Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gone Ghetto

I belong to a few Facebook groups that focus on particular neighborhoods in Chicago. Some deal with neighborhoods where I have lived, others with neighborhoods that have particular interest to me. Many of the posts deal with the past, featuring long-gone landmarks whose memories speak of a bygone era which almost inevitably according to the members of each group, was better than the one in which we live in now.
A group that focuses on the community in which I currently live, Rogers Park/West Ridge (more commonly referred to as East and West Rogers Park) on Chicago's far north side, is particularly fond of the past. I don't personally know any of the folks whose comments appear on the group's posts, but from what I can tell, most of the people active in the group grew up here, and moved away a long time ago.

Like every neighborhood in Chicago, Rogers Park (from hereon I'll refer to the two communities collectively by the one name), has significantly changed in the past fifty years. Ninety nine and some change percent white as late as 1960 and heavily Jewish, the neighborhood since then has diversified. Immigrants have come from West Africa, all corners of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. A large contingent of Jews from Russia, as well as a huge concentration of orthodox congregations, have kept the presence of the Diaspora strong up here. The neighborhood has also become racially integrated over the past half century, welcoming African Americans who left some of the troubled segregated neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides. I've often said that ours is one of the most culturally diverse communities in the city if not the nation.

The subject of one post on the Rogers Park Facebook group that received many comments was Devon Avenue, once a street filled with storefronts mostly catering to the Jewish community but today is the commercial hub of Chicago's Indian and Pakistani community. To me Devon is one of the most fascinating streets in the city; stepping onto it you feel that you have just been transported halfway around the world, perhaps to Delhi or Karachi. It turns out that several of the members of the Facebook group don't share my enthusiasm about the street. They understandably miss the street they knew as children, but not understandably, feel threatened when they return. Beyond the shall I say, creative driving styles of some of the area's residents and the slight chance of unintended contact with a motor vehicle on Devon Avenue today, there is nothing threatening about the street, except perhaps that it is different from the way it used to be.

In another post, a regular contributor posted a photograph of a stop sign that was tagged with gang graffiti. One of the responses came from someone who currently lives in California. His comment was this:
Sadly most of Rogers Park & the surrounding areas have gone ghetto.
Now the phrase "gone ghetto" is a humorous street-slang expression describing losing one's cool and going off on an expletive-filled rant. The most famous use of the term was perhaps the golfer Tiger Woods' description of his wife's reaction to the news of his sexual exploits.

Because of the context and the fact that both the writer and most of his audience are white, I can only guess the comment was not intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but to be taken literally.

I was troubled by that statement on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that no homeowner appreciates his neighborhood being labelled a ghetto. I struggled finding the correct words to respond, not wishing to be confrontational or opening myself up to a barrage of comments pointing out statistics that would seem to confirm his sentiment. My response was simply this:
Having lived in this community for the past 11 years I beg to differ.
In our place and time, "the ghetto" is charged term, inextricably tied to three things: race, poverty, and crime. The word has origins that go back nearly one thousand years. It is defined as a distinct area of a community where people of one particular ethnic minority live, specifically to be separated from the rest of the population. More often than not during those thousand years, the ethnic minority forced to live in ghettos was Jewish. That makes the description of the recent transformation of Rogers Park from a Jewish community into a ghetto, particularly ironic.

In this country today, the ethnic minority usually associated with the ghetto is African American. Contrary to the notion that the United States is a "free country", black people regardless of their economic status, have not been free to live wherever they pleased for a very long time. In Chicago and similar cities, perfectly legal housing covenants in white-only communities once prohibited home owners from renting or selling to people of color. Consequently blacks who arrived in Chicago during the "Great Migration" from the South, roughly between 1915 and 1970, were forced to live in restricted parts of town where they found price gouging, substandard housing, and crime. Thus the Chicago neighborhoods that were the homes for generations of this city's black community, were by the strictest definition of the word, appropriately called ghettos.

Laws would eventually do away with restrictive housing covenants, but Chicago remains a segregated city. The reasons for this are complicated. I've been raked over the coals for posts I've written placing at least some of the responsibility on one group or another. Suffice it to say there is lingering bitterness and distrust between groups who prefer to dwell on assumptions of other people rather than face to face contact, and on our differences rather than what we have in common.

The members of the Facebook Rogers Park group have unwittingly tapped into this very issue. Often someone will post a comment saying they wish to visit the old neighborhood but are afraid to because of the threat of crime. "Oh you'll be OK..." is the typical response, "as long you come during the day and don't flaunt any valuables."

They do call this city Chi-raq after all.

I've encountered this attitude often on my travels around small towns in the Midwest when people see my white face then learn I live in Chicago and automatically ask: "which suburb?" When I tell them I live in the city proper, they look at me with apprehension, as if they found out I was just released from prison.

More troubling than the effects of unwarranted assumptions about my city or my neighborhood, is the casual use of labels such as "ghetto" to describe any neighborhood. It is universally assumed that people who live in "the ghetto" are either one of two things: criminals, or helpless victims with no option but to live there. Many of us don't realize that despite the relatively high rates of crime and violence, most of the people who live in places like Englewood and North Lawndale, two Chicago neighborhoods that are labeled ghettos among other much worse things, are honest, law abiding citizens who work for a living, pay their taxes, vote, and have the same needs and hopes for their lives as everybody else. Unfortunately because of the bad press, most of the people I know would never set foot in those neighborhoods let alone talk to the residents in order to find out that simple fact. I dealt with this subject in a post written a couple years ago.

This is not to downplay the rise of violent crime in this city over the past few years. The two neighborhoods mentioned above have been hit particularly hard by the recent spike in violence. We've also been feeling up it here in Rogers Park. A well publicized murder involving an innocent bystander and three gangbangers (who were not from the neighborhood) made the headlines a few weeks ago. Shootings are on the increase; it's not unusual to hear gunshots from our home. Several years ago I was attacked by a group of teenagers behind our building leaving me bloody and pissed off. Believe me, I don't write off crime and violence in the least.

But as I found out in 1968 when my family left the filth and crime of the big city for the clean air, green lawns, and safety of the suburbs, you can never escape reality. Within the first few months in our new home in an all white suburb, for the first time in my life: I heard gunshots, had my bicycle stolen, encountered truly mean and nasty children who no doubt went on to use those skills productively in their adult lives and, heard the word "nigger" used in passing conversation.

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri have underscored the divisions in our society. Some have expressed surprise, this coming so many years after the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the election of an African American president. But the idea that we live in a post-racial America, one "devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice", however desirable as that may be, is preposterous. If anything, with the rise of technological innovations such as cable TV, the internet, social media, and the blogosphere, where the views of any idiot (such as myself), can be voiced, we are perhaps more divided than ever. Today a person with any viewpoint no matter how imbecilic or irrational, can find some kind of justification, somewhere.

Not only have we separated ourselves physically, but also intellectually into enclaves, ideological ghettos if you prefer, where like-minded people can preach to each other. No longer do we talk to one another face-to-face about important issues, because that would be imprudent. We express our views with our "friends" in the relatively collegial atmosphere of Facebook, where we can "de-friend" people if we don't happen to like what they have to say. Or we can spew our venom anonymously to the world through Twitter and countless other outlets where we have no responsibility for truth or accuracy.

Rather than reading "all the news that's fit to print", people are more likely today to get their news from sources whose motto may as well be: "all the news you want to hear." As a friend pointed out recently, the events in Ferguson: "sadly (are) no longer about truth but rather, each of us being 'right.'"

Those events taking place as we speak in the St. Louis suburb have shown that most of us are still guided by our assumptions rather than facts born out of evidence. The court of public opinion has already weighed in as judge, jury, and jailer over the death of Michael Brown, only divided by ideology. Depending upon your point of view, the teenager was either: a criminal who assaulted a police officer while reaching for his gun which justified his killing or, an innocent, unarmed young man executed by a racist white cop.

That the truth probably lies somewhere between those two scenarios hardly matters; people will stick to their guns, their assumptions, and their prejudices, come hell or high water.

Things are never exactly what they seem and if we Americans, black, white, and everything in between, keep living by our assumptions about our fellow human beings and nothing else, we will continue to live in a bitterly divided society.

Like it or not, the face of this country is rapidly changing and before long, the United States will become a majority-minority country. We all would do well to accept and embrace this fact, rather than continually run away from it. Eventually there will be few places left to hide and the remaining enclaves filled with people separated from the rest of society by choice, will become the new ghettos, and their residents and their like-minded, like-complexioned neighbors, the new ghetto dwellers.

How ironic is that?

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