By Abby Grosslein
“Gentrification, by itself, isn’t the enemy, but a compromised sense of community is.”
– Evan Christopher, NolaVie: Life and Culture in New Orleans
New York City – About every other week, I do laundry and grocery shop on Eastern Parkway where I live. The laundromat is not too far from the Ocean Hill Houses, where we run a weekly Street Library. One time, I passed an older couple whose granddaughter used to come every week to the Street Library. We knock on their door from time to time to catch up with them, and we also see them regularly in the area around the buildings. On my way to the laundromat, I said hello, and asked how they were doing. The grandmother asked whether I was in the neighborhood to do Street Library today but I pointed out my apartment building nearby. She was surprised: “You live right here? I grew up here, my whole life. We used to play in the park across the street.”
In front of the recreational area of the park she was gesturing to, a memorial had been set up with candles and photos. A large banner with a young man’s photograph on it was strewn with hand written messages saying, “RIP,” “We miss you,” and “Never forgotten.”
“Did something happen recently?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered, “It’s about that time of year. About five or six years ago a young man got shot.”
“That’s so sad,” I replied.
“It’s that black-on-black crime they keep talking about,” she retorted. “It’s so easy for them to go out on the streets and buy a gun.”
Taken aback, I quietly added, “It’s easy for anyone to get guns.”
“When we were young, you got in a fist fight or something? If it was a black guy, you left cuz he’d go home and get a gun. It’s bad.”
I weakly wished her well and we both went on our way. In my opinion, it is undeniable that black men and women are being treated more harshly by police departments countrywide. “Black-on-black” crime is not a justification; it is a misdirection of the media and society that tries to justify higher rates of black people dying at the hands of the police. Crime overall is declining — and yet somehow, black and brown men and women are filling jail cells at a disproportionate rate. It is always saddening to hear the media trying to explain why another person died in a “police-involved” event — the term I am now seeing often — because of something that they did, “that black-on-black crime,” or “that threatening bit of their past.” It is even more saddening to hear this from the mouth of someone you know.
With all of this swirling in my mind, I entered the laundromat. The woman who minds the business is Egyptian. Often, we chat about her homeland or share details of our day. I told her about being cat-called by a man on the street as I was coming in, and she tutted and murmured, “Black people.”
Frustrated, I said, “I’m not going to blame all of them.” One man might say something rude to me on the street, but that’s not a justification to condemn the entire race. She sits in the laundromat, day after day, dealing with all manner of people. Most of her customers are black because of the neighborhood around the laundromat. I appreciated her sympathy toward about the rudeness I encoutered; but I was dismayed by her assumption and generalization.
The term “microaggression” is relatively new to the popular lexicon, but now that I know the word, I see what it means everywhere. The rationale of “black-on-black crime” and generalizations about all black people are two examples that I heard within minutes of each other.
In fact, the young man in the memorial is a white Latino; he had no role in “black-on-black crime.” The young man who cat-called me is black, but as I was leaving the laundromat later, he called out, “Enjoy the rest of your day!” Assumptions and misdirections are not going to help anybody.
This issue is incredibly complex and hard for me to write about — though nowhere near as hard as it is for a person of color. As a white person, I believe in and fight for black lives that matter because I will not deny that there is a pattern where men and women of color are targeted and treated differently from white men and women. That pattern is written in black and white. It is essential to focus our attention on this problem. It is not divisive to hold the justice system accountable; it is divisive to refuse to challenge our assumptions.
Evan Christopher, a writer from the home city of our ATD Fourth World New Orleans team, wrote an editorial about the essential nature of local participation in the restructuring of the city’s Master Plan. He discussed gentrification as an issue of culture and community, where a sense of place can be preserved from within. “If we don’t engage the conversations about our city’s aspirations,” he urges, “we will have to accept our fate when gentrification is used as a strategy of exclusion. In general, failure to see our neighbor’s problems as shared makes it more difficult to imagine a prosperous future for wherever we call home.”*
My neighbors’ problems are my problems; together we must challenge our experience to learn from each other and move forward.
*Christopher, Evan. “Now’s the Time to Master our Master Plan.” NolaVie. 8 September 2016.