For the past few weeks I’ve stayed with dear friends who I trust implicitly. I’d go just about anywhere to spend time with them and their crew. Their home is lovely, cozy and filled with things I would fill my own home with.
They currently live in Philly. Downtown Philly. The gritty part.
When they first moved here from Boston, and NYC before that, they told me that they chose Philly because of the grit. They love that it hasn’t been totally gentrified. They told me that they often feel like NYC and Boston are just doing a good job of hiding their dirty laundry, relegating it to the dark corners of the city and they wanted to live somewhere that went beyond not hiding the dirty laundry but didn’t even relate to it as dirty. Where the grit and the glory/trendy etc were all intermingled evenly throughout the city.
I like to think of myself as very open minded, non-judgemental and what not. I’ve lived through some crazy stuff, spent time in not so nice sides of town, participating in questionable and not-so-legal activities. But always in generally safe cities. I’m disappointed to discover that the grit of Philly is making me really uncomfortable.
First, allow me to define gritty. There is, from time to time, a grocery cart full of a homeless person’s belongings parked next to my car in the morning. The local street I’m parking on is considered safe because the neighborhood drug dealer spends his days on the corner two blocks down and ensures his home turf stays safe. There’s a cop two doors down. The local businesses all have razor wire protecting their property. People walk fast, eyes forward, on a mission. OR. People meander, eyes scouring for trouble or what they should be defending themselves from.
There is trash everywhere. Broken glass everywhere. It’s common to see a syringe, used condom or hair extension on the sidewalk. There’s a scrap yard a few blocks away and the several times I’ve walked by during the day there have been people lined up here, stripping cars and breaking things down. Once a guy addressed me as I passed by as he was pulling a piece off a minivan and proclaimed ‘it’s mine, I bought this‘ in my direction. Until he spoke up it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t his.
The grocery store only blocks away from me, is the only store within a several mile radius that has a full produce selection. Most people go in and shop for the month. When I went in today I was behind a woman buying three carts worth of food, one cart was full of chef boyardee, koolaid and those sugar water drinks you twist the plastic top off of.
This is what I mean by gritty.
Living amidst this grit has put me on edge. While I’ve never felt unsafe, never felt I was at risk, I’ve been perpetually uncomfortable walking around.
I’m uncomfortable with the source of my discomfort.
My discomfort surprises me because I have a habit of not noticing when I’m in what My Guy calls a “windows up neighborhood”. I typically seem unaware as to when I’m in an area where my guard should be up. I have stories of being in areas of Chicago and Harlem, places I shouldn’t have been alone, and a kind stranger took it upon themself to inform, protect and lead me out of their neighborhood. I was that oblivious.
In theory, I am totally onboard with my host’s perspective. In theory, I don’t agree with gentrification. I don’t think it’s right for rich (white) people to move into a neighborhood and impose their views and preferences on the whole neighborhood. For that matter, I don’t think it’s right for the US to move into a third world country and impose their ideals on the locals either, but that’s another subject entirely.
I’m reminded of the TV show Shameless (great show, but very crass) in which ‘the gays’ moved into their rugged Chicago neighborhood and suddenly tried forcing people to clean up their yards, plan community gardens and park their cars differently. When watching the show I identified with the locals and was ashamed by the actions of my (theoretically fellow) white, gay (albeit fictional) comrades.
Spending a few weeks in the midst of grit, well, I’m just not loving it. Part of me wishes I fit better into this world, so I could blend and be confident. I’d like to be that badass chica who’s confident walking by the local drug dealer, people stripping abandoned cars for scrap metal, to be un-phased when there’s a gun shot in the distance.
Perhaps I need to conquer the grit of Philly like I conquered the pace of NYC.
But it’s all so dirty. Everyone always seems to be on edge. Out to defend themselves, even if it means hurting me. Does it take that much more energy to be nice instead of rude? To place your trash and waste in an appropriate receptacle? To find a bathroom to do your business in? It’s like everyone’s Give-A-Fuck broke.
But then, I also get that many people (not all) who live in this neighborhood are so squarely in survival mode that they can’t even imagine a life beyond putting food on the table. That being nice could make them vulnerable, that giving a fuck would mean they could be disappointed, rejected, hurt. And who am I to say that my way of looking at life, that anitSurvival mode is any better than how they live?
I think this is the first self-identified example I’ve found of my white privilege showing.
I guess it seems like it all comes down to priorities. The folks who make these neighborhoods gritty, they prioritize something else (not sure what) over things like clean streets, safe neighborhoods, respectful relationships. Do they have a choice though? Can one choose when faced with homelessness, life or death situations and no awareness of a way out?
Who am I to judge people for living this way. Yet, I do.
At the end of the day, the people who live here are just that. People. And I wish I had more access to connecting with them. Because I love connecting with humans.
I definitely think everyone should spend time in the ‘gritty’ parts of their town. Be aware of how all of the humans in your home town live, what options they have, what their daily stressors are and most importantly who lives there. Humans. Just like you. Broaden your awareness of your community. I know I’ve not done much of this in my hometown.
PS. It feels vulnerable to share this publically in the age of social media. My heart is pure. I love humans. I want to see all humans be as happy as possible, whatever that looks like for them. I don’t mean to be judgey, ignorant or part of the problem. My hope is that by sharing I’ll get others thinking and maybe even shift some perspectives and open some new dialogs….