Your Neighborhood Looks Terrible

Aug 11, 2015 | Social Responsibility

Is it safe?

When I tell most people where I live, I first see their faces fall and then they ask, “Is it safe?” (I’m about a block from a certain corner in the city which is known for drugs, prostitutes, and murders, as well as an awesome co-op grocery store with the best sandwiches in the city.)

Over the weekend I had 4 people tell me that my neighborhood looks terrible and that, of course, we’ll move when we have kids. You know? For the school systems and so my (future) children can be safe.

These well-intentioned comments are then followed by, “Well thank goodness you guys have moved in to save the neighborhood. It’s coming back.”

My husband and I have found polite ways to counterbalance these statements to serve as a voice for our neighbors. Behind closed doors, these statements break my heart. Here’s why.

We’re not saving anything.

Front Porch ViewWe’re extremely blessed to live here. We have a home we love. Financially, we were able to pay off our home in less than 3 years. And, most importantly, we have friends that we care about deeply.

We have neighbors that have our back, that bring us delicious food we’ve never tried before, and that come out for neighborhood clean up. They watch our house when we’re gone and give great hugs. They teach us to play curbball and show us how to do the Whip and the Nae Nae. (And laugh at me when I dance on the front porch!)

By saying, “We’re saving the neighborhood,” there’s an air of condescension to it that I’m uncomfortable with. In many ways it negates the families who were here before us. What I’ve come to experience in my life is that there are mostly good people everywhere.

Safety is an illusion.

We hear the word, “Safe,” everywhere nowadays. Newscasters tell us to be safe. Even the weather isn’t safe most days. There’s an app to notify our friends 500 miles away that a storm is in our area. Playground equipment is so safe it’s no longer that much fun. More and more laws are enacted to create the illusion of safety. Many of these “warnings” are well-meaning substitutes for common sense.

I grew up in a home where I was physically and emotionally abused (and poor). I never felt safe except for at school and when I moved out on my own. Safety is created from a strong sense of self and the belief that you can handle anything that comes your way, emotionally and physically. Yes, there are dangerous situations that call for caution. If we never venture outside of our comfort zone, we’ll never grow, however.

On a daily basis, I say, “Hello,” to every person that passes and look them in the eyes, even those that wear hoodies and the ladies that are selling their bodies. We walk our dog at 11:30 p.m. in our neighborhood. I don’t want drug dealers roaming the streets at night, so I show up too. We show respect to every person, because, well, they’re a person. It’s that simple.

Poor ≠ Bad

Kids in snow and flowerI think underneath all of these layers is the assumption that poor equals bad. This is why we make sure our windows are up and our doors are locked when we roll through bad neighborhoods.

Our systems of delivering charity are set up on the premise that if you need help, then you’ve done something wrong and you must prove yourself unworthy enough. That’s why you must “prove” you’re low income to receive food; being hungry isn’t enough. That’s why we want to drug test welfare recipients (even though the studies show that it is a complete waste of money).

I hear it from social services employees who make disparaging remarks about a “bad” neighborhood where their clients live. They say things like, “I would never live there. It’s too dangerous.” Meanwhile this is a community where they know their clients are trying to raise their families.

When we have visitors, I can see them looking up and down the block. Their face twists and they ask, “Who lives there?”

  • Roofers
  • CNA’s
  • Those living on disability checks
  • Teachers
  • Insulation installers
  • Single parents who are in school
  • Hotel employees
  • Elderly men and women who have lived here for more than 40 years
  • Attorneys
  • Real estate professionals
  • Web developers
  • And 1 life coach (that I know of, anyway!)

Some of these folks make good livings. Most of my neighbors don’t. They’re the ones making a smidge above minimum wage and still trying to feed their families. They often live in deteriorating houses. (Some of these houses are owned by landlords who live in rich suburbs.)

The tendency is to judge them by the way their home looks. By default we think the suburbs are “nice” because they look “nice.”

In my neighborhood, neighbors work two full-time jobs and rely on public transportation, which adds HOURS onto their commutes each day. If they have any extra money, it doesn’t go towards new doors and windows. It goes towards food, rent, and saving up for a car. I challenge you to find the energy to landscape your yard after you’ve spent 12 hours on a roof.

The reality is that bad people and good people exist everywhere. People who molest children are everywhere. Prostitution is everywhere. Hunger is everywhere. Abuse and addiction affect every family, regardless of how well-kept their house is. I have a friend who lived in a new home development in an Indy suburb. She watched her neighbor be wheeled out of the house on a gurney. He died from a drug overdose on a Friday morning.

I’m guilty as the next person.

Admittedly, there are neighborhoods I drive through and think, “Oh. This looks rough. I wonder who is raising their family here.” People have invested their lives there. They send their children to school there. They survive and thrive there.

There are things I judge that I shouldn’t. I’ve also learned to become more sensitive to the decisions that individuals and families make and how important they might be in their lives.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in my ‘hood. I’ve picked up used needles, seen drug deals in broad daylight, and needed to call the cops plenty of times. I’ve gotten myself in trouble for being a little too vocal (okay…mouthy). I get irritated with my neighbors. Basketballs and air pumps go missing off the front porch. But that’s the worst that’s ever happened in 3 years.

My hope is to not come across as especially brave or condescending for those who choose to live elsewhere. I invite you to challenge your own assumptions about what it means to be poor in your own city. There are people who are hurting and healthy, surviving and thriving, everywhere! It is only through connection and conversation that we can discover what’s really going on beneath the superficial exterior.

My husband and I don’t live on the near eastside of Indy by accident. We choose to be here; to be a little bit uncomfortable in the hopes of gaining a whole lot. And we have.