Connection: Our Neighborhoods

Earlier today, I found myself in a neighborhood I do not frequent. I remember around eight years ago, I was shopping for a condo in the same neighborhood and my realtor delicately told me that one street over she would not feel safe getting out of the car. I could see no parking garages near my destination so I turned into the neighborhood. There was a man cleaning the sidewalk. He was some kind of volunteer doing community service. I asked him if there was a parking garage within the block. He said no. He thought a minute and then approached me conspiratorially. He told me that the garage door at the building up ahead on the right was broken and that I could park there. I smiled.

I drove slowly past the garage but saw the red letters on white sign signaling to me that I was not supposed to park there. This is a block in D.C. with three privately owned government-assisted multifamily rental properties. Perhaps one of them may be or at least was in the past public housing owned by the local public housing authority. There were people milling in the front. I parked my big fancy SUV in front in an authorized parking space and walked a couple of blocks to where I was going. I took the featured image on the way back to my car. It is one of many art installations that can be found all over the District through an initiative called “Give Me A Vote.” Per its Facebook page:

The Give Me A Vote project’s vision is to put a spotlight on the struggle for DC voting rights with public art that inspires discourse on democracy.

I thought of what my realtor had said before and then I thought of Ferguson. I do not know Ferguson personally, but I did grow up in the suburbs of St. Louis. I grew up “knowing” that certain places were dangerous and that you just did not go there. I had no idea what exactly the danger was. I knew it was related to crime. I knew about crime, my family having come to the United States from Bogota, Colombia where you could not have your windows rolled down at a stop light because you were just asking for passers-by to rip off your watch or anything they could reasonably grab while you were stopped. I also remember being in public school in elementary and having kids from the “inner city” bussed in to go to school in the suburbs. I was friends with some of them. I am still Facebook friends with one of them.

I grew up and wanted to work in public interest law and my first year summer I worked providing direct civil legal services to D.C. residents living below the poverty line. I then continued working with low-income residents of D.C. exercising their rights to form a tenant association and have a say in what became of their multifamily rental properties that were being sold. I have been in all sorts of neighborhoods to meet with clients all over the District of Columbia. I have never felt afraid. It turns out that the “danger” is mainly just poverty. These neighborhoods are not so much dangerous as they are poor.

Production by isolated individuals outside of society – something which might happen as an exception to a civilized man who by accident got into the wilderness and already dynamically possessed within himself the forces of society – is as great an absurdity as the idea of the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another. – Karl Marx, Introduction to Critique of Political Economy.

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