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Can You Be a Little More Precise?

‘I’m not walking distance from the train. I mean, I am but it’s through a not very nice neighborhood,” a friend said to me recently as we were discussing possible travel plans.

“It’s OK on the streets off Delaware Avenue, but on Delaware itself it isn’t so good,” someone else said to me not long later. “Well,” I responded, “It depends. It’s OK where I am, but down a little further where I used to be, it’s a little rougher.”

Notice anything about these comments? Like, perhaps, the complete absence of any actual information about the neighborhoods being described? As far as I can tell, the most common descriptors for neighborhoods by a landslide are “good,” “bad,” “nice,” and “not nice.” We’d never get away with it if that was all we could say about movies, sports teams, or even presidential candidates. But with something as important as the areas we live, we dance around the particulars, in way that’s frankly creepy.

It’s true that describing neighborhoods is tricky. They are the sum of many complex parts, and it’s almost necessary to search for a couple indicators that will predict quality of life there. Assessments also vary dramatically depending on whether someone is talking about driving through, walking around at night, moving in for a year, or buying a house. And, of course, different people mean different things by a “bad” or “good” neighborhood, sometimes things that directly contradict others’ criteria.

Just for example, signs of a “bad neighborhood” might include, to different people: vacant lots, abandoned cars on the street, cars on blocks in yards, abandoned houses, houses/yards not cared for well, lots of renters, lots of absentee landlords, litter, people hanging out on stoops, not enough people on the street, groups of teenagers on streets, groups of unsupervised children on streets at night, no sidewalks, loud music from parked cars, loud music from windows, unfamiliar music at any volume, houses too close together, houses too far apart, packs of dogs running free, having been mugged there, third-hand stories of crime in the vicinity, hearing in the news about violent crime, hearing in the news about drug dealing, baggies or crack vials on the sidewalk, thick iron grilles over windows, high police presence, not enough police presence, businesses that cater to poor people (check-cashing businesses, Rent-a-Centers, fast food), businesses that are open late, bars of any description, lack of businesses, drive-in businesses, no parks, dark and dangerous parks, graffiti, traffic noise, lack of trees, people panhandling, people who interact/dress in unfamiliar ways. . . . And oh yes, let’s not forget “too many black people.”

It’s that last one that hovers under the surface of far too many of these “bad neighborhood” comments, and these semi-conscious (sometimes, alas, conscious), racist reactions are one of the biggest reasons I cringe at seemingly innocent neighborhood generalizations. Most people would never say such a blatantly racist thing outright. But the association is there, thanks to continued housing steering and other bias, the echoes of historical discrimination that has made race and poverty overlap so heavily, and media hype about scary ghettos.

It’s why some real-estate agents still get away with showing people with young children houses in Albany’s (noisy, dilapidated, full of drunken parties) student ghetto, but not in the (integrated, active, still partially poor and with some vacant buildings) Mansion Neighborhood.

It’s also why some people I knew flipped out when I graduated college and moved to the town next to the one where I grew up. The towns shared a history, and even a name (I grew up in South Orange, and moved to Orange), but in terms of class and race they might as well have been a world apart. South Orange is actually one of the more integrated places I’ve ever seen, but still is under the putative “tipping point” level of black people that supposedly makes whites uncomfortable. In Orange, people assumed I spoke Spanish because I lived there and wasn’t black.

Eventually, I got so fed up with the unspoken subtext of the constant question “Is it an OK neighborhood?” that one time I responded with “You mean ‘Are there lots of black people around?’ ”

Of course whoever it was said no, that’s not what she meant, and acted offended. But I’m increasingly convinced that the only way for white people to prove to ourselves and others that that’s not what we mean, is to articulate what we do mean.

(And since people of color, while for obvious reasons often more sensitive, are not immune to class and race stereotypes, more precision from everyone couldn’t hurt.)

So here’s my proposal: The next time you feel the urge to call a neighborhood “bad,” take a deep breath and give it a little more thought, and commit to a slightly longer conversation. If you mean you believe it’s a dangerous place at night, say so (and say why). If you mean it’s noisy, say so. If you mean it’s ugly or the buildings are falling apart, say so. If you mean there’s nothing to do/nowhere to shop there, say so. And if you mean the people there are different from you and that by itself makes you uncomfortable or suspect that they are dangerous, maybe the next conversations you should be having are with people who do live there, to find out which parts of your assumptions have any connection to reality.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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