Monday, July 13, 2009

Movin' On Up

Yesterday my sweetheart and I went on a garden walk in a local neighborhood. Families who were especially proud of their planting this season got organized and created a map, and picked one of the most gorgeous summer days so far to open their yards to strangers to walk through and admire their flowers. We stumbled onto it after brunch. I know things like this happen in neighborhoods all over Chicago, but it was the first time either of us had actually taken a garden walk, and so it was a little new. I found myself holding his hand, walking down streets lined with homes, some that had been there for decades, some giant single family brick fortresses only constructed within the last five years or so. The neighborhood (as many tend to be in Chicago) was largely homogeneous, and because of its socio-economic status, was largely white.
We were walking down a dappled sidewalk toward someone's backyard, and I remarked, more to myself than to him, "This feels like a very white thing to do."
His dutifully thoughtful response, "What do you mean?"
"I just mean that something like this would only happen in a white neighborhood. Like, if this happened in Humboldt Park or on the South Side somewhere, the map would read, 'This is where Bootsie got shot,' and, 'this is where Ray-ray held up an elderly couple with a knife,' and 'this is where the 5-0 made that huge bust and had the block locked down for eight hours, 'member that?' You know?"
He laughed. "So it would be more of a crime walk than a garden walk."
We lapsed into silence for a while. I thought about what I'd just said, about how a garden walk was only the kind of thing that white people would do, that it was something inherently cultural, and that no one else could or would want to replicate an experience like this. I know it's narrow-minded and defeatist to maintain this kind of attitude. Why should I think that my people don't possess the drive, or aren't entitled to the joy, of a walk through God's nature to enjoy His handiwork? Why should it be that only white people get the privilege of enjoying nature, that in Lakeview and Andersonville the sidewalks are ensconced with gladiola and hens and chicks and tiny red begonia, and in Garfield Park and Chatham they're littered with empty takeout containters, used rubbers and fliers for last night's party at the club?
People talk a lot about getting out, getting out of the ghetto, out of the neighborhood, and moving up, making progress, moving forward toward something better, toward a yard with flowers and sprinklers and walls you can't hear every cough through. Good schools, good neighborhoods with thriving economy, good community, these seem to be things that white folks have cornered. As some of them are concerned that people of color are going to move in and take over--with out chicken bones and ghetto blasters and magic spells and foreign languages--we just want a place where children shriek with joy of play, not pain at the hand of their mothers, where we can sleep without the bleeding incessant blue light of the police camera tattooing itself behind our eyes. We just want a square of the earth that feels fertile and safe to call our own and do our lives.
Both my parents came up hard, in large families with absent fathers (in body or in mind) and without much money at all. I imagine as they look back at what an upbringing that was humble at best and fraught with discouragement and struggle at worst, they must think now, with a large house in a fine suburb, a daughter with an education that was both good and expensive, several cars and a comfortable life, well, they must feel like they've come up. Like they've finally got a piece of the pie. Isn't this a part of the mythological American Dream, that our kids would have it better than we? Neither of them talks much about it, but when I reflect on my childhood I can sense the work, the clawing, sweaty,dogged work that it took them, borne came out of a naked desire to have better than what they had as children. There was talk of waste, and of how I must be and behave because the white people are always watching, and of what a lucky girl I am to live the way I do and I should be more grateful. I was raised on the idea that once you achieve a thing, you never rest on your heels and maintain what you've got, you always push forward, onward, to more. The freshman squad this year, next year maybe JV? Fifth chair up from ninth, great, now you can see the first chair from where you sit. A B+ in French, maybe you can get an A next semester. Alright, cross Northwestern off your list, now when do you go to grad school?
I never realized the kind of pressure it made me feel. I just always thought that whatever you got, you always wanted better.
I don't know about this gnawing desire; it seems to me it might create hardship. I feel as though I'm already struggling to live in each moment of my life because I'm so fixated on what's coming next, how to get the next thing that I want off the list. Five year plans can be encouraging and motivating, but they're also just a drag on one's attempts to stay present. It's so easy for me to associate this desire for better, for the good life, as one particularly indigenous to people of color, to immigrant families and black working class or poor folk, but really this is an issue of class, of money, of caste-shifting. Oh it's such a dirty word that conjures images of the marble hallways and servants and the tall iron gates of Imperialist India, but let us not kid ourselves that we Americans live without castes; perhaps ours are just more cleverly hidden. Of money, of race, of education: we have ways of fencing people in and keeping others out; what happens when we shift the lines is always a sociology experiment. So maybe there isn't a whole lot of moving up that needs to happen in me, for me. Maybe it's okay if bundle the strange and arbitrary dreams I ever had of what "making it" was: of owning a home, of a yard I could garden in, of a cushy tenured job at a prominent university, of enough room to write and room for the kids (maybe), and still a place to call my yoga space, of fancy dinners on a regular and real leather bags and purses. Maybe I tie these together and put them on an altar to sacrifice, and Dear God make my hand swift and unflinching. Unlike Abraham, I'm not sure God should give me this thing, once He sees I'm ready to sacrifice it. I might be better off without them.


Kristin said...

Welcome! You're my favorite new addition to my blog list. Thanks for sharing!

Could you have been walking around Roscoe Village perhaps? If so, then welcome to my blindingly white 'hood. We were out all day enjoying the weather and am sad I didn't run into you.

Great, insightful post. Everytime I see a colorful face in my neighborhood, I screech a too-cheery "Good morning!", trying to make them feel welcome? or trying to assuage my guilt for living in such a homogenous neighborhood? Hmm.

Unknown said...

Amazing work, Jessica. Wonderful insight. The disparity, the angst, the mismatched expectations that embody the Chicago's quite astounding when you think about it.

I am bookmarking you.

Keep the HEET ROCKS coming.


Mrs. How? said...

Good word. I've been thinking too of the attitude of entitlement that comes when you have NOT struggled for these these things; the curse of the 2nd generation middle class. My family worked hard for financial security, engaging self-employment, a pleasant place to live, dinners out and trips to Disneyland - and now I feel like I can't accept anything less. I'd rather remain unemployed than have a job that - God forbid - isn't FUN. I sense in myself a consistent discontentment with the common strivings of life. I think I've attached my standards for happiness to this bourgeois ideal, and that, of course, makes contentment awfully elusive.

Mrs. How? said...

One more thing:
To combat this situation, I started a little project a few weeks ago. I want to make a habit of simple happiness and contentment. So I have a calendar with pictures of nuns have fun (which in itself amuses me) and every day write on it three happinesses. That's it.

I want all the strivings and goals and trappings of "the good life" to disappear in light of the overwhelming joy of already living the good life.

So far I have on the list things like the man on the train with an iguana on his shoulder, the first purple bean from my garden, a good conversation with a friend.

Of course, the man was probably on a dirty train that smelled like piss, the soil in the city is so polluted I have to BUY dirt, and I don't talk with my friends as much as I wish I did. But I write down the happy stuff, and pretty soon I can't remember the unhappy parts of the story anymore, and I just feel good. :)

Unknown said...

Great post Jess! I'm definitely going to subscribe to your blog, and pass the word on to my friends!

...And I know how you feel. Only in my neighborhood in NYC, this situation is in reverse. If you look up 'gentrification' on Wikipedia, you will find a long article about Bedford-Stuyvesant (where I live), a historic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some of our neighborhood is rough & troublesome, but my little corner of Bed Stuy is more like an episode from the Cosby show! Rows and rows of quiet, shady, tree-lined blocks with middle-class black families owning beautiful and historical brownstones. We have this great block association that throws fabulous block parties each summer and enters a "greenest block" contest each spring. When I moved here 2 years ago there was nary a Caucasian face to be seen. It felt like a secret neighborhood! But now white faces pepper the neighborhood. One night I got off the train with 6 new white residents. I was the only black person exiting at the same stop! Why is this happening? Because as card carrying members of the Starbucks/Barnes & Nobles/MTV/Obama generation there is something inside of us that makes us all want a bit of what someone else has. Black New Yorkers want high-rise condos within strolling distance of Saks Fifth, while white New Yorkers want a brownstone in a cultural haven where they can buy fresh curry at a farmers market every weekend.

To be honest, I'm not sure what I feel about all this. On one hand I welcome the mix, because I dream of waking up one morning to a shiny, new Starbucks on my corner! On the other I want to defend our not so secret neighborhood from people seemingly seeking to exploit it or destroy the fabric of what made the neighborhood what it is. I mean, I don't want Bed Stuy to be the next Harlem!! I guess at the end of the day my habit is to just live and let live...however each of us sees fit. I plan on moving to LA soon anyway!