he knew it to be so. He apparently believed that those buildings were all concealing slum conditions because he wanted (or needed) to believe that. I don't know about you, but when I'm in a place I haven't been before I generally assume that the houses I'm looking at are pretty much the way they look, with the insides roughly as shabby, shiny, or well-kept as the outsides. I would never look at a house with its paint peeling off and say, "I bet it's an absolute palace inside," or presume that a fancy-looking house on the lake is secretly a dump. But for whatever reason, these strangers were not ready to accept that my neighborhood actually was the way it looked. So they had to invent facts not in evidence, the dumpy apartments secretly hidden inside impressive buildings, rather than deal with the reality staring them in the face. Those nice-looking buildings just couldn't be what they looked like, because they weren't supposed to be there.

(And actually, it was a little bit worse than that. As my spouse pointed out to me later, that guy had to actively ignore evidence he could see, namely the carefully-maintained landscaping around the buildings he was calling dumpy. In his world, the landlords have let those beautiful old buildings run to complete ruin but also meticulously landscaped them.)

Why not just accept the evidence in front of their eyes? One possible explanation is what I'll call suburbanite bias: the conviction that life in the Big Dirty City is just one long squalid nightmare. I don't just mean preferring to live outside the city yourself. I mean the insistence that living anywhere in the city is so hopelessly awful that anybody would count themselves blessed to "escape" to the suburbs. I should admit that I've never viewed the suburbs as a place to which I would eagerly escape; there's a reason that my blog name isn't "Doctor Pepper Pike, OH." But I see that some people might like a suburb better than the city. What I'm talking about is the belief that everyone in the city, except maybe a handful in luxury high-rises, must be living in a horrifying slum. Call it Urban Derangement Syndrome.

It could also have been about the specific part of the city my neighborhood is in. The skeptical visitors might simply have been unable to believe the sight of lovely vintage buildings in the black part of town. The neighborhood is actually mixed-race; I've spent years there, and I'm so white I'm nearly translucent. African-Americans are a plurality rather than a majority. And it's also a mixed-income neighborhood, with a healthy share of working-class homeowners but a bunch of doctors and classical musicians too. But the neighborhood has enough African-Americans that visitors from a racially unmixed area might view it as a "black neighborhood." (In this case, that which is not all-but-completely white becomes "black.") They may have refused to believe in the impressive apartment buildings they were seeing because they were under the impression that they were in The Ghetto, where all African-Americans live in miserable tenements and have The Blues. If you can buy decent soul food, it must be a slum. The Ghetto, in this case, is positively full of endocrinologists and cellists, but this isn't about the details. It's about the Big Picture, where all black people live in Bad Neighborhoods. How can there be nice apartments in a Bad Neighborhood? It makes no sense.

A slightly different version of this problem would be that the visitors viewed an entire side of town, the stereotypically "black" side, as one vast undifferentiated expanse of The Ghetto, and could not process that the "black" portion of a city actually has all kinds of neighborhoods, good, bad, and in-between. One way or another, the outsiders' refusal to accept what they were seeing as real is about a refusal to accept complexity. It's refusal to accept the variety that messes with easy simplifications. The "black side of town" is no more one single place than a city or a neighborhood is one place: they contain multitudes.

My other neighborhood, in the city where I own a home with my spouse, is also probably misunderstood by some outsiders. That neighborhood too is economically and ethnically mixed, and also viewed as the scary desperate city by surbanites with Urban Derangement Syndrome. Our house was built in the 1920s, and has no room for a huge lawn or huge attached garage. And it's only a few blocks from a high school with a large proportion of African-American students. ZOMG! Black teenagers! It are an urban jungle! Every night, my spouse and I lock our vintage leaded-glass windows and huddle by the working fireplace in terror.

Neither neighborhood is an exclusive bougie enclave. They have petty crime; you need to lock your doors, you shouldn't leave valuables in the car, and you shouldn't believe that everyone buttonholing you on the street is telling you their real story. When I first moved in to my old apartment my morning newspaper would get stolen in the morning. In other words, they are neighborhoods in cities, where you should take basic sensible precautions and generally not be an idiot. Does that make them "high crime" neighborhoods? Depends on how you're counting. Are they "dangerous" neighborhoods, where random pedestrians will be waylaid by a bunch of extras from The Wire? No. The scary thugs only live in the secret slum apartments hidden inside nice buildings. They never come out.

The thing about a city is that no neighborhood is very far from a different neighborhood; a good city doesn't sprawl. A city that does is a collection of suburbs on steroids. That boulevard of brick pre-war apartment buildings is only a block or two in one direction from a street full of blue-collar single-family homes. Half a mile in another direction is a shady street lined with what I can only call minor mansions. One nearby street is a depressed and dispiriting commercial strip. Another nearby street is filled with antiques dealers. Half a mile's run in yet another direction takes you to a park filled with live deer. It's a neighborhood. It neighbors other things. That's the point.

I left that neighborhood, but I didn't "escape" it. In fact, on the morning that I passed the guy explaining how all the apartments were actually dumps, I was in the neighborhood because I was moving back. My spouse has taken a year's leave from her job, so I gave up the bachelor pad near my office and moved with her back to another big pre-war apartment in another of those handsome buildings that the guy considered dumps in disguise. (Meanwhile, we rented the house in our other urban neighborhood to a group of classical musicians. Mostly string section. You know: animals.) So my old neighborhood is also my new neighborhood, at least for a year. And if the apartments in the neighborhood are secretly dumpy, well, I just rented another. Its dumpiness is still secret.

After I passed those confident visitors I went to the farmer's market and then back to my new apartment where my wife and my unpacked boxes were waiting. Then I stood at the counter in my newly-renovated kitchen and ate an organic peach. Just another day in the hood.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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