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Hood-burbs: In between living

Growing up, I always wanted to live somewhere pretty. Instead, I lived somewhere pretty… meh. Not so bad in the immediate vicinity unless you looked down while walking on the sidewalk. Those colored dots of green, red, and blue weren’t glass in the soil next to the trees.

Those were the plastic tops of crack vials, often surrounded by shards of broken glass and dog poop. This was a poor and working class predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. I lived there from elementary through high school in the 1980s and 1990s.

My building was part of a high rise apartment complex that wasn’t a public housing project. In my section, there were four 9 story buildings that formed a square with parking lots, grassy walkways, and an old playground my mother had played on behind the buildings. She grew up there too.

For most of my childhood, I had only traversed Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods or its downtown. So it was a real treat when during the Christmas holiday, my mother’s ex-boyfriend would drive us out to white neighborhoods in Queens or Long Island to see the colorful Christmas lights and nativity scenery decorating houses and lawns.

Those white people had something I wanted. I was accustomed to seeing homes of Black apartment dwellers that were beautifully decorated, clean, and comfortable on the inside. But these white people had access to cleanliness, creativity, and beauty throughout an entire neighborhood! I call this environmental whiteness as it is referenced throughout this writing.

Those drives opened my eyes to income inequality, municipal divestment from neighborhoods, and systemic racism. Of course I didn’t have these words to explain it, but I felt something unjust was going on and I wanted something different for myself and all the Black people I loved.

In 7th grade I started going to a private Quaker school quite a distance from my neighborhood. Most days, I walked 15 to 20 minutes to the train station where I then took a train ride for nearly 45 minutes to get to school.

To get to the train station, I walked past old 2-story brick row homes for a couple of blocks before approaching an expansive multi-story public housing complex. I walked by vacant lots that were dump sites, across an 8-lane boulevard with speeding rush hour traffic, a bodega which was next to a takeout Chinese restaurant, next to an old laundromat, next to an old grocery store at which my mother would not shop.

When spring approached, I longed to walk streets and pass houses where homeowners planted daffodils to bloom early or pansies to greet the new day. I didn’t yet know the names of these flowers. I just knew I wanted to see them and their softness to disrupt the concrete, red brick, and litter that encompassed my environs.

Well, it took a while. Seventeen years after graduating high school, I finally had my chance. When I first moved to Philadelphia with my husband, I worked at a neighborhood food co-op that was within walking distance of our apartment. For the first time, I had gained access to environmental whiteness in a recognizable way through my choice of where to live.

Initially this commute seemed ideal.

The neighborhood was filled with old Victorian row houses and twins packed closely together on beautiful, mature tree-lined streets. It was late spring when I started working there. The neighborhood was vibrant with birdsong, front yard endings and curb beginnings blooming with sweet-smelling canopied vines on arched trellises, and soft winds pushing warm air. I loved this walk to work.

It had been decades since I could walk to someplace I would spend the day. The last time that happened I was in elementary school. By middle school, anywhere I wanted to go aside from church never took less than an hour to get to. My Brooklyn neighborhood was far from the borough’s downtown center where I went to high school. Those West Philly walks in the morning fresh air were a dream come true.

Just weeks after this dream became reality, it ended. My husband and I closed on a house in a different neighborhood. The Black middle neighborhood we moved to was fine. Sure there were moments of disruption — a couple of murders nearby in the six years we lived there and I avoided walking the known drug dealing corridor. Yet, there were trees and homeowners who planted flowers in the spring, including me!

The biggest challenge was the schools. As a middle class family that supports public schools, we also didn’t see our neighborhood school as a good option for our youngest daughter. We became those people who utilize their privilege to move to a nicer (whiter) city neighborhood with a strong PTA that supports families and staff to ensure a good school.

Our new neighborhood is beautiful. I mean, this is the jackpot I’d be yearning for since those long walks to the train station back in Brooklyn. There’s a diversity of architecture among the homes and the front lawns become beautiful gardens of pleasure for passersby throughout the summer and spring — just as I always wanted. People decorate their lawns for Halloween and sponsor a neighborhood Halloween parade. During the winter holidays, guess what? I don’t have to drive to the suburbs to see those beautiful festive lights! They are within walking distance scattered throughout my neighborhood.

I did it! I got what I wanted. So why the nagging self-critique and guilt? Why this sense of shame for abandoning all Black neighborhoods now?

In the 1950s and 1960s the white people in my new predominantly middle and upper class (yet still class diverse) neighborhood intentionally built strategies to welcome middle and upper class Black families to live here. There’s beautiful landscaping and intentional race-mixing here! I also know that a lot of the early Black families that moved here from neglected Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, were criticized for moving “out here” or “up here”, abandoning their people.

Is mine a story of having made it? My family wasn’t poor when I was growing up in Brooklyn. I was commuting daily to a private independent school or riding with my family in Grandpa’s Mercedes Benz for high roller casino-sponsored trips to Atlantic City on the weekend. My grandfather was an entrepreneur. My mother’s parents were college graduates. Yet, their moving on up story may have been one of disappointment.

In the mid-1960s, my grandparents moved themselves and young children out of a Brownsville public housing project to a brand new and modern high rise apartment complex in what had historically been a nice mostly Jewish neighborhood. Yet, as they arrived, white flight set in. It always struck me as curious why I had the same white doctor my mother had when she was growing up . By the 1980s, he must have been the last hold out on that block where he established a pediatric office directly across the street from the building my mother and I grew up in. He was the only white person I knew in my neighborhood.

I wonder if my grandparents felt disappointment as they watched their rental complex and the surrounding neighborhood lose city resources that kept streets clean, schools good, and housing up to code. By the time I was coming up, the nice Jewish neighborhood my grandparents moved their young Black family to had become known as the Killing Fields.

At one point, four generations of my family had lived in that high rise apartment. By the 2000s, it was time to move on. My mother and her husband bought a house in Delaware where her brother lived. My mother’s sister owned a home in a nice Queens neighborhood. Eventually, my grandmother moved to Delaware too. My father’s family had lived across the street from me in one of those brick row homes. Age and death firmly uprooted his mother, sister, and brother-in-law that lived there. My dad’s niece, still there primarily, also has a nice home in North Carolina.

My husband reminds me that no one actually wants to live in a bad neighborhood. Most people that stay don’t have a choice. There’s little to glorify about growing up somewhere that is known for high cancer rates from environmental pollution, the most corrupt police department in New York City, and being the neighborhood next to where Mike Tyson grew up (Brownsville, just like my mom!).

Yet for all of that, the community of church aunties and uncles and Christian school teachers that nurtured me alongside my family are to be honored and celebrated. They taught me that my Blackness was beautiful and that being a woman was a strong and prideful person to be. They taught me to aspire to educational excellence and professional pursuits that would be grounded in caring for the community. No matter what my neighborhood looked like or the ugliness of violence often expressed there, we deserved and earned our Black pride.

Now, after dropping my daughter off to school, I stop by the food co-op in my new neighborhood for a baguette, fresh kale, dried mango, bagels, and whitefish. I say hi and chat with friends or other parents. I walk back home carrying a tote bag on my shoulder with leafy greens spilling over and a fresh still warm baguette in my hand. I pass the tidy lawns of progressives with Black Lives Matter yard signs and I try not to think that I must be in some movie or TV show. I try to hold that this beautiful life I have curated for myself in partnership with my husband for our family is intentional, well-earned, and actually too out of reach for too many people.

I remember that living somewhere pretty in the city is not an escape from the challenges of city living — like struggling schools and gun violence. I remember why I do my work rooted in economic and racial justice. I remember that I am privileged to be of the neighborhoods my work targets and grateful that I had a choice to leave.

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