Bad Neighborhood (radio story)

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? I wondered.  Our Mennonite friends lived just a block from the house we were looking at in South Bend’s Near Northwest side.  They weren’t bad.  But then a man at work said, “I wouldn’t buy there.  There’s no resale value.”  Yet 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 at our dining room table.  “Jeff,” she said.  “Think about your wife’s safety.”  As if I could make my wife 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, then said, “Have 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 I was on a recon mission in Fallujah.  But our friends opened their door wide, and 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 the 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, well…college.  Then I noticed the same crime symbols dotting the rest of the city neighborhoods.  Robberies.  Domestic violence.  Rapes.  That month burglaries and auto thefts were worse in a wealthy suburb.  I pointed to an area of the map that had no crime symbols at all, on the campus of a large Catholic university.  “Safe place,” I commented.  “No,” said our friends.  “They just don’t release crime statistics to the public.”

It slowly began to dawn on me.  That all those warnings from my peers really weren’t about crime.  Or real estate values.  Or schools.  Or actual risk to my family.  They were code words that white folks like me use, to express fear about low income people of color.

No one had ever said a racist word out loud.  No bad jokes, 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.  Instead it hid, working like a virus, deep down in the anxious beliefs of my own friends and colleagues.

Sometimes the truth does set people free.  We bought the house on Cottage Grove Avenue.

That was seven years ago.  No one had 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 city lot would cost less than a minivan.  About Demetrius, raising his three nieces on his own while their mother does time.  About Jose and Maria, whose family had just opened the best little burrito place on Portage Avenue.  About Latisha, Yvonne and the other single moms.  Or about 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!”

Here we sit on front porches, hear the neighbor girls’ jazz double-dutch jumprope riffs, and buy snow cones on hot days out of an old guy’s shopping cart.  Last week I discussed theology with a grad student neighbor on the porch till dark; today I exchanged tools with some teenage boys working on a beat-up motorscooter, for their help picking up the street.  We all left satisfied.

There are nuisances here.  The litter, some orphaned properties, barking alley dogs.  But 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 mall, I saw something I had not really been aware of before.  That although the streets got cleaner, and the lawns got greener in other neighborhoods, there was no one in those yards.  Instead of children, the only thing I saw running from 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 northwest side, on Cottage Grove Avenue, in South Bend, Indiana.

(Originally aired August 2, 2005 on public radio station 88.1 WVPE, Elkhart/South Bend, Indiana.  Later published in And Now, Michiana Chronicles: Selected Radio Essays Wolfson Press, 2007.   Re-recorded and aired on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series, September 3, 2011.)

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