The people in your neighborhood

If you’re a regular reader of The Active Voice, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging as regularly as in the past. I’m usually predictable; every week, like clockwork, I publish a new blog post on Sunday mornings. In my first year of blogging, I don’t think I took a single week off.  But lately, I’ve missed quite a few Sundays here and there, and I wanted to take some time to explain why.

You see, I have this neighbor that lives a few doors down from me. I’ve mentioned this neighbor in passing in a few of my blog posts. However, I’ve not talked about him openly – instead, he’s lurked in the shadows of my writing, but never making an overt appearance. So here he is, out in the open: He is mentally ill, drinks a lot, and doesn’t take his medication regularly. Some of his behavior is just irritating – for example, he hoards junk in his yard (and occasionally his junk spills over into the alley we share). Often, his behavior is completely distracting – a couple of Saturdays ago, for example, when I sat down to write a blog post, I threw in the towel because my powers of concentration couldn’t compete with his yelling. Sometimes he yells at his dog, sometimes he yells at actual people, and sometimes he yells at I-don’t-know-what. On a few occasions, his behavior has been just plain scary – without going into detail, let’s just say that I’ve gotten to know the patrol officers in our neighborhood quite well. I’ve taken time off work because of it. I’ve lost sleep because of it. And, as you all can attest, I’ve missed blog deadlines because of it. It’s a situation that’s been draining, to say the least.

Many of my close friends know about this. All of them have expressed concern, sympathy, empathy, and anger. And more than a few have asked the obvious question:

“Have you thought about moving?”

Given what we’ve experienced, it’s a fair question. However, I often find myself reacting with irritation to that question, and to others like it. Variations on this question include, “Have you considered moving to the suburbs?” Or “Wouldn’t you like to live out in nature?” All of these questions are embedded, I think, with an implicit, unstated assumption. What’s really being asked is, “Have you thought about moving to a safer neighborhood?”

Safer. What is a “safe neighborhood,” anyway? Many people use crime mapping as a way of getting a feel for neighborhood safety. If you check out your local police jurisdiction’s crime mapping tool, and a bunch of red dots pop up in your zip code, that often causes people to hit the panic button. It’s even worse if you look up your local sex offender registry – and a bunch of red dots pop up in your zip code.

The “broken windows” theory is another way many people gauge neighborhood safety. Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist at Stanford University, first tested this theory in 1969 by abandoning two cars – one in the Bronx, the other in the affluent community of Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was completely stripped within 24 hours. The Palo Alto car? It sat for more than a week, untouched. The broken windows theory encompasses not only windows but litter, graffiti, unkempt yards, peeling paint – anything that points to what Zimbardo called a “no one cares” attitude. If people don’t care enough to maintain their own property, the reasoning goes, then they’re not going to care enough about the safety of their neighbors, either. (Of course, there’s always the possibility that the residents care very deeply about their neighborhood, and have a strong sense of pride in their community, but they don’t have the money, or the physical capability, or the time or bandwidth to fix up their property. Just sayin’.)

So we’ve got crime mapping, and we’ve got broken windows. The thing is, if I want to find a neighborhood that is accepting of LGBTQ people – or accepting of diversity in general – neither tool is going to be particularly helpful. In fact, these tools are likely to detract me from the very neighborhoods that accept and embrace diversity the most.

Consider this: In 2008, the majority of voters in every city in Sacramento County (except for Sacramento itself) voted Yes on Proposition 8. Voters in Placer County, which is adjacent to Sacramento County (and which boasts towns and cities that are considered to be “very safe”) voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8. The same was true for voters in El Dorado County, another seemingly-“safe” suburban outpost of Sacramento. If you’re queer, and you lived in those areas in 2008, your neighborhood would have been littered with “Yes on 8” signs. Frankly, that wouldn’t make me feel very safe. Sacramento, in contrast, has one of the highest LGBTQ populations per capita (and, in 2008, lots of “No on 8” signs), and many LGBTQ residents are concentrated within specific neighborhoods. Including my own.

Let’s add race to the mix. On the average, less than 25% of residents in the “safer” suburbs of Sacramento are people of color. In contrast, people of color comprise more than 55% of the residents within Sacramento city limits, often with concentrations in specific neighborhoods. These numbers have a significant impact on one’s perception of racism (or lack of perception, as it may be). According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, compared to Whites in diverse urban areas, White people who live in ethnically homogeneous suburban or rural areas are highly likely to say that none of their community’s institutions treat African-Americans less fairly than Whites – that racism just doesn’t happen. In other words, Whites in the “safer” suburban areas didn’t see racism – even though it was probably occurring right under their noses. If you’re a person of color looking for a place to live, and your potential neighbors think racism doesn’t exist in their community, they might not have your back if an act of racism does occur. I imagine that might not feel so safe.

So my perception of “safety” is a little different than what the typical, traditional benchmarks tend to be.  My neighborhood has its share of red dots on the map, enough to scare some people away. As for the “broken windows” thing, while many houses are well-kept, others are, well, not. But my neighborhood also has Pride flags and prayer flags (REAL ones, not flags hung by people who think they’re cool), knit-bombed streetlights and ethnic markets, pink houses and front-yard vegetable gardens. One neighbor watched the 1969 moon landing with his buddy in what is now my living room. Another was born in the 1920s in the house she currently lives in. And another, of course, struggles with alcoholism and mental illness.

So, to answer the question: No. I’m not moving.  And no, I haven’t dropped off the radar – I still plan to continue writing. Thanks to all of you who read so faithfully, and who pick up even after I miss a week or two.


Filed under LGBT families, racism, Sacramento

5 responses to “The people in your neighborhood

  1. I did notice, Gayle, and am glad to see you are back. But, for the me the more significant issue is that YOU ARE BACK. By that I mean that particular perspective of the Active Voice, that view that looks beneath the obvious and comfortable to find that other truth in which social justice is possible. Sincerely, thank you for that.

    On a more personal note, I did indeed adopt the text you recommended for my course. It was a quick read and a good fit for the content and students in the class. I also ordered your book and may adopt it as recommended reading for the fall semester. Another quick read. Thanks for these.

    My own silence has been related to two medical issues this year. Three weeks ago my husband was hospitalized with an exacerbation of his MS; he has been in a nursing home for the past two weeks and we hope he will be home in another month. Then, this past week, I had a heart attack that I caught in its very earliest stages, thus being able to have a procedure done and home in four days!

    Regarding your post — I live in a low crime area and work in a high crime area. I feel much safer in the high crime area for several reasons. First, folks there look out for each other much more than where I live. Second, there is a pride of place that is somehow different than a pride of ownership. Folks where I work like their neighbors, put signs out when their children earn high reading scores, and come to express concern when something bad happens. One morning I saw someone had side-swiped a parked car and knocked off its mirror. I knew that the car owner would be out to take her children to day care soon, so I waited to catch her on her way. I told her I noticed, but didn’t see the culprit. I asked how she was feeling about it and if I could help her get the kids to day care. A month later I drove by on a Sunday to see her watering the plants in front of our offices. Trust me, that would not happen where I live. I do have some lovely neighbors, but even the nicest among them asked when I planned to used pesticides to curb some minor crab grass in my lawn.

    Know, too, that mental illness is not unique to high crime areas. For years near my home an older woman resided far from her apparently disinterested family. She did increasingly peculiar things. For example, she often left bags of groceries in my doorway when it was too far for her to carry them home. Sometimes she collected them later herself; other times I would return them if they were there a long time. When I did, she would yell at me. One of those times, she had left two shopping bags completely filled with marshmallows. Because her house was maintained by a service, because we have no social services department, and because her actions were annoying but hardly criminal, nothing happened. That is until one day she took a long walk nude down the Main Street.

    The windows in our neighborhood are never broken, but families and neighbors and the social fabric still are periodically in tatters.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about the health issues you and your husband have been experiencing. I’m glad the heart attack was caught early – I imagine you must feel incredibly grateful for that.

      I actually feel very safe in my neighborhood, for many of the reasons you named. I know all of my neighbors well, to the point where I could call several of them at two in the morning and they’d help out. (That’s actually happened – several months ago my partner had to go to the ER, and I called a neighbor at 1AM and she came right over.) We really do look out for each other. And I also know full well that running away from a neighborhood doesn’t mean that you’ll be immune from neighborhood problems, whether those problems involve mental health issues or something else. I appreciate what you said about “pride of place,” because I think that’s how many people who live in “neighborhood-y” neighborhoods feel. There is a social glue that strengthens neighborhoods, and perfectly manicured lawns don’t necessarily provide that strength.

      Glad the book I recommended will work for you, and thanks for checking out my book too. Good luck this semester, and thanks, as always, for reading.

  2. Lorri Doig

    I wouldn’t move either. Your neighborhood is cute and your house is a gem. Should you ever change your mind, however, Greenhaven/Pocket is diverse and accepting and we do have a sense of community. I think I have heard that we have the highest concentration of same sex couples outside of Midtown. I know my neighbors are come in a variety of hues. We have some of the lowest crime stats in the city. We also aren’t cookie cutter perfect and every neighborhood has its share of crime.

    • Thank you, Lorri! The Pocket is a great neighborhood, and sense of community is so important. I know so many people who live in beautiful areas, but they don’t know their neighbors, which is sad to me.

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