Monday, March 12, 2007

Safety of the Suburbs

When Sami and I first got married in August of 2001, we moved into a beautiful apartment in downtown Louisville, just a few blocks from where we now go to church. The area had been hit hard by white flight to the suburbs, but the architecture was amazing. We had tall ceilings, and nearly eight foot windows in our living room. And, all around us we were surrounded by beauty.

At least for the first week. When our honeymoon was over and we actually had to live in our neighborhood, we quickly realized why our family had been so nervous when we declared that we were going to live downtown. On every block you could count on at least two things: a church, and a liquor store, each engaged in a war with the other for the soul of the neighborhood. Just past the alley behind our apartment there was literally a crack house.

My wife grew up in a rural area. I grew up in the suburbs. Neither of us were quite prepared for the excitement our neighborhood offered.

Two weeks after we moved in, the greasy spoon across the street from us got held up. With an uzi. Yes, it seems our neighborhood bandit needed automatic weapons.

A few months later, slipping into our building after church one Sunday night, we were interrogated by a police detective. There was a dead body in the street, shot up by some unknown party. Had we seen anything?

That was too much. Like our ancestors before us (metaphorically, anyway), we white children of relative privledge fled to a quiet little house in the suburbs. A suitable place to raise a family. I still wrestle with some guilt over that retreat, and often fantasize about buying a house in our old neighborhood, fixing it up, and become part of a project to reclaim that part of town. We're already there two or three times a week for church events. And, our church is very involved in the community, working with local social organizations to help rebuild the community around the church. Moving back - this time for good - would be a continuation of our work with the church.

Today that plan seemed more attractive than ever. Most of us move to the suburbs to escape the complicated dangers of city life. But the safety the suburbs afford is both costly and illusory. Costly, in that in your flight from the complications of the city, you lose a great deal of culture. Illusory, because no matter where you live you cannot escape human nature.

We live across the street from a park. With two full length basketball courts, four tennis courts, a soccer field, a softball field, a meeting house, and a playground, it is almost perfect for our family. Whatever we want to do almost, we simply have to walk across the street and do it. However, twice today the police were called to our park. The first time it was because a fight broke out during a pick-up basketball game. Sure enough it devolved into a quasi race-riot, with white kids on one side and black kids on the other. I don't know how it started. I was pushing Adam in the swing when I heard screaming. He and I looked over, and kids were throwing punches and shouting obsenitites.

Daddy, he said, what 'dat?

I don't know, buddy. Let's just swing, OK?

OK, Daddy. Swing fun!

Or something like that.

The second time police came to the park was just an hour or so later. Sami came home from work, and watched Adam while I started writing a paper. She also took him to the park - did I mention having a park across the street is great when you have an "active" two-year-old? While she was playing with him on the playground, the police showed up to bust some teenagers for drug possession.

Here's a hint for juvenile pot-heads: Don't light up right by a playground full of mothers (with cell phones!) and their children. Mothers don't like older kids smoking pot in front of their babies. They tend to use their cell phones to let the police know that a group of teenagers, in broad daylight, are using drugs right by a playground full of children. So, unless you're just dying to get busted, you may want to find a little more private location.

Anyway, weren't those the sorts of things we were trying to leave behind when we fled to the suburbs?


Princess Pinky said...

I'll take fist fights and pot heads over uzis any day. A fist cannot ricochet and kill my child from several yards away. Pot heads also open up a necessary dialog about drugs and I have enough control of the situation to keep my kids from getting a contact buzz. I know it's a cop out, but I'm okay with that.

Liam said...

An uzi? I'm going to stay here i New York City, where it's safe.

Brian Beech said...

uzi!!!! see, now that's what I need!!!

crystal said...

I live in a sort of ru-down suburb that's trying to gentrify. On one side of me, two new houses were built that went for half a million each. Across the street, the shabby abandoned house got turned into a chop-shop and was later stormed by the police. I feel your pain :-)

Amy said...

The summer after I graduated college, I moved into house that was own by our Presbytery, owned by a neighborhood possibly rougher than the one you mentioned. One of my vivid memories was the time we found out one of the locals saw my housemate's very nice, clean, shiny convertible (given to her by her father), and assumed that the two of us were involved in prostitution, as that was the only local profession that supported such things.
I wouldn't change the experience I had living in in West Central for the world. We in the middle class use money to mask and hide our rawness and addictions. Living on the edge requires much more honesty with yourself and with those around you about your weaknesses. Indeed, I've always felt a bit as if I'd sold out when I moved into St Matthews and now the Highlands. I sympathize with you. I've also had friends who've moved back into those areas, intentionally, and had great success with it.