Camouflaging The Ghetto; The Neighborhoods Look Pretty, The Reality is Ugly …

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When I was a kid in the 80s, we had real ghettos.  The neighborhoods were ugly.  Glass was broken, bricks were on the ground, a hole in the wall was not just a saying (places really did have holes in the wall), projects were made out of brick, there were enough people out on the sidewalks and in the middle of the street that you could forget about driving through there, peoples clothing was shabby, young girls pushed strollers and you heard gunshots.  Hopefully I did not forget anything.  That is the ghetto I knew, when projects were projects and there was no doubt as to where you were at.  If you drove through you kept going in one direction until you found a highway.  There is always a highway cutting through a ghetto.  You made sure you had a full tank of gas if you did stop, and you kept it moving.

But in the nineties things changed.  The projects were torn down and replaced with new single family housing.  If you were living right and just happened to be on welfare you could qualify for this new program called Section 8.  My mother actually worked that program for years before she retired.  That was after a bunch of different jobs she had supporting us while she was growing up.  It was an ironic end to her career; she had aspirations for greatness but got caught up with us kids and decided to do the honorable thing and made sacrifices to support our ambitions.  I went to college but never finished, my brother went to college and got a degree that he never used but made six figures flying airplanes, my sister actually used her degree and got her Masters in Business, but has been out of work for longer than I can remember after being laid off during the last recession.  To think of it, my mother probably could have lived her own life, but then again, perhaps ours would not have turned out the way that it did.  I would have grown up in the District of Columbia during the Reagan era, the crack era, when the nation’s capital was worse than Detroit, worse than New Orleans, worse than Compton (who knew that Compton was a suburb of Los Angeles).  It would have been a lot of fun, but I could have easily fallen in with the wrong crowd.

I actually knew a kid from DC who was a good friend growing up.  We lost touch after I went to college, and his health deteriorated. Again, ironic, because to hear him tell it, he was always in the wrong place, at the wrong time, escaping death as yet another club was shot up and relocated down the street or in another neighborhood.  Akron was a small place, a quarter of the city that Washington DC was, with a metropolitain area that was suburban and even smaller by comparison.  To me he may as well have been from New York.

But from what I’ve heard the neighborhoods are not as bad as they used to be.  Yet if the neighborhoods have been “revitalized” the way other neighborhoods have around the country they might not look as bad as they used to, but they could be even worse than they ever have been.  I cannot get over the fact that some of the nicer neighborhoods in Akron are slums, but they do not look like slums.  If anything you would want to live there.  Beautiful neighborhoods lined with trees, sometimes down the middle of the street but often on the side whose roots break up the sidewalk into pieces.  Gorgeous brick homes.  Nice, clean looking schools.  But someone could drive down one of those streets and shoot you in the back.  You might run into a prostitute or two, or a drug addict.  Not at all the place it was back in the seventies.

Black neighborhoods that were created because of redlining, so we had to live on a certain neighborhood.  The city was segregated, so Whites stayed in their place, and Blacks stayed in their place; if a Black was caught in a White neighborhood it was a problem, and the police got involved, if a White was caught in a Black neighborhood it was a problem, and they handled it themselves, and the police never did come.  So you stay on the arterial roads and you keep it moving and you do not lose yourself in the wrong neighborhood.  You might know someone in the wrong neighborhood, and that was always a safe bet, but you still left and moved on. 

These same neighborhoods that were once the domain of the upper middle class were abandoned for greener pastures once Blacks could live in the neighborhoods they wanted to live in.  Some left for the suburbs.  Some left Akron altogether.  I always liked Cleveland because it was honest; you always knew where you were at and where you stood and there was never any confusion.  The city runs from the West to the East along the lake; streets with strange names until you get to West 231st, then continue out to East 189th, and then strange names again, something to that effect, but not a grid system as it implies.  There could actually be more streets, because the streets do not run all the way to the lake from North to South, or all the way to the suburbs either. 

Why didn’t Akron have that?  What was it such a suburb and a nice place to live?  Why couldn’t I live in a real city?  So I got older and moved out fo the house and away from the nest and saw some real cities for myself.  Cities I could lose myself in; places that are even bigger than Cleveland that made me forget about Cleveland.  But all that I have learned is that some people live in some truly ran down places, and others live in neighborhoods that look nice, because of governmental intervention, but in many ways are just as ran down from a psychological aspect.  The reality of those neighborhoods is ugly, even if the physical presence is not.  This leaves me with a lot of questions, and a lot of observations.

On one hand everyone should live in a place that is easy on the eyes.  Just because you are poor does not mean that you deserve to live in a hell hole.  On the other hand, the beautification of the ghetto is no insulation from the sociological problems that exist in the ghetto.  The same problems still persist.  When you first heard N.W.A’s “Straight out of Compton” you were expecting the South Bronx of the seventies and early eighties.  But when I saw those neighborhoods in California, I was shocked because they did not look that bad.  There was plenty of elbow room, long, wide streets, suburban style street lamps, even palm trees.  It wasn’t the type of ghetto that I was accoustomed to seeing, and that was exactly the point.

Some ghettos are cramped shoeboxes and some have more room to play than your neighborhood does.  Small lots with nice houses and superwide streets.  One of the streets in the ‘hood around here is as wide as two or three streets in Akron stacked side by side.  I also noticed that in Cleveland, but up there you knew it was a rough place, not so down here. 

I am indifferent to these new neighborhoods.  I guess it takes a load off because the street lights actually work and they stay on and you can have some peace of mind.  People are no longer living on top of each other as they once did.  People are actually dressing a lot better than they used to in the ‘hood.  You rarely hear gunshots anymore.  But at the same time it seems like a politically correct dressing made to make the ‘hood more palatable and more accessible.  You still have highways intersecting neighborhoods and isolating people on either side.  You still have neighborhoods that the bus refuses to go into (even though a train might already serve the neighborhood).  You still have to listen to the train and feel the apartment shake as it moves through there; my house actually shook when I lived in South Norfolk.  Which leads me to another thing, you still have frieght trains running through the ‘hood stopping traffic. 

If anyone has any thoughts on this please respond and let me know.  The ‘hood isn’t as ugly as it used to be, but in many ways it is still as ugly as it always was.  Things may change for the better; I guess it can always be worse …

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