When ‘They’ Move Into Your Neighborhood…
I called because I was fed up, and also because I was a little scared.
Three men were sitting in the alley below my second floor apartment. Listening to one young man have a cell phone conversation with his mother where an expletive was every other word had just annoyed me. But when two others arrived and started shooting dice, I picked up the phone.
I’ve never had to call the police before because I live in a pretty quiet neighborhood. Lincoln Square is no Englewood. The most I’ve encountered in street crime is someone stealing the seat off my bike, and that was my own fault for leaving it chained up outside three nights in a row.
We live in a white neighborhood. Yes, we have some Hispanic neighbors, but by and large, the people of Lincoln Square are white, upper-to-middle class, mini-cooper drivers with medium-sized condos and brick bungalows.
In the last six months, I’ve noticed the neighborhood changing. To be frank, we have black families living on our block now when we never did before. I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t noticed.
I wasn’t upset about it. In fact, I was a little excited. For one, I’ve wanted to live in a neighborhood that’s more diverse. But we’re comfortable here, and I hate moving. Two, I know that it’s not likely a coincidence. Many of these black families are probably using Section 8 vouchers to find an apartment in a nice area of the city that’s low on crime, has good schools and is close to transit.** A two flat nearby even posted “CHA welcome” on their “For Rent” sign. Because I know what a good neighborhood can do for a family, I’m overjoyed that some families are benefitting from our safe, friendly block.
But I also know enough about the urban experience to recognize trouble when I see it, and trouble often comes in the form of young men standing around. In fact, the day I called the police, I was chatting with a Cabrini rowhouse resident for a story, and she was telling me the same thing about where she lives.
“They don’t stand in front of my house,” she told me. “Around here, some people think I’m real mean, and I am to certain people. What are you standing around for? Do you even live here?”
Go to any sketchy neighborhood in the city and you’ll see them – groups of young men, lurking on corners, in entryways, in hallways, on stairs. Certainly, I’m not saying they’re all criminals, but the groups seem to be the primordial soup out of which crime oozes. I’ve passed by my fair share of these groups in public housing, and I’ve learned – be polite, look confident, but most of all, stay the hell away.
Which is why I called the police. Because criminal goo ain’t happening on my block. Across the street, we have a lovely neighborhood park where children play all day during the summer months. It’s lovely now, but 10 years ago, it was Latin Kings territory, prime recruiting ground for young people looking for a place to belong. It’s safe now because of the hard work of police and residents in the area, and as long as I live here, I’ll do my part to keep it that way.
So I called the police and reported three young men of unknown race shooting dice in the alley. The community member in me wanted to be able to go down there myself or yell out the window, asking them politely to move. But I was a young woman alone in my apartment, and I wasn’t about to risk my safety. The police must have come and shooed them away. They came again later in the week, but the freak storm kept them from staying.
The hardest part for me was psychological. I’ve written endlessly about the need for decent housing in nice neighborhoods and the need for people like me to understand that the adjustment – from living in a public housing high rise or on the streets of Englewood – will take time and understanding. I don’t want to be a person who talks about “them,” like all Section 8 voucher holders are one class of people, determined to make my life a living hell. I want to be open, welcoming and encouraging. But I don’t want young men shooting dice and swearing in my alley while I’m making dinner.
I’m hoping there’s a way to do this well – to combat crime and create opportunities in my neighborhood without becoming a person who can’t see the bigger picture. Although if my car had been stolen or house broken into, I know it wouldn’t be so easy to be open-minded.
I’m still excited that there’s more diversity in our neighborhood. I wish “CHA welcome” would appear more places than just apartment signs. Before, this was just a situation I was writing about. Now, it’s one I’m living out. Ultimately, that’s the best thing that can happen to me.
It just might mean a few more calls to the 20th district about shooting dice.
** Technically, I don’t “know” that black families living on my block are Section 8 families. It’s just my educated guess, based on the fact that we live in one of the most segregated cities in the nation and people rarely cross those lines without a really good reason, which is one of the reasons we need Section 8 in the first place. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that all black families are poor or that only black families use Section 8 vouchers – again, these are generalizations that have limitations, but are based on trends.