You Be a Little More Precise?
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.
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
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)
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
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