Saturday, March 1, 2014

You are now leaving the comfort zone

I had worked hard all day and I was tired and hungry.  I had been thinking since breakfast about a Subway sandwich, tuna on white with pickles and green pepper.  As I reached my neighborhood, I pulled into the parking lot and reached for my purse.

Then I saw the group of Hispanic teenagers standing around the door to the restaurant.  They were likely high school students from the charter school across the street.  You could say that they were dressed in gangsta style; you could also say that they were dressed like kids dress today.  You could say that they were rowdy and disruptive; you could also say that they were laughing and having a good time.  I thought about walking through that group of kids to get to the door and started to have second thoughts about getting a sandwich.

Then I looked up and saw a black man walking toward my car.  He was about my age, casually dressed, smoking something that wasn't a cigarette you could buy at a store and he was walking toward me, his eyes locked on mine.  I drove away, then felt ashamed.

Our new neighborhood is majority-minority and mostly working class.  It was built as a Jewish community in the early 70s and now reflects the demographics of our city.  While the neighborhood itself is middle class, it is literally surrounded by low-income apartment complexes housing new immigrants from Africa and central America as well as locals with similar skin tones.

The hair places near my house advertise braids and wigs.  The grocery store sells as much Hispanic merchandise as it does the things I'm used to and it advertises cuts of meat I'm not familiar with.  The sheriff's office sends notices about crime in our area and I wonder how it compares to other places I've lived.  (I witnessed 5 arrests in the first 5 months we lived here but nothing since then.)   There are an abundance of pawn shops and payday loan places and deep-discount shoe stores and very few national chains.

This means that when I worked out at the gym today, I was the only white person there.  It's the same thing when I go to the grocery store less than a mile from my house or stop at Walgreens for a prescription or go into the library to pick up a book.

All this means that I live outside my comfort zone.  And I'm glad.

We didn't buy our house with any particular demographic information in mind.  We had decided two things:  we would live in the city and we would stay within our budget. We found a really affordable house that we liked a lot, that felt like it could be home.  We love the trees, the neighbors, the cul-de-sac, the proximity to our work and to stores and restaurants.

I didn't plan on confronting my prejudices and fears on a daily basis but that's what happens.  I didn't sign up for experiences in what it feels like to be "the other" but it's what life sometimes feels like here in the southwest part of our city.

And yet, I can drive a mile or two and everything changes.  On the way to church, there is a grocery store where most people--more than half--look like me.  On my way to work, the surroundings gradually change until things look like what I'm used to with all the national chains that comfort me.  Sometimes I think, "It would be easier to go to those stores, to go to that Walgreens, to switch to that library."  I would feel more comfortable, more at ease.  I hope that changes, that eventually I am so at home in my own neighborhood that I wouldn't feel more comfortable somewhere else.

In the meantime, I'm letting my neighborhood confront me.  Noticing my fears and my prejudices and holding them out for change.  Smiling at people and enjoying them smiling back.  Enjoying the different languages and hairstyles and food choices and slang.  Thinking, "This is my neighborhood.  This is where I belong."

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