Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Siren wails, car door slams, foot falls, and staccato voices regularly mar the late night peace on my street. Sagging pants, tilted hats, dress-sized shirts, and loosely laced gym shoes perennially intrude on my daytime view of the park across the road. Cars fly through my neighborhood, speakers bumping. I once heard the following declarations outside my window at 11:30 on a Wednesday night:

Woman 1 (Crescendo of car door slams converge on a footfall chorus): “I can’t WAIT till I get a job. Then, I’ma give EE’BODY back they money.”

Woman 2 (Nighttime symphony crests just at my front porch): “Me, too, girl.”

Woman 1 (Footsteps fade, a decrescendo into the darkness): “Lon, Pook, EE’BODY. I ain’t gon ask nobody for money who don’t want to give it to me.”

While unloading a Prius full of Trader Joe’s goodness one unseasonably warm Spring night, this music from a few gentlemen across the street met my ears:

Man 1 (Fist sweeping a wide arc through the streetlight’s eerie glow): “Loser b&*%h! Man, I f*^%&d it up!”

Men 2 & 3 (laughter, inaudible mumbles)

Man 1 (Shadow boxing): “I’ll do that s*&t again too, mu-f(*k!”

Surely, you have formed an image of my street. You have raced the people, wondered at the difference between the syntax of my writing and the depressed income of the neighborhood, imagined the unkempt lawns and dilapidated houses – if there are houses because this surely must be a remembrance of the projects, wondered how many of your tax dollars are paying for my neighbors’ food stamps, lamented the certain ignorance of the area’s fatherless school children, and wished you knew where I lived so you could avoid the area.

And this, Dear Editor, is the reason I am writing.

Undoubtedly among your readership is a population of educated African-Americans who are connected directly or generationally to a neighborhood like mine. I extend to them this entreaty:

I earnestly implore you to move into any one of the abandoned homes or vacant new construction properties or build on any abandoned lot in my neighborhood. Come and be our neighbor.

Before you answer, indulge me a few paragraphs more.

A developer took an interest in the area several years ago, buying homes from area residents, razing them, and erecting brand new dwellings in their places. Such new homes stand on every block in the area, some occupied, some not, some half-finished victims of a work halt. The underperforming school on the corner that serves almost all of the local children will hopefully improve with the School Based Change process, and one block from the school a green construction fence sports a sign thanking the mayor and alderman for the new library that might be complete in December 2010, three years after breaking ground. A park outfitted with jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts and baseball diamond forms a courtyard between my block and a street two blocks over. They are really very good about fixing the cracked slide and broken swings within a month or so of each unfortunate incident. Did I mention the community center around the corner, the high school being built three blocks down, or the farmers’ market that assembles every summer Saturday? If you eat the fruit the day of purchase and cook the vegetables within two, you will hardly notice the produce’s quick decay. For your religious fortification there are three churches in a three-block radius and a mosque just five-minutes away. Sadly, there is no full service grocery, but a discount food seller is just a mile away with a corner store and gas station convenience shop within a two-minute walk.

I think the neighborhood has potential.

What we need is you. You who wakes early every morn and carpools in your trendy VW or sleek Benz to your fancy job secured with your privileged education. We need someone like you, someone who will require all offspring to play in the backyard and follow the streetlight rule. We need you, someone whose friends will close their cars with a gentle tap and confine their outdoor conversations to inaudible whispers. We need you, someone who will refrain from littering her or his own stoop with candy wrappers and chip bags, someone who cannot stand in front of the dumpster across the street engaged in late night bragging about past criminal pursuits because the work day begins at 8 A.M. or before and on whom the symbolism and irony are not lost. We need you.

I implore you, please, consider my invitation. Your stabilizing influence is what we need to anchor our community in the notion that we are somebody and that education is the key to success where we come from, not just wherever we go. Your experiences are valuable because they serve as windows through which the community can experience the world. Your work ethic and education are examples we can strive to achieve. Your absence means our rapid descent into anarchy born of a siphoning off of our most promising minds. Your presence will help us grow into an egalitarian meritocracy where circumstance does not interrupt opportunity.

We need you.


  1. HI. I read this article in my SUn Times today. I felt compelled to write. I grew up in Chicago. 63rd and King Drive. I "lovingly" call the area Baghdad. There was always the noise of gunfire, people arguing and fighting, the el train screeching by, people breaking bottles in the alley, CTA buses shaking the house and they roared past. I hated my neighborhood, if you haven't guessed by now. When I became an adult, I got my first apt 67th and Paxton. It was a wonderful place, but I went to bed EVERY night with the lullaby of gunfire. I got tired and moved.... Now I live in Bronzeville and it is quiet and peaceful here. I'm in a high rise and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I understand why you want the fancy-car-drving, educated African Americans who will make their children come home (at least on the porch) by the time the street lights are on, to move into your neighborhood. I get it. I really do. BUT IT IS HARD TO CONCEIVE. Especially when you escaped it from childhood. My entire childhood, all I ever wanted to do was get away from 63rd and King Drive. I went away to college and I knew that would be my escape. I don't EVER want to go back. What makes you stay is honorable and God Bless You and all who are/will become your neighbor.

  2. Hi Leslie!

    Just like brownsugar71 I too saw this article in the newspaper the other day and wanted to check out your blog!

    The real question is why aren't YOU moving and becoming someone else's neighbor? Not that staying isn't the answer either. I'm just curious why you continue to live in that area if there are so many "challenges" for you.

    Keep writing!


  3. Hi brownsugar71 and Dean!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my stuff!

    Despite the challenges brownsugar71 described, I'm not moving and becoming someone else's neighbor because of a fundamental belief I have that every human being is connected to every other human being - past, present, and future - and so we have a responsibility to protect, nurture, and honor those bonds. That said, before I moved to my community, my house was boarded up and it was the site of much illegal action and activity. Now, it's quiet, the grass is cut, and the suspect goings-on are no longer going on. The difference is that I live here now. Were I to leave, my house would become another among the empty in the area, and it is likely that the disruptions would return. The challenges are intensely frustrating sometimes - while I brushed my teeth just a few minutes ago, my house shook from the vibrations of someone blasting their music as they drove by. Still, I think I do some good to this community by being a stabilizing presence. I would argue that if there were more stable community members here, the neighborhood ills would decrease dramatically as the concentration of poverty and disenfranchisement is the source, or at least a major supply, of many of the problems neighborhoods like mine face.

    I will definitely keep writing, and I hope you keep reading!


  4. Hi!

    I read your article and I have become your neighbor :) I was born and raised on the westside of Chicago. I came from a neighborhood very similar to the one described in the article but my family invested in my education and I was able to attend private schools and went away to college to obtain my BS and MPH. I have always said that once I was able to, I would move away to the burbs, but low and behold, my fiancée and found our dream home in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on 73rd and Maryland. The area has it's pockets of 'suspicious' activities and I won't be walking around at night alone any time soon but crime is everywhere I've learned by being a native Chicagoan. My neighbors are ok and there are 4 new homes on my block occupied by young Urban professionals, including a white gay couple which is unheard of in this area lol. Seeing that they are building a new library in the area as well as other new projects, I think you we will be having new neighbors really soon:)

    Great Article!


  5. Diedre!

    It's wonderful to "meet" you, Neighbor! I am so glad you came to the neighborhood because I think that if more of us do, it will improve.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and respond. I really appreciate it, and I really appreciate that you're in the thick of things with me. Like you, I won't be doing any nighttime strolling any time soon, but I certainly hope that sooner rather than later we'll live in an area where a midnight stroll to the store is not a life or death move.

    Maybe I'll see you at the new library one day!


  6. Leslie, I understand your plight. I live in Roseland, two blocks away from Fenger, and deal with the misfortune of having a Citgo at the end of my block. I have a 2-year old son and have decided to leave this neighborhood. Im 30 yrs old, work, have a masters degree and a wife that is a doctor. I would love to be your neighbor, because we share common interests of wanting a safe neighborhood that takes pride in itself. As an offshoot to your article, why not move to Bronzeville, like Brownsugar71? That area has a better chance of someday having neighborhoods filled with hard working decent middle class folks. It already has good pockets os such. Property values are higher in Bronzeville and that will eventually push out those knuckeheads into a different neighborhood. If enough of us band together, we can hopefully demand that those cretins leave the neighborhood. Grand Crossing is fine, but I dont see the "element" leaving that area anytime soon. Its sad to say, but eventually we must aspire to having a nice neighborhood with us, while the "element" can have their bad neighborhood. This sounds insensitive, but until we can control other characteristics that plague our knucklehead brothers and sisters, isolation from them seems like the most likely solution. Good luck in your struggle if you must remain in your neighborhood. I grew up near 73rd and Stony Island, so I know your area very well and recognized all the landmarks from your article with a smile.

  7. Sorry Girlfriend, but until you get rid of the element, you're stuck with that neighborhood.
    I am reading your article at my home in Ohio, after leaving Chicago 2 weeks ago from one of my frequent visits to my brothers and sisters. I'm sitting in my kitchen at midnight, window open for some fresh air (first floor), and reflecting on the fact that I will NEVER live in that zoo called Chicago again as long as the powers that be ignore the fact that your neighborhood (and the ones like it) are ignored by the police, the neighbors, and the so-called 'parents' of your article who seem to think that it's ok for their children to be in the park at 2 am while they socialize at the club nextdoor. How the hell people have not put 2 and 2 together (late nights and low reading scores) I can not understand. The idiot that drives through at 3 in the morning EVERY Saturday that I'm in Chicago with his busted boom box blasting the car alarms at 3 am? I wonder if he is not an Iraqi operative sent to keep Black people hyped up and too tired to make a decent living.
    Honey, you need to come to MY neighborhood, where the kids are in the house at 10 pm even on the weekends, where there is NO loud music playing, where we can drive 5 minutes in any direction and have fresh fruit and veggies, where people drop off extra tomatoes and zuccini that they grow in their gardens, where people keep their kids bikes in the driveways because the other kids don't think because it's outside so it must be free.
    You're the first person that I've seen speak about their neighborhood as a place where they really don't wish they had to live; most people talk that shit about people should be allowed to live where they want to. Sorry, but if I had your neighbors, I would move and leave them don't care you know whats by their damn selves! As long as they don't want, they don't have, and they don't want you to have either.

  8. Thank you so much for reading the article and taking the time to respond, kristopher and formerchigurl!

    I seriously feel the frustration both of you expressed in your comments, and, believe me, the thought of leaving the neighborhood definitely enters my mind. There was a party going on across the street this evening, and while there was not a parking space on the block when I got home there was music to be heard from at least four blocks away.

    Still, the crux of my argument is that people who can serve as stabilizing influences should move into depressed neighborhoods though I don't argue that the current residents need to leave. Especially where I live, there are boarded up houses and empty lots to be had all over the place. If the holes in the neighborhood could be filled with people who had the resources and mental capacity to devote to neighborhood improvement, it seems to me that we could band together to make some positive changes and get our neighbors on board.

    I hear you, kristopher. It has to be rough given what went on recently with Derrion Albert, and it takes a level of sacrifice to continue to live under those circumstances. While the neighborhood you described, formerchigurl, sounds ideal, it also takes a level of sacrifice to have it. For some of us to have the privilege of the kind of wealth and comfort that allows us to live in the kind of neighborhood you described, it means that others have to be kept out in what are almost always the kind of depressed conditions that generate a neighborhood like mine or kristopher's. I think it's the concentration of poverty and ignorance that makes it worse. Perhaps it's nice for those of us who don't have to see it on a regular basis, but I cannot say that the cost we pay for blindness is worth it.

    I stay here because I have seen the effect that occupying my once boarded up house has had on my end of the block. Believe me, it was once MUCH worse. If we could get three more neighbors to fill in the empty spaces on this block, and then get people to fill in the other empty spaces on the surrounding streets, we might be able to have some real impact both on the the level of government service provided to the neighborhood and the standard of conduct that exists in the area today.

    It seems to me that we have to get people to sign onto the sort of figurative social contract that holds them accountable for being neighbors by showing them, in great enough numbers, how it's done.

    I'm looking forward to more dialogue.

    Thanks so much again for commenting,

  9. I feel for your plight. It's a real dilemma. People coming to your neighborhood with stability would help the neighborhood. I remember when I worked in E. Harlem and my co-workers all lived in Harlem. That was in the 1970's and they had little choice but the neighborhood had less crime than similar ones do now. Yet I can't blame them for wanting to live where the crime rate is lower and the schools were better. I wish I had a suggestion.