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“A Place Worth Living”: Defending a Deeply Stigmatized Neighborhood

1 February 2013 One Comment

This is part of a series on being a white person in the African-American Hough neighborhood of Cleveland. You can see the intro, why it’s like a small townMansfield Frazier’s responsehistory of the neighborhood, and @#!& black people say to white people.

The worst part about living in Hough is that you can’t talk about living in Hough.

Not unless you want to experience Horrible Things from your friends, family and colleagues.  There are three types of Horrible Things: 1) The LOOK, 2) The pat on the back, and 3) The argument.

Horrible Thing 1: the LOOK:
Several of my high school friends went out to dinner, the ladies who have been there through the highs and lows, from the hilariously awkward middle school dances through baby showers and funerals.  One friend was looking to buy a house and I chimed in, “Oh yeah, the neighborhood is everything.”

She gave me this incredulous look as if to say, “What are you talking about?  Where you live isn’t even a neighborhood.”
That night I burned in silent anger.  It’s never completely gone away.

She didn’t mean to hurt me; it was a pure gut reaction.  But in that moment, I saw clearly that places like Hough are not her list of Places Decent People Live.  That possibility of seeing herself as my neighbor in Hough is forever closed to her, and with it so is a piece of my heart.

Horrible Thing 2: The pat on the back:
Scene: social justice networking event. An old friend and colleague who commutes from a wealthy exurb out of the county introduces me to someone new.  “This is Meagen.  She and her family live in Hough.  Isn’t that so amazing?  She’s so brave.”

Ugh.  Yes, I get it: You are all about serving poor people as long as you don’t have to actually live with them.  But you’re glad someone’s doing it, because this mess certainly needs to be cleaned up. Thanks a lot.

Horrible Thing 3: The argument:
This one should be obvious. “That neighborhood is dangerous. You’re putting your kids in harm’s way. I hate that you live there and I can’t wait until you move out.”

This one is reserved for my closest family members, the ones whom I love and cherish and respect and sacrifice for above all things. The only people who dare say this to me are the ones who know my neighbors by name and spent hours rehabbing our home. These are the people to whom I owe my very bodily existence on this earth. They are the people who should know better. Instead some of them are just biding their time until we get over our little idealistic phase.

The examples go on & on.

For seven years of living in Hough, I’ve been sharing less and less of what I really experience in the neighborhood thanks to these depressing interactions with some family, friends, and colleagues. When good things happen I rarely hear, “wow, what a great place you live!” But all the bad things should be a “wake up call.”

Is that how the residents of Chardon, Ohio and Newton, Connecticut responded when they had nationally televised tragedies in their communities? Did they say “this is a wake-up call” and got the hell out of Dodge? No. They said, “This is a terrible thing that happened in a great community.” They said, “It will take us a lot of time and resources and support to heal, but we’ll face it together.”
That captures how I feel about violence in my neighborhood. Living in Hough is not an idealistic phase that’s going to pass. We’re not just flipping the house to make money by renting or selling. We’re not just living here until our kids are in school. This is our home and we get more benefits than we are exposed to dangers. It is much more dangerous to drive daily on highways, and I am very serious about that. But do my friends and family stop driving their cars because we’ve had loved ones die in accidents? They wouldn’t dream of it…to them the daily benefits far outweigh the increased risks.

The idealistic phase will never pass because even if we do move away at some point, which is a high possibility with our mobile American lifestyles, I’m never going to be able to pretend that my Hough neighbors and their joys and struggles have nothing to do with me. I will never be able to run the other way, move out to avoid tragedy, and hope our isolation will save us. I can never say “as long as I have my dream home and a good school for my kids and a shopping mall, life is good,” and then reminisce about when I was young and had energy and passion.

Wherever I go, I will instead reminisce that when I lived in Hough I had my dream home, Excellent rated schools for my kids, and a shopping plaza right nearby. Life is good now.

Except when it’s not. As I’ve written in previous posts, none of us are immune from trauma and tragedy. And the history of Hough tells us how quickly communities can become stigmatized as a ghetto. Less than one hundred years ago, this neighborhood was a pseudo-rich community with elite private schools, close to all the entertainment and shopping available in a booming industrial city. Now it’s full of lead dust, corner liquor stores, and slum lords. It’s also full of inter-faith hunger programs, child care centers, musicians, and community gardens.

We are all responsible for that: the good and the bad. You can be part of the solution just by reading this post and joining me in considering inner city neighborhoods as Places Worth Living. We can all contribute to the solution by being open to the full reality of a place.

Over time, some of my friends and family have slowly begun to remove the stigma of The Bad Neighborhood and actually see the mix of good and bad. After a recent break-in, my Dad commented, “I know you have a lot of great folks in your neighborhood and good stuff going on. But we just want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to make sure you’re safe.”
That’s a perfectly reasonable request, not just a gut reaction of prejudice but a gentle and smart approach. But another family member honestly thought that a compassionate response to a break-in would be: “I wish you would move out.” The more I hear Horrible Things like that, the longer I want to live here just to prove this is a Place Worth Living.

But then I despair that my futile words have any impact on gut prejudice. If all someone sees is crime and violence, if they watch the nightly news which consistently portrays black neighborhood as “war zones,” then nothing that is said or seen or experienced will change their mind that I live in a Dangerous Ghetto. Once on a plane ride I was sitting next to a student coming to Case Western Reserve University from Beijing and that was what he had heard about my neighborhood: “Don’t drive through it or you will be shot.” The “war zone” reputation has made it to Beijing!

If I could change one thing about the neighborhood, it wouldn’t be the actual neighborhood itself. I would change the phrase “Hough is rough.” We would take off our glasses that can only see CRIME, and look around and see the full spectrum of reality. Most of it isn’t even racism.  It’s the Stigma of Place. I’m convinced now I’d get similar negative gut reactions if I decided to raise my kids in a trailer park, or even a gated community…in Montana.

I know you can relate. We experience the Stigma of Place all through the Rust Belt. The Stigma is why I never know what to say at parties when someone asks me, “So what is it like to live in Hough?” I usually just say, “It’s a lot of things.” I find myself just telling about the good things, since I know they’ve probably only heard the bad. But sometimes I feel like they are just waiting for me to say I’ve experienced crime so they can say “Aha, I knew it” and confirm their Stigma. As a result, I’m constantly at a loss to explain my choice of place to even my family and friends because I don’t want to experience more of the Horrible Things: the look, the pat on the back, or the argument.

But I think maybe it will be softer to say in public what has been too painful for me to say in private. The problem is that I understand all their objections, and I see what they see: crime, poverty, and historic racial tension. I’m not naïve. But what is worse than any neighborhood challenge? Not being able to talk honestly about these challenges with the people I love because they refuse to see past their Stigma.

The worst part about living in Hough is not being able to talk about living in Hough. It’s the feeling that I don’t have the support of my friends and family for the long (and repeated) journey of healing from trauma because they can’t see the joy and benefits that make it all worthwhile. They don’t see the same “great community” that gets portrayed in Chardon, Ohio or Newton, Connecticut. That Stigma gets translated into fewer charitable donations, lower housing prices, and lack of businesses. But I see the greatness, and I’m willing to invest in making it even better.

When kids shoot other kids in Hough, I want to hear the same number of talk shows full of support on grief.  Can we please view it as a traumatic experience that requires hope, counseling, and years of love to heal, just the same as it would if it happened anywhere else?
Start by valuing the beauty of Hough: its rich history, vibrant Afro-centric culture, children playing outside, living where you work, proximity to cultural assets, political activism, compassionate service to people in need, and most importantly the burning need for solidarity and cross cultural communication. Glimpsing the neighborhood as it really is—filled with diverse people and organizations with a range of gifts and struggles—has indeed been life changing for many of my friends, family, and colleagues.

I feel like on Rust Wire, I’m preaching to the choir, but that gives me the courage to be honest and to hope I’m not alone. Maybe you, too, regardless of who you are or where you live, can see Hough as a Place Where Decent People Live, and not just a waste to be bulldozed.

Meagen Farrell is an educational consultant, blogger, mother of two adventurous boys, and proud resident of the Hough neighborhood. You can connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.