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Friday, August 18, 2006

Urban Life

I was walking a friend’s dog last night and saw a groundhog disappear into a scrap of garden, bordering an abandoned lot. The neighbors have planted a few flowers and green peppers around the cars that use the lot at night for spillover parking. Later on my dog walk I passed what looked like a more formal community garden, an old Quaker cemetery, and a surprising amount of green for a neighborhood that also has plenty of crime and litter. It got me thinking about the life that inhabits the city, often unseen.

First there are the creatures, like the groundhogs, which seem to be everywhere this year. Early in the summer, we had one in our back alley that was getting quite bold about dining on my neighbor’s little garden. The children chased it away a few times, until it turned up dead on Henry Avenue. Then there was the brown snake that was living under the black plastic I had laid in my other neighbor’s yard to kill her weeds. She’s in her eighties, and all that has survived of her gardening days is one pink rose bush that rises up out of the honeysuckle every spring. The rest of her yard is a tangle of invasive vines now dancing with the cherry tomatoes I optimistically planted this spring when I first rolled back the black plastic to reveal bare earth and the snake. Tom saw another snake this spring as it was carried off by a bird. I often forget to notice the birds, though we get cardinals fairly often in our yard, and I just saw a goldfinch in a friend’s. Most exciting are always the red hawks that circle over Germantown, the neighborhood where my children go to school and where I was walking the dog last night

A few weeks ago I was talking to a cousin who lives in West Chester, a distant suburb. “Do you still live in Germantown?” he asked incredulously. Well, actually we live right next to Germantown, I explained, bristling at the racism I heard in his question, since Germantown is more predominantly African American than our neighborhood. “Aren’t you going to get out of there?” he asked, as if I was imbedded with the insurgency in Iraq.

“No, we like our neighborhood,” I answered. “We like our neighbors,” I added, suspecting that he knows we have African Americans neighbors. Later I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t explicitly addressed the racism I assumed was behind his question, even though I know it would have been pointless. This is the cousin who once told me it’s better not to pay your bills every month because it just wastes stamps. He’s also told me that it was alright that he beat up his grown daughter to teach her a lesson. He’s not an easy guy to reason with, let me tell you. He’s an alcoholic, under house arrest since he got out of jail, and he thinks his daughter is a heroin addict. And he’s worried about my neighborhood because we have a few black folk on the block.


Like many white Americans, I think my cousin’s only image of the city is of drugs and the gun violence he hears about on the news. I don’t want to discount the gun violence, which has risen to more than a murder a day, but I think it’s wrong to disconnect what happens in the most violent neighborhoods with what happens in the suburbs. Like the natural world, the human ecosystem is interconnected in intricate and invisible ways. A girl using heroin in the suburbs is fueling the drug trade in north Philadelphia. Yet all the fingers point to the city as the source of the problem. This isn’t new, of course. I saw more drug use at my elite suburban high school than I’ve ever seen since moving into the city, but that’s certainly not the image people have of my Main Line private school.

A few weeks ago I was reading some of the comments on The Philadelphia Inquirer web site in response to an article on the city’s gun wars. It’s amazing how a little online anonymity brings out the ugly in people. Although many comments had a racist tinge, the most disturbing to me was the one that suggested we should just let all the black men kill each other off. I posted an online response, but it was like trying to talk to my cousin, facing a philosophical divide so wide I recoiled with vertigo.

I have to figure out how to face these situations better. I’ve been reading Lifting the White Veil: An Exploration of White American Culture in a Multiracial Context. The author Jeff Hitchcock points out that working to address racism in the white community was what Stokely Carmichael wanted white civil rights workers to do, though most gave up once they could no longer do the exciting work of leading marches. As one said of organizing among whites, “Frankly, we’re just not ready to face it yet.” That was more than thirty years ago.

I hope that becoming more conscious myself will help me to become more articulate and brave among my own messed up folks. I’m working on being more observant, for a start, taking note of the questions with the racist edge, taking note of my own reactions, too. For example, I noticed that I was more nervous about my dog sitting duties at night. Our six pm walk was long and leisurely, but when I let my vacationing friend’s dog out one more time for a pee before bed, my urban girl radar was on orange alert. I had to wonder if it was the same racism ingrained in my cousin that made me more nervous walking at night in a part of Germantown that’s mostly black, or if it was just a rational response to being in a neighborhood that does have a higher crime rate, though far from the worst in the city.

At first I noticed my own fears. Then I noticed that every African American man I passed, on the sidewalk or sitting on the porch, made a point of saying, “Hey, how you doing?” As I progressed down the street, I had a sense of being watched, not cased for a crime, but looked out for. It’s part of the invisible life of the city, I realized, people looking out for each other, whether it’s trying to save a neighbor’s rose bush from the vines or watching a passing dog-walker get safely home. It’s part of what I love about living in Philadelphia, a sense of community that I never felt in my own suburban neighborhood growing up. It's part of what I didn't know how to explain to my cousin, the fact that I felt safer knowing that the brothers were out on the stoop watching me, or the fact that I'm thrilled that my kids are out every evening on the sidewalk with the new African American kids next door. I want my kids to grow up with a sense of community, not fear, which is partly why we've set aside the idea of looking for a house with a bigger yard. We've got great neighbors, and that seems more important than a little more grass.

It's funny that I'm ruminating on urban life today when we're packing to go camping in Vermont. I'm looking forward to seeing the Adirondack Mountains tracing the sky over Lake Champlain. But it's nice to have somewhere to come home to, too, and this year more than ever I'm feeling grateful for my community.

2 Comments:

Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, thank you for challenging the conventional wisdom about where "our kind of people" [gag] should live. Not to mention who "our kind" are!!

2:41 AM  
Blogger Joe G. said...

I have had some of the same struggles with both my relatives and my friends (regarding race and ethnicity). A few seem dumbfounded when I have enthused about how multi-cultural LA is and that this is one of the aspects I like the most about it.

I think the way that you responded to your cousin was just right. It's like planting a seed. Other times we need to be more direct. I rarely tell another white person that they are being racist because a.) so can I and b.) it only raises defenses (unlees the comment is blatently so and most other white folks would recognize it as such). But, giving another persepctive on the same issue is much more effective and even subversive.

Great post and thanks for your honest thoughts!

1:01 PM  

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