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?