Safety and Living in the Inner City

I’ve written before about the confused looks on people’s faces when I tell them where we live. Usually I have to physically describe the location in order for someone that lives in Milwaukee to totally get it. Once it sinks in, if the conversation hasn’t ended immediately (which happens more often than not) I am asked one of three questions.

Do you feel safe?

Why do you live there?

Aren’t you worried about your kid’s education?

Meg and I have written a little about safety lately. Our existential urgency when talking about safety is the idea that all people regardless of race or net worth should have the opportunity to feel safe where they live. Our safety isn’t any more important than that of any of my neighbors. Sure, we feel plenty safe, but that isn’t the point. In fact, I feel just as safe here as I do on the Eastside of Milwaukee or Riverwest or the Lakefront.  But again, that’s not the point. Just because I am white and have money does not mean I am any more worthy of having a sense of safety than anyone else living here.

There are basically two outcomes to this line of thinking. The first is that we forfeit our right to feel safe because our neighbors didn’t have the option to do so.  Sure, some of them could move, but they are going to move to another neighborhood just like mine. If you are black and poor, there are only so many places you can live in Milwaukee. Then there are those that can’t move. In particular, elderly home owners (even those with paid for houses) can’t move because there is no market for homes here. Typically the houses many of my elderly neighbors are living in are decent structures that need updating. Besides us, the only people that want to buy their homes are current or future slumlords. I would rather die in my house than “give it away” to someone who is going to take advantage of the poor by charging market value rent for a property they have no intention of maintaining.

The other line of thinking is that the idea of safety, or more specifically here – the lack of safety, is a generally accepted social construct. Poor and black equals bad and dangerous. I have never had a single person say to me, oh that’s a nice neighborhood. Not a single time in 14 years has someone that doesn’t live here (or at least spent some time here) talked positively about where we live. It is always bad and always dangerous. What does that say about the generally accepted view of poor, black people? Unfortunately, it’s not good. I only see two real viewpoints. The first is that concentrated areas of black poverty are bad and dangerous and should be avoided if at all possible. The second is that poor black people are not worthy of living in a place that is “safe” or at the very least whites can increase their own sense of safety by avoiding areas deemed unsafe by the collective white masses.

After thinking about this for an hour this morning, I want to offer up a third angle of thought. What if my neighborhood is deemed bad and dangerous by enough non-poor whites that it stays bad and dangerous. What if all that was needed for real tangible economic growth to take place here was enough white people to stop being afraid of coming here. What if instead of being bad and dangerous it was seen as good, but not living up to its potential. And what if enough outsiders realized it wasn’t living up to its potential because “we” said it was bad and dangerous and all that was expected to come out of here was bad and dangerous things.

When I tell you that I feel safe living here, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean I don’t worry. A cloud of anxiety hovers over this place and we are always waiting for something to go wrong. We almost never let our guards down and we can expect the unexpected to happen pretty regularly. But so does everyone else that lives here. Unsafe things happen here all the time, but I hesitate to talk about them for fear of perpetuating the problem. So, yes, I do feel safe. But I feel less and less safe the more I am asked about safety, because that means the people with the means to stabilize poor, black neighborhoods haven’t even moved beyond thinking they are bad and dangerous. I am convinced the bad and dangerous label for our neighborhood threatens our safety more than anything I have experienced living here. I am also convinced that change won’t even begin to take place unless enough people can have a shift of mindset away from bad and dangerous to good and not living up to its potential. Then the actual change will take place when “we” refuse to allow that potential to be squandered and take ownership for squandering it by our collective avoidance of an area deemed bad and dangerous.