Urban, predominately-black cities and neighborhoods get a bad rap. Popular wisdom says that these cities are worthless dead ends populated by the hopeless and the criminal. No one has a good life in these cities. No one gets a good education. Ambitious people don’t live there. There are no nice homes there. No one is safe there. There is nothing to be valued there.

This caricature of a “chocolate city” seems worlds away from where I grew up.

I was raised in a big, split-level house in a multi-cultural, beach-side community. It was a hybrid of working, middle and upper-middle class families. There was the veterinarian on the corner; my best friend’s mom, the CPA down the street; educators like my parents; and older folks like our grandmotherly next door neighbor, Mrs. Kaminsky, who spoke tearfully about Lithuania and brought us tasty balandėliai to eat. I spent my childhood riding my bike around our hilly neighborhood, trying not to get the wheels of my Schwinn stuck in the sand; building forts in the woods; and playing dodge-baseball (a sport of my friends’ own design). Often, we visited my grandparents across town on their tree-lined street of bungalows and postage stamp yards, tended by retired steelworkers and their wives.

In the summertime, people would flock from Chicago and neighboring cities to the local lakefront. Tourists coveted the clean sand and picturesque dunes. They marveled at the sprawling homes lining the beach. They enjoyed our quiet neighborhood and the local eatery that still serves the best boned-and-buttered perch you’ve ever had…guaranteed. And usually, visitors failed to realize that they were soaking in the sun and sand in the one place in Northwest Indiana that everyone thinks they should avoid.

I grew up in Gary, Indiana.

When outsiders talk about the 85 percent African American, Rust Belt city where I grew up, their perceptions rarely match mine. Because, as when folks discuss Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., or the South Side of Chicago, narratives really quickly get steeped in racial and class bias. I don’t mean to imply that these areas don’t have very real problems. But I find that people are all too willing to accept that the problems of a black area are all one needs to know–the full story. Black cities are routinely judged by the worst of what they have to offer. I think this is because crime and poverty and poor education and other urban ills fit the prevailing belief of what blackness is and what black folks will accept.

Also, there is a tendency among the broader culture to view areas strictly as either “good” or “bad.” In good areas, you are always safe. Bad areas are to be avoided at all costs. I suppose it makes people feel safer to think that crime and other bad stuff only happens to those people over there, who must have done something to bring it on themselves. This thinking makes it easier to deride and dismiss cities places like my hometown.

The truth is that even in the cities that house the worst neighborhoods, there are good neighborhoods. Even in places that battle criminality, most people are working every day and living their lives on the right side of the law. There are plenty of people who return to struggling cities to try and make them better. In the urban areas I know of, people are more hopeful than hopeless.

White, suburban areas don’t have a lock on good things; black, urban areas aren’t the only place bad things happen. Gary, Indiana, is not perfect. But it was my home. And the city, and my friends and family who still live there, deserve better than derision and blanket assumptions. There is good there, just as there is good everywhere.

What about you? Do you have fond reminiscences of growing up in a predominately-black area that people often deride?

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  • kmg

    Thank you Tamarra Harris for standing up for Gary and all cities being focused on due to negativity. I’ve always lived in Gary (and for those who left I wish them well and many blessings). I’m not old enough to remember the golden days, but that hasn’t diminished the love i have for my home town. Gary is filled with wonderful people. There are people all over the world from Gary, Indiana who are flourishing and doing well, that’s because Gary wasn’t for them. Gary and places like Gary aren’t for everyone, but for those who are for Gary and places like Gary, help build it up. Support constructive endeavors and accomplishments. Gary is an under dog and you can’t keep an under dog down for long.
    Many Blessings to you all!!!

  • Boule

    When I tell people I’m from Gary, I get the same 3 responses: Jacksons, Music Man, and Murder. I moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was 14, and refused to tell anyone where I was from. Upon (finally) coming out about being from Gary, all of my fears were confirmed. People either belted out a chorus of “Gary Indiana,” asked me if I knew one of the Jacksons, or shot somebody. Thank you for this article. It pretty much states everything that I’ve wanted to in defense of my hometown.

  • LaToya

    I was born raised and currently live in Gary. I am educated just like others. I will honestly say it is kind of depressing driving through neighborhoods and seeing abandoned buildings and the lack of major businesses in the area. But the problem in Gary does not exist because of race, its all economics as previous commentors noted. Gary was solely based on Steel, the steel industry is not profitable as previous years. America is not a manufacturing country anymore. Gary is like most cities in the Rust belt, poverty stricken, low incomes and high crime rates. All of the region is suffering. Hammond, East Chicago are in the same boat. The city needs someone to take a gamble on its behalf or college graduates to bring their skills and knowledge back home. My older family members tell me that Gary really was a nice place in earlier years.

  • You know after engaging with all of you about this topic, I think I have clarified my bottom line: I am disappointed when any area–no matter its racial makeup–is judged based on bias and stereotype. Most every place offers some things uniquely good and some things uniquely bad. When we view cities, neighborhoods, countries, CONTINENTS (Look how people dismiss Africa.) without nuance, we lose and those places lose. We miss out on the one-of-a-kind things all places have to offer, and struggling places miss out on helping hands, because they have already been written off as worthless.

    This same argument can be made about many places–not just so-called “chocolate cities.” I have lived most of my life in the Midwest–a place that often gets dismissed in the media. I’ve heard people say there are no people of color here; that the region has no culture; that it is backwards. When I first moved to Central Indiana, some friends from big cities and on the coasts actually voiced concerns about my family’s “safety.” Their thought was that the state was inhabited by virulent racists, eager to harm to a black woman. That belief is as ridiculous as the idea that one cannot set foot in Detroit without being murdered.

    Geographic stereotypes can be based, in part, on facts. For instance, it is true that the Midwestern United States is predominately white and that my home state tends toward red. But most often, folks take a few facts and mangle them with their own biases. That, I think, is a problem.

  • visitingreader

    This is a complex issue and it’s important not to romanticize it, although anyone who grew up in a basically happy home probably has some nice childhood memories regardless of where s/he grew up.

    Several months ago or longer, the New York Times did an article on the problems of new arrivals to gentrifying black neighborhoods. One interviewee was a black woman who presumably had saved up her money and realized her dream of buying a brownstone. The problem is that some of the neighborhod people considered her property their property. They would sit out front drinking and smoking and leaving broken glass around. She tried talking to them, but at the time of the article’s publication she hadn’t made much headway.

    • You wouldn’t happen to have a link, would you? I’d love to read that. I experienced similar living in a gentrifying neighborhood. The Chicago Tribune had an interesting article about the tension between longtime black residents of the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods and the black professionals and families who were the gentrifiers. It was really good and looked at how shared race complicated the issue. It may have even been a series. I’ve tried and tried to find that article and I can’t locate it online. It really was interesting.