1000 Words on What It’s Like to Live in the Inner City

It’s not that bad. 

Great, four words down and only 996 more to go. I think about how I should describe where we live a lot. I have the unique perspective of having lived in a suburb of Chicago for half of my life and the inner city of Milwaukee for the other half. My part of Milwaukee is almost all African American and almost all poor. When I try and come up with a philosophy or a thesis statement or a driving theme for our 14 years living in the poorest zip code in Milwaukee, I struggle to say much more than that… It’s not that bad. When I try to think about differences between the two I don’t get very far. I mean I know what it’s like to live in a place where you never lock your doors and a place where you never don’t. I know what it’s like to live in a place where the police have nothing better to do than try and catch you speeding and I know what it’s like to live in a place where the police do not care if you speed or run a red light or stop at a stop sign or have license plates or a driver’s licence. I grew up knowing families that were on pace to become millionaires and now live in a place where $1,000 would make a life altering difference for most of my neighbors. I have lived in a place where you were judged on which four year university you were going to and have lived in a place where a parent is happy if their kid stays out of prison.

Comparing and contrasting individual aspects of life in one place versus another doesn’t really do justice since the binary nature of that mode of thinking only leaves room for one place being good while the other is bad. Maybe a better way to explain it is to let you know what to expect if you lived where I do.  So here are three things that you can expect if and when you decide to move into the inner city. The first is you will be annoyed. People living in poverty do things that wealthier people don’t do. They meet their needs in ways that a richer person doesn’t. Instead of taking their car to a shop, they might try and fix it in the alley and make it harder for you to get out of your garage. The houses they rent are in terrible condition already, so there is no real desire to keep up with repairs or maintenance. That means that they will be more inclined to neglect the property. If your neighbor doesn’t work, they might be up late at night and if they have nothing going on the next day they might want to start drinking early in the day. If they start drinking early in the day they might get kind of rowdy at night and since the houses are so close together you might have to go tell a drunk person to turn their music down at 2 in the morning. 

You are going to have a hard time letting your guard down. Bad things happen everywhere. They happen more often in the inner city. When you go to take the trash out at night, you have to be aware of your surroundings. When you are driving through an intersection, you need to assume that any car coming at you from the side might not stop. They almost always do, but you never know. You have to be careful what you leave out in your yard. Things don’t get stolen a lot, but it happens. If you aren’t poor, you have to think about how much wealth you are willing to “show off”, not because you are worried about being robbed, but because you are worried about making a poor person feel inferior because of their economic status. You probably don’t want to let your kids get on their bikes and ride around the neighborhood unsupervised. If you hear an argument or a bunch of shouting nearby, you should consider going inside. 

You are also going to be surprised at how “normal” it is. When I am sitting in my backyard and we are having a fire or I am working on something in the garage or we are sitting in the living room watching Youtube videos on our 70 inch tv it seems really normal. It isn’t any different than doing those things at the house I grew up in, in the suburbs of Chicago. While I know there is always a chance that something annoying will happen and I feel the need to be guarded most of the time, the quality of my life on a day to day basis is only a few shades off of what it would be like if we lived in a suburb. It really isn’t that bad. 

Since I haven’t gotten to a thousand words yet, here is a bonus on what to expect. You are going to find yourself wondering why more people don’t move there. The people are just as unique and interesting as anyone I have known in a suburb. Actually they are more so. The cost of housing is ridiculously low. We haven’t had a house payment in years and the savings in property taxes has easily allowed us to save aggressively for our kids college. I never worry about what new or expensive thing my neighbor has, because they usually don’t have much to be jealous about. I don’t need to worry about my kids being sheltered from the world, since they have an opportunity to see the injustices inherent in life played out right in front of them. When it’s warm enough out, I run to and from my house to the new Bucks stadium in the mornings. We live 8 minutes from the lake. And even though it can be annoying sometimes or you feel the need to keep your guard up more than not, you also get to feel the satisfaction of making a difference by refusing to contribute to segregating Milwaukee and increase the level of socio economic diversity in one of the poorest places in the state.