Saturday, August 29, 2015

How Our Neighborhoods Affect Us

We have qualifiers for if a neighborhood is good. There's low crime, the streets are safe, kids can walk around the neighborhood, the schools are high quality, the people running the stores are locals you come to know, and the houses are well-kept. There's a general air of cheerfulness because people know they are safe and that they can get to know their neighbors. 

We tend to stay in neighborhoods like this. They're the sorts of places most of us want to live. 

Bad neighborhoods feel unsafe, have higher crime, and are more rundown. People keep to themselves because they don't know who among their neighbors are good people. The air of fear infects kids as we keep them off the street or away from "those people," and they take that tension with them to school, which is not as high quality (partly in consequence, as it's hard to focus on education when you feel unsafe). 

The people who are able move out of these neighborhoods. In the end, those in the lower and lower-middle class are left. They watch their neighborhood go downhill with nothing they can do about it while money leaves the area and crime goes up, putting them in even more of an unsafe environment. Things cycle downward. 

We sometimes think "poor neighborhoods" are what make bad neighborhoods, but it's frequently the other way around. Those with less money are the ones who can't escape bad neighborhoods, and they are consequently the ones who get stuck with fewer upward-mobility opportunities, even though they're the ones who need it more. 

Because income levels tend to follow racial lines in America, all of this gets tied to race, too. More white people can afford to leave for better neighborhoods, and more minorities cannot. 

Credit: Loren Kerns.

Growing up in San Diego County gave me a pretty good look at privileged, mostly white, upper-middle class "good" neighborhoods. By the time I'd reached high school, I knew the world was much bigger than my little rich* bubble and was getting fairly fed up that no one in my community seemed to acknowledge that we had it pretty good and maybe we ought to share the wealth. 

Maybe that's a good thing, though. When the upper-middle class comes into a low-income area, we tend to gentrify, instead of helping. Gentrification is when we upscale everything -- shops, schools, property values -- to the point where the lower socioeconomic classes can't afford to live there anymore. The upper-middle class is capable of forcing others out of their own communities by the power of our dollars. 

It puts us back to square one.

I'm tired of living in homogenous communities. In Virginia we got to be surrounded by all classes and races and levels of privilege. I really liked it. I can't explain why: I felt like I was seeing the world more fully. I got to know people who I never would have in my Cali neighborhood. I got to know their stories, so different from mine. I understand the systemic social problems of poverty, education, injustice, and race a whole lot better. 

So I'm done living in upper-middle class "good" neighborhoods. I'm done with this whole mentality of looking for the best (a.k.a. richest and whitest) places to live. The places with the big chain stores for upper-middle class folk to spend their money and the fantastic schools where everyone gets good grades because everyone speaks English and has two parents whose white collar jobs leave them plenty of time to help the kids with their homework. I'm not going to put my family in a place that's totally unsafe, but I'm not going to make location choices based on fear and similarity.

Credit: Michael Cory.

None of these things are bad, I should clarify. In a perfect world, everyone would live in a good neighborhood. What's bad is that upper-middle class yuppies like me are insular. It's bad to live in a vacuum. It's bad to use our privilege to fortify ourselves and leave others in our dust. 

To be honest, I'm not sure how well my diverse-neighborhood search is going to work out. The split in neighborhoods has already happened here: there are lots of upper class towns and a few pockets that are too unsafe for a woman who works alone at home. I guess that's what I have to expect from San Diego, one of the richest areas in the country. 

But for what it's worth, I'm going to try. I'm going to look for the little corner stores, like the little family-owned laundromat I loved in Virginia and the nookish fruit stand I used to get produce from in NorCal. I'm going to look for a housing complex and a church that aren't all white. And I hope that one day I can raise kids in a neighborhood that has more than a bunch of people just like me. 

Word count: 600-ish...I'm writing this from my phone. 

* By rich I don't mean people who own private islands and their own airplane to get there. We often forget that the upper class includes people with a big house in a good neighborhood in a city they love working white collar jobs and able to send their kids to college and buy them a Toyota when they graduate. Engineers and doctors and management and, well, a lot of people who consider themselves in the upper part of the middle class. We're more privileged than we think to be able to do all these things.